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Louder Than Bombs: Death Grips and Killer Mike

Death Grips' Stefan Burnett / Photo by Jonathan Magowan

Hip-hop’s first 20 years were built on decibels. A Bronx-bred arms race over speaker size, rocking without a band, “my JVC” vibrating the concrete, pumping up the volume, sampling “The Big Beat” and “Angel of Death” and Skull Snaps, and cars that go boom doing donuts on your manicured lawn while blasting the Aerosmith breaks stolen from the water-tower party. Then, some time before DMC lost his unmistakable voice forever, “saying it” became more important than “spraying it,” and hip-hop evolved into lyrically complex, emotionally profound comfort food with a license to chill.

In turn, hip-hop in 2012 has drifted toward slow-rolling country-rap tunes and floaty Glasser samples, A$AP Rocky’s “trillwave” and Main Attrakionz’s “cloud rap,” the mollifying effects of Future’s AutoTune experiments and the regular-dude stress relief of G-Side’s “Atmosphere,” Skylar Grey wailing soft-rock ballads and Curren$y rapping like an anthropomorphic puff of weed smoke. Names like Smoke DZA, Ethereal, and Shady Blaze are galaxies and several mood-ring shades away from the action verbs and psycho-stimulants that drove names like Cold Crush, Crash Crew, Kurtis Blow, and T La Rock. For a generation of kids who never knew a world without Snoop, rappers who yell are now the outliers.

All of this is why Sacramento, California trio Death Grips are probably rap’s most unlikely major-label signing since MC 900 Ft. Jesus. Their Epic debut, The Money Store, fits into modern hip-hop like a square peg on fire, a 40-minute straitjacket tantrum of vein-popping, slow-flow barks closer to Helmet’s Page Hamilton than Harlem’s Charles Hamilton. Death Grips can’t even hang in the small, insular bubble where modern aggro-rap actually exists—blustery, monolithic producer Lex Luger and foil Waka Flocka Flame, or post–Lex Luger shouters like Gunplay, Trouble, and the rejuiced Juicy J. Equal parts strip club and tear-da-club-up, these ALL-CAPS rappers scream in the face of Bruno Mars while Tyler just mutters threats under his breath. But they’re still tempering those yells with some semblance of pop aspirations and Trey Songz guest spots. There are no “Grove St.” parties at The Money Store. Death Grips MC Stefan Burnett is gruff and melody-free, screaming, “Fuck you!” and “Fuck it!” and “Fuck that!” until he’s hoarse. A lithe, heavily tattooed hardcore belter, Burnett sounds like 300-pound Rick Ross doing a Negative Approach cover.

Similarly, the beats owe less to any rap group than to the industrial dub of Techno Animal or the shrill “digital hardcore” of Alec Empire, all sirens and alarms and Dilla noize popping off and immediately phased into oblivion. Burnett suffocates in wave after wave of reverb. Coproducer Zach Hill can’t help but give everything that jittery, free-jungle feel that his drumming lends to records by Hella and Marnie Stern, turning the head-knocking groove of “Get Got” into a 176-bpm nic fit with the subtlety of a car crash.

Though as gloriously, perfectly broken as The Money Store sounds in the Kush & OJ era, it’s still an unfulfilled promise compared to Death Grips’ anxious, self-released 2011 pileup Exmilitary. With major-label accountability comes a dramatically lessened ability to sample freely; that anarchic earlier record spoke loudest through its all-too-perfect tangle of referents (Charles Manson, Magma, Jane’s Addiction, Black Flag, Pet Shop Boys). Although every Money Store track has some juiced-up signature scree—the elevator-going-up of “The Fever (Aye Aye),” the bare-wire buzzing of “Lost Boys,” the wubstep crawl of “The Cage”—nothing can compare to the raw, imperfect way that samples rub up against one another.

Luckily, the sample-work of noise-hop diehard El-P remains a postmodern delight on his third solo album, Cancer for Cure, not to mention his fearless production for Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music. Consider Cancer‘s “Drones Over BKLYN” and its deft deployment of the one-note Angus Young stab from countless Rick Rubin loud-rap masterpieces—utilized Wu-Tang-style (“Protect Ya Neck,” 1992) to cover up the swear words, except the swear words are hilariously left intact, just now with ribald exclamation points. Punkish, art-damaged cage-shaking like this made El the vanguard at the turn of the decade. His Schoolly schooled stutter-drums and Vangelis-core synths on tracks like Cannibal Ox’s “Vein” were still critical faves in 2001, only to be unjustly tossed out with the backpacker bathwater.

Excitingly, contemporary rap is falling back into El’s innovations: Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire borrowed “Vein” for his Lost in Translation mixtape, while Odd Future’s grimy, indie grind and maddening assonance are pretty much trademark Company Flow, 1996. And on the new album’s first half, El-P kicks his timeless mix of Philip K. Dickery and Kool G Raps (“Fuck your droid noise, void boys ‘noid ploy / Oi oi, I’ll rugby-kick the shit out your groin, boy”), with vintage analog synths that are colder and nastier than any knife Skrillex is currently sharpening. Sure, the closing five-song suite descends into Reznor- ian synth-murk dark-jazz—moody, lovesick, paranoid—but if you want an entire album’s worth of boom and pound, look no further than R.A.P. Music. A stunning anachronism from Atlanta firebrand Killer Mike, produced to a crisp by emphatically New York–centric El-P, it’s easily the greatest tribute to 1987 since “99 Problems.” El is in strictly Raising Hell mode here, all jarring scum-shards and asphalt-melting 808s; Mike is somewhere between Chuck D and Ice-T, full of righteous indignation that only can be bellowed in exasperation: “I don’t trust the church or the government, Democrat, Republican / The Pope or a bishop or them other men.”

Informed by these elder statesmen’s firsthand experience of 1980s sound and politics, each of R.A.P. Music‘s tracks effortlessly updates a classic idea. You can sense the twosome’s nostalgia for Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” (“Jo Jo’s Chillin'”), Ice-T’s “6 ‘N the Mornin'” (“Don’t Die”), and BDP’s “Illegal Business” (“Reagan,” which impossibly contextualizes Ollie North, Reaganomics, and pre–Rodney King police brutality for a 2012 audience). Thankfully, an album that name-checks Gucci Crew, samples the B-Boys, lyrically borrows from J.J. Fad, and sounds like a Rubin-era Def Jam wet dream works as much more than a retromania swag-off—mainly because Killer Mike doesn’t fit into any convenient hip-hop narrative. One moment, he’ll rage about Sean Bell (the unarmed man gunned down by NYPD officers), then brag about the ménage in his garage the next, tumble into a Ghostface-style labyrinth, indulge Kanye-style insecurity, and emerge with a heart-stopping, Big K.R.I.T.–style “music is my religion” affirmation.

One profound similarity between the loud-rap class of 1988 and the chill-rap class of 2012 is that they’re both among the genre’s most diverse communities of any era—the former because the music industry hadn’t yet enforced divisions like “pop” and “gangsta” and “conscious,” the latter because your iPod Shuffle was basically built to destroy those divisions. A child of the ’80s and a student of the Internet, Killer Mike is as exciting and wildly unclassifiable as hip-hop gets: New York noise and country shit, nods to when rap was punk and crunk was pop, Ice Cube before he needed hooks, David Banner before he needed to whisper, and Willie D before he needed anybody. Make some noise if you’re with me?

Companion Pieces

“It’s Like That” b/w “Sucker MCs” (1983)

The hard-as-hell death knell for hip-hop’s sequin-soaked disco growing pains, played out by concrete-cracking drum machines and sucking abysses of negative space. Oh yeah, plus two teenagers in an attic trying to convince big-bro Russell Simmons that melodies are for squares and rap music is made to be yelled.

Death Comet Crew
At the Marble Bar EP (1985)

Legendary mothership captain Rammellzee makes with the freak-freak alongside some spaced-out New York buddies dragging no wave into electro’s neon waters. The art-of-noise grooves were mostly leaden, but the crew created a twisted collage out of gunshots, explosions, screams, and hissy detritus recorded off TV.

Schoolly D
Schooly D (1986)

Gangsta rap’s self-released, hand-scrawled, punk-as-fuck big-bang moment is famed for its uncensored, no-bullshit narratives about Philly’s Park Side Killers. But its cavernous bass bombs, jagged scratch outbursts, and Deerhunter-grade reverb also make it a noise-rap landmark.

The Beatnigs
The Beatnigs (1988)

Before Michael Franti became a sunshiney rebel-party-rocker covered by the Chipmunks, he formed this agit-punk duo mixing the Last Poets’ severe rhetoric with the horrific industrial grinding of Einstürzende Neubauten. Provocateurs whose band name actually flaunted the word N.W.A hid behind initials, they were metal-clanging misfits on a mission.

Public Enemy
“Welcome to the Terrordome” (1990)

The apotheosis of sample-stacking as assault weapon, the Bomb Squad overheated their mixing boards here, with a dizzying, dissonant Pollock painting of James Brown grunts, sweeping Temptations swoons, T.S. Monk fanfares, screaming J.B.’s guitars, Mikey Dread toasts, and who knows what else.

This Headspin story originally appeared in the May/June 2012 Loud Issue of SPIN.