Timing in life is everything. This interview could not have come at a better time. Days after we conducted this interview our guest, Gangstagrass was nominated for an Emmy for “Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music.” I have always enjoyed when musicians merge genres. It is really amazing how Gangstagrass blends bluegrass and hip hop so naturally, I was really intrigued by the music they are creating. Join us as we chat with Gangstagrass and I highly suggest giving these guys a listen too, wow!
Stoli: What is up for you today and where are we talking from?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: I am in Brooklyn, at my studio, Rench Audio. The Bluegrass players all live in Brooklyn, and the rapper T.O.N.E-z lives in the Bronx.
Stoli: How did you come up with the name, Gangstagrass and what does it mean?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: Gangstagrass was the name that instantly came to me when I thought about putting rap over bluegrass. That was around 2003 or so, but it took a few years before I actually did it. The name was there way before the actual recordings happened.
Stoli: Where did the concept to merge bluegrass with hip hop flows come from?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: Since 2001 I have been doing honky-tonk merged with hip-hop, that has been my main project as Rench. That idea came from the fact that I grew up with my dad playing Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Gram Parsons records at home, but I grew up in Southern California and liked Run-DMC as a kid. I became a trip-hop producer, but I rediscovered a love for the old honky-tonk sounds. I started listening to some bluegrass too. I fell in love with recordings of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys from the 1970s, when Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs were in the band. I would listen to those albums and think about remixing them and adding beats, and then I thought about making rap albums with them.
Stoli: Growing up what musicians did you listen to that influenced your sound today?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: I grew up in the 80s in California, and I loved Run-DMC and the Beasty Boys. From there, there have been lots of hip-hop artists that have changed the way I think about music — Cypress Hill, Missy Eliott, everything produced by Dan The Automator, Outkast, to name a few. Later I got back to music I had heard from my dad, classic honky-tonk like George Jones and that became a big influence on the stuff I produce.
Stoli: I would think you guys come out of Alabama but you are in Brooklyn, NY. Let us know a bit about where you are coming from?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: New York City is such a big city, you can find people that are into anything. Even very obscure things, you can find lots of other people in the city that are into them. So even though people don’t think of NYC as a place where country music happens, it actually has a lot of country music going on. It may be only a fraction of a percent of the 8 million people here, but that is still a lot. There are bluegrass jams here in Brooklyn, and certain bars and clubs that host a lot of country music events. I play a lot at a little honky-tonk bar called Hank’s Saloon, right in the middle of Brooklyn. Also, many people in NYC moved here from other parts of the country, some from the south or rural areas where they grew up with country music as part of the culture. They live in NYC now but they bring that musical sensibility with them. NYC is a perfect place for this kind of cross-pollination to happen.
Soundcloud – Audio of Gangstagrass:
Stoli: What kind of equipment does Rench use when he is composing the beats and instrumentals?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: I use Pro-Tools for all the recording, and also Reason for programming samples and midi stuff. I keep it simple, just a couple of programs, nothing extra, no special plug-ins or anything. The aim is just to make great sounds that don’t need to be “fixed” in the mix, so everything is done very simply and recorded directly, and only basic things like EQ and delay are done for the mix.
Stoli: I love the song, “Nobody Gonna Miss Me” off the new album. What inspired that song?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: I paired some lyrics from T.O.N.E-z with that groove that was developed with the bluegrass players, and they fit just right, the slow and heavy swing of that feel. I wrote the hook based on the feelings I got from the verses T.O.N.E-z wrote, about not connecting with people and alienated. I love the line “Friends come a dime a dozen. I want my money back.”
Stoli: For those that are new to Gangstagrass what can they expect from listening & buying the new album?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: They can expect to hear a particular sound that they have never heard before. Not just that these country sounds and hip-hop sounds are together, but they are brought together in a way with nuance and authenticity. So it should not feel like a gimmick, like a novelty. What you hear will be real. A real interaction between the best elements of both traditions.
Stoli: What are your thoughts on Bubba Sparxxx song “Deliverance” and could you ever see him on one of your beats?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: Bubba could definitely spit on Gangstagrass tracks. Maybe some time he will. I think you mean the album Deliverance, not the song. There are a few songs on that album that I really like, they have great country sounds going on, like Jimmy Mathis and She Tried. Timbaland produced that album and I think he is a great producer, I would even say he was influential to me as a producer. He did great with those tracks and I wish that album was all tracks like that. I was disappointed that most of the album doesn’t have any country sounds going on, it is mostly just hip-hop. There have been a lot of people who have done a country-hip-hop combination for a track or two. I don’t claim to be the first one doing it, and Bubba Sparxxx wasn’t the first one doing it. There is a long list, too many for me to even keep track of, going all the way back to the Disco Four song Country Rock and Rap in 1982, in the early days of hip-hop. In my opinion Gangstagrass takes it to another level than anyone has before because the country is all live instruments and the two sounds are so integrated, it is not one sound being inserted into the other, like country samples in a hip-hop song, it is simultaneously a country song and a hip-hop song.
Stoli: How did you hook up with TONE-Z and you knew he was the emcee you wanted to work with?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: T.O.N.E-z is an emcee that I have worked with for a long time. We met way back in the 90’s when I was working as a studio engineer and he did a session at the studio I worked at. I contacted him after that session to work on some tracks I was doing, and then he contacted me to do some beats for projects he was working on, and that has been going on for a decade. He is one of several emcees that I like to work with. Some of my original Gangstagrass mash-ups had other emcees I like on them, and I will probably work with them some in the future, but this album was made to feature T.O.N.E-z, because I knew a lot of people would be getting it based on hearing the theme song from Justified, and I wanted the album to have that same sound and same voice. He is great to work with and we will keep doing projects together in the future, and I think this album worked out just right to have him on almost all the tracks. I still included one other emcee, my friend Tomasia. She is another emcee I like a lot and she did an incredible job on the track “Big Branch”.
Stoli: How does it feel when you read the positive reviews and heavy support from fans?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: That is the best thing there is. The whole reason to work so hard on making this music and trying to make it the best it can be is the thought that you will share it with the world and people everywhere will hear it and enjoy it. So when you see that happen, that is the ultimate mark of success for me, to have people enjoying the music enough to write about it and talk about it.
Stoli: When you see Katy Perry & Lady Gaga naked in their new videos, what does that say for mainstream music today and do you respect that?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: I don’t disrespect that, it is a marketing choice that doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of the music. It is very hard to get attention for music these days, there is so much to compete with. Sometime you can make and incredible album and it doesn’t get noticed. As far as mainstream music, most of it today doesn’t appeal to me, but that is also true of mainstream music for the last several decades. That is just my taste for music, I like things with more unique character, things that are daring and original. I also look for a lot of soul in music. Not just “soul music” as a genre, but any music where the inspiration is expressing soulfulness. I don’t think that happens much in most of the music that is popular right now.
Stoli: What is coming up for Gangstagrass and where can we follow you?
Rench aka Gangstagrass: Right now we are rehearsing to make live performances as good as they can be, and we will start booking some shows. There may be some videos in the near future too. I am always working on new music as well, so there will be new Gangstagrass tracks going out to fans from time to time. To stay in the loop, hook up with Gangstagrass on facebook: www.facebook.com/gangstagrass or twitter: www.twitter.com/gangstagrass and definitely check our site for music, photos and more: www.gangstagrass.com.