SCHENECTADY — Erase what you know about music. It’s a lie.
It’s human nature to categorize that which we see as different into tidy little groups. It helps in conversation while describing something new to someone without comparing it to something else that’s known.
That kind of thinking landed Billboard in trouble last year when Lil Nas X climbed the country charts with “Old Town Road.” It was trouble once it balked at the song as fitting its definition of country music. It didn’t sound like George Strait. But, then again, neither does Florida George Line.
Enter Gangstagrass, a marriage of rap and bluegrass that has walked the line for a decade. It’s not Rakim. It’s not Del McCoury, either. It is, however, an intelligent approach at blending the vocal instrument of the hip hop emcee to a style of music with roots established in jazz, blues and country.
Rench created the sound. And, he has a lot to say.
Michael Hallisey: What’s your first love: hip hop or bluegrass?
Rench: Uh. It’s tough. Actually, probably going back to the start is really hip hop and honky-tonk.
Hallisey: How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?
Rench: I’m 44, if I’m doing my math right. I’d say, probably, on a baby-level, I was exposed to a lot of honky-tonk. My dad being from Oklahoma. [There was] a lot of George Jones, kind of stuff. Johnny Cash. Willie Nelson. So that’s definitely implanted there. That was on the stereo from the start. But, I would say hip hop, for me, goes to about second grade, third grade. Really having it take over the country. Beat Streets came out and all the break dancing movies, and all that. That’s what I was doing with my friends during recess. It was about laying down some cardboard to do your backspins. So, that’s pretty early on it really ingrained into my head the need for a block-rockin’ beat.
Hallisey: With Ice-T in the Breakin’ movie series. I remember that.
Hallisey: Where abouts did you grow up: Did you grow up in New York City?
Rench: No. I grew up in California.
Hallisey: Okay, so you’re all over the spectrum as far as the country.
Rench: I’m all over the spectrum. And, then I would spend some time going to Oklahoma to visit the grandparents there. Spent some time in New Mexico and then settled into Brooklyn.
Hallisey: So, you’re like a cosmopolitan of sorts, and it’s important because you’ve been exposed to all the regions of the country. People can say the United States can be broken up into many different countries because there’s different cultures, food and music. It sounds like you were exposed to all of that.
Rench: Yes. And, I definitely feel like in some ways it’s a mission to show people how these things we feel are so different have so much common ground and how they can be appreciated, and not in contrast with one another in combination. Because, that’s been my experience in life as how much you can go to these places that are very different and find at the core this common ground with humanity and how much we are all going through our human lives, and our struggles, and our finances, and our love lives. Everything. And, how these things resonate. In some ways, we have such an illusion: these
different genres, these different cultures that we have now. But, if you trace it back, so much of it has such a common ancestor, in a way. That’s a conversation that we’ve been having a lot with us, plus with Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. A lot of people are starting to look at how, when you first have recorded music being released, that this distinction between blues and country, for example, was really artificially implanted by the people who decided that the way for them to sell the music to a segregated audience was to give it different labels. Even though they were going into the South and recording all this Southern music that was just completely blended at the time.
Hallisey: Really? It’s amazing to me because from talking to many artists, the artists who are creating the music oftentimes don’t want to be pidgeon-holed into a certain genre because they are creating something from themselves. It’s the record labels, it’s everybody else who do it so they can market it and sell it. But, I still have to ask, what kind of genre would you put Gangstagrass in?
Rench: Oh, I don’t mind talking about hip hop and bluegrass and genres, but it is definitely true what you’re saying. On the artist’s side, we see all of these lines and these overlaps that don’t fit into trying to say that it fits into say this or that. And, I come from the fact that music has always been such a dialogue across different people and so much sharing with people. It’s always been the instinct with musicians. Whatever label people want to put on it, we’re not really stressing that much because the passion has always about getting in there and mixing it up.
Hallisey: Well, you love music. As a writer, if I read something of somebody else’s — I like how he did that, or I like how she did that — I imagine musicians are the same way, they will take whatever…
Hallisey: You had this epiphany — back in what, 2006, 2007? — you were listening to Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and because of this worldly knowledge that you have you put something together not many people did at that time.
Rench: It’s always been an urge of mine, even before that. I was doing honky-tonk-hip-hop projects as a band and as a solo artist, and then listening to bluegrass a lot in the early 2000s. Hearing just how easy it would be to put beats and rappers on it, because in the bluegrass tradition you don’t have a drummer, really. But, you’ve got the instruments being really tight and rhythmic with each other. So, I thought that really lent itself to it being used in that way.
Hallisey: I know you put something together, you put it online and people ate it up. But, to go that one step further to create music with other musicians, what kind of looks were you getting?
Rench: The ones who think its crazy weren’t really invited in the first place. And, like we said, musicians generally have an open eye to how things can cross collaborate. There certainly has been a change over the years, finding people who really got into it to make it what they do. But, it was a big hurdle, in a way. Going from having it be a studio project, where I can pretty much just do it, to bringing in a live band and making it a band-based thing, because there were all the mechanics and logistics questions. How do these guys work together, and the process of starting to learn from each
other about how it all fits together and starting to see that. It was one of those things like, this is more work but it’s also more rewarding. Because, you get to experience that on the level of the musician really exploring it and going through the process of learning rather than me just whipping it together.
Hallisey: Did you ever get an opportunity to speak with Ralph Stanley before he passed away?
Rench: No. No. I was always too off the radar. I’m over here in my little corner doing my thing.
Hallisey: I imagine you crossed paths with a few bluegrass artists.
Rench: It’s true, and one of the early ones, I had already been a fan of, a band called the Dixie Bee-Liners. Just through luck and happenstance, was able to connect with them with their singer Brandi Hart. Which was a real thrill for me because I love her voice.
Hallisey: Now, do you get any blow back from people who say, this is country or this is bluegrass, what are you doing?
Rench: We do. We know that that’s kind of a thin wedge of the audience. For the most part, overwhelmingly audiences have been into it and embraced it. The purists are just a pretty tiny faction there that complain about it, and we find them really amusing.
Hallisey: I could not help but to think about Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” while preparing for this interview. That blew up and Billboard took it off their Country List because it just didn’t fit the definition. They got a little blow back because of that. Thankfully it didn’t deter from the success of that song.
Rench: It had the opposite effect, of course. Bringing a lot more attention to it.
Hallisey: Now, when you heard that, I imagine you had some thoughts. Especially with what kind of music you produce.
Rench: I have so many thoughts on it. But, a lot of it to me goes a lot deeper and into that historical stuff that I was mentioning; about why we have such a racialized conception of our genres in the first place, why we have these genre boundaries themselves. The way that they’re set up that basically give us this impression of things being from a certain part of the country, by a certain kind of people, that’s sort of been imposed artificially. So, I think there’s an impression of country music — a particular
aspect of country music — that gets represented as country music as a whole, and people can easily forget about how much complexity there is within country music, and how much diversity there’s actually been in country music, [and] where the roots of country music come from, in ways.
For example, a lot of people would not know that the banjo originally came from Africa. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What’s you go from there, you’re looking at the original string bands in country, many of which were multi-racial. The way Jimmy Rogers learned his blue yodels were from black musicians. All these cross-pollinations that happened. And, then, the record labels started up, when they first started selling recorded music, sometimes they would sell the same album and put a different picture on it — of a white band or a black band. If they were marketing to the black audience it was called race music, and if they were marketing to the white audience it was called hillbilly music. But, at the time, to musicians in the South that was something they did not actually considered it, and a lot of times, they were all playing together.
And, of course, country music changes over time. For good and bad. And, being a bluegrass and honky-tonk fan, there are things I wish were more prominent on the radio these days, but they’re not. In some respects, you sort of have to allow for things to be shifting. And, thinking that there’s one definition that’s going to be somehow a true, unchanging definition is just grasping at an illusion. People have been using beats and electronics stuff in mainstream country for ten, fifteen years, now. So, you have to ask if somebody just starts complaining when a kid from Atlanta has a trap beat on it, why now? You have to ask those questions about whether there’s certain ways that people have these cultural and racial conceptions of music get tripped up subconsciously, even.
Hallisey: I have to admit that when I first heard of Gangstagrass a few years back, I didn’t give it a chance. It was around the same time as when Big Smo and Colt Ford were blending rap in with county. I listen to rap and I listen to country, but I wasn’t loving this. But, while preparing for this interview, I was listening to your work when “Peaches” came on. I was like, I like this. What the hell just happened?
Rench: Yeah, yeah. Well, there’s something I would definitely want to make clear, when talking about country rap stuff, or Lil Nas X, is that there’s so many ways to do this. Gangstagrass is a different formula than everybody else that’s doing it. It’s something I definitely feel is missing in general. A lot of times, when people are trying to do this combination… The formula for Gangstagrass is to bring in bluegrass pickers and instrumentation, and bring in hip hop emcees. So, it’s not just the idea of [mocking tone] ‘Oh, the rapper has a drawl and he’s rapping about trucks.’ But, otherwise, it’s indistinguishable from a hip hop song. Or, like, there’s some rapping, but it just sounds like a pop song or a country song. The idea here is to have the instrumentation there. When you’re hearing banjos and fiddles and dobros, and you’re getting the full on treatment, it’s not being left out when you’re using the lowest common denominator, or just a sample. Just dipping your toe in. This is a full commitment to really exploring a country band, and hip hop emcees and beats being fully accounted for in the music.