Banjos blaze and lyrics flow in the newest album from Brooklyn-based band, Gangstagrass. Interview and article by Neil Ferguson.
In the age of mashups, bluegrass and hip-hop may be the last two genres you can imagine someone fusing together. Yet, if you’re a fan of either type of music, when you hear Gangstagrass your initial reaction will most likely be, “Holy shit! That works!” At least that was my reaction when I heard this Brooklyn-based group perform during SXSW this year, and after picking up a copy of their 2010 debut album, Lightning on the Strings: Thunder on the Mic, I’ve been obsessed ever since.
Listen to a track from Lightning on the Strings: Thunder on the Mic:
That being said, you don’t have to be a die-hard fan of bluegrass or hip-hop to get in to Gangstagrass. The music is a skillfully crafted blend of beats, quality instrumentals, and flowing lyrical hip-hop, resulting in a sound that’s freshly inventive while embracing each respective genre. I recently chatted with Rench, the Brooklyn-based producer, band leader, and self-proclaimed “mastermind” behind Gangstagrass. As the “chef who’s bringing all of the ingredients in,” Rench handles the production from start to finish. We talked about how the project came about, and the band’s most recent album, Rappalachia, which features guest spots from hip-hop heavyweights such as Dead Prez and Kool Keith, among others.
What inspired you to bring hip-hop and bluegrass together?
The idea of mixing the country and hip-hop stuff has been with me for a long time. I grew up in Southern California in the early 80’s and it was all about hip-hop where I was going to school. We would take the cardboard out during recess to throw down and do our backspins while listening to a lot of Run DMC. My dad is from Oklahoma, so when I got home from school there would be Willie Nelson, George Jones, and a lot of honky tonk stuff on the stereo. So [hip-hop and country] became two of the big influences on me when I started producing music and doing production for hip-hop artists. With those two backgrounds as big influences, I kept having ideas like, ‘what if I sampled a pedal steel loop on this song,’ and it just kind of grew in to blending [both genres] a lot. For a long time I was focused on honky tonk stuff, and I had sort of a honky tonk hip-hop band.
How did Gangstagrass come about?
At some point I was listening to a lot of bluegrass, and I could hear really clearly how [fusing hip-hop and bluegrass] could be done, because with bluegrass you generally don’t have any drums, which leaves it open to adding them in. Bluegrass is really tight and rhythmic, and that lends itself to having beats go with it. I was listening a lot to some particular Ralph Stanley recordings from the 70’s, when he was playing with the Clinch Mountain Boys, a real tight group, and I was imagining kind of taking that [music] and remixing it. I played around with that some, and did some recordings where I was just sampling bluegrass. It started getting some real good word of mouth, so I decided to bring in some real players to record it.
Does the band consist of a regular lineup of musicians?
There are certain people we have played with a lot, but it usually changes. We’ve been working with a lot of really good players. The bluegrass players for the project have to be top notch because it’s gotta be real bluegrass, not some watered down stuff. It’s usually people who are often going out on tours and playing with big acts, so we can’t really lock anyone down. At some point we’ll find some musicians to bring in [more regularly], but for right now I find out who’s available and bring them in.
The production and sound of Rappalachia seem fairly complex. How does each element fall in to place for it all to work?
For Rappalachia it was very much the idea to have different processes and not stick with the same one so that we could explore different sounds to give it some variety. There were some songs where I brought the bluegrass players in to the studio and said, ‘just have a bluegrass jam and pick away, and we’ll do a bunch of stuff with you guys just doing what you do as a bluegrass band.’ I would take those recordings and find the parts that worked best to put beats around. We sometimes used the hip-hop vocal and beat, and built music around that. So we came from both directions, and some songs are heavier on having the full bluegrass chord progression with lots of organic playing going throughout, while other songs have more of a loop feeling to them, where I’m looping just a few notes of the fiddle and banjo to get more of that heavily looped and sampled hip-hop kind of feel.
It seems like many of the hip hop artists you feature play in to the bluegrass/country mentality, in a lyrical sense. Were there similarities between bluegrass and hip-hop that you felt made them a good musical match?
Yes, and sometimes the rappers do [play in to that mentality], but it’s not because they’re trying to talk about the fact that the song is bluegrass or country – which does happen. I try to discourage that actually, and try to tell rappers when we are doing a session, ‘don’t try to talk about being country. Just write exactly what you would usually write and be your hip-hop self.’ You have a lot of the outlaw music about ramblers and riders, and the stickup kids and guys shooting and holding people up. People being poor, struggling, and heartache. Hip-hop was music of the streets and country was music of the hills, but it was rooted in these communities that were making music to express the struggles of their daily lives, which has a lot of overlap. You also have the lyrical overlap of the gangster thing, and the shooting and gunslingers. It’s funny because we do get some reaction from bluegrass fans that think the rap lyrics will make the music too violent or dark, which to me is selective memory. If you look at some of the old timey folk, bluegrass, and traditional Appalachian music, [there are lyrics] about strangling women, killing people, and much darker stuff within the bluegrass tradition. So I’m not worried about hip-hop being the one to bring the violence to it.
Your new album features cameos from legendary hip hop artists like Dead Prez and Kool Keith. How did you go about bringing acts like them on board?
When we started working on the album I made a short list of rappers that I thought it would be cool to collaborate with, based on what I like to listen to. We reached out, and [Dead Prez] and [Kool Keith] were two of the rappers that got back to us, which was exciting because I’ve been listening to some of that stuff forever, and it’s been a major influence on me. It’s funny that those two ended up being guests on the album because they’re both on such different ends of the hip-hop spectrum. Kool Keith is so whacky and zany and out there, and Dead Prez are so angered, serious, and political. I definitely told them not to hold back, and they sure didn’t! They probably decided, ‘let’s go all the way on this and see if he likes what we put out.’
Do you see the music as being more appealing to hip-hop fans or bluegrass fans?
The music gets different reactions from the extremes of those communities who don’t fully get it, but a lot of people who have eclectic tastes really like it. These are people who already have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on their iPod playlist together, so this isn’t something so crazy for them. It just happens to all be in the same song. We are seeing that we have a broad appeal across fan types, ages, and demographics. On the other hand, there’re people out there who, if you add drums to bluegrass, you’re already committing sacrilege against it, so putting rapping on it is completely out of the question. On the hip-hop side, for some hardcore hip-hop heads, it’s not such a strong reaction, and they don’t really know what to make of it.
Listen to a track from Rappalachia:
For more on Gangstagrass, and to check out there new album, visit: www.gangstagrass.com/