Gangstagrass—Don’t Get It Twisted

“I’m out here with all the soccer moms. It’s wild out here,” says R-Son The Voice of Reason, amused. The emcee for Gangstagrassa bluegrass hip-hop group—is calling from Philadelphia, his hometown, as he buys Christmas presents on a weekday afternoon. Despite the apparently frenzied shopping scene around him, he seems cheerful as he discusses his band.

If you haven’t heard of Gangstagrass before, the phrase “bluegrass hip-hop” probably gave you pause. If so, you wouldn’t be alone: even after every conceivable musical mashup seems to have been tackled, blending bluegrass and hip-hop still comes across as a startling combination. It’s true, Lil Naz X did score a country hip-hop hit with “Old Town Road” last year, but it must be noted that Gangstagrass preceded that by quite a bit: this band formed in 2006. The membership has switched around significantly since then but has stabilized over recent years into the current lineup: R-Son and Dolio The Sleuth (emcees), Rench (beats/guitar/vocals), Dan Whitener (banjo/vocals), and Brian Farrow (fiddle/vocals).

But before R-Son explains more about the groundbreaking Gangstagrass sound, he is intent on clearing up a common misconception. “I don’t want anybody to think because we’re called Gangstagrass, we’re a bunch of criminals or smoke weed or anything like that. There’s a lot more to it.”

He also wants people to understand that this is not just some attention-grabbing gimmick. “Our whole vibe is very much a brand new thing for most people, so when they hear about it, they may be a little shaky, like, ‘Ehhh, maybe.’ But then when you see it, it really becomes a super-duper live action kind of thing where you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I was not expecting this to be so energetic and so very real and so very raw.’”

His assessment seems correct, judging by the buzz surrounding the band’s performances, particularly during the past couple of years when they’ve appeared at prestigious music festivals like SXSW and AmericanaFest. New York City concertgoers will get their chance to see them in action on January 17 at Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. (You can get a good preview by looking up “Gangstagrass – Barnburning (Live)” on YouTube.)

At a Gangstagrass show, “You’re going to see things you’ve never seen before,” R-Son promises. “When people hear the idea about bluegrass hip-hop, things immediately pop into your head. Our job is to dismiss a lot of that, what you think it is, and make sure that you get the really real of it.”

This is not to say that it’s always an easy thing to win over audiences. R-Son admits that sometimes it’s difficult to overcome people’s preconceived ideas, although he says the band have almost always been successful. “Multiple hundreds of shows, I can only remember one person ever reacting badly.” He chuckles at the memory. “We did our first song, we got done, and the crowd was going crazy. And this guy in front is just pointing at us and he’s like, ‘NO!’ and he walks off.” But R-Son shrugs off this rejection. “You see that, and then you keep it movin’, like, alright, it’s not for you. I had to just laugh it off, like, ‘All right, dude, we didn’t get you–that’s fine.’”

Still, R-Son says that most audience members are very enthusiastic in their appreciation. In return, he puts an extra amount of effort into his emcee duties. “It makes it a little bit more interesting and exciting to try and put something in people’s ears, that maybe they don’t know about, and maybe need to go and look up. I want the bluegrass fan to get all of the random hip-hop references, and I want all the hip-hop fans to get whatever bluegrass info I drop in the verse.

“I want everybody to be able to really be able to get something new from whatever Gangstagrass is doing, and to come away from it with a different perspective about the music, about the world. We’re really trying to get the whole world on the same page that, yes, we are all very different, but there’s a lot of similarity to all of us-let’s work on that and see if we can really have a good time and make the world a better place.”

The idea to do a band with this type of sound and vision came from Rench, who founded Gangstagrass in 2006 in Brooklyn, where he was working as a producer and singer/songwriter. According to R-Son, “Rench came up in Oklahoma, and his dad would play a lot of country and honky tonk stuff, but it was also right around when hip-hop was really starting to pop off. So he was in the midst of all of that, and it really affected the stuff that he was into and what he listened to. So when he started making music, he was like, ‘Well, what the hell—why don’t I just create this thing on my own and if cats want to get down with it, that’s cool.’ He put out the first Gangstagrass [songs] online, and it really started to pop.”

Gangstagrass performs live at the Hifi Indy presented by IndyMojo Presents, MOKB Presents, Sun King Brewery, Kolman Dental, P.C., and Do317 in Indianapolis, Indiana on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. Photo cred Melodie Yvonne

This early version of Gangstagrass released a debut studio album in 2007, Rench Presents: Gangstagrass. Four more studio albums and one live album have followed, each gaining more attention than the last. In 2010, their song “Long Hard Times to Come” became the theme song to the FX television series Justified. Through it all, Rench has remained the one constant member and guiding force. 

R-Son’s admiration for Rench is clear: “We call Rench ‘the mastermind’ for good reason. There’s very little that guy can’t do, as far as production, as far as playing different instruments,” he says. “Plus, Rench has got bars—that dude can spit, he’s got lyrics. He’s actually very, very dope. And so we call him the mastermind because he can do it all.”

Given the talent Rench and the other band members have, R-Son says it was an easy decision to join Gangstagrass when the opportunity arose almost nine years ago. “The reason I got down is because Dolio the Sleuth, he and Rench were in another band together called Battlestar America. I’ve known Dolio for 20 years, and I know he knows quality—so when he reached out to me, I trusted it. Then I listened to the songs and I was like, ‘OK, yeah, I can mess with this,’ because Rench was making dope beats.

“I always tell people I got really, really lucky. I’ve seen more of the world in the last eight years of my life than I had in the first 38, so I can’t complain. We’re about to go on this American Music Abroad trip through the State Department. And we’re going to Morocco. Then we’re going to Baffin Bay up in the Arctic Circle. The idea of doing all this stuff was nothing that ever crossed my mind ten years ago, and now it’s like, how could I not?”

R-Son excuses himself for a moment and can be heard politely asking a salesclerk for turtlenecks before returning to the call to explain the band’s next endeavor: an as-yet-untitled mix tape covering classic hip-hop songs, which they plan to release the same day as the Knitting Factory show. “The band is playing the sample, and then Dolio and I are dropping our own verses on it.” The band intends to release it as a free download, available at the usual digital outlets as well as their own website. 

One track on the release is particularly special: “Before he passed away, Prodigy from Mobb Deep opened up for us, which is a bizarre thing. We’re actually doing a version of “Shook Ones” for the mix tape. Being able to pay homage to a legend like that is a good feeling.”

With these songs, they hope to prove themselves on the hip-hop side of things, since so far, much of their success has come on the bluegrass scene. “We wanted to really get it out there that this is not just flash in the pan dudes that know a little rap stuff—a lot of this is really on the ground, really raw hip-hop stuff. We’re doing classic joints, like the Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By,” Royce Da 5’9”’s “Boom,” and Black Rob’s “Whoa.” From a hip-hop standpoint, it’s all stuff that as soon as you hear that lick, that sample, you’re like, ‘Oh, OK, this joint is on.’ If you really know and respect the culture and the music, you know that joint. We want cats to recognize it. That’s who we are, that’s what we do.”

He doesn’t mind making this effort to establish their place on the hip-hop side of things. “That’s just been the nature of hip-hop. You have to prove yourself, and your game has to be immaculate. And that’s what I’m in it for. I’m hoping that people will find their way into the lane, but right now, this is ours to win or lose.”

They’ve proven themselves before with their releases; Pocket Full of Fire: Gangstagrass Live, the album they released last summer, was on the Billboard bluegrass chart for almost 4 months, peaking at number two. While R-Son admits that it was rather frustrating to never reach the top spot, he says the band is still thrilled with this accomplishment. “Just the idea that we were able to hang within the spot that we were able to get to is pretty impressive. We were very proud of that. It was a big deal, and we were really excited about it.”

Still, they are not yet satisfied. R-Son says they are determined to aim even higher with their next studio album of original material, which they plan to record in the coming months. “We’re trying to make it a bonfire sort of year. The hope is that this next [studio album] will be the one that gets over the top.”

Regardless of what happens down the line with Gangstagrass, though, R-Son says that he’s already amazed at how his early dreams of becoming a professional musician have actually come true. “I’ve been rapping for a very, very long time. I wrote my first verse on the bus in first grade. Me and one of my homies, my man Quincey and I,” he says, adding with a laugh, “He was Master Q and I was Disco G!” 

Years later, he’s still finding like-minded musicians in his Gangstagrass bandmates, and he says he’s grateful for this. “We’re able to really maintain a good friendship in the midst of making really, really good music. That’s one of the things I want people to understand, is that at the end of the day, as we’re doing all this, you got a bunch of really good friends that are making really dope music. I’m very proud of everything that we’re doing and can’t wait for the world to see what’s coming next.”

Gangstagrass will play Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on January 17.