Having opened his newest Gangstagrass tour the previous evening in the band’s native New York — specifically, at the West 26th Street eatery known as Hill Country Barbeque — band founder Rench detected a pattern.
“We play at places that seem to involve a lot of barbeque and alcohol,” said the guitarist and producer. “We call it ‘Brews and Ques.’ It just ties in nicely with us. It’s one of those common ground kind of things where we play places where people enjoy barbeque and whiskey and bourbon. We tend to attract people based on the style of stuff we’re doing.”
The “stuff” Gangstagrass specializes in is a perhaps unexpected but thoroughly organic assimilation of bluegrass and hip-hop – a sound executed onstage by a guitarist, banjoist and dobroist along with two emcees providing raps and rhymes in place of conventional singing.
It’s not a new hybrid. Rench began cultivating it 12 years ago and gained national notoriety when Gangstagrass applied the sound to “Long Hard Times to Come,” which became the theme for the popular, Kentucky-based TV series “Justified” and earned a Grammy nomination for the band in 2010.
... there are definitely plenty of people out there who are not ready for this.
Now, eight years and three albums later, Gangstagrass’ music has won solid fanbases around the country, including one in Lexington. That explains its return Friday night to Willie’s Locally Known — yet another barbeque emporium. But there are also those who still view the contemporary beats and rhymes of hip hop as intrusions on the largely traditional string sounds of bluegrass.
“It’s really cool to see all the people out there who get it,” Rench said. “We’re also amused by the people who don’t, because there are definitely plenty of people out there who are not ready for this.
“Hip hop, even from its conception, was about pulling different sounds from within a band, where you had the original DJs that were mixing together funk albums with new wave albums. So there has always been a notion within hip-hop of integrating different styles. Technically, that’s true of bluegrass, too. I mean, Bill Monroe was combining Appalachian folk ballads with other traditions. We find, though, that there is a small slice of the bluegrass community that feels strongly about a particular formula – one that represents, they think, exactly how bluegrass is supposed to go. They don’t want drums, for instance. So, to them, hip-hop and rapping has become a crime against nature.”
When we say, ‘Hey, come check out some bluegrass/hip hop music,’ people imagine something really bad in their minds.
Rench also admits that the sound Gangstagrass strives for isn’t something that can be neatly sold to an unfamiliar audience through an ad campaign. It is when the resulting music is heard, that its thematic and even rhythmic cohesiveness is revealed.
“We have a big hurdle to overcome,” Rench said “When we describe what we’re doing with words, it doesn’t attract people to check it out. When we say, ‘Hey, come check out some bluegrass/hip hop music,’ people imagine something really bad in their minds. So having cut something like the theme to ‘Justified’ became the best kind of promotion for us. Having 30 seconds of Gangstagrass pop up on TV every week like that was the perfect way to introduce people to what we do.
“Still, some people think we shouldn’t include hip-hop in our music because it’s too violent. But when we refer back to these murder ballads from the early days of bluegrass and old time music, the songs are incredibly violent. I put ‘Knoxville Girl’ (the popular but harrowing Appalachian murder ballad cut by such giants as the Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs) on in the tour van once and the emcees’ jaws were dropping with the descriptions of what happened to this poor girl.”
The next step in furthering the Gangstagrass sound will come with its current tour. The band will record all of its spring concerts and plans to release a scrapbook of performances pulled from them as a live album later this year.
“It’s something we’re particularly excited about because our live shows are so different from our recordings. Bluegrass and hip hop both have really strong improvisational elements and we take full advantage of that for our shows. We go offscript and do a lot of things on the fly, where we might go a little extra long on songs and restructure them spontaneously. So if you come to see Gangstagrass, you’re not going to see us playing note for note what we did on the album. You’re going to see us just kicking it off and kind of winging it, in a way.
“We wanted to give a chance to people who aren’t around these places where we’ve gotten to play to hear how it sounds when we take advantage of that kind of spontaneity.”