October 1st, a decade to the day since the tumultuous release of No Love Deep Web — leaked at 12am, Death Grips had announced its arrival at the very peak of the full moon only a few hours prior. Though this album was one of their biggest spectacles, as the third full length release, the now-current popular discourse seems more focused on the significance of the preceding and follow up albums:
Their first, the Exmilitary ‘mixtape’, a rougher, galvanizing self proclamation rising out of the internet underground and showing a group in the process of defining what they are and boldly experimenting with how they want to sound.
Then the critically and commercially successful (relatively) major label published breakthrough ‘debut’ album, The Money Store. An uncompromised glitch in the matrix with a finer sheen, credited for terraforming the landscape of online music criticism and discourse, as well as permanently marring experimental Hip-Hop itself.
Always moving forward and never sideways, Government Plates was the condemned next step beyond No Love Deep Web; the trippiest Death Grips album is relatively maligned, but this crystal-ball gem operates in mysterious ways, perhaps requiring a more open mind to see past the inverted reflection of the expectation a user might cast upon it.
Summarizing The Powers That B and the music beyond is simply futile, their achievements and contexts signify the dissolution and continuation of the group themselves, and occupy a loud space in the discourse even with no unified text to even yet grasp at their scope and meanings.
So what of No Love Deep Web? Out of the discography, it tends to occupy a middle ground less likely to be ranked near the top or bottom against the other albums, overlooked for features that make the best of their music, as well as the controversial opinions and the hot-takes regarding their worst.
This is the album in particular with a special mythos deserving of a whole book, many of Death Grips’ defining characteristics and folklore come from its creation, release and material.
It’s no coincidence that No Love Deep Web is less necessarily compared to the rest. Standing for only itself, it was made against the wishes of their record label, under a drastically flipped public opinion. It represents the group risking and inevitably decimating their entire commercial career for the sake of a self-imposed promise directed at a then loosely defined group of fans.
Their recording contract had arrived so quickly and effortlessly. Showing up at the meeting with no expectations and ‘stoned out of their minds’, having vandalized the bathroom on the way in, they wound up signing the contract that same day. Blessing or curse, this unexpected change of course ultimately foreshadowed its own end, for better and worse. With progressive ideas and fully open minds regarding how to manifest them, the group were most interested by the Epic Records executives’ immediate connection to their unfinished music, and were so surprised when asked to sign a contract immediately (an offer usually reserved for the biggest and most sought after pop acts), that they obliged, recognizing a sign that the right path had shown itself.
Two albums were announced alongside the signing, and with The Money Store already mostly complete by the time of the meeting, the release was only ever imminent. Its highly successful landing only seemed more confirmation of the trajectory, at least for a few ticks; but Death Grips’ uncompromised vision quickly regained hold, the future remaining a singular point of focus.
A rigorous promotional tour had already begun for The Money Store, which was compounded by nearly doubling the number of booked dates in the success of the release, this would be the first big point of contention. Epic were getting too focused on the past; though The Money Store was only a few weeks old, Death Grips were needing to get back to work on the next album that they fully expected to release within months. It became clear they couldn’t have their cake and eat it too, and the choice had to be made between maintaining the higher purposes of studio production, or continuing what now felt like an ancillary tour (the label had failed to facilitate some more ambitious live show ideas such as sending out multiple proxy Death Grips groups to perform all over the country at the same time). So, behind the back of the label, management, booking agents, venues, and fans, they went direct to Facebook to publicly cancel all shows effective immediately. While stakeholders and their newly formed audience crashed around them, Death Grips withdrew into silence to reboot themselves in the studio.
Spurred by the scrutinizing chaos their new career had immediately been lost in, they were back and ready for the next rollout in only a couple of short months — but things had changed.
With a disconnect between marketing senior-management and the creative team at Epic Records from being split between the East and West coasts; Angelica Cob-Baehler (the A&R responsible for bringing them to the label), and other crucial members of the team surrounding the group, were let go from the company. With the most passionate in-label support gone, their signing as an experimental investment into a new way of making and distributing music was thrown into question, and they were left stranded in the bad books after pulling out of the tour.
The coming album had finally been publicly titled. Originally announced simply as No Love, the ‘Deep Web’ aspect was added later to reflect a new influence that would profoundly steer the trajectory of the album. As determined as ever to ensure the world would hear it on time, Death Grips ramped up the plans to push it through. Mindless of career consequence, they were heading into LA to force meetings with the label and keep the vision rolling, and literally stumbled across their next move walking down Sunset Boulevard.
They had reached the Chateau Marmont — the exclusive, expensive and haunted hotel is the very symbol of celebrity culture in California — and realized it would make the perfect base for a strategy of contrition (inspired by the Control Deck technique in Magic: The Gathering that Zach had recently learned about). Capable of producing their music self sufficiently and even semi-homeless, their untouched album advance bought them a two month stay; the casual acceptance of the locale by their label contacts, that they were atypically-allowed to book a room walking in off the street, and the random assignment of room 77 on the 7th floor, all further indicators of the path. Everything had aligned to set the next phases of their plan in motion.
A post appeared on 4chan: an image taken from Pitchfork’s latest Death Grips article accompanied by an unlabelled Darknet Tor network link for a file download. Though immediately arousing suspicion, /mu/ couldn’t help but download the file (The ‘Deep Web’ is technically any page not indexed by search engines and constitutes up to 99% of ‘the internet’, the Darknet is the more nefarious string of network protocols popularly used to facilitate illicit activities). Intrigue deepened with the discovery that it was encrypted, requiring a password to view the contents. As the post began to be connected to Death Grips via the image, and a group gathered trying to figure out how to crack the file, a pointed reply appeared. Nearly identical to the first post, the image in this one had been modified to include a cipher that unlocked the file in the new link.
So began several days of an Alternate Reality Game that would simultaneously weave increasing layers spanning down into the Darknet, and ambitious ‘real world’ interaction, at one stage requiring a dedicated fan to arrive at a particular payphone in New York City to take a call at 3am containing the next clue. The game was a feedback loop, constantly raising more questions than it answered, building an unsustainable level of hype for the impending album, and eventually revealing prizes: a release date of October 23rd, and copies of The Money Store, unmastered and split into instrumental and acapella tracks.
Their infiltration and mimicry of the elite quickly confirmed that Epic just weren’t interested anymore, only willing to vaguely commit to ‘sometime next year’ to publish No Love Deep Web, the ARG had done little to change their minds. So Death Grips went more drastic with another social media announcement: that fans and the label would both be hearing No Love Deep Web for the first time in only a few hours at midnight October 1st, pushing forward even their own projected date from the ARG. For all the hype, the doubt that had been brewing since the canceled tour had grown to an equal proportion; was the label drama just a marketing stunt, possibly even orchestrated by Epic?
It nearly feels anticlimactic that the album arrived exactly as promised. Available as a file download from the Death Grips website, it became immediately clear that the release was not Epic sanctioned when the site crashed several hours after the release, both the group and the label would deny responsibility and blame the other party. One particularly bold feature was the album artwork, a detailed macro shot of Zach Hill’s erect penis with the album’s title written on it in sharpie, taken in the toilet at the Chateau Marmont.
“ZH: We had the cover idea for a while before we moved in there. We started Death Grips being very pro-homosexual and pro-individual– the idea of being OK with yourself no matter what. It really has to do with acceleration– culturally, on a world level– of sexuality in general, and getting past homophobia. People should be able to look deeper into something rather than just seeing some dick. It’s also a spiritual thing; it’s fearlessness.”Pitchfork interview, December 4th 2012
“If you look at that and all you see is a dick, I don’t really have anything to say, pretty much. I looked at it and said, ‘This is a great photo, and I’d love for this to be the album cover.’”Spin Magazine, 2012 Artist of the Year interview
“Yeah, that’s mine,” Hill finally admits. “It was difficult to do, honestly, in general, it was very difficult. It’s difficult even telling people that’s the source of it; it feels sacrificial in a sense. That idea existed long before, by the way. This is going to sound funny to other people, but we saw it as tribal, as spiritual, as primal. Also, it comes from a place of being a band that is perceived as…such an aggressive, male-based, by some, misogynistic-seeming band. If you can get past this and still enjoy the music…. It’s a display of embracing homosexuality, not that either of us are homosexual. Am I making sense? People are still going to think that it’s macho, but that’s not the source of where it comes from.”
Predictably, Epic were far from congratulatory, and when the group publicly posted confidential emails revealing them in full damage control and considering their legal actions after the leak, their contract was immediately and publicly terminated.
This self-implosion of a release is probably the most blatant subversion of a major label in the digital age, concrete proof that Epic wanted Death Grips much more than the inverse.
This event foreshadowed the growing independent power that the internet held over music publishing, rooted in the mass music piracy on Napster from the late nineties, and continually reflected as the decade progressed.
An example of such a reflection can be found in Frank Ocean, who in 2016 would take full advantage of his label, Def Jam, and legally exit his contract with them by the carefully orchestrated and dramatic independent release of his album Blonde. Now looked upon as one of the best albums of the 2010’s. He had used a similar move in dropping his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra just to gain the attention of his label as more than just a song-writer; they granted him a sizeable advance with which he was able to produce Channel Orange, arriving shortly before No Love Deep Web. Frank went on to name Death Grips as one of his favourite artists in Blonde’s accompanying magazine, Boys Don’t Cry, and even recorded (ultimately unused) material for that album with Death Grips drummer/producer Zach Hill.
The internet at large has come to integrate itself with every aspect of music since the inception of Death Grips, and most other examples of artists borne entirely within the internet, such as the carefully constructed meme like rise of Lil Nas X that was expertly leveraged with planted social media posts, digital chart manipulation and perfectly designed controversy, could be said to share similarities.
Death Grips, whose music was unsuspectingly inserted into torrents like malware, or played through gaming headset microphones on public servers, was combined with an easily mimic-able lo-fi aesthetic (persisting now as the ‘cursed’ genre of memes), and infinite remix-ability of available acapella tracks and stems, to perfectly optimise its spread as ‘meme-music’.
The cyberspace of Death Grips is also comparable to the concurrent internet phenomena of ‘micro-genres’ such as Vaporwave and Hyper-pop. Arising out of the increased inter-connectivity of the early 2010s internet; all three viewed as art movements posses a distinct aesthetic language, highly visceral soundscapes, and serve a very-online re-purposing of the past (usually through unusual samples), acting like predictions of what the future may look like as we progress into an all-encompassing ‘smart-world’.
This symbiosis with the internet has always been a significant facet of Death Grips. Shown by data compiled just before the No Love Deep Web leak, they in fact topped BitTorrent’s ‘list of most legally downloaded music’ of 2012. This was thanks not only to their fans’ natural environment of underground internet piracy, but also a unique deal they had convinced Epic to pursue with BitTorrent, releasing a portion of The Money Store as a prototype for what would become the BitTorrent Bundles program; a series of sanctioned and sometimes even paid multimedia music releases. Prior to the leak, they had accrued over 34 million downloads on the platform, a number that is often misapplied to the No Love Deep Web leak; stats for which have never been published, but might feasibly be even higher.
These topics are all important to the legacy of No Love Deep Web, but they also demonstrate exactly how the music itself tends to appear forgotten, swept up in the fascinating story of its creation and release. Never contrived and always fully living their art; you can count on a Death Grips album to embody its context, perhaps the core reason the story behind it has become so intrinsic to appreciation of the music.
The music itself is reclusive, urgent and cold. It alternately evokes feelings of being cornered, and charges with the final burst of fight or flight energy. It has the form of Punk laid bare, with an endless emotional vulnerability as the skeleton key to unlock the breakthrough. The idiosyncrasy of Death Grips is the manic MC, shout-rapping over uncouth beats, and No Love Deep Web is one of their best showcases, filtering away anything that doesn’t contribute, to produce one of the purer distillations of their essence.
This essence is the reason Death Grips endures. After warning away those who are incompatible, in everyone else it can instill an intense, self-affirming motivation that draws influence in mysterious and unwritten ways.
As Brian Eno responded when Lou Reed told him that The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 30,000 copies in five years: ‘but I think everyone who bought one of those copies started a band’. These bands may not have necessarily sounded like The Velvet Underground, but peering back through the decades, that album is the clear genesis of something new and different, a unique combination made only for its own sake with an unaffected vision of a limitless future. Released before even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, its legacy shows in all the dark, heavy, kinky, noisy, alternative, queer, drug-influenced, and artistic music that has been published since.
Similarly, there are movements clearly beginning to show in the wake of Death Grips. The abstract experimental Hip-Hop of Danny Brown, clipping., and JPEGMAFIA are popular examples, even the sounds of Ye’s 2013 album Yeezus are arguably Death Grips leaning; one can follow this strain of influence all the way through to recent examples too, such as Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red, released unceremoniously on Christmas day, what is this album if not minimal Punk-Rap?
But these are less emulations than they are ripples of the same wave — some of the sounds Death Grips are known for are also reasonably preceded by, or are concurrent to Shabazz Palaces, Dälek, and a plethora of experimental and hardcore Hip-Hop leading all the way back to Public Enemy and N.W.A.
To mimic this sound is to miss the point entirely. Hip-Hop is a language of shared experience, and these darker tones a special dialect. The legacy that Death Grips adds to the conversation gathers not by others wanting to sound like them, but by the self-propelling and intensely motivating energy their music serves. The undeniable proof that if Death Grips can get together and make these sounds, then anyone can, no matter how marginalized, or rejected you are, or how limited access you have; the limiting factor is simply the choice to do so or not.
“That’s when I realized that Death Grips was my meth. I put that on and I can anything and do it efficient as fuck. With that being said, DO NOT LISTEN TO DEATH GRIPS WHILE DRIVING A FAST CAR WITH YOUR POWER MECHANICS BUTTON ON AND YOUR TIRE TRACTION OFF. Nico, Travis and I legit almost died because I decided to put on Stockton and burn rubber at a red light, which resulted into my car spinning out down a street at 60, 70 miles per hour at an intersection in Los Angeles around 2:45 on a school day. Not one scratch, no one hurt, not one car touched. I don’t know what it was, but it led me to believe that I had a grip on death (sorry, I had to say that).”Tyler, The Creator
This quote comes from the Golf magazine that accompanied Tyler’s 2015 album Cherry Bomb. He vividly describes the intense energy that any fan of the Death Grips will recognize, as well as its sometimes guiding, protecting sense of invulnerability in his experience spinning out the car. This is what it’s like to let go and embrace the music, to dive into a situation heedless of consequence. It is the sound of knowing that what you feel is right, and that acting on it will bring you to exactly where you need to be.
Which is exactly how Death Grips came to create Stockton and the rest of No Love Deep Web. Surrounded on all sides by their own label and fans, with intention and direction challenged, the only way out is through.
This is the core legacy of the album, the terminal last stand, forever proof that you are the only one who can dictate the circumstances and create what you need for yourself.
Put on No Love Deep Web, and consider: what forces will guide you through the next ten years?