Death Grips Live: Experimentation, Youth & Permanent Hearing Loss

When was the last time you took a trip to the edge of your comfort zone and explored the outer limits of your own taste? Last Thursday night I saw experimental hip-hop group Death Grips perform at the Marquee Theater in Tempe, Arizona and found myself on the fringes of my own wildly eclectic taste. There is literally nothing accessible about Death Grips furious hip-hop punk sound. It’s absolute chaos fit only for a very specific audience but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have a great time watching their set, even if it caused lasting damage to my hearing.

I’m not exactly a huge Death Grips fan but I’m a sucker for strange sounds and when a buddy of mine was unable to use his tickets, I was happy to fill in for him. I went to the show with a friend from work and we met at the venue a bit early to have a beer. Considering the madness we were about to witness, we had a decidedly grown up conversation. We talked shit about the venue’s nonexistent craft beer selection and discussed potential career moves while standing safely near the back wall. All around us angsty teenagers in strange clothing prepared to rage but I was entirely content to hang back at a safe distance and observe.

A Death Grips live show is inherently somewhat miraculous. The band broke up over a year ago, cancelled all of their shows and permanently disbanded. Since their breakup, Death Grips has released two albums and toured extensively. They are notorious for canceling live shows last minute so when they took the stage shrouded in static red flood lights I was a bit relieved that I was actually going to see them perform. Death Grips might break up again tomorrow but at least I got to see them while they were still a thing.

The show starts. Aggressive synth distortion, explosive live drums and MC Ride’s enigmatic and largely unintelligible lyrics bring the audience to an instant frenzy. Angry and forlorn teenagers push closer to the stage and begin to rage while my buddy and I watch from the demilitarized zone in the back. The assault proceeds without pause. They never acknowledge the audience, they just keep making noise. Only a few minutes in, a cluster shell shocked and exhausted youths climb their way out of the fray, clearly having taken on more than they were prepared for. Every five or ten minutes, I chuckle to myself as more overwhelmed and sweat soaked kids make their escape.

At one point, a young rogue mosher runs full steam into my friend spilling beer everywhere. The 17ish year old immediately begins to apologize. Buddy says nothing, just takes the hat off the kid’s head, places it right back down a bit askew and then angrily points back towards the heart of the mosh pit. The kid follows the unspoken orders and marches back into battle. In that perfect little moment, reckless youthfulness and cautious adulthood came face to face and neither blinked.

I may not have the energy or desire to push my way to the front of a chaotic punk rap set but I still had a hell of a time watching this band do their thing. I’ve seen countless shows that I enjoyed more than Death Grips but there is something enjoyably adventurous about seeing a cryptic and aggressive live performance like this. For all its indiscernible noise, their set had some undeniably thrilling moments where the abstract noises synchronized together into something cohesive, energetic, and captivating. Experimentation in music is can be uncomfortable, unpalatable or even unlistenable and while Death Grips approach oblivion, the youthful exuberance around me was a loud reminder that these artists are necessary catalysts for progress and innovation. I’ve never heard anything like Death Grips and while only time will tell if they are a passing novelty or groundbreakers on the cutting edge, I hope I never get too old or too narrow minded to stop going to live shows like these. If I ever permanently lose my hearing, I’d like to do it listening something wild and new.

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