For as long as we’ve been covering the bluegrass music scene, even before The Bluegrass Blog was absorbed by Bluegrass Today, we’ve had our eye on Gangstagrass. This genre-bending outfit takes the banjo and fiddle out of the mountains and brings them downtown where they mix with contemporary beats and hip hop vocals.
While not everyone’s cup of tea, the compelling sound of Gangstagrass is the brainchild of the Brooklyn-based audio engineer and producer who goes by the name of Rench, who has generated a strong following for their music across a wide spectrum of music consumers.
The group consists of Rench on guitar, vocals, and beats, assisted by Dan Whitener on banjo, Brian Farrow on fiddle, and R-SON the Voice of Reason and Dolio the Sleuth on vocals. They stick with the tried-and-true song format, featuring a rap breakdown, that gives Gangstagrass an interesting urban/rural, black/white edge.
Their latest album, No Time For Enemies, keeps with this pattern on a mix of new and standard material. Mostly created by members of the group, it also contains guest contributions, like this mashup of styles on the old Stephen Foster classic, Hard Times, featuring vocalist Kaia Kater. Rench maintains the tragic beauty of this timeless melody, setting it against more raucous rhymes from the hippity hoppers in the band.
You get a more typical expression of the Gangstagrass vibe on Ride With You, a Rench original, which uses a county-flavored chord progression and melody, punctuated by the voice percussion and lyric repetition more common in the hip hop world. Noteworthy in their music, however, is the more upbeat tone of the raps, which seek to lift up more than tear down, and don’t wallow in the narcissism and nihilism that often marks this art form.
Whitener, who also goes by Danjo, says the paradox of the genre mashup shouldn’t really be seen as odd.
“Bluegrass and hip-hop have more in common than you might think, and that’s obvious throughout our new album, No Time For Enemies. At their core, both genres are all about authentic storytelling. And whether it’s a new original song like Ride With You, or a 170-year-old tune by Stephen Foster like Hard Times Come Again No More, there’s a shared theme of tough times and enduring hardship. We bridge the gap between centuries by talking about what’s behind us and what’s to come. Rench’s half-realistic, half-optimistic hook from Ride With You says ‘the future is a bumpy ride… I wanna ride with you,’ while R-SON’s chilling verse from Hard Times ends by reminding us that the present isn’t as rosy as we would like to think, saying ‘hard times are still here’.”
And they always will be.
Their music clearly won’t appeal to all bluegrass lovers, many of whom become agitated when any other sound infiltrates the music they treasure, but many others – especially those who already appreciate rap and hip hop – will find its charm.
No Time For Enemies is widely available now wherever you stream or download music online.