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Artist of the Year: Death Grips

Death Grips

This is the first piece in SPIN’s series of Year-End stories, which we’ll be publishing now through the end of the year.

So, to get to the question everyone’s thinking about: Whose penis is that on the cover of your album?

After 90 minutes of spiraling conversation with Death Grips, the query completely sucks the energy out of the room. Tonight, that room is the posh, twin-bunk-bedded “band room” at Brooklyn’s yupster-chic Wythe Hotel, which overlooks the East River and the twinkling Manhattan skyline — not especially bad digs for two guys who blew through their major-label advance and are currently homeless. An awkward laugh is exchanged and an even more awkward silence follows. While an overturned coffee lid in front of the duo overflows with spent American Spirits, the question hangs dead in the air. Muffled music from a party downstairs promptly fills the void.

Death Grips producer and splatter-drum aggronomist Zach Hill and lung-peeling lead bellower Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett sit cross-armed and mutely trade looks, hiding inside puffy jackets even though the weather is unseasonably warm for November. “What do you think? It’s Stefan,” mumbles Hill, who then breaks into a barking laugh to cut the tension, since 2012’s most notorious member-cum-meme clearly doesn’t belong to his bandmate.

Death Grips / Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

Hill talks in a quiet, slow-to-unravel Sacramento drawl. Burnett’s voice — on the very infrequent occasions when he does speak with a tape recorder running — is even quieter. “If you look at that and all you see is a dick, I don’t really have anything to say, pretty much,” Burnett murmurs about the photo that ultimately became the album art for their corrosive, cyber-grinding, electroshock scream-therapy sesh NO LOVE DEEP WEB. “I looked at it and said, ‘This is a great photo, and I’d love for this to be the album cover.'” Both Burnett and Hill are reserved, soft-spoken, maybe a little shy, hopelessly insular, and they don’t exactly look strangers in the eye when they walk down the street. Most importantly, the men of Death Grips are serious as cancer about making their art.

Which is to say, the duo are the complete opposite of what countless Internet commenters have declared the elusive band to be — the enfants terribles of art-rap. They’ve been called (at best) punkish assholes and puckish pranksters and (at worst) hopeless publicity addicts and nü-McLaren hucksters. A lot has been said about everything but the band’s music. In the last calendar year alone, they unexpectedly canceled a highly buzzed 30-date tour just weeks after the release of their Epic Records debut, The Money Store; they removed themselves from the music-media maw at the apex of their press cycle, they nixed interviews, they leaked the aforementioned follow-up album without their label’s permission; they posted some pissy e-mails from the label on their Facebook; they got dropped by the label; and, most infamously, got Death Grips fans to walk around with somebody’s pale pecker sproinging out onto their iPhone screens whenever they wanna blast “Bass Rattle Stars Out the Sky.”

While the Internet journalism ouroboros has spent a decade reporting on musicians who have turned social networking into a business model (reaching an apotheosis of sorts with Amanda Palmer raising $1.2 million over Kickstarter), Death Grips are the first band to unmake themselves via the Internet. They’re a band computer-savvy enough to leak records directly to geek-download havens like BitTorrent, release hypnotic .gif walls as music videos, or play promotional games on the super-anonymous Tor network. But they won’t play ball with music blogs and have recently deleted their Twitter account. “It’s stupid,” says Hill. “That’s it.”

In indie-rock circles, Death Grips have maintained a constant, Code Sufjan-level presence as a project all year, but Hill and Burnett have essentially been ghosts, not uttering a single peep to the press since they talked to art mag Flaunt for a two-page feature back in May. How did the most talked-about band of 2012 disappear?

The story of Death Grips was unlikely from the giddy-up. Noise-punk cult figure Zach Hill had logged a solid decade as Hella’s inhuman jitter-prog drum octopus; his rubbery, kick-drum double-bounce was the must-have th-th-thwap for California eccentrics Les Claypool, Omar Rodríguez-López, Wavves, and more. Hella guitarist Spencer Seim was starting a family, the band’s activities were winding down, and Hill was ready to realize a daydream of doing hip-hop production. His soon-to-be-partner Burnett, who lived on the same street as Hill, had studied art at Hampton University, a private, mostly black college in Virginia. After dropping out, he pursued music with his brother, a “very experimental rap” project that was similarly sidelined when his bandmate got married. Burnett spent the following ten years bussing tables at the same pizza restaurant in Sacramento and returning home to pursue his other passion, painting.

Burnett possessed a yell that could bust through ceilings, and knock down doors, but he wasn’t about to play the role of a traditional frontman — as soon as their instantly acclaimed free mixtape Exmilitary started getting press attention in 2011, Burnett let seasoned Q&A veteran Hill handle all interviews (sans the Flaunt article where he says a whopping three sentences on the record). Even at the Wythe, he politely but firmly rebuked SPIN when questions got even remotely personal.

Death Grips / Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

“I’m a very private person,” says Burnett. “I have very few people that I call my friends. I’m very distrustful of human beings in general; I’m very distrustful of media. I have no interest in sharing my personal life with the world. Zero.”