After a string of cancelled festival appearances earlier this year, anticipation for Death Grips’ midweek show is high. Yet it’d be a mistake to think of The Bug, on the bill before the drums and rap shock assault troupe, as a warm-up act. The Bug’s Kevin Martin is the kind of man who you won’t get out of bed and in the van to a venue unless the volume is loud enough to worry the masonry, and tonight is no exception. A siren, red light. Martin in his hoodie-over-baseball-cap stage uniform behind two decks, a laptop, a table of gear, and suddenly it all begins with a high treble squeal that had more in common with power electronics than dub before—oof—the bass crush of “Poison Dart” (one of many stand-out tracks from 2008 album London Zoo rumbles out across the room.
The Bug are a bass wrecking machine, custom made from the junkyard of sound and textures across musical forms, taking from many genres while respecting all of them. It’s no mere bludgeon, either: The Bug is rude and sexual—something British music occasionally struggles at, true to cliché. Recently, from mainstream dubstep to Kate Nash, King Krule or even The XX, genre-crossing incursions of dub in the UK have been far too polite, shrouded in weed smoke. This is far more fierce, up and engaging. This is helped tonight by the MCs—Flow Dan keeps up a mean patter, hyping the crowd for Death Grips. But star of the show is Miss Red, a 19-year-old MC discovered when she jumped on the mic and hijacked the stage when Kevin Martin was playing a gig in Israel. Diminutive and crouched low, she has a commanding presence and fierce patter, as heard on infernally catchy new single “Diss Mi Army”, the latest in a new Acid Ragga series of Bug singles for Ninja Tune. The Bug even run through “Skeng”, the massive London Zoo tune that’s all surreal humour amidst the crushing dread: “nurse nurse / doctor can’t fix you / send for de hearse”. As has been the case with recent performances by Martin’s other project King Midas Sound, a room arguably unfamiliar with his work is instantly won over. Always a cult figure until now, it’s hard not to get the sense that Kevin Martin’s time is only just beginning.
To follow that is going to take some doing, and initially, Death Grips are awe-inspiring. The silhouette of MC Ride’s lithe, topless body… well, he’s so sinewy if you bought him in the butchers you’d want your money back. On the other side of the stage is—also shirtless—Zack Hill. And BLAST, they’re off. This is minimal in every way, actually far closer to the likes of Shellac than anything in the hip hop canon. Hill thunders away on a tiny kit, though you wouldn’t know it from the power of the rhythms. Onstage, visuals come on two vertical oblong screens that show footage of Ride walking around an office, a burning box, bare buttocks… “Argh argh argh argh” he hollers, the rest of the lyrics indecipherable above the incessant clatter and digital hardcore stabs. Indeed, whereas on Death Grips’ albums Ride’s constant barracking becomes grating, here he’s hunkered down and part of the attack.
“Guillotine”—all sub bass murk, dead drum clatter, the chorus “echoes echoes echoes guillotineahhh” shows how on their first release Death Grips deigned to deal in songs as well as mere fury. Yet there’s a problem here, for as the set goes on and the oppressive energy intensifies, the atmosphere becomes unbearably macho. This isn’t helped when a wildly enthused Miss Red starts dancing behind Ride on the stage. He spots her, and violently bundles her offstage. We’re told that he apologised directly after the show, but it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
That aside, it’s an awesome night of music. The sonics and power of The Bug and Death Grips are very different, and perhaps suit their names—the one infectious, insidious and potentially transmitted by intimate contact, the other violent short and sharp—but they’re two spikes of the same prong, circling the mainstream, threatening to strike. ~ Photos: Andy Clydesdale