Gangstagrass – Where Hip-Hop meets Hillbilly

I chat with a picker and an MC from one of the most original bands on the scene today. Rapper R-SON and guitar picker/producer Rench talk about their unique fusion of bluegrass and hip-hop as they get ready to bring Gangstagrass to Retro Live for a show unlike anything the North Country has seen before.

Published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
January 1, 2020

By Joshua Miner

Photos by Laura Carbone

 

The Brooklyn-based music producer known as Rench grew up immersed in the sounds of honky-tonk and old time Southern music. His father hailed from Oklahoma, and as such, the likes of George Jones, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson were a constant theme throughout the young musician’s life. By the time he reached the third grade, however, hip-hop was starting to change the musical landscape of the country forever. Many years later it would ultimately give birth to a band on track to do the same.

While he took violin lessons as a young child, the introduction of hip-hop and rap to mainstream America had Rench looking beyond instruments to the production aspect of this new music he loved so much.

“When I was in high school, I saved up money to get a sampler and started making some beats,” he fondly recalls.

With bands like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys showing that it was possible to bridge the gap between rap and the rest of the music world, Rench had set his sights on a similar goal. Some may feel the divide between the stereotypically “hillbilly” music of Appalachia and the controversial music of the streets is just too deep to ever successfully combine the two. But for the members of Gangstagrass, the combination of bluegrass, country, hip-hop and rap is as natural and American as anything that came before it.

Rench explains the very beginnings of bluegrass were influenced by black culture in the United States. In fact, he goes further by saying that really all music genres in this country are intertwined and influenced by each other. But in the case of bluegrass music, the African roots are much more apparent.

The banjo, now synonymous with bluegrass, was based on instruments brought to the New World by African slaves. Often making the stringed instruments out of whatever they could find, African slaves in the Caribbean were commonly fashioning banjos out of gourds throughout the 1600’s – with written references of the instrument in North America by the next century.

“[We] want to really put it out there and keep amplifying the discussion about how we’ve been fooled by the way music is marketed. That we forget how much interconnectedness there is,” Rench explains. “If we’re talking American Southern music, it was all coming from the same thing, it was all intermingled until people started recording it and trying to figure out how to market it, to put different labels on it. Up to that point, Southern music was Southern music.”

Due to Jim Crow laws in the south, “race records” were targeted towards African American communities, while similar music with the same roots would be marketed to white audiences.

“It wasn’t until labels started to say: ‘We’re going to market these guys that are black as race music, and these guys that are white as hillbilly music, even though they all play together, and have the same influences and copy each other’s songs,’” Rench says. “As that went on for decades, [people started] to think that now this kind of music is black music, and this kind of music is white music, thinking that these genres aren’t really tied at the hip originally.”

Because of the very history of music itself in the United States, Gangstagrass is the natural progression of black music reclaiming its rightful place in history. As black music culture was seemingly segregated from the music community, rap was created in the subsequent vacuum as artists sought to reclaim their identity. By reuniting America’s musical roots with the sounds of black culture today, Rench says the band has brought music in this country full circle.

Songs like Old Town Road by Lil Nas X may have found great commercial success by combining cowboy and urban culture, but he was far from the first to do so. Even today they stand as some of the only ones to successfully as well as authentically combine the two.

In 2007, Rench would record the sounds of bluegrass and hip-hop together for the first time with the mixtape, Rench Presents: Gangstagrass. Releasing it for free online, he was blown away with the reception it got from music fans. With hundreds of thousands of downloads, he knew he was on to something special. It wasn’t long before he found other musicians to join him and take the act on the road. With some lineup changes and various guests over the years, they would earn an Emmy nomination in 2010 for best theme song with Long Hard Times to Come on FX’s Justified.

The band released their most recent album, Pocket Full of Fire: Gangstagrass Live in February, the record showcasing the band’s unique style and knack for improvisation.

Over recent years, the lineup has solidified with Rench leading the group on vocals, guitar and beats, Brian Farrow on fiddle and Dan Whitener on banjo. With the hip-hop side filled out by R-Son The Voice of Reason and Dolio The Sleuth, the band is forever looking to push the musical envelope. But don’t be fooled, Gangstagrass isn’t split down the middle. On the contrary, when they get together, they form the perfect symbiosis of both sides of American music.

No one knows this better than R-Son, who’s been working with Rench and Gangstagrass for nearly a decade.

Just two weeks before the MC was born in 1973, the first Hip-Hop show was performed. As a result, he’s watched the genre grow much as he did, creating a unique bond with the music which would last his entire life.

R-Son explains that much like Rench, he had his feet in two musical worlds growing up. While he was listening to Run-DMC growing up, the next minute he would be listening to Steely Dan thanks to his father. Although he wrote his first rhymes in the first grade, it wasn’t until he went to Penn State where he found new inspiration from the likes of The Roots and KRS-One.

Hailing from what he calls an “extraordinarily middle-class background” and a family of cops, he had no interest in writing about a life of crime so dissimilar to his own experience. Rather, he had decided he would focus on making a positive change in the world through music.

“What really got me was the lyricism, and the way guys were just putting together stories and building content,” he says. “I wanted to be able to affect lives with a song, the way cats had affected mine. As opposed to just a party song or whatever, I wanted to tell a story or say something that cats really could get into.”

As he continued digging, he would eventually find the roots of black music tightly entwined with music in this country as a whole. Bluegrass and rap might sound different on the surface, he says, but as you look closer, you realize both genres represent the music of the people. Accessible to everybody, they serve to give a voice to the voiceless.

R-Son would go on to earn 2 degrees in Criminal Justice before devoting himself to his art. When asked to join Rench on the road, he quickly checked out their music before joining them on their way to North Carolina. Even though he had never met the other members before then, he knew immediately they were on to something special from the moment he first took the stage with them nine years ago.

“The funny thing about doing it and mixing it with bluegrass, is how much the genres – on a lot of levels – are alike. There’s a great deal of storytelling in the outlaw narrative,” says R-Son.

Pointing to the old country songs that tell true crime stories of murder and robbery much like rap does today, he points to a particular subsection of bluegrass music known as murder ballads, which told the stories of killing and despair so many decades ago.

“You know we have this idea where people are like ‘hip-hop is too violent, blah, blah, blah.’ Well, no. There’s a whole section of bluegrass music that exists about people killing people! It’s nothing new. For whatever reason, it became new and dangerous because urban youth were talking about it.”

What keeps Gangstagrass fresh and exciting for the musicians is built into the music itself. While bluegrass artists play improvisational jams called “picks,” a “cypher” in hip-hop is a group of performers getting into a circle with beatboxers, break-dancers and free stylists improvising on the spot. More than anything, they both thrive on spontaneity, as evidenced by the MCs’ freestyling skills and the bands picking during their live shows.

The group’s goal is to bring people from all walks of life together for a good time – and an experience unlike anything they’ve seen before. As they travel from place to place, R-Son says he’s constantly amazed at the wide variety of people coming out for their shows.

“I had a man tell me once, and this is a direct quote: ‘I never met a colored boy before, and I did not expect to love your music the way I love it.’ And that just blew my mind, I was like cool, nailed it! For them to recognize at the end of the day, dopeness is dopeness. It doesn’t matter who it’s coming from, [it] exists in lots of different forms,” he says. “It might not cure racism, but it definitely will allow people to sort of open up to things they never encountered before.”

Whether you come out because of a love for bluegrass and country or a love of hip-hop, once the music grabs you it doesn’t let go.

“The MCs are dope, the music is dope, and that’s what it’s going to be. And hopefully, whatever part touches you, the entirety of it will help you understand that at the end of the day we’re way more alike than we are different. Most of the things in our lives are pretty similar, and together we can work out a lot.”

Gangstagrass will be performing at Retro Live on Thursday, Jan. 9 at 8 pm. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door and can be purchased at plattsburghbluesandjazz.com.

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