As part of our International Folk Alliance Conference preview series, we're rounding up a bunch of notable acts that are coming to town and chatting about what's happening in their world. The International Folk Alliance Conference takes place from February 19-23. Details here.
Formed in 2006 by Brooklyn producer Rench, Gangstagrass is uncommon in that it mixes what seems like two very disparate genres: hip-hop and bluegrass. It's that special blend that led to the band being selected to come up with the theme song to FX's hit show Justified
. Since then, the group and its ever-shifting lineup have recorded three albums, toured like mad, and spread the gospel of Gangstagrass across the country.
Gangstagrass plays the 2014 Folk Alliance International Conference on Thursday, February 20, and hits the Bottleneck in Lawrence the following night, opening for Hot Buttered Rum and Cornmeal. We spoke with Gangstagrass' producer and idea man Rench by phone about how the band's sound might not be as crazy as it sounds.
The Pitch: How did you come to be performing at the Folk Alliance International Conference?
I had it recommended to me by bluegrass players. Several times, different people would be like, "You know, what would be great for you guys is Folk Alliance." We finally got our stuff together to send in, and Louis Meyers, the guy who runs the Folk Alliance, got really into it. So we got a spot and did a thing, and it was tons of fun. Last year was our first time.
In addition to playing the Folk Alliance conference, you're playing the Bottleneck in Lawrence the next night. Do you see college students as being a good audience for you guys?
It can be, for sure, yeah.
In retrospect, it seems that Gangstagrass was somewhat prescient in what it does, given the huge success of something like Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" this past year.
Yeah ... we'll see about that. I like to consider it two parallel but separate movements going on.
Well, I'm certainly not trying to do what they're doing, and they're not trying to do what I'm doing. I would characterize what they're doing as really smooth pop-country, y'know? With a rapper on it. Or, you know, the thing with white country guys kind of rapping over Southern-rock stuff. But it's kind of surface-level stuff, and it's not something that appeals to our demographic very much.
What the Gangstagrass project for me really is, is where you bring together real bluegrass players and real hip-hop MCs and real beats, and try to get the best of both worlds in there and see how they integrate and go authentically all the way with it.
I have noticed that Gangstagrass does some traditional tunes. Just this morning, I was watching a performance you did of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" How did you go about reworking that? It's a very traditional version but also very modern in its interpretation.
It came pretty easily. The rappers that we've been touring with for the last couple years really get what we're doing, and when I bring a song and put a beat on it, they know just how to jump on it now. They're familiar with that song, too. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" crosses a bunch of musical traditions, I think, and is seen as something from the gospel tradition, as well, so they kind of tapped into that.
A lot of the songs we do - well, not a lot, but some of our songs - we're tapping into a melody or a line from a traditional that's in the public domain, and we're kind of putting a twist on it.
I know the band is your project, but how did you put together the particular collective that tours?
It's been a cultivation of finding the right bluegrass players and the right hip-hop MCs that have the right skill level to pull this off, and also the open-mindedness and vision of what we do to get into it. We've definitely gone through different permutations of trying people out and have found some really great players to fill this in.
It's really a matter of me as ringleader bringing people onboard and letting them know the way that we want to take things and the particular kind of sounds we're looking for, and getting them to work that in. I'm picking the bluegrass side and the hip-hop side, and seeing the way that they go together, and guiding them in how the bluegrass licks can work into a beat, and how the rapping can fit into the harmony singing or progressions that we're doing.
Is there a particular sort of individual that is particularly suited to Gangstagrass?
Yeah, there is, and it's kind of the same thing I would say about a lot of our fans, which is, if you're just looking at what the industry puts out, where you have a separate country chart and a separate hip-hop chart, you have separate radio stations, you have separate magazines - separate everything - you'd think that these were two completely different markets. In some ways they are, but what people don't see a lot is that there are a lot of people out there with Johnny Cash and Jay Z on their iPod on shuffle.
There's a huge market of people out there who have eclectic tastes, who are enjoying all kinds of music, and their criteria for what kinds of music they listen to is "the good stuff." And that's true with the players that we've found. And that's what we've found with the musicians we work with. They're bluegrass players, but they're into other kinds of music and have grown up listening to hip-hop, as well.
Occasionally, there's a bluegrass player who doesn't know much about it but is really into the idea of trying it out, and they come onboard, and we kind of have a fun time trying out that cultural-exchange thing.
We find musically that the two different places that we're coming from have a lot of overlap, and we can capitalize on how both hip-hop and bluegrass have a strong improvisation element. There's a lot things that we have in common that we just had different words for. Once we figured out what the vocabulary was, things would just kind of click, you know?
People just standing around in a circle, just trading solos, just improvising - in bluegrass that's called a pick, and in hip-hop it's called a cypher. Once we notice things like that, it's all clear: "Oh, that's what we're doing? We do that, you do that - I get it!"
See also: Gangstagrass' "Long Hard Times to Come" is your Folk Alliance International Song of the Day
For more info on the Folk Alliance International, go here.