Blending Bluegrass, electro beats and Hip-Hop seems like an unlikely recipe for success, but that mix has taken Gangstagrass to the top of the Bluegrass charts. Their recent live album spent almost 20 weeks in the Top Ten. The band packs concert halls, Rock and Country music clubs and festivals with impressive live shows, featuring their hybrid of Jam Band improvisation, prodigious Bluegrass chops, and socially conscious rapping. In an era when the social, racial, musical and economic divisions between Americans have become more strained, Gangstagrass is providing a glimpse of the kind of conversations about race and power that we could be having if we were ready to listen. “Too many people are seeing each other as enemies when they could be communicating and finding common ground,” says Rench, the band’s founder and producer, “if anything, this pandemic is showing so clearly how connected we all are, we just need to realize that those connections run down to our part in poverty and racism.” The music on the new Gangstagrass release, No Time For Enemies, is upbeat, but the lyrics are more political than the previous fare. “As a multi-racial band, that bridges American musical cultures, we walk the walk when we sing about getting real on the subject of racism.”
In fact, Rench maintains, music is a perfect reflection of our segregation, and Gangstagrass is providing an antidote to our racialized conception of the genre. “Many people don’t know that the banjo was originally an African instrument that traveled here with slavery. Early America found slaves and poor whites combining African and European instruments and styles across the south. The dawn of the recorded music industry happened during Jim Crow segregation, so music was marketed with completely artificial racial categories of ‘race music’ and ‘hillbilly music’ - which after decades have been imprinted on our minds as black soul music and white Country music. This is a fabrication of the industry and its time for it to die.”
To these ends, Gangstagrass continues pushing the envelope with collaborations featuring banjo player Dan Whitener, fiddle player Brian Farrow, Hip-Hop emcees R-SON The Voice Of Reason and Dolio The Sleuth, backed by Rench’s Hip-Hop production. Gangstagrass started working on No Time For Enemies just before Coronavirus forced the nation to adopt social distancing measures. They completed three tracks in the studio together before self-quarantining began and they had to stop production. “Ain’t No Crime” opens with an a cappella chorus, then jumps into the lightning-fast, the tongue-twisting flow of R-SON. Skittering banjo and loops of R&B handclaps lay down a beat that’s equal parts bluegrass and funk. Whitener’s banjo solo introduces a chorus that’s pure Country, to set up Dolio’s measured description of a party driven by Bluegrass and Hip-Hop.
“Nickel and Dime Blues” showcases the band’s Bluegrass side, with the pickers grooving against a funky clap track. Dan Whitener sings lead and follows a poor worker into a pharmacy where he is unable to afford medicine, a liquor store to discover he can’t afford to buy a bottle to soothe his worries and ultimately to prison. Fiddle, banjo and scratching fill the space between country crooning and raps describing widely shared hardships. “We believe in talking about the economic struggle,” Rench says. “These are things folks across the country can relate to - rural and urban, black and white - despite thinking that they’re so different. We have to unlock solidarity.” “Freedom” marks a deep dive into politics and race. “It’s time we helped America get down with race and history, so we’re not pulling punches here,” Rench says. “America has to look at what's been going on for centuries and understand why the fight continues and the resolution can't wait. It’s time for us all to stand for racial justice, and we’re putting that here in your ear to get comfortable with if you want to be down with us.” Farrow’s bluegrass fiddle and Whitener’s banjo float above a funky backbeat, as Dolio and R-SON layout America’s racial conflict, from plantation slavery to the civil rights movement, and the frustration engendered by today’s seeming indifference to the struggle.
The rest of the album will be assembled during the lockdown, with each member sending Rench tracks to be assembled into songs. “Production will continue for a remotely recorded and produced album,” Rench explains. “We will see what direction that pushes things in. We’re also pivoting to live to stream, but limited by our separation. We can’t do a real live stream concert, so each band member is doing streaming sessions, showcasing their own personality, from solo performances to cooking demonstrations! We’ve been on Twitch (twitch.tv/gangstagrasscrew) every night and quickly built a solid subscriber base. Soon we’ll be launching a subscriber program to share content with fans directly. Our Twitch stream features a series we call Kick the Can . You can watch a song being developed live, each night streaming as a band member records their part - Rench making a beat from scratch, Dan recording banjo parts, Brian fiddling, R-SON writing rhymes to it and so on. We’ll present a finished track at the end of the week, available to subscribers.” Gangstagrass was born out of Rench’s desire to play the music he grew up with, Rap and Country - and his vision of demolishing our musical segregation. FX Network asked Rench to write a song for their new Western crime series, Justified . The result was the Emmy nominated “Long Hard Times To Come,” the song that opens every episode of the series. Since then, the band has made four studio albums and a live album. “At this point, there can be no sense that this is superficial, or a novelty,” Rench says. “This is real, we are authentic and we are producing a new formulation of American music that returns us to real connection. We are here to show that illusion of white and black music is a relic of the 20th century, and the 21st century starts with partying together. From there, learn to take care of each other and repair the damage our prejudice has done.”