After a long and occasionally ambivalent experience with Death Grips, seeing them live at Webster Hall on July 7th added only more thoughts and ideas to a long list from which I can derive no cohesive position of “like” or “dislike,” other than, “if it’s Zach, I need it.”

I have a fairly unique relationship with Zach Hill, Death Grips’ drummer. My old band, Rocket Surgery, opened for Zach at the Knitting Factory when he was guest-drumming with Marnie Stern on July 8, 2007. Here is a video of a piece of Rocket Surgery’s performance.

Additionally, here is an article written about that night from a blog called Don’t Quit Your Dayjob. It says some very nice things about me.

During Zach’s performance, “my mind was completely blown,” as the saying goes. I met Zach afterward and he and I discussed drumming and Plato. He was immensely down-to-earth, warm, and personable. He was the same way towards me when I saw him next, at his solo show (with Nick Reinhart) at Death By Audio a few years later. (He remembered me.) That night changed my life.

And that Marnie Stern show was also a turning point in my life in a way. Suddenly, my perception of greatness moved beyond John Bonham, beyond Jack DeJohnette, beyond Jaki Leibezeit, beyond Jimmy Chamberlin and Billy Cobham and Bill Ward, beyond Mitch Mitchell and Tony Williams and Rashied Ali (okay, maybe not quite beyond Rashied). These drummers would always be with me. But now there was a new essence, a new ideal, a new incomprehensible.

If you have not heard Zach, imagine drumming wherein the individual notes are played so fast and intricately, they almost constitute a “solid” sound. He essentially embodies the idea of a musician who is COMPLETELY a musician, who doesn’t give up his life to music but instead merges with music itself, his body becoming an instrument of orderly chaos or chaotic order, depending how you see the universe. You know what? It is easier to just look him up on YouTube.

So naturally, being that I believe no band on earth or in heaven could actually put his godly skills to adequate and complete use, I am both adoring and critical of everything he does. It is difficult to believe that anything happening around him could be as “good” as he is. He is Bobby Fischer, Harriet Tubman, Loki the Norse god of mischief, Rashied Ali, Orson Welles, Alexander the Great, Jackson Pollock, Serena Williams, and of course Jesus Christ, all rolled into one. I simply cannot be ebullient and gushing enough, because his level of skill—the degree to which he has tapped into the infinite—is simply so great. It starts to revive the now-dying Platonist in me, somewhat, and makes life seem, for a few moments at a time, intrinsically meaningful simply because such things as his drumming exist.

As you can probably guess, I am apt to involve my own prejudices and insecurities in any such critique of his music. For instance, I feel his solo album, Astrological Straits, of a few years ago was over-produced and overdone, at least compared to his work with Hella (the band for which he is most well-known other than Death Grips). I would have been much happier listening only to the tracks of his drumming, without all of the layers of synths, sequencers, processed voices, guest guitarists, and audio ephemera.

Part of me guesses that he includes all of those layers of sound out of some inferiority complex, as if to say to the world, with its narrow concept of what a “song” is, “I am a musician too, dammit, not just a drummer! I can make song songs, not just rhythms!” I probably assume that because that’s what I might feel, as a drummer, if I was making an expansive solo album.

He might very well bear no insecurity about his solo offerings. Similarly, he may not hold any misgivings about Death Grips, about whether or not it is “good” in any objective sense but rather that he is able to express himself in it and does his best at doing so. And that’s what gives it its value, its purpose, as far as he is concerned. Or perhaps he thinks it is of excellent quality; perhaps it fulfills him in every way. I suppose he wouldn’t participate in it if he didn’t. (Staying in something on principle? Again, that’s something I would do.)

What we do know is that Death Grips seems to be, by a large margin, Zach’s most popular act to date. Is this partly because of the extreme technological savvy with which they mount their publicity efforts? Is it because of a growing hiphop audience among young white males? Is it a sign that the indie rock circuit is indeed growing stale and boring and music-listeners are looking for a new “underground” sound? Does it have anything to do with the producer Andy Morin’s ear-crunching electronics that give shows a fun, dancey feel, despite Zach’s trillion-notes-per-second lines? Is it that “rock” truly is dead and must be merged with other sounds to relate to “the youth”? Or is it just that Hella’s fans, and fans of acts like Lightning Bolt, Melt Banana, Ahleuchatistas, Black Pus, and other “mathy” organizations, are simply swarming to yet another incarnation of what they like, namely machine-gun drumming and frenzied psychedelia?

I just don’t know. It doesn’t really matter a whole lot, but it’s something I wonder about. I’m not a music critic so I can’t really say with certainty.

Death Grips is nothing if not distinctive. I once read an interview with Zach in Modern Drummer where he says, “don’t try to sound like anyone else.” It is bold advice that he seems to embody to the fullest. Yet he is also highly collaborative, having participated in a long list of bands, ensembles, and guest appearances. I think there are many more artists who don’t think this way when it comes to sounding like other people; “lifting” and “borrowing” is as acceptable in “rock” music as giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day, or flowers on Mother’s Day. Which is largely fine.

“Great artists don’t imitate; they steal,” said Stravinsky. If Death Grips “steals” certain musical conventions—rapping, thumping dance beats, sexually charged lyrics, psychedelic feels—it does so in a brash, forceful, graphic way that directly engages the imagination of the audience, alongside Zach’s otherworldly, beyond-rational-interpretation drumming, to give everything a primal, almost destructive power.

And destruction is what it reminds me of, somewhat. Is it a grand musical statement, separate from “society,” or is it a tearing down of conventions, expectations, genres, AND society? Is it really a worthwhile use of my time trying to understand the artist’s intent?

Generally, I’m not a big concertgoer. I tend to think too much at shows. Also, I don’t like standing still for hours at a time, listening to opening bands that I didn’t come there to see, unable to move or leave (although I admit, I have discovered some life-changing music through opening acts. Plus, I know opening’s value to up-and-coming bands [like Rocket Surgery was]). I’m also not a big fan of encore songs. When the show’s over, I like it to be over. I’m that kind of guy.

The Death Grips show was ideal for me then; even though it started a half-hour late, there were no openers and no encores. It ruled. Also, I was not standing in one place the whole time. I was there in Webster Hall, bouncing, moshing, and shrieking my head off—letting out ALL the aggression—pretty much the whole time, along with everyone else. But the words, “what is this?” were constantly present in my head.

So what is it? The show is somewhere between psychedelic freakout, death-metal moshpit, and some of the most aggressive and fearlessly delivered rapping imaginable, from a guy who is super-jacked; Stefan Burnett reminds me of Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Pucciato with regard to stage presence: power, force, sweat. What it all adds up to is beyond comprehension, all right.

Maybe I spend too much time wondering if I like something before I can be fully “into” it. The complication is that I am very likely to like anything that Zach does, although I will often feel as I felt about his solo album; I could do without all of the ornamentation and just listen to his drumming. This is why I’d make a terrible music critic.

Anyway, I sometimes listen to Death Grips In spite of its lyrics. I’m not big on sexually graphic lyrics such as:

Ass clappin, dick suckin, lock the door to the bathroom – quick fuckin/
Find a whore and it could happen/


We could do this like an orgy/
In the bowels of hell/
Where every Lucy’s hella horny/
And their pussies don’t smell/

Both of those excerpts are from the same song, “I Want It I Need It (Death Heated).” Basically male fantasy painted with burnt-bright colors. I also have a problem with “I Want It” because it uses Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” as its primary instrumentation. It is not simply that they sampled Pink Floyd that bothers me; rather, it is that they used a song by a guy who had drug problems (Syd Barrett) to make a song about drug abuse.

I guess this kind of problem with a song makes me “sensitive,” “critical,” “old-fashioned,” or, god forbid, just “old.” I don’t like sexually graphic lyrics because they make me uncomfortable. Part of the reason is that, when I hear them, I am forced to ask, “is this misogynistic?”

I don’t like men talking about women as whores. And you just never know what the artist will say if you ask them what they “meant” by something like that. “Irony” is the deflector shield of all critique that might seek to reveal a prejudicial inclination. I give Zach and Stefan the benefit of the doubt, and I say, “okay, this is art, and art is what it is.” But my own tastes do not have to morph to find their rhetoric agreeable to me, no matter how much I love Zach. I don’t think compromising one’s principles just to be accepted into the “cool club”—people who act like they have no ethical compunctions (whether that is actually the case, or they have just learned to ignore them) and doesn’t cringe at violent fantasy against women or anyone else, because “free speech,” Georges Bataille, or whatever—does much to raise the quality of a person’s character.

I also listen to N.W.A. with regularity. And I don’t like when they’re misogynistic either. But N.W.A.’s music is, in my opinion, socially and culturally rich and by extension politically loaded because it illustrates a social and cultural experience caused by racism and capitalism, and demonstrates an emotionally rewarding “fuck the system” kind of mentality as an added bonus. I like that about it. Of course, it falls to me to infer that context upon listening, allowing me to see through the surface of misogyny and violence and bear witness to the “musical statement” (whether intended or unintended) that lies beneath. So maybe I just don’t understand the greater context within Death Grips’ lyrical content.

The question is, then, does Death Grips provide any similar context in which potentially problematic statements serve to illustrate a social and cultural experience? Possibly, and I just haven’t dug deeply enough. It definitely has a “fuck the system” feel to it, just by being so disruptive in its sound: Stefan’s relentlessly delivered lyrics, Andy Morin’s crunching, spiraling synthesizers, Zach’s superhuman drumming….although there are familiar aspects to it, in its totality, it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard. The performance-art component registered by the likes of Bjork is not lost on me. Just the ability to express such raw feeling musically, outside of lyrical content, is admirable and something I try to do in my own music.

Glamorizing drug abuse is another thing I don’t like. If you read this blog, you know I’ve had my own struggles with drugs, and you know somewhat my feelings about drugs in general: ideally they would all be legal, and no one would use them because their lives would consist of enough support, purpose, and fulfillment to preclude the need for artificial stimulation, depression, or escape.

However, I don’t want to fixate on the societal implications of music to the negation of the individual experience. As described on, “[Stefan’s] violent lyrics match his attitude and he focuses on struggle both versus himself and versus the world for inspiration.” Perhaps Death Grips’ message is located here: the description of a life which doesn’t afford him much in the way of support, purpose, or fulfillment necessary to cultivate respect for women or others or himself.

This is a state of mind with which many people can certainly relate. In a world in which the individual is relatively powerless, drug-induced oblivion, sexual domination, and basic destructive nihilism appear in men’s/people’s minds (and are placed there) as outlets for their frustration at feeling powerless.

99% of the people at the show I went to were male, and 95% of that group were white. So are THESE the people—white males—to whom society is most disempowering, most frustrating? Of course there’s nothing wrong with the white man liking the Black man’s music, but my next question becomes painfully obvious: does the white man’s “relating” to such frustration have anything to do with addressing or rectifying its source? Does it affect his outlooks, his prejudices, his proclivities, the ones that may very well contribute to the state of disempowerment that Blacks and other non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people face?

My beloved Zach made a statement  about Death Grips’ 2012 album “No Love Deep Web,” whose cover image was a photograph of his erect penis with the album title written on it in magic marker (this link contains the image). “[The cover image is] also a spiritual thing; it’s fearlessness…it represents pushing past everything that makes people slaves without even knowing it.”

So an image of a white man’s genitalia represents fearlessness and pushing against slavery. I’m certain I’m not the first person to point this out, and it is difficult for me to even broach the subject because I am such a fan of Zach’s, but should we all seek to emulate the aforementioned phallus? Should we let it form our sensibilities, our values, our role in the world? I mean, a white member used for good would be a good thing. Maybe Zach meant that the white man, being the most socially privileged, possesses great power to overcome society’s ills but he must use his privilege to help others.

So the liberation of others—so they can stop being “slaves”—is dependent on the white man’s help, help which ultimately benefits him because it allows him potentially to maintain his privilege rather than relinquish it. Hm. That seems problematic.

So the white man must relinquish his privilege then? But then a white male member becomes, not a symbol of pushing, but of relinquishing. And IN SO RELINQUISHING, the white male is indeed PUSHING against the unjust system! Is that it? It might be it. I’m not saying it’s not it. I try to avoid absolute judgments as to a statement’s meaning, just as I try to avoid essentialist definitions of male and female and other binaries. I have a feeling this isn’t its intended meaning, though.

Never mind the intended meaning for now. I don’t know what’s in Zach and Stefan’s heads. What is the meaning that we can draw from it, based on what we have seen? Based on the image, on Zach’s statement, on the lyrics, and on the prevalence of white males at the Death Grips show, the “slavery” being fought against is some perceived slavery of white men (within, admittedly, a disempowering, de-individualizing system of neoliberal corporate capitalism), to be fought by whites, against…whom? Non-whites and non-males, NOT against those who perpetuate the disempowering system I just outlined: capitalist white men. So basically, let’s “fight the system” by swallowing our moral responsibility and completely assimilating to it: the oppression of non-whites and non-males by whites and males. Yay for the status quo.

I’m the first to admit that my deriving more political meaning from N.W.A. and less from Death Grips is based on my own interpretation. I hear N.W.A.’s music being about “creating respect within conditions of no respect,” as Ralph Cintron puts it: in impoverished, overlooked ghettoes and slums, the Black man does what he can to get ahead, including criminal acts, objectifying women, and saying “fuck the police” the entire time, knowing from experience that the white power structure is the real enemy. Maybe Death Grips could be heard in a similar way. Stefan seems to exhibit signs of self-disgust, perhaps caused by that structure.

Someone else might hear what Stefan says and interpret it in that way, indicating its subversive intent as opposed to the status quo intent I ascribe above. There comes a point, though, when saying anything at all—outright racism, sexism, and the like—could be interpreted by SOMEONE as liberatory in nature and defended by them no matter how violent, offensive, or retrograde the actual rhetoric might be. I am apt to put a limit on such overly liberal “interpretationism”; at a certain point, the artist must be judged by what is actually said. There aren’t infinite interpretations of words. There are only two: literal, and figurative.

There are those who will tirelessly defend the value of the figurative over the literal, and try to convince others that words can be used to mean whatever they want, whenever they want, and that if you are offended by the literal meaning of a word, you’re oversensitive and oppressive. It is usually easy to see, however, that those who regularly fight against literal interpretations in art generally have their interests tied to those interpretations. The white man might defend a figurative interpretation of the lyrics I quote above—find a whore and it could happen, for example—saying “never mind what Stefan is actually saying,” and asserting that a figurative interpretation can yield a liberatory meaning, something like, “when a woman becomes a whore, she is liberated to use her body and get what she wants from men! It’s SO freeing.” Just so happens that the LITERAL interpretation defends his privilege: that of being able to buy a woman’s body, to take out his anger and frustration on.

Being the person who looks for the “socially redeeming” qualities of art is not a role that I relish. I try not to let my thinking get one-sided or reductionist; I try to keep an open mind and not be dictatorial and absolute. Still, it’s hard not to be that person, at least to some extent, having studied the effects of racism, sexism, drug abuse, poverty, war, and other phenomena on levels of human suffering and disempowerment, and having been directly affected by them to varying degrees, yet remaining sensitive and angry that they exist instead of inured and desensitized.

At that level of concurrent awareness and sensitivity, it is easy to see that such mentalities pervade our society and are prevalent, and it is frustrating to see cutting-edge artists—including my musical gods—perpetuating them, whether out of irony or nihilism, whether out of “we’re just commenting on society by reflecting its prejudices,” or, “boys will be boys; whatever, it’s just a song,” when it just so happens be the case that the easiest way to really “get ahead” in music is to suit culturally prevalent modes of thinking instead of challenging them.

I get it; supposedly, it’s better and more democratic for art to reflect our reality than to try to shape it. People don’t like getting beaten over the head with a “message;” it’s easier for us to enjoy something when we can “relate” to it, when it “shows us ourselves” and how life “really is,” rather than trying to dictate to us how it should be. And people “really are” prejudiced: they really are racist, they really are misogynistic, they really are frustrated, etc.

I certainly don’t favor whitewashing and pretending injustice doesn’t exist. God no. It’s just that I think art can (and does) do both: it CAN reflect reality while pushing it to become better, as opposed to reflecting it in such a way (intentionally or unintentionally on the part of the author) that everything stays the same. It’s just frustrating.

It’s not that I want every band to be a “political band” (and not many things rhyme with “proletariat.” Lariat, I guess. Secretariat. Luke Perry’s hat.) It’s more that I feel every statement carries a political weight, and it would be nice if that weight was openly used for liberation and fighting against oppression, which I believe N.W.A. does, even while it expresses a lot of other bad intents.

I’ll still listen to Death Grips, still love Zach like an older drum-brother. I am very happy for him that Death Grips is bringing his art to a larger audience. I’m happy for Stefan and Andy too, because they are also deeply talented. Raw talent and distinctiveness should be appreciated more in our society, like they were when progressive rock and fusion jazz were becoming popular in the early 70s. In a way, Zach’s art is so technically advanced, expressing emotions so elusive and unsung, that to me it already signifies a positive threat to society’s complacency and conventions. I guess that’s another reason why no band is good enough for him, in my eyes: other artists dilute his message of absolute rhythmic expression with conventionality in various forms: lyrical content, guitar licks, structure….

Okay, so I’m biased. In the same interview I mentioned above, which is from 2006, Zach also says,

I want to change the world of my instrument in a large way. I want to get to the highest place with my instrument that I can possibly get and change the instrument for the better. I want to innovate. That’s what I set out to do, and that’s what I’m going to do, whether anybody’s paying attention or not.

Now, nine years after he said that, Zach does care if anyone’s paying attention, and he should care. He doesn’t want to remain obscure and avant-gardeist forever. I’m sure he’s got bills, he’s got obligations, he’s got hopes and dreams, he’s got to put food on the table. He wants the recognition damn well due a prodigious figure in the world of music, and he’s getting it. Death Grips plays to sell-out crowds; people are paying attention now. I’m sure Zach is proud of how far he’s come. He has succeeded spectacularly at innovating and is only succeeding more with each new album, each new project.

Maybe I just wish a person of Zach’s caliber could truly succeed in our society, and receive the deserved recognition and financial rewards, without needing to appeal to the masses, and the act of spurning that need and instead expressing the means for achieving greater freedom were what achieved mass appeal. Is that so much to ask?

And maybe it’s up to me to learn more about the musical visions of his collaborators, and determine that they, too, possess singular visions of greatness, as yet misunderstood by me. And then I might hear them playing together with him, instead of fragmentedly, “Zach, and everyone else.” I’ll work on that. But right now, if it was up to me, the sound would just be his drumming: standing as a statement on its own, leading the world forward and away from the mundane and oppressive, leaving “relate-ability” for others to concern themselves with, far behind.

Thank you for reading.