“Come up and get me.”
That’s the opening track on Death Grips’ second album and would-be major label debut, NØ LØV∑ D∑∑P W∏B. It’s also the message that Death Grips seems keen to convey this time around: the trio isn’t going to back down.
If there’s anything to be said about Death Grips, it’s that they work in extremes. Vocalist Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett and team Zach Hill and Andy “Flatlander” Morin have created a sound that’s severe in every sense of the word. Their lyrics range from cerebral (“I’m epiphanic amnesia, I’m in Jimmy Page’s castle”) to inflammatory (“lash of the whip cracking every bitch into position”), and their heavy bass and overblown synth only serve to bolster the brutal language. If you’ve heard a single track that they’ve released, then you know that their music isn’t exactly what you’d consider conventional, even within the realm of hip hop.
So it may come as no great surprise that the group leaked NØ LØV∑ D∑∑P W∏B for free under a Creative Commons license, without the knowledge or permission of their label, Epic, after they were told that an album release date wouldn’t be set until sometime in 2013. It may also seem natural that the album art features a picture of an erect penis with the album name scrawled on it in Sharpie. Or that, just hours before the release of the album, the group tweeted a picture of MC Ride with his back to the camera, standing on a ledge high above the street in an affluent suburban neighborhood, arms raised and middle fingers out in an ultimate display of reckless insouciance. These stunts seem to culminate in the expression of a single idea: Death Grips doesn’t give a fuck, and they want us to know it.
Now, just weeks after the leak, the group has gone so far as to screencap and post an email correspondence with Epic on Facebook. In the email, Epic states that the band has made decisions that “financially damaged” the label by infringing upon Epic’s copyrights, “despite the fact that Epic has done nothing except wholeheartedly support the band.” The label requests that Death Grips take the album off the internet and provide Epic with the tracks so that the label can “quickly put the album up for sale.” And appended in the signature, of course: “Any distribution, dissemination or reproduction of this e-mail message is strictly prohibited.”
Death Grips’ caption: “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA NOW FUCK OFF.”
Needless to say, the label dropped them the following day. Which raises the question: why would a band like Death Grips sign onto a major label like Epic in the first place, especially if they weren’t willing to play by the rules? What did they expect?
Death Grips isn’t by any means the first group to defy their label, nor will they be the last. Since the NLDW leak, rap artist Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire has released a new mixtape, The Man in the High Castle, without the consent of Universal Music Group. “So I had this tape I wanted to drop but my label fighting me cuz they hate me to rap,” the rapper tweeted. “They keep taking it down, Ima keep putting it up.”
It’s that simple. In an age where it’s possible simply to link to a file on Twitter or Facebook and get tens of thousands of viewers instantly, it is undeniably easier to share and publicize music—and to get instantaneous gratification—than ever before. Some might go so far as to say that illegal filesharing has even become the norm; it’s a miracle if a popular album doesn’t leak before its release date. Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles recently posted on the band’s website: “I invite you this morning to join me in a flight of fancy, wherein we will pretend that the forthcoming Titus Andronicus LP ... has not leaked onto the internet, and that you are still frothing with anticipation as to what it could possibly sound like.”
Sure, when Death Grips tweeted that “the label will be hearing the album for the first time with you,” no one took it lightly. And sure, the group now runs the risk of a likely lawsuit with Epic. But the move may not have been as extreme as it seemed; it does run in accordance with the group’s rebellious image. To leak their own album “makes them look cool, edgy ... stickin’ it to the man,” says Pitchfork’s Amy Phillips. Death Grips wants to be the baddest group out there, she says—so, of course their actions involve a degree of calculation.
When most albums can be downloaded illegally or streamed for free, image becomes crucial to an artist’s popularity. On their blog, the band Lower Dens comments on the changing music industry, saying that when music is so easily accessible, artists have “the burden of having to get your attention.” Death Grips has merely recognized the necessity of doing so. Signing to a label that will get them the publicity that they need—and then making their ungracious exit therefrom—accomplishes exactly that.
In a 2011 interview with John Calvert of The Quietus, Flatlander said that “our music and vision isn’t about being hard or tough, it’s about being real and raw, and feeling our shit. We counter with energy, everything is energy.” But whether the image is “hard or tough” or “real and raw,” it’s hard to deny that Death Grips is projecting some image, and that there was at least some forethought involved. After all, it’s a bit of a fortunate paradox: Now that they’ve been officially dropped by Epic, there’s no way Death Grips will be making much profit from this album, if any at all— and yet the act in itself has generated tremendous publicity for the group that will inevitably result in future commercial success.
MC Ride can display his penchant for the extreme—stand on a high ledge and invite the world to come and get him—all the while fully aware that the exposure Death Grip has garnered has his back.