Death Grips was just named SPIN’s Artist of the Year, a choice that was meant to be underground cool and provocative by the publication that once asked if Jesus Jones could save rock ‘n’ roll. (They couldn’t.) I realize some of you have stopped reading and are headed toward the comments section to write, "Who is Death Grips?" or some variation on it. Admittedly they're not as big as, say, Jay-Z, but suffice to say they've captured the attention of one of the few remaining national music magazines, even if it's the one that thought "Doubt" was the album that would finally put a bullet in the head of the 1980s, nevermind what was happening in the Pacific northwest.
Anyway the first of what will likely be many year end huzzahs for Death Grips has renewed some Houstonian crankiness because of the similarity between the Sacramento experimental hip-hop’s aesthetic and that of Houston’s noise rock/hip-hop innovator Michael LaCour, who records and performs as B L A C K I E. It was brought up more than a month ago here .
Mark C. Austin, whose Convoy Group manages several local bands, offers the following samples of . . . well, nothing formal, but rather a group being not quite as original as the attention would have you believe.
Death Grips here…
And B L A C K I E here .
Death Grips' attention has been, well, if not slavish, very positive from cross-generational rockcrit tastemakers. Veteran critic Robert Christgau gave “The Money Store” an A-. The Onion's AV club was in a similar head space with its B+ rating. (Expect the Rolling Stone review in mid-2013.) Pitchfork gave it an 8.7 rating out of 10 commenting, “The Sacramento group seems to have landed from an alternate planet.”
But was B L A C K I E’s flag already crammed into that planet? His “Wilderness of North America” was released in 2008, two years before Death Grips formed. (But worth noting: Death Grips drummer Zach Hill is an esteemed experimental player with many great credits to his name.)
Another question is whether the debate is moot. There are certainly stylistic similarities between the two acts but nothing that would suggest any slam dunk legal action. Further, B L A C K I E gives no indication of willingness to move toward any compromised middle with his music. He seems to be a committed outsider artist. “I’m 100 per cent DIY because that’s the only way I can do this,” he said last year. “I’m not going to stop. If I wanted for someone to help me or offer to put my music out for me then it simply would not happen.” While nothing about Death Grips’ sound suggests compromise the group did confound people by signing with Epic, a relationship which quickly soured and was dissolved by the label earlier this year.
Temptation would be to decry the usual Houston-as-Rodney-Dangerfield-of-American-cities treatment, though for what it’s worth, Sacramento probably has more than its share of no-respect moments in California, and it certainly doesn't enjoy any particular favoritism from national media. Still this is another reminder that distinguishing oneself nationally from the musical scrum doesn’t necessarily come down to originality or hard work, both of which B L A C K I E possesses amply. And it also reminds that sometimes we really want to believe in life on other planets when some original creative forces are under our noses.