Producer Rench grew up listening to the likes of Run-DMC at school, and would return home to find his father playing classic country records from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
When he settled in Brooklyn and began producing for underground rappers like T.O.N.E.z, those old-school country roots returned in the form of steel pedal-driven country records sampled under the rhymes.
“I would just have these urges. I would think, ‘God, it would be really cool to put a loop of a pedal-steel guitar over this.’ And it just crept in more and more,” he says. “And that evolved into me basically having a honky tonk-hip-hop band.”
Thankfully, New Yorkers are “totally used to things coexisting side by side,” including honky-tonk country and hip-hop. Gangstagrass, the band he put together, understood the link he saw between honky tonk country and hip-hop, but it wasn’t until Rench started experimenting with more bluegrass samples that local audiences and music bloggers started to pay more attention to what he was doing.
“It’s just a real immediate kick in the gut when you hear a bunch of country sounds with the banjos, and then you have the full-on hip-hop rapping going on,” he says.
But the way Rench puts it, bluegrass, with its drummerless bands, and hip-hop, with its heavy bass beats, seem perfect for each other. Luckily, he was able to find like-minded musicians in New York’s small bluegrass community, and assembled a group down to play his bluegrass-hip-hop tunes.
“Going out and finding bluegrass players to play that was a little more of a needle-in-the-haystack thing [than country musicians],” Rench says. “It was word of mouth, pretty much.”
The group got together in 2006, and played for about four years with a rotating cast of musicians and MCs who would contribute to songs. And then the FX channel called “out of the blue.” They wanted to use a Gangstagrass song to promote its new show Justified. But when the show’s producers heard the promotional song, they wanted more for the theme song. So Rench and T.O.N.E.z wrote “Long Hard Times to Come.”
“I think that they had actually just googled “bluegrass and hip-hop” and it’s a small pile, and we are at the top of it,” he says.
And the positive response to Justified’s theme song led to recording the group’s first album Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic, which was an album-length iteration of “Long Hard Times to Come.”
Gangstagrass’ most recent album, Rappalachia, released last May, was about taking a different approach to each song. On some, Rench says he’d ask his bluegrass musicians to play like they would on a traditional song. On others, he’d ask rappers to write verses first, and fill in with a chorus later.
“Having those two different directions to start from, you end up with two very different ways to start from and different outcomes. Rappalachia has a lot more variety, where the production lent itself to different sounds coming up. There is an unlimited number of ways you can combine hip-hop and bluegrass,” he says.
The group currently on tour includes rappers R-SON and Dolio, who both appear on Rappalachia, and typical bluegrass band lineup of acoustic guitar, banjo, dobro, and fiddle, plus electronic beats controlled by Rench via a loop pedal, which fosters off-script jams.
“Our shows are able to have spontaneity and improvisation, which is really important. That’s one of the things that’s also a really good common ground with bluegrass and hip-hop. Both of them are very improvisational,” Rench says.
Gangstagrass, at first glance, does have all the makings of a novelty act, and Rench is fully aware of this. He says that unlike bands who release one or two novelty recordings, his dedication to writing serious bluegrass songs, and working with rappers who write like they would on any hip-hop record, keep Gangstagrass from becoming a novelty act.
“Thinking of the themes and the common ground of traditional music, of old-timey stuff about outlaws, and being on the run, and hard times, and heartbreak—stuff like that really translates well to being able to write real songs, that I can write a full chorus for that really stands on its own as a song, and [I] bring in rappers that can work with the theme of that and flesh it out into cool verses in a way that really works together,” he says.
Much like the genres Rench pulls together, newcomers to Gangstagrass either love what they do, or they hate it. And the haters, Rench says, are usually bluegrass purists.
“Our fans are people … that have eclectic taste and are listening to a lot of different types of music. There are a lot of people out there listening to Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on their iPods. And they hear Gangstagrass, and they’re right there with us,” he says. “But there is sometimes an interesting thing we find: there are purists, especially on the bluegrass side, for whom what we’re doing is a crime against nature.”
But, he says, Gangstagrass isn’t about destroying traditional music. The progression, Rench says, is a lot like bluegrass’ own evolution and fusion of blues and traditional Appalachian music.
“I find [bluegrass purists] amusing because I would definitely view us as doing something the way that American music has always been done because every genre of American music has been about re-combining other existing genres into a new thing,” Rench says.
Ultimately, though, Rench says Gangstagrass is about making cool music that emphasizes the similarities between bluegrass and hip-hop.
“My mission is just to really keep the bluegrass authentic and keep the hip-hop authentic, and go forward from there with the sound that comes from putting them together, which is kind of a new road,” he says.