New songs and bands end up on our radar because of the Spotify or YouTube algorithms based on listening habits. However, it creates a problem for bands with a unique sound, like Gangstagrass and their innovative mix of bluegrass and hip-hop.
“Describing us with labels tends to play a little bit funny with some of the mechanisms of the market itself,” banjo player Dan Whitener said. “Algorithms, of course, and the organizations—whether it’s a radio station or an award organization. You have to categorize it to say anything about it or get it in any channels.”
While Gangstagrass may be new to you because the system has no idea what to make of it, it’s by no means a new band. Producer Rench (Oscar Owens) founded the group in 2006. Their song “Long Hard Times to Come” is the theme song for TV show “Justified” and got Gangstagrass an Emmy nomination in 2010.
Rench grew up with country and hip-hop as strong influences. His dad was from Oklahoma, so honky-tonk was played in his house. When he was in grade school, hip-hop took over and he eventually became a producer.
“I always thought how cool it would be to add a fiddle sample,” Rench said. “I’d listen to bluegrass with my hip-hop producer’s ear and think, ‘I could put beats and MCs on this so easily. I can feel it. I can taste it.'”
To make it work, though, he needed a band. The lineup now consists of Rench, Whitener, MCs Dolio the Sleuth and R-Son the Voice of Reason, and fiddler Brian Farrow. It may seem like hip-hop bluegrass would have been a hard sell to both hip-hop and bluegrass musicians, but once they heard the music, it wasn’t a problem.
“Rench came to me about needing a DJ for his honky-tonk hip-hop band, and I’m like, ‘OK, that sounds like a thing,'” Dolio said. “I’m from the South, originally. I’d recently moved to New York, so it wasn’t really that far-fetched a thing for me to imagine. So he came by the crib and played some stuff, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, this sounds really good together.’ I was sold on it as soon as I heard it.”
Once Dolio was on board, he helped recruit others. R-Son and Dolio met at Penn State University 20 years earlier.
“I had left music. I was raising my kids. Then he sent me a little bit of Rench’s stuff and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, we’re doing this,'” R-Son said.
R-Son met Rench at a show in Philadelphia 10 years ago, went on stage and freestyled most of it. They did three more shows that weekend, and he’s been with the band ever since.
Of course, not all of their origin stories are quite so grand.
“I found these guys on a Craigslist post,” Whitener said, laughing.
They also don’t think their two genres are as different to musicians as they may sound to fans.
“DJs are always wanting to blend things together to see how they fit,” Dolio said. “When it comes to mixing and scratching, it’s about, ‘Does it fit, and if it doesn’t, can I make it fit?’ And as an MC, you should be able to rap over anything. It’s a test of your skill.”
Winning over the DJ set is one thing, but most bluegrass fans tend to be traditionalists,” Whitener added. But as Gangstagrass dug into the history of the genre, in the 1940s, they saw how it coalesced as a fusion of the music that preceded it.
“Stuff like race records and hillbilly records, which were created by the marketing departments at record labels; it wasn’t separate until they separated it,” he said. “In a lot of ways we’re just going back to a time before it was segregated.”
That desegregation makes Gangstagrass’ music inherently political. Because of that separation, bluegrass is a predominantly white and rural genre of music, and hip-hop is predominantly Black and urban. In the United States, with a long history of tension between those groups and in an era defined by animosity and outright hostility, blending those things is by itself a political statement.
Members of the band are aware of that, but choose to let the diverse lineup and the music do the talking. The mix of fans at shows and exposing them to each others’s music is the message.
“I know there are people who come to our show, and maybe that’s all they get,” Whitener said. “That’s not all of it, but that’s part of it. We get a lot done without saying a word.”
With their latest album, No Time for Enemies, recorded in quarantine in 2020 and released near the end of the year, that hasn’t really changed. Album opener “Freedom” is overtly political, but as a whole it’s not one-dimensional. Rench said it was crucial to place “Freedom” first because it’s a song that explicitly calls for racial justice in the U.S.
“This album touches on a lot of justice issues, racial, economic, whatnot, but it’s not just a movement album,” Rench said. “It’s not standing solidly on this one side of the fence and shouting across. We’re trying to plant a foot in that area where it’s not so black and white, it’s not so simple, so we can show there’s common ground. It’s a more complex conversation. … A prerequisite to finding common ground and unity in this country is to address these things.”
Dolio said that the concept of demanding humanity should not be controversial.
“It was never saying that only Black lives matter, it’s that Black lives matter, too, which seems to be a foreign concept. It seemed to be agreed upon that Black lives don’t matter,” Dolio said. “It’s extremely telling that when a movement springs up against police brutality, an entire police-worshipping cult springs up.”
R-Son said he came from a family with police, and he was one himself. He’s no fan of the “blue lives” narrative, however.
“That’s not a thing you can create,'” R-Son said.
To Gangstagrass, this is just another divide to bridge and another combination that works together if people to give it a chance.
“It’s like the genre thing. People think, ‘That can never be! You’d have to do some sort of laboratory science to combine bluegrass and hip-hop!'” Whitener said “You’ve gotta get people over the idea. Then they get into it and they realize it’s so easy. It’s natural. It’s as easy as putting people together.”
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.