Although fiddle players bumping elbows with MC’s might seem unusual, the collaboration is what hip-hop bluegrass band Gangstagrass is working with.
Rench, the band’s singer, guitarist, producer and overall mastermind, brought his band’s music to the Level Room on Market Street last Saturday night, Feb. 11. The crowd ranged from 20-somethings to the middle-aged. Regardless of age, people were bobbing their heads to the banjo riffs layered on top of pulsing beats. Joining Rench at the Level Room were rappers R-Son and Dolio the Sleuth. The pair met at Penn State and is familiar with the Philadelphia music scene.
Originally from California, Rench has called Brooklyn, N.Y. home for the past 15 years. Although surprising to some, he said he thrives on New York’s vibrant country scene where he meets musicians to collaborate with.
The video for “Gunslinging Rambler,” the newest song from Gangstagrass, premiered on Feb. 7, and their upcoming album “Rappalachia,” will be released in May. Rappers Cool Keith and Dead Prez will be featured on the album. And although the band has had some recent success, Rench asserted that Gangstagrass is still a grassroots operation. The band is still run out of Rench’s basement and primarily plays small clubs and venues.
The Temple News: Where are you from?
Rench: I’m originally from California. My dad is from Oklahoma, so he played a lot of country music around the house. But I grew up in Southern California, and there was a lot of hip-hop going on in the ‘80s. In third grade, we’d take the cardboard out at recess and breakdance on it. And then I’d go home, and there’d be Willie Nelson on the stereo.
TTN: Do you remember the first time that you thought of combining these two genres?
R: It was a little bit gradual, really – there wasn’t one particular moment. With me, it started with saying, “Let me sample some country sounds and add them to this hip-hop production.” So I’d go through old country records and find like a pedal steel guitar lick or something and sample it and put it in there. But in the process of listening to those old country records I was falling more and more in love with the whole country song and the whole sound. And before I knew it, I was writing country songs to put the beats to and bringing in musicians instead of sampling stuff.
TTN: Do people ever look at you like you’re crazy when you explain your music genre to them?
R: Yes. It’s actually a challenge for me promotion wise because a lot of people, if you describe it in words, they think it’s going to be really bad. It turns people off a lot to say this is bluegrass and hip-hop. But a lot of people that don’t necessarily like bluegrass or hip-hop but when they hear what we’re doing, they like it.
TTN: The genres definitely seem like polar opposites, but are there any similarities you see between the two of them?
R: Absolutely. They both have cultural roots in poor communities, and songs of struggle, and describing life on the streets and stuff. But really, American music has always had a lot of common things. It’s always been about this intermingling of cultures into people’s lives on the streets. The banjo came from Africa. Country music itself is the combining of gospel and blues and European folk songs and traditions that all got combined into a new thing. Hip-hop is about sampling different things. That’s the whole history of American music – people pulling these things that seem different but can easily come together in the same kind of style.
TTN: So when you guys are making music, Rench presents you the bluegrass part first and then you guys scratch on top of it?
R-Son: Yeah. We just got a bunch of new tracks a couple weeks ago. We actually just recorded one. It’s different – it’s a lot different to what I’m used to just as a sound. At the end of the day, it’s beats and some fresh melodies and rhymes. It all just kinds of comes together. My man Fox over here on the dobro, he just kills it.
Dolio the Sleuth: These fellas, they get down. Hearing them go at it, it’s not that different than hip-hop.
RS: It’s like, watching him on the dobro is like watching somebody on the tables.
TTN: If you could see one hip-hop artist collaborate with one country/blue grass artist, who would it be?
R: If it was live, I would really like to see OutKast do a collaboration, maybe with George Jones. I think OutKast does really amazing things in terms of taking hip-hop and moving it in unexpected directions and doing really creative things with it. I also think it would be great to see Missy Elliot do something with a country singer because she’s also really good at doing really cool things with her production.
Gram Parsons is also a big influence on me. He was really a genre-breaker in terms of bringing county and rock and soul music together. I feel like if he was alive he would be really tapped into hip-hop as well, and I would really love to see what he would have done if he was around.
RS: I’m going to go classic Kenny Rogers and Too Short. Some gambling pimp stuff.
DTS: You know what’s funny? I was going to say Kenny Rogers and Bun B.
RS: “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Charlie Daniels band Wu-Tang [collaboration]. I’m all about that. You know – “the devil went down to Strong Island and he was looking for some mics to steal.”
TTN: Your song “Long Hard Times to Come,” featuring rapper T.O.N.E.-Z, is now the theme song for FX’s “Justified.” How did that come about?
R: It was pretty wild. They actually called me out of the blue. It wasn’t something that I was like in the loop on. From there, it just snowballed. So, it was a pretty exciting ride, and it still is. And every week, it comes on, and people get 30 seconds of Gangstagrass in their ear so we get another wave of people that say, “What was that?”
TTN: Did you watch the premiere to hear your song?
R: Oh yeah, I watched it. I heard myself on the TV and jumped up, and did a little victory lap around the living room.
Jenelle Janci can be reached at email@example.com.