Rench On Growing Gangstagrass

Rench, producer and “mastermind” of the bluegrass/hip hop crossover act Gangstagrass took some time to chat with Pollstar about race dynamics affecting the way country and hip hop have evolved, and his band’s work to mix the genres.

Gangstagrass is probably most famous as the band responsible for the theme song to the FX show “Justified.” The band has more than 10 years under its belt and has incorporated different players and MCs over the years. Throughout that time, the carryover has been founder Rench, who produces the beats and makes sure everything comes together coherently.

The group is currently a 5-piece featuring Rench on vocals/guitar, MCs R-Son the Voice of Reason and Dolio the Sleuth, with Landry McMeans on dobro, and Dan Whitener on banjo. It has dates booked in the Northeast, Midwest and South throughout the summer.

Sharon Alagna
– Rench
A press photo for Rench of Gangstagrass.

So you guys are based out of New York?

Yeah I’m in Brooklyn. I’ve been in Brooklyn for over 20 years now or so. Feelin’ like a Brooklynite.

Where were you at before that?     

I’m from California originally. Santa Barbara. It’s beautiful. You don’t really appreciate it when you’re a teenager when you’re bored though. …

I came out here for college. I moved into Brooklyn, really liked it, and just stayed. There’s just so much going on here, connecting with a lot of artists and musicians.

So you guys have had a rotating membership over the years?

Yeah, I would say it’s been an evolution where we did go through some different players. We’re doing tours right now as a five-piece with people that have been with the band for a few years and have really grown with it.

Did you meet the current lineup in New York?

The banjo player, Dan, he is in the New York scene so we had a lot of friends in common. One of the rappers, Dolio, was living in Brooklyn about 15 years ago and I met him doing a honky tonk/hip hop band called B-Star and we were in that together for a while. So I’ve known Dolio a long time and worked with him way back in the day. He was the one that referred me to the other rapper that would be with us on the tours, R-Son the Voice of Reason.

R-son lives in Philadelphia where these guys live now. Actually, we met him the night we came through on tour. We met him 10 minutes before the show, did a little quick rehearsing and then got him up on stage with us. And he rocked it, jumped in the van and we got him to D.C., Virginia and North Carolina that weekend. And that was five to six years ago now.

So he had verses prepared and he just spit them live?

He had verses from his stuff that he could put over our beats and he is also an incredible freestyler. So he could use that to his advantage as well. And that’s a big weapon for us to have on hand when we do live shows.

At several points during any given show he won’t be doing the verse that’s on the album. He’ll suddenly be rapping about things that happened to us that day, things people in the audience are wearing at that moment, things that are happening locally in the town that we are playing, shouting out the local sports team, all kinds of stuff that he can pull out. And it all just goes in there. Meanwhile, we watch him to get the signal that he’s wrapping up his verse and hit the chorus again.

Isn’t New York kind of sparse when it comes to country music?

I think that’s only a perception from the outside. The reality is that there’s 8 million people. There’s a lot of people doing everything, it’s just a big haystack to find that needle in.

Once you know where to look there’s actually several different country music scenes within New York, whether you’re wanting to go to bluegrass jams or whether you want to go to honky tonk shows. … It’s all going on here, but it’s not something that’s necessarily so easy to find because there’s so much going on in New York. But once you kind of know the venues, you know some of the bands, you start discovering the network that’s there, it’s actually kinda big.

And New York is full of people that have moved here from Texas and Tennessee and Kentucky and the Carolinas and brought stuff with them, as well as New Yorkers that have gotten into folk music or bluegrass music …. So there are great big bluegrass jams going on and a lot of great honky tonk bands here. That surprises people, but it’s definitely here. I spent a lot of time going out to country shows in Brooklyn and connecting with people that way.

So who turns up for Gangstagrass shows around the country? Is it more country fans or hip hop fans?

We get a mix, although the big thing is it’s not people that are purists of a particular genre. It’s about the huge mass of people out there that are already ecclectic listeners. People that have Jay Z and Johnny Cash on their iPod already on shuffle on their playlists. They hear something like Gangstagrass and they don’t bat an eye, they say “Let’s go, let’s do it.”

When I look at the crowd showing up for our shows, it’s not something you would identify as a “hip hop” crowd or a “country” crowd. It’s a lot of just general music enthusiasts and people that like core ideas and people that listen to a lot of different stuff. A really broad age range as well.

We have 8 year olds and 80 years olds coming to our shows. One of the big differences that comes to our shows is city by city. It’s a different crowd from our shows in West Virginia to our shows in Texas. City by city is a different demographic. I wouldn’t say its people coming to our shows being from a particular genre audience.

Sometimes it seems like country and hip hop don’t influence each other as much as other genres, like country influences rock or EDM is influenced by hip hop. Have you noticed that?

There’s been things here and there for a long time, but none of that has broken through to be a movement or anything outside of the “country rap” stuff that is bubbling up.

Do you mean the “bro country” stuff popular throughout U.S. radio?

It’s even more specific than “bro country.” It’s a lot more under the radar but it’s different from what we’re doing by a long shot. The country rap genre is done between Georgia and Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee and is mainly trap beats with white guys rapping about driving their trucks through the mud and drinking moonshine and stuff like that. That’s what they have going on that resonates with them.

What I’m doing is the formula of bringing together hip hop MCs and bluegrass pickers to bring the best of both worlds together authentically.

There’s always been a perception that they are so separate mainly because of the way the industry has operated with separate charts, separate magazines, separate radio stations. Now the musicians and the fans have been open to seeing all the common ground and the overlap that can happen there.

Do you think racial divides have been a reason country and rap have been slow to influence each other?

Absolutely. I think it’s a race thing that’s been handed down for 100 years. With recorded music, it’s been coded racially ever since the first days of recording and promoting music.

Something was considered a race record or a mainstream record and they would not cross those lines. That stuff has a legacy that we are still slowly getting away from, but that has persisted through most of the last century.

One example I can tell you is the early career of Solomon Burke, who is now known as a soul singer, but whose early stuff was very country inflected because he was coming out of Southern church music, so his early stuff sounded like country gospel music.

The records would go out to promoters, shows would get booked with them thinking he was a white country musician, and then he would show up in person and they say, “Oh no, we can’t put you in front of this audience.” A lot of shows would get canceled and there was one promoter who actually made him play with his face and hands bandaged up and told the crowd he was in some horrible accident.

There’s a long history of radio stations that would not play things based on race of the performer, of the audience. That’s been going on for a long time.

What you have is this lingering sense of black music and white music that you see on the surface because it’s all presented separately. Separate radio stations, separate TV stations, separate charts, separate magazines. But the truth is all those artists are influenced by each other and there’s a huge overlap of fans out there.

Country and hip hop being the two most popular forms of American music right now, they’re gonna intermingle, the fans and the musicians are gonna start putting them together, but the industry has always worked by defining the market separately.

Do you think that’s why there have been barriers for white artists to break into hip hop or black artists to make it in country?

Well, I don’t want to make a false equivalency because white people having a hard time breaking through in rap is very different to black artists having a hard time getting industry backing or making it with white audiences.

There are a couple different dynamics. You have Beastie Boys and 3Rd Bass and a handful of white rappers that were successful before Eminem. A white rapper that had skills and was authentic really didn’t have so many barriers there that would keep them from success in any way similar to the way you would have barriers to black artists trying to break into country music or pop music.

Aside from Charley Pride, who’s been a sole example of black artists being able to make it in country music, despite a lot of talent out there, the industry has been very hesitant to market to what they see as a white marketplace.

What do you think about Elvis?

That’s a complicated thing to delve into.

There’s certainly a big element there of basically black music and black culture being represented to white audiences using a white musician, because they figured otherwise it couldn’t be successful that way, which may or may not have been true of the time. It’s not so much an indictment of Elvis himself as it is an indictment of the way the industry operates and the way that there was racism in the culture that set up that situation.

I think that it’s certainly come a long way since those days. I think hip hop has broken through in a lot of ways to allow black musicians to control their own cultural product in ways that they certainly weren’t able to in previous waves of American music. …

I was reading about Lester Bangs’ comments on Elvis’s death. The crux of it was that Elvis was able to … embody country music, soul music, rock music, pop music and have such widespread success, and he said this was the last time we were gonna have this shared thing because he could see the fracturing of the market into all these niche things, that there wouldn’t be this much of a universal success anymore that we could all agree on.

There’s more or less truth to that, there isn’t one pop-cultural reference point as much as there was with the baby boomers.

I think there’s still plenty of room for us to reach across different genres and all appreciate things. That’s one thing we’re excited about the prospect of. When we see a hipster crowd in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and a redneck crowd in Texas and a coal mining town in West Virginia all getting down to the same thing, it’s interesting because people have felt so siloed into these separate cultural things that are perceived as having a big gulf between them, but we find this common ground that people can all come out and party to.

So who do you tour with?

It’s been quite a random assortment of people we get paired with.

Most of the time it’s the venues paring us with somebody local, and that could be all kinds of things. We’ve played with hip hop acts, with bluegrass acts, with reggae bands, jazz bands. We’ve played with everything and we’re able to shine to any kind of audience because what we’re doing, in the process of bridging bluegrass and hip hop, we’re also making this new musical soup that’s about the quality of music, it’s not about being particular to one genre or another.

And that’s one of things that’s exciting for us to explore. It’s not just, “Oh this is half bluegrass or half hip hop.” It’s about a new thing that’s coming out of this synthesis that, sometimes, doesn’t necessarily look like either. We’re able to explore [sounds] that wouldn’t come out of hip hop or bluegrass, but creating this new child that is evolving to go into new areas. And as long as we’re bringing good music to it, we’re open to follow that wherever it goes.

Do the MCs write their own stuff or do you guys collaborate on the verses?

For the albums, it’s definitely a matter of the MCs writing their own verses because that’s just something with hip hop that is pretty strong, is that MCs are writing their own stuff. A lot of times, if I am writing a hook or something that kind of sets out a theme, they get to write to that and fill that in, which is always a fun thing for me to see … to watch them bring these verses and to take that in different directions and fill it out. But it’s absolutely a matter of putting that space there for the MCs to put their own stamp on it and it always works out great.

How do you create the songs?

My official title with the group is mastermind, since I had the initial vision and got things started. I kind of play ringleader in terms of coordinating the development of the material, which I like to do and have a different process for different songs. It really keeps the variety of the feel of what we’re doing to not end up with the same sound for each song.

For one song, I might start off with a verse I’ve heard from the MCs and say, “Oh, I really like how you did the flow in this one song. Let’s kind of take a groove like that.” Then you can write to that and I’ll create a drum loop around that, and they do that and then take it to the bluegrass players to start doing their licks over it.  

Then on another song, I might bring over the banjo player and the dobro player and we’ll do a jam of bluegrass stuff and country stuff where we come up with ideas for chord progressions and then I might give that to the MCs and let them come up with verses to that. And those different directions, depending on where you start, it gives a very different feel to the production and to the outcome.

How did you land the licensing deal for “Justified?”

They found me, so that was definitely an opportunity out of the blue that came from putting that initial Gangstagrass stuff that I made in the studio out there and having that get a lot of good word of mouth. When the people started to work on promotional stuff for the show, I think they actually just Googled bluegrass hip hop, Gangstagrass come out at the top of the search.

They were able to listen to it and say “this is cool” and I got a call asking for the guy that made Gangstagrass to license songs for the commercial. So we did that and then the producers for the show saw the commercial they were working on and heard the song and said, “That’s what we need for the theme song,” so they came back to me to do the theme song, and we did that right away and they loved it.

So there’s a live album coming in 2018. Anything else?

We’re all releasing solo albums as well. I just released my own honky tonk hip hop solo album. Dan the banjo player, is putting out a great album called Crossover. R-son is working on his solo album. So we’re all out there as artists on our own, building up fanbases and then coming together as a supergroup. Kinda like Voltron, the five robot lions coming together, and bringing all these different sounds together.

We capitalized on the strengths that we found that all of our stuff has in common. Country and hip hop music, for example, have a strong improvisational influence. In hip hop you have freestyling. In country music you have solos and with bluegrass especially, you have a lot of improvising over chord progressions and traditional songs that everyone will know.

In bluegrass a bunch of people sitting in a circle, calling out a song and trading solos is called a pick. And in hip hop guys standing around in a circle and one guy beatboxes, the other guys trading verses off the top of their head, it’s called a cypher. Once we realize those are two different words for the same thing, things start to come together like that.

You’ll see when we do live shows, there’s a lot of spontaneity, you’re not gonna see us do exactly the same album. There’s a lot of things that we do on the fly, new verses, changing structures, playing around with the way we do things, that we’re able to take advantage of because we all understand how to be spontaneous with the music and shoot things back and forth.

This is the kind of show where you’re gonna see an MC start freestyling and see a banjo player and dobro player responding to that in real time. Then he might point over to the banjo player to take a solo spontaneously, he’ll jump on that and do his thing. You just really explore with it.

Michael Bush
– Gangstagrass.
A press photo for Gangstagrass

You can learn more about Gangstagrass’s touring plans on its Pollstar artist page.