When Rap Meets Bluegrass
Heads-up for a rare chance to hear one of the most exciting genre-crossing fusions around: Gangstagrass, who’ll be coming to the UK and touring the country between 30th Jan and 10th Feb 2019. They’ll also be releasing a live album ‘Pocket Full of Fire’ to be released 15th Feb worldwide.
Emmy Award nominated Gangstagrass combines Hip-Hop and Bluegrass. This fusion is the brainchild of Rench: a Brooklyn-based independent singer, songwriter, and producer, whose roots lie in honky-tonk and hip-hop.
Bluegrass and Hip-Hop may sound like an odd combination, but don’t tell that to Producer Rench, who birthed the fusion in 2006, with Gangstagrass. “There are a lot more people out there with Jay-Z and Johnny Cash on their iPod playlists than you think.” says Rench, who had previously made a name for himself as an in-demand Brooklyn country and hip-hop producer and singer/songwriter. He should know – he’s toured the country with a band of bluegrass pickers and hip-hop emcees to the delight of standing room crowds everywhere.
making beats for local NYC rappers and hosting country music nights in popular NYC venues. In 2007, Rench had a musical itch that needed to be scratched – he was listening to the 1970s recordings of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and couldn’t help imagining what classic bluegrass would sound like with rap vocals and beats. The result was a genre-demolishing blitz called Rench Presents: Gangstagrass. He put it up for free download and people took notice. Hundreds of thousands of downloads followed creating an intense underground buzz.
When FX Network came to Rench looking for the Gangstagrass sound for the theme song to their new series Justified, he had bluegrass players lay down an original track with rapper T.O.N.E-z, the younger brother of early hip-hop legends Special K and T-LaRoc. The result was “Long Hard Times To Come,” the song that opened every episode of six seasons of the hit series. “Long Hard Times To Come” was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2010, contending for best theme song after critical praise and massive fan response
The same live bluegrass band approach was used to make Lightning On The Strings, Thunder On The Mic, a full length album of with T.O.N.E-z, the emcee featured on the Justified theme song. Two years later the Gangstagrass sound was expanded with the release of Rappalachia, a 15 song album featuring a variety of rappers, including Kool Keith, Dead Prez, Nitty Scott MC, T.O.N.E-z, BROOKLYN35, R-SON, and Dolio The Sleuth. Country singers Brandi Hart from the Dixie Bee-Liners and Jen Larson added gritty harmonies alongside Rench’s choruses. Broken Hearts and Stolen Money was released in 2014. Featuring performances by legendary rap team Smif-N-Wessun, Juno award winning rapper Liquid (of BranVan 3000), Brandi Hart of the Dixie Bee-Liners and Alexa Dirks of Chic Gamine in addition to the now regular crew of emcees and pickers, the album received universal critical acclaim including the Boston Globe labeling the raucus single Two Yards “Essential.” A fourth official album titled American Music was released in April 2015. Featuring a collection of standout original cuts and traditional folk anthems the band once again broke new ground, while also paying tribute to their cast of American songwriting heroes, and debuted at #5 on the Billboard bluegrass charts.
Gangstagrass has toured internationally, blowing minds on main stages from SXSW to Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, with a live stage act taking full advantage of the improvisational aspects of both hip-hop and bluegrass. With two emcees R-Son and Dolio The Sleuth trading verses, Dan Whitener on Banjo, Landry McMeans on dobro, and Rench on guitar, and frequent 3 part harmonies, the Gangstagrass live show has garnered a reputation among fans for its dynamism and spontanaety. Currently touring across the US, Gangstagrass is using live performances to organically develop new material for an album that will further explode the boundaries between genres generally thought to be incompatible.
“It is definitely time for a live album release” says Rench “Over the years we have really developed a dynamic approach to having rappers and bluegrass players on stage together. We take full advantage of the fact that both genres have a strong improvisational element. Verses are sometimes freestyled, songs are sometimes restructured on the fly. And the songs themselves have evolved into new animals that come to life on stage. We captured some great performances in the spring and it will be great to get to share the live sound with fans everywhere.”
“There are a lot more people out there with Jay-Z and Johnny Cash on their iPod playlists than you think,” as Rench puts it. To prove the point, he’s been recording and touring with a select band of bluegrass pickers and hip-hop emcees, packing out venues along the way.
Gangstagrass will reach UK shores in January and February 2019. Rench and his crew are looking forward to it: “The UK is a wonderful audience for us, and we find that the country and hip-hop combination brings out an amazing crowd for a party with us. We love meeting people at the shows and interacting with them during our performances which are very spontaneous. When they see a rapper and a banjo player getting down live on stage together the way we do it, the energy really goes through the roof – even people that are familiar with our album recording find their jaws dropping to see where we take it on stage.”
Jan 30: Portsmouth, Wedgewood Rooms
Jan 31: Exeter, Phoenix
Feb 01: Bristol, Thekla
Feb 02: Oxford, O2 Adademy 2
Feb 03: Manchester, Band on the Wall
Feb 05: Perth, The Inchyra Arts Club
Feb 06: Glasgow, Hug & Pint
Feb 07: Newcastle, The Cluny
Feb 08: Birmingham, O2 Institute
Feb 09: London, The Garage