When I first saw Sacramento’s Death Grips — about a year or so ago at 1015 Folsom — they had to work especially hard. The room was half full and Stefan Burnett made up the difference, jumping down into the crowd and taunting it into action. The intervening time before a repeat performance was longer than expected (Death Grips suddenly canceled their last scheduled tour to finish their second album of the year) and at Slim’s Monday the crowd seemed prewound, eager to see the sold-out show, jockeying for position near the front, and admiring freshly purchased t-shirts showcasing the attention-baiting cover art for No Love Deep Web.
“This is a dick,” said one guy who looked older than he sounded. “It’s actually a dude’s dick. And I know whose it is.” For the uninitiated (or at work – don’t Google it), the cover is a photo of drummer Zach Hill’s erection, on which the title is scrawled with a Sharpie marker. The guy finished his observation by pointing to the part of the shaft nearest to the testicles and saying, “That’s like, the grossest part.”
Death Grips came on about two hours later, launching into No Love album opener “Come Up and Get Me,” and I didn’t last particularly long up front. Burnett released a lyrical tide of amped aggression, the feeling of being backed into a corner too many times, and the crowds answered in kind. A wave of people swelled across the pit and I ended up beneath half a dozen other people, desperately attempting to hold onto a shoe, a camera, and my default unflappable expression. But clearly I’d been flapped, and having spent a long time between sets staring at the vertical gashes on the wrists of the 15-year-old cutter in front of me, was fairly relieved to head to the back of the room as the band went into “Little Boy.”
Three albums in, I would still describe my interest in Death Grips’s brand of angst-ridden hybrid punk-rap as morbid curiosity. “Ruthless and free, it’s all suicide to me,” Stefan intoned on “Black Dice,” with the same sense of nihlism that elsewhere says “Fuck this world, fuck this body.” Since the only time I cut myself was slicing a grapefruit with a dull knife, the lyrical nihilism only goes so far. But that doesn’t diminish Death Grips as a live band. Burnett, Hill, and a backing production track layer feed into each other, forming a feedback loop of hype.
When “Guillotine” – the best song off their first album – came on, it was instantly recognizable from the clicking hi-hat that continually rides through the song. The programmed hi-hat is one of the band’s most constant features, freeing up Hill to go wild with complicated syncopated snare beats over his doubling kicks. His kit was little more than a three piece setup, and while the broken assortment of cymbals from his Hella days were noticeably absent, he bought the same furious intensity, rising out of his chair and smashing down onto the snare for full intensity.
The production track set the pace for the night. It was nonstop, peaking with “I’ve Seen Footage.” From the band’s other, slightly neglected album this year, The Money Store, the song showcases the playful variety that’s beneath the the Death Grips’ borderline single minded thematics. When the ’80s guitar riff, played out over a sped up “Push It” beat came on, a few people in the back ran forward, clearly wanting to get in on the action.
The end of the set snuck up on me. Burnett spoke for the first time outside of a song: “Thank you,” he said, and walked off. Maybe sensing that Death Grips isn’t much of an encore band — or just exhausted — the room began to file out. But one guy stood by the bar, holding a beer in is hand and noticeably not clapping. “That’s it?” he asked his friends, more of a statement than a question. “That was only a 30-minute set. That’s some bullshit.” A line from “Lock Your Doors” is stuck in my head: “I’ve got some shit to say, just for the fuck of it. Don’t even ask me.”
Opener: “Life is real, life is real,” Cities Aviv said over and over, pacing the stage as a DJ modulated some noise on a laptop, with just the hint of a beat behind the noise. As it went on, puzzled over what I was seeing and hearing, more like a performance art piece than what was billed (probably at this point more for convenience than anything else) as a hip-hop show.
Distracted, I hardly noticed building bass until I was struck by the Memphis performer dropping off the stage next to me, signaling a slam of the audience.“It’s not that I’m anywhere,” Cities Aviv continued to say in his set, toying with contradictions and asking, “Are you real or a simulation?” Could have asked him the same thing.