If you’ve watched an episode of the Fox drama, Justified, then you’ve heard the unique mash-up of hip hop and bluegrass that is Gangstagrass. The Brooklyn-based, genre-bending band will be at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory 8:30 p.m. Friday, August 10, as part of the venue’s Botanical Roots concert series. They perform the television show’s theme, “Long Hard Times to Come,” which earned them a 2010 Emmy nomination in the category of Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music.
Elmore Leonard himself, the much-celebrated writer behind Justified and other hard-boiled hits including Get Shorty and Out of Sight, hand-picked Gangstagrass for the show’s theme because he was a fan both of their talent and their ambition.
“Rench and his friends have done nothing short of creating a new form of music,” said Leonard about the band’s producer and guitarist who goes simply by Rench. “Gangstagrass takes two types of music that are opposites and mixes them together brilliantly in a way that is natural and enjoyable.”
Eight years later, and the men and women of Gangstagrass are still breaking the rules and gaining new fans, gig by gig and city by city.
“Anytime people hear of what we’re doing, they assume it’s going to be terrible,” Rench said from his home base in Brooklyn. “They can’t believe that a pairing of bluegrass and hip hop could be anything but really, really bad. Then they hear us, and they’re converted. Our sound is something you have to see and hear to believe.”
That’s because both bluegrass and hip hop are so improvisational. The live shows give the band — Rench on guitar, Dan Whitener on banjo, Landry McMeans on Dobro, and Dolio the Sleuth and R-Son the Voice of Reason on vocals — a chance to take their music into new territory. No single performance is like another and each show is very different from the group’s studio albums as well.
“You never really know what’s going to happen at a Gangstagrass show,” Rench said. “Even fans who’ve listened to our albums will be surprised, because seeing us live is a different animal than hearing our recordings. We have the kind of chemistry that allows us to take a melody and move into a bit of freestyle and then maybe throw it to the banjo for a solo. It’s like a long, winding, rocking conversation.”
Gangstagrass came together in 2006 when Rench, a native of Santa Barbara, California, and a long-time lover of bluegrass and hip hop, got the idea to bring his two favorite musical styles together. Rench grew up living a sort of musical dual life. Thanks to his dad, a native of Oklahoma, Rench listened to honky-tonk at home and hip hop at school with his friends. It eventually occurred to Rench that the two genres aren’t really as different as most listeners might think.
“Both bluegrass and hip hop are essentially American music forms,” he said. “They’re a result of gospel and blues and jazz all coming together and morphing into something modern and contemporary, and so putting them together actually makes a lot of sense.
“And there’s the fact that, in both styles, the musicians love to jam and create new tunes together, to engage in a sort of call-and-response,” Rench continued. “Bluegrass musicians get together and jam, right? It doesn’t matter if they know each other. They have a shared knowledge of the songbook and so they can sit down together in someone’s kitchen or living room and play for hours. With hip hop, it’s people on street corners gathering and beatboxing, freestyling, bouncing ideas of each other. Bluegrass and hip hop have a lot in common, and I think people see that when they come to one of our concerts.”
The members of Gangstagrass have a unique approach to songwriting. Tunes usually start with Rench, the band’s mastermind. He comes up with a hook or an idea and hands it off to the MC, who then writes his own rhymes. Then the real magic happens. The words give rise to the music, or vice versa. The Gangstagrass sound is a rich, bluesy blend of spoken word and twang.
It has been dubbed by Rolling Stone “wildly ambitious” and “the best argument yet for a rap and country music marriage.” Rench said he thinks fans respond to the group’s realness, its authenticity, which is something listeners often can’t find on the radio, regardless of whether they’re tuning in to the local country or hip hop station.
“A lot of hip hop fans think country’s awful, right? But they’re talking about new, popular country,” Rench said. “Most of them actually love Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn, though. They love the old-school honky-tonk legends. And the same goes for hip hop. Country fans might say it’s unlistenable, but then you mention Tribe Called Quest or Outkast and they admit they love that stuff. That’s what we do — we combine the best of both of those incredible worlds.”
When Rench first got the idea for Gangstagrass, he was working as a producer in New York City. Rhinestones and Dobros might not be the first things that come to mind when you think of the mean streets of the five boroughs, but in his free time, Rench often ran country music nights at New York bars, discovering that the Big Apple is home to a large, passionate bluegrass community.
“In a city of eight million people, you’re bound to find your people,” he said. “You just have to know where to look.”
Gangstagrass have put out five studio albums: 2007’s Rench Presents: Gangstagrass, 2010’s Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic, 2012’s Rappalachia, 2014’s Broken Hearts and Stolen Money, and 2015’s American Music. The band’s first live album will drop in early 2019.
“We’re really excited about the live album,” Rench said. “Anyone who’s curious about what we sound like in real time will want to pick it up. They’ll also want to come out and see us in person, too. That’s when they’ll get the true Gangstagrass experience, up close and personal.”