What happens when bluegrass music and hip-hop collide? You get Gangstagrass! Founded by Brooklyn-based producer Rench of Rench Audio, the group’s basic lineup of five musicians from the New York City area combines bluegrass instruments and hip-hop beats to create this amazing high energy performance that will have you up on the dance floor in no time.
Rench tells us, “I’m on guitar and singing and also running the beats using a foot pedal. Brian Farrow is on the fiddle, Dan Whitener is on the banjo and sings, and then we have two MCs rapping — R-Son The Voice of Reason and Dolio The Sleuth.” They occasionally bring in guest artists to accompany the group, and at one point, had Landry McMeans play Dobro on tour with them for a couple of years. “It’s a very unique thing where she actually modified her Dobro with some humbucker pickups going through a Fender tube amp, so it sounds more like a lap steel. She’s kind of a little more rocking with it where it sounds like psychedelic lap steel more than it does Dobro.”
Growing up with “lots of honky-tonk playing on the stereo at home” when he was a kid, Rench gained his country influence from his father, who is from Oklahoma and a fan of Willie Nelson, George Jones, and that style of music. “But me and my friends were all into hip-hop. It was in the ’80s, so recess was all about break dancing,” he tells us.
Never having any formal guitar lessons, Rench began strumming the guitar while in high school in the ‘90s where his father taught him some chords. Based on the country and hip-hop influences he was raised on, Rench says, “When I started making music, those were the influences I was bringing to it. I wanted to have those block rock and beats, but also some twangy sounds in there.”
With Rench Audio, Rench has a studio where he is a producer making beats and recordings, which is how Gangstagrass was born. What started as a side project where he offered a free download, quickly took off. Rench explains, “I was doing the honky-tonk, hip hop project with a band as well as solo. I had been listening to some real classic bluegrass — Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and Flatt & Scruggs. As I was listening to that, I was inspired to think this would make a really good mash-up with hip hop vocals. So that’s how I ended up just going into the studio as a little production project to try it out.”
Now it was time to find the musicians to turn this project into a reality. Through word of mouth and Craiglist, Gangstagrass turned into a live act. The band has been through a couple of different lineups but currently has a solid group of musicians, making it more useful for songwriting and collaborating.
For songwriting, Rench elaborated that “it’s been beneficial to actually do the songwriting through different directions because you come out with different outcomes that way. It doesn’t all end up sounding like the same kind of thing.” He notes there are several ways the band can approach the process.
One way is it might start from the bluegrass players jamming and finding a groove, and then having the MCs write to that music. Or it might be a piece from the bluegrass jam, he records that, and then cuts it up and samples it and loops it, and turns it into more of a loop-based piece of music. And then in the other direction, it might be some vocals or lyrics he hears the MCs performing that he likes and will make a beat out of it, and the musicians find licks to play along with the MCs. “Depending on what you start with, you go in different directions for the underlying feeling of whether it’s more of a loop-based hip-hop feel, or if it’s more of an organic groove kind of thing,” explains Rench.
Gangstagrass released its latest album, Pocket Full of Fire, earlier this year, which was recorded live picked from some of their favorite performances and various shows throughout 2018. The reasoning behind the live album Rench explains, “We wanted to do a live album because our live shows draw so much on the energy and the spontaneous stuff going on. It’s a very different experience from what you hear on the recording.
During live shows, the two MCs improvise and play off of each other. We like to have them on wireless microphones, so they actually really run around the stage or even out into the audience. Bluegrass and hip-hop both have strong improvisation elements. A big element of the live shows is not sticking to the recording but playing off of each other and letting things be spontaneous. So we wanted to capture that so the fans could get a little glimpse of what the live show was like.”
Since I crossed paths with Rench at AMERICANAFEST, we spoke about artists Rhiannon Giddens and Amythyst Kiah and their performance at the Station Inn. “That was amazing,” exclaimed Rench. When asked about the possibility of a collaboration between them, he said, “That’s definitely something that has crossed my mind and would hope to do in the future.” As far as other artists the band would like to collaborate with, Rench mentions MC Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought of the Roots, and Kaia Kater.
Gangstagrass is currently in the process of writing some new material, so stay tuned.
For more on Gangstagrass, visit their website HERE.