Watching Stefan Burnett (AKA Ride, the MC for Death Grips) on stage is like watching a poet, but not the Def Poetry kind of slam poet who yells incoherent rhymes about how much he loves weed. I’m talking about the real kind of poet — the intellectual poet who whispers incoherent non-rhymes about the idea of weed. I know, Ride is anything but whispering, but when he raps Burnett yells so goddamn loud that his voice actually starts to take on the characteristics of silence.
Allow me to go deeper: Burnett reminds me of poet Franz Wright, son of James Wright (both Pulitzer Prize winners). Recently, Wright experienced something of a meltdown that was captured (like many other embarrassing life moments) on Facebook.
I don’t really remember the context of what went down, but this lady offered Wright some sort of teaching gig. However, Wright (a known enemy of academia), instead of politely declining, opted to call this poor woman a cunt. As they often feel inclined to do, other poets weighed in:
“How dare he?!”they exclaimed.
“You can’t call someone a cunt!” they chastised.
But, really, you can call a woman a cunt. It’s super easy. Plus, it was probably the most interesting thing to happen to poetry since Bukowski punched his wife during that semi-boring documentary.
Anyway, after Wright’s outburst, for a second, poetry came alive (only to go back to sleep again when Wright quit Facebook).
The point is Ride, like Wright, is sort of a nihilist who doesn’t seem to give a fuck. He appears that way, at least. Nobody knows what the fuck Death Grips is going to do next, which is part of their appeal.
For one, the group was a trio, but now it seems to be a duo, consisting solely of Zach Hill on drums and Ride on vocals. The other guy, the one who I think made the beats and stood in the background like a pale, emaciated Flavor Flav, Flatlander (born Andy Morin), is missing. Gone. Or at least he hasn’t shown up at any of the recent Death Grips shows.
The show at Slim’s was no different. Just Hill and Burnett. Before Death Grips took to the stage, I saw Ride slinking up the stairs with a little Macbook and setting it on a table and then slinking away again. I guessed he was going to man the play button and rap at the same time, which is both impressive and kind of not impressive at the same time.
Some guy opened up for Death Grips who called himself Cities Aviv, a black dude who kind of had a Death Grips-y style, but in all was kind of bland. His DJ played a laptop with some sampler thing and was twisting knobs like he was Jimi Fucking Hendrix. It was annoying. I hate when DJs pretend they’re doing some technical shit when they’re actually just adjusting the tone to some pre-recorded sound effect.
I spent most of the guy’s set looking at the crowd.
The weird thing about the crowd was that every genre of subculture was represented: There were Juggalos, punk rockers, hipsters, college schmoes and gangsters with braided hair; Coachella Man with a goatee was there, along with some Asian nerds. And after a while, some much needed hookery looking sluts showed up. It was a pretty diverse crowd.
And as soon as the makeshift curtain lifted, the entire sold out room (800 capacity) collectively lost their shit. I mean they really lost their goddamn minds. The whole show (the sound effects, at least) was pre-programmed. Burnett basically pressed play and then the hour-long set began. I think it was when “Lil Boy” came on when some little Asian chick spazzed out and punched me in the tit. A confused Spanish-looking dude in a flannel kept kicking everyone in the shins. Some guy in horribly rendered corpse paint (he looked more like a pedophile clown going to a KISS show) pulled out a bottle of his own whiskey, chugged it and was promptly dragged out of the club by security.
There was no room to breathe.
When “Takyon (Death Yon)” played, the room caved in on itself. The atmosphere was 50 percent weed smoke and 50 percent sweat.
Zach Hill drummed so hard that it look like his head was going to fly off. Ride rapped over his own track, which is usually a no-no in hip-hop. But Death Grips isn’t hip-hop. They’re hardcore with some dude screaming crazy shit into your face. The double vocals seemed to work in the band’s favor, adding an extra layer of electronic scariness to Ride’s already frightening persona. Hill banged the fuck out of the drums while Ride waved his hands up and down, yelling through his tracks.
Poetry. He was yelling poetry, I think.
In the chaos of it all, I focused on Ride. His cadence–that long, drawn out growl; the pained look on his face when he released guttural grunts; the sincerity of his scream–was that of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet.
I haven’t seen a crowd go that insane since, well, ever. Even when Slayer was in their early years and their audience was half Nazi skinheads, there was an order to their madness. This Death Grips show was all about the audience letting out every chaotic emotion they had stored up in their bodies, from unbelievable joy to earth crushing hate. It was almost as if the band was the background music to an entire room of people having some sort of religiously cathartic meltdown.
It was great.
Here’s another thing about Death Grips: For a long while, people have been trying to define a Sacramento vibe. Are we swag fag rappers? Are we gangster as fuck? Are we hipster assholes? Are we Nazis? Are we lost in the Golden Era of hip-hop? Are we metalheads? Are we hardcore kids?
Turns out, the answer is YES. We’re all of that. Plus, we’re apparently a bunch of mentally unstable psychopaths who flaunt the language of violence to say even the most basic things. Hate is our talent. Basketball certainly isn’t.
Anyway, the next time Death Grips is in your town, see them, if only to finally realize how rad poetry can be.