If your spell check program somehow allows “crat-digging,” fix it.
(self released, 2011)
Busy boy Zach Hill – busy busy busy, buzz buzz buzz … wait, this sounds familiar. Didn’t I just write about something like this, in this vein? Oh yeah … I did. Remind yourself.
Back now? Great. So I discovered Death Grips following my time with Face Tat, and trust me, Exmilitary sounds nothing like that record. Which is just fine, and I think the point of one man’s quest to be as insanely prolific as possible and produce as varied a discography as he can imagine. But the thing about Death Grips is … we really don’t know anything about them. Go to their website – what do you see? Not a whole lot there, not even an “About” drop-down. Google the band. Note that any reviewer essentially throws up his or her hands when trying to figure out who does what, or who is exactly involved. Most say it’s a “Zach Hill project.” Impose magazine refers to some “Sacramento homies” of Hill’s. Altered Zones gives a similar rundown. World of Warcraft calls the band “blue plate armor of item level 53” that goes in the “hands slot.” Wait! My bad. They’re not talking about the band. They’re talking about the accessory.
What we do know is that these dudes are harsh, and angry. I’m gonna go out on a limb and call them noise rap, even though The Needle Drop coined the term “hobo rap” for the band. I can get with that. The two concepts are married exquisitely in the video for “Guillotine,” as Death Grips’ frontman, or lead “hobo,” dry heaves rhymes from the passenger seat of a car while simultaneously tweaking out. He’s either apoplectic or epileptic, and I’m not sure I can tell the difference here. Regardless, “Guillotine” was my introduction to the band, and my interest piqued upon hearing the low, spare bass drum scrape pavement while being periodically doused in thick synth goo, sometimes flecked with glittery sparkles. I immediately thought Wolf Eyes had gotten into the rap game, or at least had their pockets picked for a sample of “Dead Hills 2” – neither of which was true, but it makes me wonder why they haven’t at least dabbled slightly in the genre. Somebody could turn their sick into rhythm for someone to lurch over, that’s for sure. A “Stabbed in the Face”–backed flow could get some radio airplay.
But these guys, Death Grips, clearly have a bone to pick with someone, and even though the music is mostly brighter (well, brighter than Wolf Eyes, anyway, going so far as to sample a couple surf tunes as well as David Bowie), the mood is dark. Check out that cover first of all – what looks like a refugee (the “bars” are made by the bent stock on which the photo’s printed) surely has death in his eyes, and if he’s both actually ex-military (most likely ex-militia) and in some war-torn nation or detained in a camp, you can be positive that the only way that man can get out of his oppressed position is through violence. It feels like you as the listener are actually getting inside his skin when you listen to Exmilitary. “Guillotine” itself is ripe with imagery of oppressive powers, as literal witch hunts are undertaken by brainwashed foot soldiers with bloody results, brought sickeningly into modern focus with the refrain, “Serial number, killing machine / The illest of means, / To an end built on the filthy sound / you’re experiencing.” “Beware” illuminates the unfortunate cycles of destruction and primal urges of the subjugated and exploited, its chorus a cathartic call to action: “I close my eyes and seize it / I clench my fists and beat it / I light my torch and burn it / I am the beast I worship…”
So you can’t be this dour and consistently produce throughout the album, can you? Death Grips does, by gum, but there’s still a sticky filth coating the thing in spilled beer and bongwater, as of course the seedier characteristics of underdeveloped societies are exposed here to great detail. Drug and alcohol abuse? Check. Meaningless and misogynistic sex? Ditto. Mental instability in the face of inadequate diagnoses, as well as the simple experience of a hellish day-to-day life? You got it. It’s almost as if a determined few have gathered to take on The Man, Atari Teenage Riot style, but have opted to dull their pain a bit, perhaps unable to extract themselves from the ruts they’ve dug. But then again, we’re talking about a musical wunderkind in Zach Hill and his friends, so it’s not as if they don’t have the means. Which is why it’s truly hard to pin down what Death Grips are doing. The twin “neutron bombs” dropped “from the tower” of “Lord of the Game” and “Klink” find the DG frontman, whoever he is, bellowing anti-establishmentisms, the former filled with bravado and the latter with frustration like the Big Brother–fearing “Got to watch my back or just like that / I’m bound to get locked up / The law’s watching me, constantly / Too close and way too much / Looking over my shoulder and checking in the rear view mirror / Cuz I’m never not but a moment from getting taken to jail.” But then “Takyon,” despite its utter explosiveness, is all about drinking and smoking, and its – and other songs’ – voluptuous dark grooves almost make me want to call them the Clutch of hip hop. OK, so I will call it that – and Clutch doesn’t dig too deep in the dirt of current events, content to ride out mythologies and storytelling devices rather than make grand statements.
There’s the gray area, and while Clutch is enjoyable for their hard-ass playfulness, Death Grips root around in the muck and grime of musical experimentation, and throw the synth clods and noise bursts at each other in the process. And while that’s childishly enjoyable, it doesn’t excuse utter trash like “I Want It I Need It,” an absolutely unnecessary sex song with blunt descriptions furthering the unfortunate misogyny inherent in the genre. We could have done without this. The frequent cries of “Bitch!” throughout only remind us that any progress artists at large have possibly made are always knocked back a step or two by ill-conceived songs such as this. Sure, Death Grips is “manly” in its presentation and may simply be mirroring the attitudes of those in countries whose social mores don’t conform to those in the more liberal west, but that doesn’t, in any way, excuse the behavior. It is, frankly, gross.
But I will recommend this, because, let’s face it, Exmilitary is an incendiary record. Noise rap? Hobo rap? Refugee rap maybe. In the end it’s still hard to know how seriously Death Grips are taking themselves – do they want to be some sort of voice for the downtrodden, or are they content to be pissed off and messed up? I think that question will remain unanswered until we get a better sense of the biography of the band. It’s hard to call someone out or praise him for his insight if you have no idea where that person’s coming from.
Don’t forget to download it and try to figure it out for yourself.
RIYL: Waka Flocka Flame, DMX, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Clutch