Gangstagrass was just nominated for an Emmy for the theme song of the hit FX series: Justified. The show stars award winning actor Timothy Olyphant and features the song “Long Hard Times to Come”, written exclusively for the show by Gangstagrass!
Sometimes you just know what has to be done and you can’t put it off any longer. History has to be made and there is no other way to do it than to just jump in the deep end and start swimming.
In the summer of 2007, Brooklyn based producer, singer, and songwriter Rench was at such a crossroad. He had been producing honky-tonk infused trip-hop albums of his own material for several years, and had also developed a stable of NYC emcees that were recording at his studio.
All along he had an idea in the back of his head that just wouldn’t go away – take rap vocals, add beats, along with classic bluegrass for all the instrumentation and call it Gangstagrass.
You see Rench had always had a love for both country music and hip-hop. As a kid growing up in Southern California, Rench spent recess breakdancing to Run-DMC on cardboard boxes and evenings hearing his father’s country and bluegrass records. It turns out he was not alone.
Rench took the dive. He cancelled all other plans and spent the next month sequestered in his basement studio, several boxes from his classic bluegrass album collection by his side. The rappers he had worked with had no idea about the likes of Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe or the Carter Family, but agreed nonetheless to let Rench use their vocals. He emerged with what is now known as Gangstagrass: Volume 1, a 22 track epic album of heavy hip-hop rhymes perfectly blended with old-time banjo riffs and bluesy Dobro slides. Rench promptly offered the whole album as a free download. Over the next two years word of the “Volume 1” spread like wildfire and the consensus was, you may not think country music and hip-hop music could go together. Think again.
After several hundred thousand downloads the Gangstagrass sound was clawing its way onto the American musical landscape. In early 2010, the free album got into the hands of the producers of a new FX show titled Justified. The show follows Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who is a throwback law man, complete with a Stetson hat, cowboy boots, and a semi-automatic pistol in his hip holster. The producers felt that Rench’s music fit the “Wild West meets modern-day society” theme of the show, and asked Rench to create a new Gangstagrass track for the show’s opening theme music.
Rench worked with Bronx native and younger brother of early hip-hop stars Special K (Treacherous Three) and T La Rock (“It’s Yours”), T.O.N.E-z (an emcee featured on several tracks of Gangstagrass: Volume 1) to create “Long Hard Times To Come” for the Justified theme song. At this time there were to be no bluegrass samples – the instrumentation would come from live bluegrass musicians. Rench assembled an all-star team of pickers to join him at his Brooklyn studio and re-create the Gangstagrass sound. The live instrumentation far surpassed what Rench had made before. The hip-hop/bluegrass hybrid had truly come to fruition.
Lightning On The Strings, Thunder On The Mic was released to the eager ears of fans across the country that had searched out the makers of Justified’s theme song. A few months later, “Long Hard Times To Come” was recognized with an Emmy nomination (Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music), and the cat was out of the bag. Gangstagrass had staked its claim among American music genres.
Although country music and hip-hop are perceived to be diametrically opposed music styles, the appeal of Gangstagrass is easy to understand. Gangstagrass was born out of a sincere love for good music and an “I just don’t give a fuck” attitude towards sonic boundaries.
“If you just pay attention to the charts, you get this idea that there is black music and white music, as if different genres serve two completely separate audiences. That’s just not true,” says Rench. “There are a lot of people out there with Hank Williams and Jay-Z on their mp3 player.” Gangstagrass is not just for big hip-hop or country fans. It is also for fans of good music of all types, who aren’t afraid to transcend the habit of musical segregation. Gangstagrass is true blue American music that is here to stay.
How do you describe your music to people, Rench?
There are are only three bands that can tame a mountain lion just by playing. Gangstagrass is one of them. Gangstagrass is also the other two.
Even though Gangstagrass can accurately be described as Bluegrass and Hip-Hop mixed together in a nuanced way that bring out the best of both worlds, I hold back on that because lots of people who don't like Bluegrass or don't like Hip-Hop love Gangstagrass. There are folks who think bluegrass and hip-hop together is an awful idea, but when they hear Gangstagrass, they think it's great.
Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
When I was ten I wandered alone into the Sangre De Christo mountains in New Mexico. As night fell, I encountered a rattlesnake. Unsure what to do, I tried breakdancing, which had been my usual recess activity, but the snake was only provoked by my popping and locking. The first three bites happened before I could blink an eye. Another six happened while I did the windmill. Then I ran, but I didn't get far before blacking out. When I woke up, Bigfoot was cooking me rattlesnake stew and tending my wounds. He told me hip-hop is good, but it never saved anyone from a rattlesnake. He handed me three vinyl records - one by George Jones, one by Loretta Lynn, and one by Merle Haggard. Then he was gone. When I got home I bought a sampler, and started making beats. But these beats had honky-tonk on them. A few years ago I also started having hip-hop emcees spit rhymes over bluegrass samples of Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe.
What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
Producing great tracks. I lose track of time in my studio. I could go forever. I love making beats, sampling, recording instruments, writing songs, singing, mixing, the whole thing. It is a big thrill to think up a song and hear it come together. When the elements start fitting with each other, some times I just have to get out of my chair and let the track play a few times and rock out to it. When I bring musicians into the studio, like with the bluegrass players in Gangstagrass (Todd Livingston on dobro, Matt Check on banjo, Jason Cade on fiddle), it is so exciting to get them going in the right direction and hear insane licks come out, and know that I got it on tape. There is a moment of transcendence when I hear a nice twangy bluesy lick and it is perfect, and it was the first time it was ever played on that song, it was created in that moment and now the song has the perfect lick right there.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
There is just so much to do. I could really use more hours every day, because I know there are a lot, a whole lot of people out there that would love Gangstagrass and it takes work to get the word out. There is so much music being produced and advertised, it is hard to get through all the noise directed at music fans out there, especially as a completely independent artist doing something unique. There is no pre-existing gangster bluegrass scene for us to plug into; this is a market that we are creating as we go, so we are building this fan base one fan at a time. This is such a unique sound, and people love it when they hear it but it is not something they are searching out, so we have to get it to their ears somehow. We are not on a label, no management, no nothing. This is a guerrilla operation that is built on sweat and duct tape.
When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I thought I would just be an older kid. I wasn't interested in an occupation. I didn't want to do something for money. I wanted to play and create. I'm still trying to just do what I love and live that way, to basically just grow up but still be a kid in terms of being excited about making things and breaking things and adventure.
In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
I've been very influenced by time I have spent in New Mexico, and also living in Brooklyn for the last fifteen years or so. America has such incredibly different places, yet they are all still very American places. In NYC there is country music, and that surprises people - they think it wouldn't be going on here, but in NYC there is some of everything, because even if only a fraction of a percent of the people are into something, a fraction of a percent of eight million is still a lot of people doing it. You get to be influenced by a little of everything here, and also see how it can all co-exist. I am inspired by seeing people doing dirty old honky-tonk or bluegrass music in the middle of the city. It shows you that American culture is not as segregated as we are led to believe.
What other artists out there do you love?
This week I have been listening to a couple albums where Clarence Gatemouth Brown did country music and played fiddle instead of blues guitar, and they are amazing. A lot of the stuff I listen to is from the seventies, there was so much great country and soul music made then. In the seventies, Ralph Stanley was making amazing bluegrass albums with the Clinch Mountain Boys and he had Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs in the band that that was like a dream team, just perfect. Gram Parsons was crossing genres in the seventies by bringing together country and rock and soul music. The whole Stax catalogue of soul music in the sixties and seventies was amazing, all the muscle shoals recordings. In terms of current musicians, I am a big fan of Dan the Automator as a producer, he does great stuff. I also like the way Outkast has been so creative with Hip-Hop. I've been listening to the new Sade album non-stop. I also listen to a lot of independent, little-known country musicians, because the stuff that the Nashville country music industry is putting out is not for me. The good stuff is over on the fringes, like Lana Rebel, Freakwater, Ollabelle.
What does your future hold?
I can't wait to do some Gangstagrass live shows. It is tough to schedule because it's sort of an all-star team and there is always someone who is out on tour or booked doing something else. But when we get to do some live dates it will be awesometacular. At the end of the month we will find out if we won an Emmy for our theme song to the show Justified. That may help get more exposure for the album. There will be more people talking about Gangstagrass in the coming months. Before long we will definitely do some new Gangstagrass tracks. There will be tours, there will be narrow escapes from mobs, there will be television appearances and there will be kidnappings. There will be fights with coyotes and solid gold banjos playing music from heaven and there will be waking up in a dumpster in Tijuana. There will be big things, dangerous things, and beautiful things.