At The Crossroads of Country and Hip-Hop
Brooklyn-born Gangstagrass blurs the lines of tradition
Born from a mash-up of studio experiments, Gangstagrass is a clever melding of bluegrass and hip-hop. A crafty Brooklyn-based producer-musician, known solely as "Rench," has taken the best elements of both genres and blended the sound into a remarkably original presentation.
For well over a decade now, Gangstagrass has built a solid following among fans of both seemingly disparate genres. Initially propelled by their recording of the Emmy-nominated theme to FX's "Justified" series, the band regularly plays a mixture of festivals and theater dates to a rabid fanbase which includes writer Elmore Leonard.
The latest Gangstagrass release is a powerful live album called Pocket Full of Fire, complimenting a solid cache of studio albums including Lightning On The Strings, Thunder On The Mic and 2012's raw and rustic Rappalachia.
INsite caught up with Rench by phone at his studio in New York.
Let's go back to 2006 when it all began. What was the initial concept for the project?
In 2006, I was pretty deep into mixing country and hip hop in different ways but to me it was mostly from a honkytonk perspective. That's a lot of what I grew up with. My dad's from Oklahoma so I grew up with a whole lot of George Jones, Willie Nelson and stuff like that around the house. I was listening to a lot of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and I thought, 'This is just so ripe to mix together with some hip-hop beats.' With bluegrass, traditionally you don't even have drums in it, but the instruments are keeping the rhythm really tight, so I could just hear it happening.
How long did it take to create the first tracks?
I was working on some other stuff but the idea was just an itch that wouldn't seem to go away. I was eager to get into the studio and try it out just as a proof of concept more than anything else. That's when I did the studio experiment. It was more of a studio mash-up at the time. I was actually sampling some old bluegrass records and mixing in some hip-hop. Finally, I called up some MCs that I had worked with said, 'Hey do you mind if I - just for fun - do a mashup of your vocals over some bluegrass?' They had no idea what I was trying to do at first. But they gave me the green light and I put it all up for free downloads on a little website. 'Rench Presents Gangstagrass.' I thought it was just a little concept album on the side.
Were you surprised by the positive reaction it received?
Yeah and over time it started to spread. It started out as just a free download because I didn't know who would actually buy it.
Did you consider playing it live at that point?
I was working on that 'cause blogs were talking about it there was so much downloading going on. It seemed to be taking off and I thought I really should turn it into an actual band. I was talking to some bluegrass players and some MCs and starting to make some plans when I got a phone call.
Was it from a label wanting to pick it up and distribute it?
Actually from out of the blue, it was some people from the FX network. They were looking to license one of the songs. They'd Googled bluegrass and hip-hop and my download came up. The stuff I'd done came out at the top of the list and they said they liked what they'd heard.
That was the beginning of the Justified theme?
At first they wanted it just for the commercial for Justified. Then when the producer saw the commercial he said that's what they wanted for the theme song. Then I got a call asking if I could do another song like it but completely original to use as the theme song. So that led even further into getting exposure from all over the place. So it was more like, 'Just do another one.' I used the original as the template and created the theme along the same lines.
How many people in the current lineup were on those original tracks?
None! There was actually a lot of turnover just trying to find the right people with a combination of having the vision to be into it and to actually go on tour. It took a while for just the right combination so there was a lot of experimentation with lineups.
With each personnel change, did the overall dynamic change as well?
Yeah, but the thing about blending country and hip-hop is there is no set formula to it, there are an infinite number of ways to bring the stuff to life. That's part of the fun of it, letting it evolve and seeing the different ways it can go.
You can't beat the power of TV for instant promotion.
it was the perfect kind of promotion for us because anytime we try to promote this with words and really describe it, people often imagine something really bad. So when something like Justified comes on, there's the song at the beginning of the episode. It describes how we sound better than us trying to tell people about it. They just hear it and say, 'What is that? That's cool, that works.'
So with the TV show offering priceless promo, you began booking out-of-town shows?
We did, starting with some regional shows. Eventually we picked up booking agents and started going around the whole country.
What was the initial reaction on the road?
Since the TV show had exposed a lot of people to it, in any given town is going to have a number of people who are already familiar with it. So we got fans from people spreading the word. And we don't have to worry about people who don't like it coming to the shows because they're not going to come anyway. It's going to be people who are already into the idea and they're along with us on this trip. Usually we are playing to room full of people that are either fans already or brought there by a friend and they're very pleasantly surprised.
Every genre has discriminating fans, but country and hip-hop seem to be especially ripe for snobbery from so-called purists.
We get just a little bit of backlash which is fun for us because it just means we're kinda doing something right. What we find is that with the vast majority of bluegrass fans, the reaction is generally excitement. People are ready for bands to kind of push the boundaries and try new things. Bluegrass itself started by pushing boundaries, bringing together folk instrumentation with traditional blues and gospel. There's always evolution. I think I think the biggest section of our audience are people who already have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on their playlists on shuffle. So when we come along, they're ready for it.
Gangstagrass plays Thursday, May 2 at City Winery. Showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta