The Experience of Death Grips, Live, by Henri Robbins
Over the summer, I saw Death Grips live. Twice.
It was a spiritual experience.
The first show was in Indianapolis, and the second was in Newport, KY.
Neither of them were like any concert I’d been to before, not just with the music itself, but also with the crowds that it attracted.
I stood in the worst smelling room I’d ever been in. Hundreds of strangers surrounded me, almost all of them wearing black, and hardly any of them were talking.
I waited for probably an hour and a half, during which the crowd loosened up. I talked to someone about their Car Seat Headrest tattoo. Someone else pulled a few sticks of sidewalk chalk from their pocket to draw on the concrete floor.
As-of-then-unreleased instrumentals played over the speakers.
As I waited in line for the restroom, someone in a sleeveless Final Fantasy sweatshirt struck up a conversation. I heard echoes of something yelled about pissing in the sink as the door to the restroom swung open.
Someone walked by wearing a propeller hat and carrying a lollipop.
“What the hell?” I thought to myself.
To anyone who’s heard a song by Death Grips, though, this is hardly a surprise. Their music is known for its loud, abrasive and cryptic tendencies. Their frontman is only known in passing, with traces of him in public being passed around on message boards like Bigfoot sightings.
My personal favorite example of these spottings is a post from a user on Grailed — a vintage designer clothing marketplace — who sold him a pair of $1,000 boots. A few months later, he was seen wearing the same boots onstage.
Even his current stage name is bathed in confusion — what was once Ride changed into MC Ride after a comma was forgotten in an early article, and the band’s MC, Ride, became “MC Ride.” However, “Master of Ceremonies” seems a fitting title. Since then, that’s been his most common moniker, replacing his real name of Stefan Burnett in most instances. There’s never been any comment on the mistake, or whether it even was one.
The band’s two other members, drummer Zach Hill and producer/sound designer Andy Morin, are equally as hard-to-place, but much less cryptic. Andy’s most recent project is an online art collective/social media platform called A2B2, where he occasionally posts advertisements for questionably-legal bulk research chemicals. Zach is arguably one of the most skilled drummers alive today.
But as the lights shut off, and as Ride stepped onstage, all pretense washed away. Instead, all that remained was the band — and the crowd.
And suddenly, a third thing: sound.
A harsh deluge of it, abrasive and overpowering. Dense and crackling vocals pierced through the wall of synths and guitar. They formed into ritualistic chants more than a melody.
The environment mirrored many of the ideas presented in their lyrics: the occult, mysticism, radical self-worship and postmodern alienation. The space is abrasive, overwhelming, yet somehow minimal.
Bass rumbled across the floor, and the entire crowd jumped and crashed in unison. I could have easily fallen and gotten trampled, but I didn’t. Someone threw an elbow behind me, kicks bounced off my shoes. No matter where I went in the crowd, moshing seemed to find me. There were no complex visuals, no changing lights and no breaks between songs. Harsh and constant red light washed over the crowd. Pure sound, so loud that taking my earplugs made no difference, thundered across the venue.
Sweat permeated the air, pervading every part of my being. The smell was horrible: a christening in raw humanity. The pure inverse of taking a shower. I washed my clothes twice afterward.
Standing at the front of the stage, enduring elbows from moshers and being thrown from side to side, something knocked loose in my soul. Like a chunk of phlegm in my lungs, I coughed it loose at a nearby White Castle as I came to understand what I just experienced.
My ears rang for the next few hours. The only thing to truly break through it was the exhaust of a tuned Nissan on the walk to the parking lot. At the post-concert meal, a friend and I shouted to overcome our hearing loss next to a crowd of local 20-somethings in crust pants doing the same.
The next few days were spent finding bruises across my arms and legs, wondering where they came from before quickly finding my answer.
The next few months saw the $75 tour sweatshirt find its way into my wardrobe, and one of the $20 socks I bought disappeared entirely.
The closest indicator that any of this was real, was a thumbs-up from the drummer after the end of the show — a luxury only granted to the Newport crowd.
There is nothing more raw or communal than shared music. Nothing more human than a crowd connected by a thread of love for a music so adversarial to its listeners. And with Death Grips closing their tour by walking offstage halfway through, I doubt shows like this can ever be replicated.
Death Grips, live, is a collective experience. It is a joining of humanity across a crowd, raw and unrestricted, collectively understood, yet impossible to fully explain after the fact.
The moment that the music started, everything else dissolved away. It was just me, the stage, and the music. The audience turned to waves, crashing in on itself as the speakers crunched and crackled.
The experience has stuck with me for months after because no other concert has so wholly removed me from the space it was in, from the audience, the sticky floors, the rancid smells of body odor and various chemicals; never before had I felt so viscerally connected to the music, with nothing else to even consider thinking about.