What I Wish Death Grips Would Have Accomplished Before They Quit



Remember when Death Grips leaked their own album? They weren’t happy with how their label, Epic Records, was dealing with it, so they took things into their own hands. “The label will be hearing the album for the first time with you,” they tweeted, before uploading No Love Deep Web and distributing it for free download online.

Oh yeah, and the album cover was a picture of band member Zach Hill’s dick.

I was all for it. Fuck it. When I was a kid and I saw Kurt Cobain on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a homemade t-shirt that said “corporate magazines still suck” on it, I accepted the naturally tense relationship between artists and the corporate entities that make money off art. That’s kind of the way it’s supposed to be. You don’t need to be involved with the music industry to relate when Q-Tip says, “Industry rule number 4080: Record company people are shaaaaaady.”

But in the past couple of decades, we’ve seen less and less of that. We don’t have any Kurt Cobains. These days, majorly successful artists are trained to deal with the media and programmed to avoid any kind of rebellion that’s bad for business. When they lash out, tweets start getting deleted and PR-concocted statements are sent out. Everyone knows exactly where that line between edgy and offensive is, and they are careful to stay very, very far away from it.

Death Grips seemed detached from all that. They weren’t whoring themselves on social media or sitting down to do interviews every other day. They certainly didn’t seem like they were seeking to please anyone. As music continues to get looked at more as a product than a form of art, Death Grips seemed genuinely invested in the integrity of what they were doing in a way that few other major label acts have in the post-internet era of music. At the risk of sounding corny, it felt pure. So when Death Grips decided to say, “Fuck you” to the label and put their music out there for free, it felt in line with the Death Grips ethos and it felt honest, which is increasingly difficult to find in major label artists.

But what are the consequences? What happens when a major label takes a chance on a loud, abrasive, antisocial noise-rap group called Death Grips and gets the middle finger in return?

In 2001, after three albums, Wilco decided to make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was the band’s most experimental project yet, a far cry from some of their early alt-country-tinged pop rock. When they turned it in to Reprise Records, a Warner Music Group branch, the label refused to release it. Wilco decided to release the album for free before eventually putting it out through Nonesuch Records (another WMG affiliate), and it ended up being the most critically acclaimed and best-selling album the band has ever released.

Throughout the history of the music business there are a few stories like Wilco’s, but there are even more of artists who suffer album delays and the loss of creative control at the hands of an industry that has come to understand that the easiest music to sell is often the least challenging.

When Death Grips got signed by Epic Records, they had the chance to put a big dent in this mentality. In a post-Odd Future era, things could be different. There’s value to a cult following that drives business in a way that first-week album sales don’t reflect. The most challenging music may be the hardest to sell, but it’s the easiest to build a cult following around. Fans who don’t associate with the mainstream are often the most engaged of them all. They are the active listeners. They want to be a part of something that not everybody gets. And unlike 20 years ago, they’re not hard to find and bring together.

But the gap between these active listeners and the major players of the industry that serves them is getting wider. With so many new options on the internet, music fans can discover and enjoy new sounds without any influence from The Big Three. (Also, how sad is it that there are only three major record labels who control such a huge majority of the industry?) This has further separated the major labels from the active music listeners who care about music enough to seek it out themselves. Just look at the Hot 100. Ask any record collector or music junkie what they think of the top 10 songs in the country.

The truth is, artistic integrity is a phrase that probably doesn’t come up often at major label meetings, and the reason is because artistic integrity doesn’t translate to dollars.

But it could. Look at the business built around Odd Future—it’s not just sales; it’s touring, merchandise, pop-up shops, television, and advertising. There are brands to be built around niche acts who stir up fervent fan bases, and if major labels learned how to take advantage of this, we might see the mainstream music world start to get interesting.

When I think back on Death Grips and their short, explosive career, I’m glad they existed. Whether you loved them or thought they were pretentious assholes, they stirred things up in a way that few artists nowadays do. And yeah, I enjoyed watching their fallout with Epic Records go down, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if things played out differently.

What if, instead of taking that dick pic and giving out No Love Deep Web for free, Death Grips sat down at a meeting with their label representatives and said, “Let’s figure out how we can both be happy with this album release.” What if, after that, they toured and built on their already strong cult following? What if they expanded their vision and held art exhibits throughout the country instead of skipping tour dates? Maybe this was never the plan, and maybe Death Grips simply didn’t want to do any of this shit, but you have to wonder what a successful relationship between a major label in 2014 and a group like Death Grips could have yielded.

Instead, major labels learned something: Investing in a group like Death Grips isn’t worth the trouble. And for those of us sitting around waiting for that gap between art and business to stop getting wider, that’s a tragic lesson.




  • Raul Szafranski

    great article! Wel…there’s a doc about hella in which Zach makes it clear that he’s not thirlled about touring and live performances. So sad they had to stop. But that’s how art is. When you finish a painting you don’t paint on it no more.

  • Oblivion_Transcender

    This article is uninformed. DG made the deal with epic under the condition that they would put out two records in 2012, so they did. Epic backed out and said that they should do it next year, so naturally DG released it themselves, as they had planned, and as the label knew. The label should have planned better, not DG

  • Draug Inidhren

    Man, that’s bullshit, if they would’ve yielded to Epic Records they wouldn’t be the Death Grips that their true friends liked. Plus the longer a band is famous the more it will bend to the audiences needs, and that just ruins the point of artistic freedom.

  • gaffer

    the record industry is on the way out. artists shouldn’t give in to any pressure from a label at all, the art suffers, the consumer is cheated. death grips did exactly what they needed to do

  • yr dumb

    this is a dumb article

  • Jimmy Arson

    start your own god damn band then, and do what you want

  • Jimmy Arson

    also, regarding the last paragraph, the two main parties concerned with music listening, MUSICIANS and LISTENERS, are quickly learning that investing in major labels isnt worth the trouble. everyone wins

  • pretty flacko

    grips of death
    now thats an original name

  • Confusion

    “Naturally DG releases it themselves.” Come on. Major labels push back releases allllllllll the time, and no label of that size is stupid enough to not protect themselves with a contract that gives them the right to delay albums and deem what is and isn’t getting released.

    I’m not saying what Death Grips SHOULD or SHOULDN’T have done. I think it’s cool that they refused to get jerked around like so many other artists.

    All I’m saying is that if they DID decide to work with the label, it could have served as an example that experimental/challenging music is worth investing in, and that the benefit of a small, fervent fan base is as valuable as an enormous casual fan base.

  • Confusion

    You might be right there. I wish that attitude that a cool rebellious group can’t also work on a major label level would disappear though. It’s not like Kurt Cobain was kissing the label’s ass and doing whatever they wanted and abandoning his artistic integrity. I think there’s a balance, and right now it’s all fucked up and because of it 90% of mainstream music is basic and manufactured and shitty. Just my opinion though.

  • Confusion

    dumb comment

  • gaiapunk

    Death Grips was always a very unique art project and that is a big piece of why they were so good. They had the kind of freedom that most bands will never know. Art is a process not a product and DG’s was true to that ethos to the end! They literally changed music history for the better while staying true to they’re core they’ve certainly earned my highest respects.

  • casjwell

    I think they accomplished everything they wanted/needed to, especially all the music they put out in their short career. Plus the way they quit was legit, they basically said “fuck it, we’ve made our mark, OUTTY”.

  • casjwell

    Exactly, they made their mark and planted the flag.

  • Dominic Thibault

    Had they been a normal band trying to find a compromise with their label, we wouldn’t be talking about all of this now. Art forces reflexion. That’s why I value what they’ve done.

  • http://www.mislaplus.tumblr.com damjancd

    Or, record labels watched the potential millions they could’ve made if they stuck to the fucking contract that they made with Death Grips previously, and it sent out a message of “We make more money if we stick to contracts and respect our artists, rather than push them wherever we think there is more money”

    Maybe huh?

  • Fred Merc

    You talk about Kurt Cobain like he’s some arch nemesis to pop music. The guy may have listened to Butthole Surfers and Swans but his music was like essentially the Beatles with power chords. Doesn’t warrant comparison with DG, IMHO. With respect, I’d learn and live a little before attempting to write about music with a sense of authority.

  • Fred Merc

    “They had the kind of freedom that most bands will never know.” — Have you learned NOTHING from this whole saga? The point is that freedom is there to those who want to take it. DG flouted contracts, expectations and conventions because they wanted to, not because this was a sacred right they were granted. How can you respect this band if you’re still subscribing to this vanilla ethos B.S.?

  • Fred Merc

    Btw, thanks to DG, ‘cool, rebellious group’ is really in right now, maybe labels can start drafting contracts tailored to such edgy projects, complete with faux-leaked albums, a hoax spat at a press release and maybe even a life concert down the Thames on a boat! …wait a minute.

  • crookedbill

    this is the same rehashed “artist vs. commerce” bullshit i’ve been reading from sanctimonious armchair hipsters for nearly 30 years. death grips buried themselves with their bullshit antics and total lack of respect for their partners (label, promoters, venues) and fans.

    if death grips had so much “integrity” (wtf does that even mean in show business, which is exactly what this is btw, anyway?) they wouldn’t have signed with a major in the first place – but since they did, and they reaped the benefits of that marketing, exposure, and distribution (not to mention an advance) they should have played the game – no doubt spelled out clearly in their contract. that’s how business partnerships work. if death grips had so much “integrity” they would’ve just put out all their shit for free on the web and not charged fees for their shows – sorry, “no shows”.

    fuck them. musicians aren’t saints or martyrs – never have been. don’t even mention kurt cobain here. that guy was as much a willing part of the machine as michael jackson, except that his social capital and legacy depended entirely on creating the perception that he hated and rejected it all. sorry, but i have more respect for a douchebag like gene simmons (for example) who’s honest with himself and his fans about his place in commerce, than with somebody like kurt cobain who relied on the perpetuation of myths.

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