About a year ago, Blurt caught up with Rench, the mad scientist behind the bluegrass/hip-hop hybrid Gangstagrass.
BY RANDY HARWARD
If you’re a fan of the FX series Justified, now wrapping up its fourth season, you probably love the theme song by Gangstagrass. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of hearing “Long Hard Times to Come,” imagine the common denominator between bluegrass and hip-hop.
Maybe that’s not so easy. One on hand, you have traditional American roots music that originated in the South and is associated mainly with white folks – some with their own, shall we say, opinions. Now, don’t go getting your overalls in a twist. Of course bluegrass has evolved past race and there are many people of color who enjoy – and even play – bluegrass music (Carolina Chocolate Drops). It’s just not, at first blush, music you’d imagine getting blended with hip-hop.
Except, when you hear that song with its hillbilly stomp and ghetto swagger, you know right away it works. Like a charm. It finds that common denominator – struggle, a universal theme – and scores the frustration and determination with twangy slide guitar and a big beat. It pulses like the heartbeat of average Joes, and sees no color. It acknowledges our individual struggles – “I see those long, hard times to come” – and somehow instills hope and exudes a feeling of fellowship.
And it’s just plain badass. Or, as Gangstagrass puts it, “There are only three bands that can tame a mountain lion just by playing. Gangstagrass is one of them. Gangstagrass is also the other two.”
Blurt sent Gangstagrass’s main man Rench some questions. He returned some answers in between working on new tracks at his Brooklyn Studio, Rench Audio.
Let’s get the theme song question out of the way: People love a great theme song, especially when it goes with a great show. But it can be the kiss of death or the holy grail for a band. How is it working out for you? And why isn’t it on any of your releases?
It has been mostly good, but probably is a much bigger deal in the imagination than it is in real life. I know I have had to adjust some of my expectations of how much it will change things for me. I has brought in a lot of fans every year, so for that alone, it has been great. But not so many fans that we are super successful already. Enough so that there are a few hardcore fans in most cities. But just a few – not enough fans in each city to fill a medium-sized venue, so this is still an independent shoestring operation. We tour when we can but it’s not at the level of booking in big places or having an actual tour bus or anything. So while it has certainly not been the kiss of death, I wouldn’t call it the holy grail either. It’s more like a little boost. It doesn’t skip you right to the top, but it gets you up a step or two.
We are not in control of the Justified theme song and can’t release it ourselves yet. With a theme song, it is important to the network that they get certain controls and rights, so they know they can count on the theme song being used how they want it for as long as the show is on. The network released the song themselves, exclusively on iTunes.
Now, you’ve been doing this for a while, right? The blend. How did it become a band?
I’ve been doing various country-hip-hop blends for a decade. Sometimes with bands, like B-Star, or doing Rench stuff with a backing band. Gangstagrass started off in 2006 as a studio project I did on the side. But when it got big word of mouth and got blogged everywhere, including BoingBoing.net which crashed the server with all the downloads happening, I knew it was something I should get musicians in on to do it live. So I was just starting to reach out to some friends in the bluegrass and hip-hop scenes when I got the call out of the blue from folks at FX who wanted some Gangstagrass for Justified. So I got it together real fast to make that happen, and since then it has been an evolution, working with different people to explore how this can happen as a live performance.
Gangstagrass makes it well-known that their music can tame a mountain lion. Well, what can it do for bridging cultural gaps? We all know that hip-hop music transcends race; we’ve seen enough redneck rap fans to know that. And I’ve come across plenty of people of color playing quote-unquote Americana, whether that’s country, alt.country, folk, bluegrass or variations on the above. But this is the first I’ve ever heard of bluegrass + hip-hop, music from two ostensibly divergent walks. So all kidding aside, please discuss how your music brings people together. What common ground have you discovered?
There are lots of different angles on that. One that comes up often is how much classic country and hip-hop have in common thematically. Both come out of oral traditions among struggling communities, telling stories of outlaws, gangsters, hardship, and perseverance. There is also the angle that these are both branches of a cultural tree with common roots. The banjo originally came from Africa, and the earliest country music drew heavily from blues and gospel traditions. Now these two biggest genres in America are seen as so separate, but that is part of the illusion we have right now that the country is so separated. But the truth is that the country is more integrated than it is made out to be – even though the industry keeps up separate charts, separate radio stations, separate tours, separate TV channels, the reality is that there are a lot of people out there with Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on their iPod playlists. I can talk to you all day about the ways Gangstagrass is bridging cultural gaps and challenging the divisions in America, but the bottom line is that we bring people together because we make something awesome, and people enjoy it. I am not doing this for the novelty of it, or for any intellectual reasons. I do it to make something where there is a badass dobro over a block-rockin’ beat, and a banjo providing the groove for a blazing emcee to rap on. We do it well, and it is fun, and that’s all the reason I need.
You work with a variety of MCs, and you don’t seem to choose according to profile. Is that to preserve the integrity of the Gangstagrass sound since “name” rappers bring certain expectations
I can preserve the integrity of the Gangstagrass sound while working with just about anyone, I make sure of that. The responsibility for make it authentic and high quality rests on me and I get it done. Right now we are at a level where I can reach some higher profile MCs, but not others, so I get a few high profile guests. And I still have connections with amazing but less well known rappers I have been working with for years – I have no intention of leaving them out of the picture. Some of my favorite rappers are local independent NYC folks and I am as excited to work with them as I am with bigger names. I’ve been working with Dolio The Sleuth for a decade and he introduced me to R-SON and these guys are amazing. T.O.N.E-z is hip-hop to hi core and will always rip up tracks with me. Tomasia is a mind blowing, thought provoking writer that always amazes me when she gets on a track. But with the profile Gangstagrass has now, I can also reach out to rappers that I’ve been a fan of and make that connection. Kool Keith is someone I always thought was just totally unique and creative and did things with rapping that nobody else does, so we got that going and it was a wild ride. Dead Prez are for real, and I think they write more meaningful songs than most hip-hop these days, so that was definitely something that could be brought to a Gangstagrass track. Going forward, you might see me work with more big name MCs but not to the exclusion of the talented independent rappers I work with now.
I’m sure you have some dream collaborations in mind, though. Who are some artists from both genres that you’d like to work with in a similar contex
I would like to work with OutKast on something, their style is unique and amazing and would definitely fit with Gangstagrass. Pharoahe Monch would be someone I would be excited to get on a track. I better stop because I could go on for a long time about rappers that I would want to work with. As far as the country side, we generally cover the bluegrass sound with our own players and me singing. I have had guest singers from some of my favorite bluegrass bands already – Brandi Hart from the Dixie Bee Liners and Jen Larson from Straight Drive. I would love to see Dolly Parton hit a Gangstagrass chorus, or Dan Tyminski, Gillian Welsh, Jim Lauderdale, Aoife O’Donovan. Same thing here, I could just keep going once you get me started.
Okay, indulge one more TV show question? Have you thought to pitch either a serious FX drama about Gangstagrass, sort of along the lines of Treme? Or do you think a Saturday morning show like The Banana Splits/H.R. Pufnstuff/Bugaloos would be more appropriate? And please elaborate.
If Gangstagrass was a show, it would probably have more of a Louie vibe – lots of funny moments but not like stupid punchline funny, just weird funny, and then there is deeper stuff there always leaving it kind of bittersweet – each episode would probably end with this ragtag group still trying to get this new sound out to a larger audience, overcoming obstacles just to find new ones. But we actually need to start filming our tours. The interactions you get when you stick bluegrass musicians and rappers in a van together for 14 days are extremely interesting.
Were you an Elmore Leonard fan before Justified happened? If so, how does it feel to count him as a fan?
Yes, in fact. I had read some of is stuff, and seen a lot of movies that I knew were based on his writing. So it was totally sweet to have him give Gangstagrass props. I got to meet him in NYC and that dude is for real. I have certainly enjoyed telling folks that Elmore Fucking Leonard is into Gangstagrass.
Gangstagrass’s latest album Rappalachia is available at www.gangstagrass.com