Cooking Up a Musical Stew
June 1, 2017
When you think of bluegrass music, "Brooklyn" and "rap" don't immediately spring to mind. But the more you think about what drives the venerable acoustic-based music form (most notably its driving rhythms and impactful style), the more you realize how it might be possible that hip-hop and bluegrass could not only complement each other, but actually meld together.
Brooklyn-based guitarist/producer/writer/performer Rench could be called a visionary in that regard. He grew up in a household brimming with country and bluegrass music, but developed a penchant for the cutting-edge hip-hop that would eventually find its way into every corner of the culture.
The fully realized Gangstagrass represent the culmination of Rench's efforts to meld his influences into one project, and the results are nothing short of revelatory. Turns out these two musical forms make one fine stew. And chances are that you've heard Gangstagrass, even if you don't know it; their blend of beats, banjos, fiddles, dobros and MCs is front and center in the song "Long Hard Times to Come," which just so happens to be the opening theme to the FX network's hit show Justified. You can experience Gangstagrass live when they appear August 10 at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory.
"There are a lot more people out there with Jay-Z and Johnny Cash on their iPod playlists than you think," says Rench. In a conversation with Performer magazine, Rench pointed out that his upbringing and his influences pointed him toward what would become Gangstagrass, not any particular lightbulb moment. "I grew up in Southern California in the 1980s, and so in grade school it was all about putting down some cardboard during recess to do your back spins to Run D.M.C. and your breakdancing."
Rench recalled that he listened to "a lot of hip-hop growing up." But, he added, "My dad is from Oklahoma, so when I got home from school, there was a lot of honky-tonk on the stereo."
That George Jones could sit comfortably next to Public Enemy in the shuffle queue is no big shakes today, where genres bleed into one another and listeners gravitate toward individual songs rather than whole albums. But this wasn't always so -- and Rench harnessed his disparate influences the old-fashioned way: by soaking them in all his life and possessing the chops and open-mindedness to synthesize them.
He also became enough of a student of the music that he recognized the true roots. He pointed out that early country artists such as Jimmie Rodgers were heavily influenced by black gospel and blues singers as well as by the folk music traditions the European settlers brought to the South and mid-South.
"There's always been a kind of crossing of genres," he said, adding that rock n' roll came from black music as played and reinterpreted by white performers. "We end up with this idea that there's black music and there's white music and people making it with that in mind," Rench says, "but Gangstagrass [are] here to say it's not so cut and dry. There's common ground and things can blend together."
Though country music rose from multicultural roots, the genre (bluegrass in particular) has its purists. When asked if he encountered backlash from the purist element, Rench referred to "a small slice of purists that have strong reactions," but emphasized that Gangstagrass enjoy far more support from bluegrass fans than negative feedback. He added that there are purist factions among hip-hop fans as well, but their reactions are more along the "shrug" variety. "They just sort of say, 'I don't know what this is.'"
Rench said he came to this point in his career as a result of being a producer in Brooklyn, where musical cross-pollination isn't an uncommon occurrence. By the time he put the pieces together and shared "Rench Presents: Gangstagrass" for free on the Internet, it became obvious that his outlook on musical integration was shared by far more listeners and artists than the industry or hardcore adherents might want to concede. It helped that his particular approach made the blend feel seamless; it's not simply hip-hop vocals layered over rustic instruments. The music meshes beats with bluegrass cadences, MCs in sync with whole compositions. The initial Gangstagrass offering garnered instant attention, including a call from the FX network.
Based on an Elmore Leonard story, FX's Justified presented a gritty crime drama set in Kentucky. The network found that Rench's Gangstagrass vibe dovetailed with that of the show, and they commissioned Rench to write the theme song. He enlisted a team of expert bluegrass players as well as T.O.N.E-z, younger brother of hip-hop legends Special K and T-LaRoc. The TV show hit big and ran for six seasons, and the theme song generated plenty of interest in the nascent Gangstagrass. Plaudits poured in from Leonard himself, and major media outlets began to take notice of the distinctive musical cocktail they were hearing. Ultimately, "Long Hard Times to Come" earned an Emmy nomination.
Given this jump start, Rench and crew set upon producing Gangstagrass' first proper release, the song "I'm Gonna Put You Down." The History Channel promptly appropriated it for its Appalachian Outlaws TV program. Rench considered the strong television exposure during a conversation with Noisey Music.
"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," he said. "And people will say, 'I'm not going to like this, I don't want to hear it,' because they'reimagining 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.'"
On the heels of that second lightning strike, Rench brought several luminaries onboard for the recording of the 2012 full length, Rappalachia. MCs involved in the project included Kook Keith, Dead Prez and two voices that would become mainstays in the Gangstagrass touring band: R-SON The Voice of Reason and Dolio The Sleuth. Rappalachia was released to widespread acclaim. Two years later, Broken Hearts and Stolen Money was released. The album featured Smif-N-Wesson and Liquid, and it too made waves in the industry. By this point a nationally touring unit as well as a recording juggernaut (in addition to Rench's myriad other projects), Gangstagrass put out American Music in 2015. The album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts, and the song "Speak a Little Louder" appeared on ESPN.
The project continues to evolve and grow, having become renowned as much for incendiary live shows ("Our shows are not built so much as concerts as they are built as parties," Rench has been known to say) as for its studio output.
Bottom line? Expect more than just an entertaining show when you see Gangstagrass live; expect to hear that past and the cutting-edge present of music coming at you at the same time - and sounding just right.
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