Blending bluegrass and hip-hop seems like an unlikely recipe for success, but don’t tell that to Rench, the mastermind behind the highly successful rap’n’grass project Gangstagrass. When he was going to grade school, recess was a time of breakdancing on cardboard to RUN-DMC. But at home, the records on the stereo were Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
That musical mash up made a lasting impression and sent Rench on a cross-country journey to play country-flavored hip-hop in dive bars. Along the way, he experienced a car crash, a campfire sing-along with a Sasquatch family and an encounter with a UFO crewmember that had the entire works of Funkadelic on his iPod. After settling in Brooklyn, he put together Rench Audio Studios and started recording MCs. Late at night, he’d combine their tracks with samples of bluegrass, blues, and electronic beats. 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.FX licensed a Gangstagrass track to use on a commercial for their new western crime series, Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant. When FX asked Rench to write a theme song forJustified, 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 opens every episode of the series. He used the musicians from “Long Hard Times” on the first Gangstagrass album, “Lightning On The Strings, Thunder On The Mic”.
FX licensed “Give It Up,” another Gangstagrass track with T.O.N.E-z, to promote the second season of Justified. That exposure boosted album sales, created tens of thousands of Gangstagrass facebook fans, and set the stage for Rappalachia. “This record is a shout out to Appalachia, the cradle of bluegrass culture,” Rench explains. “It’s rooted in the sounds of traditional mountain music and presents Gangstagrass as a band with independent existence, not just one sound tied to a TV show.
Rappalachia fortifies both the hip-hop and bluegrass sides of the Gangstagrass equation, taking the music to a whole new level of intense Urban Twang. The sound scrambles sample heavy rhythm tracks, and the verbal legerdemain o fT.O.N.E-z, the legendary Kool Keith (Ultramagnetic MCs) and newcomers like Dolio the Sleuth and R-SON, with the fancy fretwork of Rench on guitar, along with fiddler Jason Cade, Dobro champion Todd Livingstonand banjo picker Ellery Marshall. Vocalist Brandi Hart from The Dixie Bee-Liners supplies her impressive vocal grit to the outing, and Jen Larson from Straight Drive offers up her pure bluegrass vocal chops as well. Kool Keith(Ultramagnetic MCs) shows off the style that made him legendary on “Western,” ripping cowboy rhymes to a bouncing beat, augmented by banjo and dobro pyrotechnics. “Shoot Dem,” featuring T.O.N.E-z, was released as a single on the night Justified debuts its third season. It suggests a hoedown at a Jamaican dance hall, with T.O.N.E-z laying down his usual tougher than tough flow over a big stomping beat. If Jimmy Rodgers could have rapped as well as he yodeled, he might have cut something like “Gunslinging Rambler” which features rapping by R-SON. Rench fills in for Rodgers as R-SON spits out his heavy-duty ranch hand poetry. Bandi Hart sings lead on reinventions of Doc Boggs’ “Country Blues” and Libba Cotton’s “Honey Babe.” The MCs who will add their soul to those tracks are still top secret at this time. “Crossbow,” an instrumental, lets the pickers show off their smoking chops, against a beat that suggests the slap happy rhythms of hambone, an African style of body percussion that’s at the root of blues, bluegrass and hip-hop. The album also includes another instrumental track as a challenge to rappers that want to try their hand at flowing on some blistering acoustic bluegrass, inviting them to upload their vocal mixes and join in the Gangstagrass revolution.
“If you pay attention to the charts, you get an idea that there is black music and white music, but a lot of people have Hank Williams and Jay-Z on their MP3 players,” Rench says. “When you get right down to it, the message of most bluegrass and hip hop songs is similar: ‘I’m a badass, so don’t mess with me’ and ‘I have the blues and life is hard.’”
While the future is unwritten, it’s certain that Gangstagrass will go down in history as the pioneer of a sound that brought country and hip hop together and helped desegregate America’s music charts. “Right now, people treat rural and urban American music like they are matter and anti-matter,” Rench concludes. “I’m hoping a good dose of Gangstagrass will get people past the blue-state/red-state thing and make them comfortable with purple. I want to provide the soundtrack for a wave of cultural miscegenation that will let us all party together at last.”