Gangstagrass Discusses Mashing Up Bluegrass with Hip-Hop

Instead of writing what we think of the band, we’ll let them introduce themselves in their own words: “Gangstagrass is a dirty fightin’, gator wrestlin’, foot stompin’ bluegrass-hip-hop project of Brooklyn-based producer Rench, who has spent the last decade making gritty, soulful country hip-hop music that you will actually like. Yeah, Gangstagrass did the theme song to Justified. Yeah, Rench and T.O.N.E-z got nominated for an Emmy for it. Yeah, this is real bluegrass pickers and real emcees making music. And yeah, we do it live, too.” Fair enough, now on to the interview… 

Rench, where did you get the idea for this project?

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Well, it’s really just my actual influences, not so much an idea that came to me. 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.  And so I listened to a lot of hip-hop growing up.  But my dad is from Oklahoma, so when I got home from school, there was a lot of honky-tonk on the stereo.

When I became a producer, I started doing beats and stuff for hip-hop tracks, and I was always attracted to using country music samples. And it grew to the point where I was bringing in musicians – fiddle players and steel players and guitar players – to actually do some full-on country/hip-hop hybrid stuff, which I’ve been doing in various forms for about a decade now.  I was also listening to a lot of bluegrass and thinking, “Oh this could really be remixed really easily.”


There are a lot of bands these days that think they’re playing bluegrass, but they’re not.  How do you avoid that and stay true to the genre’s roots?

I’m taking my inspiration from classic bluegrass, and not “newgrass,” where people try to jam it up a lot. I really stick pretty closely with…stuff from Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys and Bill Monroe and a lot of other classic stuff from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.  And to do that, I go to bluegrass musicians.

But then you’re putting it with hip-hop, so how’s it still bluegrass?

Well, that’s where my real role in it comes in, in overseeing and coordinating the integration.  So my official title is Mastermind.  I go about it different ways, which leads to a variety of processes that sound different when they come out.  So I might bring the bluegrass guys in, and I might ask them to do just a traditional bluegrass song that’s public domain and might have them do the kind of picking that they would just do in a jam session and record that and use that as the basis of the sample. I’ll loop pieces of that or edit it together into something that will work with a beat.

Or on the other end, I might have a rapper with a verse I like that I’m kind of going off of a beat for, then I’ll bring in the bluegrass guys to find some licks that would fit in with it.

There’s a certain amount of trial and error, and I’m going through it and making the aesthetic judgments to find the stuff that’s really going to shine through and make it work right.

Where do the original songs come from?

A lot of it is letting the bluegrass guys and rappers do those parts [they’d normally do].  And that’s part of keeping things authentic – to make sure they aren’t watering anything down or changing it. And we find a lot of it where the hip-hop and the country genres share a lot of common archetypes – like the outlaw or the gangster and the hardships and the trials and tribulations – they all fit together quite well.  So one song on the new record that’s called “Gunfight Rambler” is an original, but it’s based on a Jimmie Rodgers song, which I used as an inspiration and came up with new words that were along the same lines.  But really, you could have just taken that Jimmie Rodgers track and put it over a hip-hop song – he’s talking about gats and stickup kids and all this gangster stuff that is so familiar to what you’d hear in a lot of hip-hop songs.

There are a lot of shared themes between the two genres – is that an additional factor that drew you to bring these two things together?

I don’t know if that’s something that draws me to it, but I definitely find as we’re doing it that we’re discovering these common vocabularies.  What really draws me, I’m pretty sure, is just the sound of it. I really love the twangy sound of the country stuff, with the bluesy licks and the slides and the banjos and how they have certain qualities. But at the same time, I really love the heavy, thumping beats.  I’ve grown up after hip-hop was invented, so all my life, there’s been this concept of a heavy beat, heavy bass.  And that really thumping kick and the crisp snare is definitely part of what I like to hear in music. I want to hear both, and in order to do that I’m just making it so I can enjoy it.

What’s the reception been from purists of either genre?

We can talk about some of the strong reactions from purists, but I want to emphasize that that’s a pretty small group within either side.  In general, we get really great reactions from bluegrass fans and country fans and hip-hop fans, as well as a huge group of people out there that are eclectic listeners.  The truth is, there are a lot of people out there who are already listening to everything already.  But there is the small slice of purists that have strong reactions.  Especially on the bluegrass side.

The hip-hop purists have more of just a shrug their shoulders reaction.  They don’t get it, they just sort of say “I don’t know what this is.”  But on the bluegrass side, there’s a strong reaction of it being a crime against nature, because you don’t mess with bluegrass like this.

The history of American music is that every kind of music was made by blending previous influences, and bluegrass itself was made by blending the Appalachian folk traditions and some blues and gospel traditions into a new sound and that’s part of the long tradition of how American music progresses.  But if they want to talk about preserving bluegrass and not having anybody do anything new with it, then that’s going to just be entertaining for me.

This is bringing together black and white people and black and white music.  How does race play into this?

It’s a very interesting aspect of working on this.  I’m a white producer of music in a black neighborhood in Brooklyn.  I mean, here in Brooklyn, that’s not out of place.  But the broader context, to me, is to call attention to the fact that we have this idea that there’s black music and white music.  Because the reality is there’s always been a lot of cross-pollination, at least among the artists and the fans.  But the industry has really maintained this idea of some sort of separateness.

The earliest country music, like Jimmie Rodgers, was all influenced by black blues singers, by gospel music and combining that with the folk traditions that came from European settlers and Appalachia, so there’s always been this kind of crossing of genres.  I mean, rock and roll was black music that white people played, and the lines of influence cross each other all the time. In my opinion, there’s been mostly an industry-maintained illusion that there’s black music and there’s white music.  We buy into it, and then we end up with this idea that there’s black music and white music and people making it with that in mind.  But Gangstagrass is sort of here to say it’s not so cut and dry.  There’s plenty of room for us to talk about American music and see all the ways in which there’s common ground and things can blend together.

photos by Sean Marshall

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