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Gangstagrass: Bending the Genre

While some people take music very seriously, sometimes it’s just about being fun. Bluegrass music is fun. Hip-hop music is fun. Combining the two? Yeah, that would be fun.

At least, that’s what Brooklyn-based, Emmy-nominated, Billboard charting musician and producer Rench thought. “I could only imagine what it would sound like. I knew if I ever had a chance to do it, I would call it ‘Gangstagrass.’ I had been listening to Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and some early Union Station. I couldn’t tell if it was blues or country or what. But I couldn’t stop imagining what it would sound like with some rap vocals and beats.”

When he met banjo player Dan Whitener (Man About a Horse), Rench could feel his Gangstagrass idea come to life. Rench produced Dan’s folk-soul album, Crossover, and one of the tracks from the album was used in the Spike Lee film Black KKKlansman. The two musicians talked about the idea, and Dan was on board. The result was an album Rench put on the internet for free: Rench Presents: Gangstagrass, and people took notice.

It wasn’t long before the producers of a new show on FX Networks, Justified, called upon Rench. “They wanted that sound for the show,” he says. The show’s theme song, “Long Hard Times to Come,” garnered an Emmy nomination in 2010.

Dan was born and raised in Washington, DC and is active in the music scene in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. B.E. Farrow came on board in a roundabout way. He played jazz and classical on the upright bass and unexpectantly happened upon a bluegrass band playing in a punk bar. They called him up when they needed a bass player, and he played with them at a big bluegrass festival. B.E. was friends with Gangstagrass’s manager, and she encouraged him to check out their music. “I was already a hip-hop fan, and the lyricism convinced me to give it a try for a while.” He has been with the band ever since.

The interesting thing about Gangstagrass is that it is both genre-bending and a conversation starter, and the conversation can be challenging to some folks. “We work hard to blend this into a kind of soup that is the most genuine blend of all our backgrounds,” says Dan. “We are combining stuff that has never been combined. When you try to pin us down to a certain genre, it’s impossible. The whole idea of genre is a historical invention. B.E. says that he really isn’t a bluegrasser. “I’m more of an old-time musician, but I can hang on to a bluegrass tune, probably because I know jazz. All music is just twisted branches from the same tree. Dolio is more Southern hip-hop. R-Son, the Voice of Reason is from the Philly scene.”

Culture comes from broadly sourced materials.

“I used to raid my parents’ record cabinet when I was a kid,” recalls Dolio. “I grew up with a juke joint behind my house. We watched Soul Train on Saturday night and Hee Haw on Sunday. You can’t tell me ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ isn’t cool.”

As off the beaten path as they may seem, Gangstagrass has received a large share of mainstream attention. The band has played in Owensboro and on the PBS Bluegrass Underground series. They were a massive hit at the Folk Alliance International conference a few years ago and last year at IBMA. “We did America’s Got Talent in 2021,” says Dan. “They weren’t sure what to do with us. It was great to see the surprise on their faces. It’s better to experience it than to explain it.”

The band members have realized that the musical genres, and their audiences, seem to have more in common than not. Music can be a powerful unifier; through their music, Gangstagrass is helping people share their roots and experiences as Americans.

Gangstagrass has produced four studio albums and one live album, and their popularity continues to grow. Their biggest challenge came during the Covid epidemic. They had to make it work. “We set everyone up with a home studio,” recalls Rench. “I think we all picked up recording skills along the way.” Everyone sent their files to Rench, who said he was jealous of the duos some sent in. “We did live streams via Zoom, and we did pre-recorded things. We just made it work.” The result was an album called No Time for Enemies.

Dan said the album made during that time was a testament to the group’s strength. “We had all been going non-stop for years, and then we came to a dead stop. We had already recorded three songs and were rehearsing more, so that was helpful to us.”

Dolio says the time was therapeutic.

“We all missed each other. We were fueled by what the album became – it was topping the Billboard charts. When we were able to inch back into touring in 2021, we all got Covid.” Dan added that it taught them balance. “We had to learn how to be safe.”

The future is bright for Gangstagrass. They released a holiday album last year, and more projects are on the horizon. Rench believes there will always be an audience for genre-bending music. “There are more people out there with both Jay-Z and Johnny Cash on their iPod than you might imagine.”

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