Don’t call Gangstagrass a novelty, at least not in the sense that they are simply some gimmick that fuses rap with the honktytonk of bluegrass and country. That is the message from the brains behind the operation, producer Rench, and one that I can back up after having heard their second LP Rappalachia.
Speaking to me from Nashville in the midst of a tour and just days before launching his band’s second album into the wild wild web, Rench maligns the mentality that separate genres have to remain so, reminding me that ‘early country was built out of gospel and used instruments introduced through slavery like the fiddle…and hiphop literally began by cutting recordings of other genres’, and it is with that integrity and respect for history that much of Rappalachia functions.
All too often contemporary bands make a concerted effort to appear to shun what came before them while forging something new, but history is inescapable according to Rench, both personally and professionally. When asked if he had a passion for both honkytonk and rap, Rench comments that he “grew up with Hank Williams and Willie Nelson at home” but later in life “would lay out cardboard at recess and do back spins on it”.
Listening to a band like Gangstagrass is the only true way to appreciate what they are doing, and having one of their songs featured on the FX series ‘Justified’ has gone a long way to accomplishing just that. “It can be hard to get people to accept an act like ours, but when they hear the music they realize it feels right”.
Rench describes the process of such a unique band as one of cooperation, compromise and ultimately passion. Equal parts twang and swagger, many of the tracks on Rappalachia stand out, not only from other artists but even within the confines of the album itself. Opener ‘Gunslinging Rambler’ forges some clever ties between the gangster attitude of rap and badass cowboy lonesomeness of country, while ‘Rappalachia 6′ and ‘Crossbow’ are straight country/bluegrass tracks which do not want for breakbeats. In the context of any other album, noticing hip-hop beats in a western song would be jarring, but not here, it all seems natural, as well it should be.
Appearing towards the back half of the album, ‘Western’ features the legendary Kool Keith, an artist producer Rench says he “sought out as someone I wanted to work with, and got a response from”, much like a film with good casting this well planned marriage of musicians produces one of the album’s highlights.
While Kool Keith brings more light-hearted rhymes to the affair, Dead Prez, as expected, come hard on ‘Dollar Boss’. A more minimal country track is graced with rhymes like ‘building train-tracks but being left behind/making others rich while we’re getting robbed blind/they the 1% we the 99‘ and a chorus of ‘I’m just trying to pay my bills/but it feels like I’m still picking cotton/it’s been 500 years but we still picking cotton‘, the Dead Prez do what they do best with the help of banjo, cello and stomping drums.
A lot of what Gangstagrass is doing will come as a surprise, some will dismiss it as gimmick but it comes from such a genuine place that you have to respect it.
Gangstagrass will be playing a by RSVP-only show at NXNE along with I Am Love and BROOKLYN35 Collective atop the Hyatt Regency. Find out how to be a part of what promises to be a banging pool party by clicking here.