In a frantic set full of energy and aggression, Sacramento hip-hop trio Death Grips conquered England with noise and explosive primal desires. It was a gig full of surreal moments and a lot of ringing sounds in my ears, this is my take on a night that you sparsely see these days.
Anyone who is aware of the Death Grips hype train since their inception in 2011 will know full well what to expect at one of their shows, it doesn’t take much of a deep dive into their discography to recognise that their sound is designed for carnage. When I arrived at the venue I had the feeling that something truly unique was about to happen and I sure as hell wasn’t wrong.
Walking on around 8:30pm, with no prior support acts, Stefan Burnett (otherwise known as MC Ride), Zach Hill and Andy Morin took to the stage in front of a glowing red background and no stage lighting, creating silhouette figures rather than actual presences on stage. The bass lines revved and the electronics crackled as the set began with Lost Boys, a track from the group’s magnum opus The Money Store album. The crowd was a sea of limbs as everyone hurried forwards and bounced to the flow of Ride, particularly his screams of “it’s such a long way down” in the hook.
The continuity of the set was something that amazed me from start to finish, performing 20 songs back to back with no rest period whatsoever; huge credit goes to drummer Zach for that as his ability to flow tracks into one another. He hit the last cymbals on Lost Boys and moved into the staggered openings of I’ve Seen Footage, one of Death Grips’ most popular songs. The energy was insane, hearing and witnessing the crowd join in with every word and chant to the tune was so cathartic; this crowd had come to wreak havoc.
The first of just two songs performed from their latest album Year of the Snitch was up next in the form of distorted punk-rock anthem Black Paint. This was a wall of noise that just engulfed the crowd in key moments, especially during Ride’s shouts and bellows of the song’s title. I found myself wondering how they could possibly manage to blend this into the next song, how foolish of me to ever doubt them.
Once Black Paint was ending there was a revving sound coming from Andy Morin’s keys and it just got louder and louder before shattering into the unmistakable sounds of Hustle Bones. The verse went crazy of course it did, but I can honestly say the song’s hook was a moment I will never forget. With one simple press of a button, Andy Morin sent the simulation into a nonstop glitch with electronica; if you’ve heard the song before you’ll know exactly what I am talking about.
Sticking with the electronics, they moved onto their other YOTS song with the aptly titled Death Grips Is Online. The levels of unleashed pandemonium when those spooky synth lines kicked in were, in my eyes at least, unparalleled. Ride’s performance was a bit more subdued in the verses but when it came to those rallying cries of “pretty pretty nine” in the hook there was no such lull. I vividly remember holding my arms aloft and then immediately placing them on my head, in such a state of ‘what the fuck am I watching?’
The next words to be uttered from my lips were “oh no” and with good reason, next up was Giving Bad People Good Ideas. The mysterious vocal sample at the start added tension and intrigue but once it dropped and the brutal death metal began to play, you realised just how huge this song is. I am so glad they played this song live because I was, above all else, excited for the barbaric nature it would bring out of people; needless to say I was not disappointed.
It was time for a double header from The Money Store as System Blower and Get Got played soon after. Yes that’s right, I saw the song that samples a tennis match as well as an underground train movement live; and yes it was just as head-scratchingly mesmerising as you’d expect. The raw sound gave everyone in the crowd a kick and built nicely to Get Got, the track with the most streams of any Death Grips song.
With this show there were times it took me a while to decipher what song was playing in the beginning, mainly due to the volume of noise we were experiencing; but Get Got was unmissable from the get-go. Zach’s drumming was awe-inspiring on this song as he rattled away with such ferocity it became hard to take your eyes off him; well, that was until MC Ride started rapping. He didn’t miss a beat and was joined by a crowd of adoring British fans for that phenomenal hook.
Now this will sound weird, but the next two tracks, Tracks A & C from 2017’s Steroids (Crouching Tiger Hidden Gabber) felt a bit transitional. Don’t get me wrong, the trio were still ripping HARD here, but the crowd felt like it needed a breather, so the inclusion of these tracks meant people could still lose their minds while also having a more instrumental background. Huge shouts to Andy’s production here because the reverbed electronics were something to behold.
Recovered? Okay then… “ITGOESITGOESITGOESITGOESITGOESITGOES”. The group’s lead single from their debut mixtape was next, yep it was Guillotine. Now let me tell you this, I think in terms of raw performance this was the best track on the set. Andy’s revving production, Zach’s crashing drums and Ride’s throaty vocals were incredible, equally matched by the crowd’s hilarious repetition of the infamous “YUH” chant.
The first No Love Deep Web cut followed as the psychotic album opener “Come Up And Get Me” started blaring. The drums swallowed the sound of the track as I expected and Ride’s breathing got heavy as he screamed about being “in Jimmy Page’s castle” in a way that left me wondering just how he didn’t collapse. He was flailing everywhere performing this song, it became apparently clear that this song is one he really gets in the moment for.
The tribal animalistic run continued as I Break Mirrors With My Face In The United States played next and the trio performed like they were being possessed live on stage. Zach’s staggered drumming was, for lack of a better term, fucking outrageous on this song as he smashed the living hell out of his cymbals and bass pedal; he really set the tone for the track. There was also something surprisingly wholesome about seeing MC Ride hop around stage with his arms aloft to this song, it felt like he was really enjoying this moment.
The rock element of the previous song was followed up by more similar sounds in the form of the bass-heavy Bubbles Buried In This Jungle which was performed much like Hustle Bones previously in that it rode the wave of the engine rev-inspired beat before immersing the crowd into their world of madness in the hook. I don’t get many evil thoughts but if I do, it’s probably because I am hearing this song on loop.
Now for the song I was most excited about. In the music video for No Love we see Zach Hill punching his drums rather than using sticks and MC Ride doing handstands as well as flipping out with his head inside the bass drum; and while we didn’t see that on Saturday we certainly saw the feral attitude this song craved. Ride’s isolated vocals on this track were screamed back at him by the crowd and he just soaked it all in, headbanging to the beat before leaping in the air in time with those demonic drum blasts. I had lots of love for No Love.
The spooky atmospherics soon returned with 80808’s beginning and while it probably wasn’t the most memorable track on the setlist, it did more than enough for the crowd who were chanting the hook back at Ride and he will have been pleased to see the crowd do indeed “fuck with me”. The business end of the set followed from here.
Normally when a glass smashes on a song you anticipate one of two things. Either Stone Cold Steve Austin is about to enter the arena and open up a can of whoop-ass on his opponent, or Death Grips are about to embark on savagery of the highest order with their phenomenally titled track You Might Think He Loves You for Your Money but I Know What He Really Loves You for It’s Your Brand New Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat. The crowd were visibly hyped and Ride was in full-on performer mode. The squeal before that bass-boosted punk rock drop was delivered with such aplomb that Ride collapsed to the ground after doing it; the crowd were too busy jumping around like caged animals to realise this fully.
The crowd had barely got their breath back before they were shouting “TRIPLE SIX FIVE FORKED TONGUE” to accompany the introduction of Takyon (Death Yon) to the setlist. Let me tell you this, I was obviously delighted that we got another Exmilitary cut here; but the sheer quantity of people screaming the word “Takyon” was just jaw-dropping. It was like a proverbial weight being lifted off everyone’s shoulders and they left everything in that arena.
Then came everyone’s favourite pirate anthem in the form of Anne Bonny and the distinguishing factor from this track was those wobbly synth lines in Andy’s production. With each passing pulse it felt like we were shifting dimension; not many musical acts can create that Utopian/Dystopian landscape with their live shows but Death Grips are one of the best at it. It felt like a fitting penultimate song before they embarked on their final bow.
It really couldn’t have ended any other way could it? The volume was turned up once more and the simmering build told us all that we were all about to catch The Fever (Aye Aye). This has always been a favourite of the band’s discography and it was incredibly received here given just how much energy had been exerted to this point. With arms aloft and waving in classic MC Ride fashion, he soared high above and spat the verses like his life depended on it. Once the chaos was over, Ride simply dropped his microphone and walked off stage, swiftly followed by Andy and a waving Zach, acknowledging the brutal energy the crowd had served. I think it was the most punk-rock stage exit I have seen in my life.
Overall there’s truly only one word to describe this show: noided. It was such a hellish unleashing of passion and angst, something so utterly captivating as an audience member to witness in a modern age of PG brigades and regulations that dehumanise us. Death Grips cut through to every single person in that O2 Academy and captured their imaginations for a mind-blowing occasion that probably won’t be rivalled in that venue for a very long time. While I would’ve loved to have seen songs like On GP, Three Bedrooms In A Good Neighborhood and Hacker make the cut; it becomes increasingly difficult to nit-pick at this gig. I truly just feel blessed that I could witness Death Grips in person, it was a day I never thought would come.