Like a good peanut butter and pickle sandwich, Gangstagrass is proof that the most unlikely pairings can yield delicious results. The Brooklyn, N.Y.,-based band, a hybrid of an old-timey bluegrass troupe and a rap crew, lays down frenzied banjo picking and quick-draw rhymes with equal ferocity.
Gangstagrass is the brainchild of Rench, a producer who grew up on a steady diet of SoCal hip-hop in the ’80s. “In third grade, during recess, I’d be one of the kids that would find some cardboard to take out during recess to practice my backspin,” he says. “But my dad is from Oklahoma, so when I got home from school, it was all Johnny Cash and George Jones.”
For Rench, melding the banjos of the backcountry with beats from Brooklyn comes easier than you might expect. Traditional bluegrass has no drums, but the instruments have a clear cadence, leaving plenty of room for Rench to add claps and backing rhythms. He started out adding rhymes from local MCs to some old tracks by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, then recruited musicians to take his show on the road as Gangstagrass.
A Common History
When the rappers and the bluegrass players sat down to write Gangstagrass’ first songs, they were surprised by how much they had in common. Both types of music prize improvisation skills, flaunted in informal circles of musicians taking turns in the spotlight. In hip-hop, the freestyle jam session is called a cipher. In bluegrass, it’s a pick. “We have different vocabulary for the same things,” Rench says.
He wants every Gangstagrass member to appreciate where the genres come from. When the band’s tour took them through Kentucky last April, they visited mountaintop removal sites and a coal mine, the landscapes that inspired the birth of bluegrass. “It was an amazing experience for the MCs to go there and [see] where the music is coming out of,” Rench says.
Rhythm and Bluegrass
Each track on Gangstagrass’ latest album, January’s “Broken Hearts and Stolen Money,” is driven by the airtight rhythms of Rench and his crew, whether they’re spitting rhymes or wailing on a fiddle. For listeners new to the group, part of the album’s appeal will be in its novelty. After all, how many country-flavored songs give a nod to Tupac?
Some fans of classic bluegrass frown upon Gangstagrass’ cross-pollination, but Rench isn’t concerned. “I actually kind of enjoy hearing the complaints from the crotchety old bluegrass purists who think this is a crime against nature,” he says. “There are lots of people out there with Johnny Cash and Jay Z on their iPods on shuffle already … We’re just what they’ve been waiting for.”
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