Gangstagrass is Good 'Ole Southern Hick Hop
Marrying beats, banjos, and bars, this Brooklyn act is pioneering "bang and twang."
Musicians love to conflate two genres and forge them into something new, but a genre-busting Brooklynite named Rench has taken the mash-up idea to the extreme. With his band Gangstagrass, Rench infuses Kentucky-entrenched bluegrass and layers it with hip-hop beats and rap verses to form a style that's been called "rap 'n' grass," "hick hop," and "bang and twang."
Growing up in SoCal, Rench's dad introduced him to Willie Nelson and George Jones. Then, when Rench got older, he started listening to Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. He took those influences to his home in Brooklyn and started tinkering with a new sound. In 2010, the producers of the show Justified tapped Rench and rapper T.O.N.E-z to write the show's theme song, "Long Hard Times to Come," and the song was so good it garnered them an Emmy nomination. Rench used that opportunity to release the first Gangstagrass record, Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic, and followed that up with last year's aptly named Rappalachia, featuring the essential bluegrass instruments of dobra, guitar, fiddle, and banjo. Hip hop legends like Kool Keith and Dead Prez appeared on a couple of tracks.
I phoned up the mastermind at his home in Brooklyn, where he was taking a respite from touring and spending time with his son. Rench spoke about the polarizing genre he created, how Justified became a palatable gateway to the band, and why his future may entail jetpacks.
Noisey: How's the tour been going?
Rench: Pretty good. We've had a lot of amazing shows happen. It's really a wide variety between amazing shows and shows where we're still developing our base, so we're going out there to cities that we've never been before and sometimes a few people show up and sometimes the place is packed. So, we're sort of out there in the Wild West finding our fans in some places and not [in] others and working our way into having fans everywhere.
How does the audience react to your shows? Do they get really into it?
They definitely get really into it. Our shows are not built so much as concerts as they are built as parties. We do a lot of interactive stuff and we really get a vibe going with the crowd. Hip hop and bluegrass are both very improvisational music, so we have a lot of spontaneity onstage for us to just like throw people at solos and just have them change the structure of a song, or where we're taking more solos or we're cutting into different things. The rappers start freestyling sometimes and they're rapping about things like people in the crowd or things that are happening that night or the city that we're in, and people definitely respond really well to that. Sometimes the rappers are jumping into the crowd and jumping around with people. So we definitely make it more than just us kind of standing there playing.
Because you play bluegrass, do people assume you're from Kentucky?
It's a real mix. One of the great things about going on tour with a band is we can go to different cities and have such different crowds on different nights. Whereas in Philly we have real a hip-hop crowd, we'll go play in Kentucky and have more of a country crowd.
I really like the name Gangstagrass.
It's a name some people love and some people hate. It came to me as soon as I decided to do the project. It was about 2006 and I'd been doing my honky-tonk/hip hop solo project as Rench for a while, and at the time I was really getting into bluegrass and listening to old bluegrass from the '70s a lot—some albums from Ralph Stanley and Clinch Mountain Boys. And I was listening to these bluegrass albums thinking, "This could just so easily have a beat to it and have somebody rapping to it," because bluegrass can be so rhythmic and so tight but there's generally no drummer in bluegrass, so that was wide-open to put beats into it. My initial experiment with bluegrass was to go into the studio sampling bluegrass and put it to beats and grab some hip hop acappella and put those over them. As soon as I was thinking about putting the bluegrass with beats and rapping, the name Gangstagrass just came right to my mind. It was a no-brainer. People also love and hate the last album name, Rappalachia—depending on whether you think it's corny or awesome.
I think it's awesome.
I'm very serious about this project not being a novelty and taking both kinds of music and fulfilling the best of both worlds. We're not taking ourselves too seriously as a band. We have a lot of fun and we're able to joke around about it a lot, too. So an album called Rappalachia might be silly, but that's fine by me.
Are you working on a new album now?
We are. [We're] definitely right in the middle of it. We've got a lot of tracks in the works and nothing in the final mix stages. But we've recorded a lot of it and it's going to be pretty cool. I'm definitely looking at this album as a chance to keep diversifying the sound and exploring and pushing the boundaries further and not keep it locked in too tightly to exactly the same formula. I'd like to see about where we go in terms of new sounds and things that come out of it from mixing bluegrass and hip hop that aren't just bluegrass and hip hop anymore. There's a big part of this that feels like something new is coming out of it—that you take elements of these two things and in the process of bringing together these influences, we're kind of discovering new things. I don't want to feel like we're stuck in having to exactly combine these two things and have it just sound like bluegrass and hip hop, but also to bring them together. And when new sounds start coming out, explore where that goes.
When you approach a song, which comes first—the bluegrass or the rap element?
I like to go from both directions because that brings out different ways the song comes out. You can probably even tell if you listen closely. There are songs that are more based on the bluegrass players sort of playing through a whole song and then adding beats and rappers on top of that. And other songs that are more based on the rap and the beat, and the bluegrass part is more sampled and looped to be produced in a more of a hip hop kind of way. Sometimes, I'm starting off with a particular verse that I've heard from a rapper and say, "Do something like that," and I'm making that beat and we'll have the bluegrass guys come and play around and I'll sample from that and make loops and fit it onto there. Other times, I have the bluegrass guys come into the studio and I say, "Jam around like you would with a bluegrass band." And then I take that bluegrass stuff and I use that as the basis to build a beat around it and send it to rapper to write some verses on.
How do you find the collaborators you work with?
I don't really do a lot of searching, because I have so many musical collaborators and friends already. Gangstagrass has always been about working with a lot of local MCs that I know already. The same with the bluegrass players. I've been going to country shows in Brooklyn for a decade now, and a lot of people are surprised to find out that there's a country scene in Brooklyn. When you got more than 8 million people in New York City, it might be a tiny, tiny percentage of them that do country music, but that's still going to be more people than a lot of cities have. Once you find that needle in the haystack, there's a whole bluegrass scene, a whole honky-tonk scene, and a lot of different country music that's going on in Brooklyn once you know where to look. I've been going to the shows and I've made a lot of friends there—different players who play in all kinds of different bands here. Sometimes, I use them or they refer me to other people.
Do you know of any other bands that blend bluegrass and hip hop?
There are, and we've come across them here and there, but I definitely don't feel like we've found real people doing it the same as we do it. I think we're in a class by ourselves right now. I would love to hear more people doing it and for there to be more of a movement of this, but right now, it definitely feels like we're out there on our own pioneering this sound. A lot of times, when I hear people talk about "Oh, did you hear about this one thing people did with bluegrass and hip-hop?" I'll get kind of excited and I'll go look it up and be pretty disappointed when I actually hear it.
People don't take much time to work on really bringing out the best in both worlds and to really authentically play both sides of it. You might hear somebody where they're just looping Deliverance's "Dueling Banjos" thing over a real basic 808 beat, or the rapping might be really bad. There was a review of us that said, "It's like a drink that you might not think would taste good, but with the right bartender who mixes it well, it does." So there's a lot of bad bartenders out there who don't have the same touch with the mix, and so what I'm really on the lookout for is not just people that are doing it, but people who are doing it really sincerely with actual bluegrass players and with actual rappers and not just doing it as a novelty or gimmick, and they're not just doing it with people who might understand the bluegrass and not the hip hop and vice versa. I think it's really important to bring both of those fully authentically into the mix and have somebody working on those who really love both musics.
Historically, is there a connection between bluegrass and hip hop?
There's a lot of common ground that we find when we bring people together. Both of them are very tied into working class cultures and are about the struggles and the trials and tribulation and the heartaches and the outlaws and the money and the tales of struggles, and they come out of communities with a rich culture. So these are musics that are not just about the notes you are playing, but are tied into cultural things and dances and dress and different kinds of art and stuff. There's such a big crossover in terms of the way that the music plays into culture as well as certain traditions that they both have in common. Aside from the narratives about outlaws and struggle and stuff, there's also techniques—like how they are both improvisatory, and the improvisation coming from the bluegrass side and coming from a hip-hop side overlap really nice.
Are you trying to differentiate yourself from primarily being known for the Justified theme song?
I don't worry about that too much, although I definitely envision it not being the only thing that we're known for. I think that we're slowly and surely working toward having a reputation of our own. But I certainly don't mind being associated with the show. I think it's a very cool show and the exposure that it has brought us has been great. It's really the perfect kind of exposure for Gangstagrass to be on TV like that because one of the hurdles that we face—kind of a roadblock for us promotion-wise—is that if you tell people with words that it's bluegrass/hip hop and they imagine in their minds what they think bluegrass and hip hop would sound like together, it's bad. And people will say, "I'm not going to like this, I don't want to hear it," because they're imagining in their minds some bad way that it can be done. And so with something like the Justified theme song, people are watching TV and they hear 30 seconds of Gangstagrass in their ear and they say, "Whoa, this is really cool."
Tell me about this contest you're doing with "Rappalachia 6."
This is going to be really cool. On the last album, Rappalachia, there are a couple of instrumentals, and one of them is called "Rappalachia 6." It's a fast bluegrass number without a big beat. What we want to do is put this up for free download so anybody can get the track, and we are inviting anyone and everyone to rap to it, to see how well they can come up with a way to rap over this bluegrass groove that's going on. It's a challenge out there to see how you can do with this and join us in figuring out how these two things go together… The one that we like the most—that we think somebody's really hit the nail on the head in terms of really rapping over this fast bluegrass—we'll put that on our website as the official rap over "Rappalachia 6."
Go here to find out more about the contest.
What are some long-term goals for the band?
There's a lot of things I would like see for the future, because I believe there's so many possibilities once you're talking about the future. I would definitely like to see us with jetpacks sometime in the future and do our tours that way, where we jetpack in and play floating above the audience with our jetpacks, which include flying sharks. We would definitely like to do a lot underwater shows—a lot of the bottom of the ocean is unexplored, so who knows how many fans are down there. I foresee some real submarine trips down to do shows on the ocean floor, as well. The possibilities are wide-open for the future.
Realistically? I think probably we will use some sort of biotechnology, genetic engineering to mutate ourselves and give us some extra abilities: maybe some extra limbs to play more instruments and have more going on during the songs and also maybe give us the power to jump really high or do some sort of special acrobatics. I think that would really enhance a lot of the things that we're doing. And X-ray vision will be very helpful for us.