Gangstagrass melds hip-hop and bluegrass

Contributing Music WriterJune 2, 2013 

Gangstagrass, from left: Doug Goldstein, frontman Rench, R-SON, Jon West and David Yannuzzi. The hybrid band is to perform Tuesday at Natasha's Bistro.

On paper, at least, the ingredients seem like musical oil and vinegar.

First you have hip-hop, a music that thrives in a studio setting, often without conventional instrumentation, to celebrate rhyme and beat. Then there's bluegrass, a string sound that is 100 percent organic, owing equally to vocal harmony and homegrown musicianship.

But together? In the same room? By the same band?

Now imagine merging such seemingly opposing styles in a way that avoids novelty altogether. Think you're up for that?

One-named Brooklyn, N.Y., singer, songwriter and producer Rench was.

That's how he arrived at the concept and realization of Gangstagrass, the band that kicks off the inaugural Best of Bluegrass festival with a concert Monday at Natasha's Bistro in Lexington.

"People are expecting this to be a novelty thing, and it absolutely is not," said Rench, who was born Oscar Owens. "We are sincerely doing this as something that we love, as people who really have a respect of hip-hop and bluegrass, to see where the two can really reinforce each other. And we're doing it as a full project, not as something we did just because it seemed like a funny idea. This can really be a whole sound that a band can explore song after song, album after album. There are so many ways to combine these two and bring the different flavors together."

Rench's fascination with the two styles is easily explained. He grew up in Southern California surrounded by both of them. Bluegrass was the music of his parents. Rap was the music of his peers. Establishing himself as a performer and producer in Brooklyn, he took to coloring hip-hop beats with pedal-steel guitar and banjo. And vice versa.

By the time Gangstagrass surfaced in 2006, Rench had discovered enough common ground between the sounds to make fusing them seem a logical and natural next step for his own music.

"I definitely keep a heavy element of the beat in there that comes from hip-hop. So you will hear those kinds of beat loops going on. But we definitely have a great balance that we get in the studio. That's what I put a lot of attention toward. I want these recordings to really represent what we can do. It's not just one thing being squished on top of another like layers. It's more of a tapestry.

"The mix is definitely complementary if you know how to bring the right parts of each of these things together. The hip-hop and the bluegrass musicians are both very improvisational. So that works out really well in terms of being able to have a live show with a lot of spontaneity, a lot of interaction and being able to play things by ear. The bluegrass guys play solos, comp and mix things up, and the hip-hop guys are just incredible freestylers and just jump on the music. Once they start rapping over it, they really change up the structure."

But what took Gangstagrass way outside Brooklyn was when the FX television network caught wind of the hybrid sound and enlisted Rench to come up with the theme to the Kentucky-set series Justified for its premiere in 2010.

The resulting song, Long Hard Times to Come, didn't so much sound like a bluegrass-rap mash up as it did an extension of the blues. Its mood was dark, rootsy, cinematic and enormously funky. It earned Gangstagrass an Emmy nomination and paved the way for its 2012 album Rappalachia.

"Justified has provided the perfect kind of exposure for us, because it lets people just hear our music without necessarily expecting it.

"We run into roadblocks not just in terms of people thinking that our music would be a novelty but with people thinking that it's not just going to be any good. Just say this is going to be bluegrass hip-hop music and people will genuinely imagine something that they don't want to hear. In that sense, promoting this music by describing it doesn't always work very well for us.

"So the perfect exposure for us is people turning on the TV to Justified and they just hear what we do without anybody trying to describe it to them. That is the best way for people to get exposed, because they might just start liking it."

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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