Last week I received an email from a New York City based publicist titled, “Emmy nominated Gangstagrass brings the modern-western sound of the hit-show “Justified” to Eugene.” Not ever having heard of Gangstagrass, I read on to find out that Gangstagrass is not only the name of the band, but it’s a combination of music styles: country and hip-hop. My initial reaction was, “Country and hip-hop? You’ve got to be kidding me. No way.”
I kept reading:
“Gangstagrass is the brainchild of Brooklyn based producer and musician Rench, who has been pioneering the combination of country and hip-hop for over a decade. Rench Audio production studio was home to Rench’s honky-tonk hip-hop recordings, but also served as a spot where Rench would produce albums for local NYC rappers. In 2007, Rench decided he needed to scratch a musical itch that had been on his mind since listening heavily to 1970s recordings of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. The result was a genre-demolishing blitz called Rench Presents: Gangstagrass. It appeared on the Internet as a free download and people took notice. When the album garnered a positive mention on the influential blog BoingBoing.net, hundreds of thousands of downloads followed creating an intense underground buzz.”
But it doesn’t end there. Because of the popularity of Rench’s unique style of music and the hundreds of thousands of downloads, FX Network caught wind of the Gangstagrass following and contacted Rench to produce a theme song for their new hit television series, Justified. Rench had bluegrass players lay down an original track with rapper T.O.N.E-z, the younger brother of hip-hop legends Special K and T-LaRoc. The result was Long Hard Times To Come, the song that opens every episode of the series. In 2010, Long Hard Times To Come was nominated for an Emmy Award.
I clicked on a link in the email to listen to music from the latest Gangstagrass album, Rappalachia. Within a few seconds of listening to the first song, Gunslinging Rambler, my inital thoughts of country-hip-hop went from, “you’ve got to be kidding me,” to, “this is totally awesome.” I absolutely loved it and went on to listen to every song on the album. It’s catchy and just needs to be heard – I couldn’t stop listening and continue to do so. I had to talk to Rench to find out more, so I did.
EDN:Where did you grow up and what kind of music did you listen to?
Rench: I grew up in southern California in the 80’s and hip-hop was developing at the time. Third grade for me was all about taking a piece of cardboard out during recess to do back spins on while listening to Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. My dad was from Oklahoma, so when I would get home from school, the music my dad would be listening to on the stereo was Willie Nelson, George Jones and other types of honky tonk.
EDN: So this musical exposure led you to…
Rench: I ended up in Brooklyn doing production, recording hip-hop beats and working in studios. I couldn’t help myself with this temptation I kept having when making a beat – I eventually just said, “What if we sampled a pedal steel guitar and looped that in there [with the hip-hop] and it gradually became more and more dominant until it was half and half combined. Then we’d actually bring in a fiddle player to play a track or write some country songs and put some beats and scratching under them. So, it was an evolution that was inevitable for these two parts of my musical genetic structure.
EDN: Did it take a while for people to get used to the combination of these two different styles?
Rench: Not when they hear it, and that’s the crucial thing – is for people being exposed to it, to just hear it, and then they see that it’s actually really cool. So that’s part of our problem in trying to get the word out and promote it, to describe it with words actually turns people off more than it turns them on. They think, “oh my gosh, country and hip-hop, this is going to be terrible.” It’s a matter of them hearing it. That’s why when we got this theme song on Justified, it was the perfect form of promotion for us. It’s thirty seconds of Gangstagrass in people’s ears, so they can say, “wow, that’s really cool, what is it?” rather than us trying to lure people in by saying, “hey, check out this country hip-hop.”
EDN: How do people know it’s Gangstagrass?
Rench: It’s in the end credits as Gangstagrass featuring T.O.N.E.-z which is the rapper on the track. Gangstagrass is a production project for me, where I bring in different musicians and different rappers and my official title is mastermind. I’m the ring leader, and the key here is doing it right, and I do keep my eye out for people trying to do this [country hip-hop], and it can certainly not go well. I really am a huge fan of both kinds of music, and I’ve learned them and studied them, and I have very specific ideas of how to maintain the authenticity of the bluegrass and the hip-hop and try to bring the best of both worlds together and not do any sort of lowest common denominator stuff or a surface level thing. I think it’s really about going deep and it’s actually bringing in live bluegrass players and not just having some sample banjo loop, but actually having a banjo player, a fiddle player and Dobro players and get them jamming and doing their bluegrass thing and then get rappers on top of that and really bring them together rather than just sampling things.
EDN: So, Gangstagrass is the name of the band, but it’s also a style of music, right?
Rench: It’s all of it. It is the name of the band, but the band is really me coordinating musicians. So, as you see on [the album] Rappalachia, there’s different rappers on different tracks that are sort of guest starring on different songs. So, it’s Gangstagrass featuring this rapper and Gangstagrass featuring that rapper. We do have a pretty consistent team of bluegrass players, and a few really great guys coming with us on the tour. This [Rappalachia] was an album where I wanted to experiment with taking things in different directions with each song. The album before this, Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic, was really an album to basically have the same sound as the Justified theme song. The whole album had the same rapper and same sound, so that sort of left me itching for the next album to have the freedom to go in different directions, so I did have different processes for different songs on this album that really changed the way they come out. Depending on whether you start with a beat and a hip-hop person then have the bluegrass guys write to that and record some bluegrass licks or whether you start off with a bluegrass jam and then have the rap and the beat written to that, so going in different directions really leads to different sounds.
EDN: How many albums have you done?
Rench: Those [Rappalachia and Lightning on The Stings, Thunder on the Mic] are the two official albums. Before those, there was more of a mash-up thing I did that was like a studio project and I uploaded it for a free download, and that was the initial Gangstagrass project. I had been doing stuff solo as Rench where I’d do country songs with beats and scratching over them or collaborate with rappers and that was more of a honky tonk influence. Listening to bluegrass, I kept thinking this would be a really good to match up with something- it’d be really easy to put beats with this because bluegrass really doesn’t have any drums, but it’s a very rhythmic music and it’s very tight and very funky. There was a point in 2007 where I cleared my schedule and went to the studio and just started experimenting with the bluegrass stuff and then overlaying some of the hip-hop vocals I had worked with and put that up as an initial experiment called Gangstagrass. It just took off by word of mouth and with hundreds of thousands of downloads and it put us up at the top of country hip-hop.
EDN: Is that how FX Network found you for the Justified theme song?
Rench: As far as I know, they just Googled bluegrass and hip-hop and Gangstagrass came up on top. It was actually the promotions department for the show who were making a commercial for the show that found me. So, I got a call out of the blue from people saying they wanted to use some of the Gangstagrass music for the commercial for the show. When the producers saw the commercial they said, “that’s what we need for the theme song.” So, I got another call out of the blue, saying, “give us another one, we need a theme song.”
EDN: The theme song was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2010, right?
Rench: It was, yah. That was just fantastic and we got to go to the Emmy’s and walk the red carpet where we turned a lot of heads. It was me in my western wear and this rapper T.O.N.E.-z decked out in his hip-hop gear.
EDN: Did you think while you were putting the theme song together that you would be walking the red carpet to the Emmy’s?
Rench: No, an Emmy was not anywhere in my thinking. So, the nomination was this random, crazy thing that happened along the way. I knew at one point, after the show came out, that some people at the show were submitting the song to the Emmy’s, so I did know then that it was a possibility. When the nominations came out, I got to be the first one to call the rapper who had co-written this song with me and tell him you and I are now Emmy nominated. All my friends and family now address me as Emmy nominated Rench.
EDN: What’s next for Gangstagrass?
Rench: We’re going to take this [west coast] tour as an opportunity for the band to do some exploring and developing of material, so when we get back to Brooklyn, we can go into the studio and mess around with some of the stuff we thought of while we’re hanging out on the west coast.
EDN: Any last words?
Rench: Seeing us live is a whole other level from the recordings – to have people come and see us on stage, to see in person a banjo player and a rapper getting down together is just kind of a jaw dropping thing.
Gangstagrass will be playing live, at Luckey’s Club in downtown Eugene on Wednesday, October 10, at 10 pm. $8 cover. 933 Olive St., Eugene.
For more information on Gangstagrass, visit gangstagrass.com.