Gangstagrass bring their bluegrass and hip-hop hybrid to the Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea

Gangstagrass play at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on January 30Gangstagrass play at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on January 30
Gangstagrass play at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on January 30
Last year The Wedge played host to a band mashing up hard rock and bluegrass in the shape of the hugely entertaining Steve’N’Seagulls.

This January, Gangstagrass bring their own take on the sound of the Appalachians to the UK as they splice roots music with another genre indigenous to north America – hip-hop.

It started as a project by producer and singer-songwriter Rench back in 2006, but the line-up solidified into a full-on working band when he took the project out on the road. They first reached mainstream attention when their song Long Hard Times To Come was used as the theme for the hit modern western TV show Justified in 2010.

So which came first for Rench, bluegrass or hip-hop?

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‘It’s so hard to say, because in a way, country music in general and hip-hop in general go so far back with me.

‘In third grade at recess (break time), we would be all about putting down cardboard to do your back-spins – back in the ’80s when all of those break-dancing movies came out and all of the kids were getting in to it. But my dad is from Oklahoma, so when I got home from school the stereo was a lot of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and that sort of stuff.’

As a professional producer working in Brooklyn, New York, he would try to encourage acts to embrace the seemingly disparate genres, without success.

‘Working as a producer and making beats for local hip-hop artists, I always had these urges to pitch stuff to them: “You know, what would sound cool here? A fiddle, or a pedal steel guitar or something”, but they would never go for it. So it was an eventual thing of, well, if no-one else is going to go for it, I may as well try it myself.’

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The band now has four albums under its belt and is about to release a live album, which will be available on the tour. 

And while Rench admits that as a producer, the studio side of things allows him to control the sound, it’s in the live arena that the band dynamic really flies.

‘The live show allows us to take advantage of a lot of things.

‘Hip-hop and bluegrass have a really strong improvisational side to them, and both sides really know how to play that – and play off of each other.

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‘We found that we kind of had different vocabularies for the same sort of things, and we could make those translations. Like, in blue grass, traditionally you’d have enough old-time compositions that everyone would know, so even strangers could gather around in a circle and start playing and trade solos and pass it around - they called it a pick.

‘In hip-hop, you might have some guys on the corner where you’d have one guy beat-boxing and the others would start freestyling verses and pass it along to each other, and that’s called a cypher. So in the early days when we were rehearsing, once we realised a pick and a cypher were essentially the same thing it was: “Ah, ok, I get it!”

‘It all clicked and they knew they could do that kind of thing with each other. The MC could freestyle, and we wouldn’t know how long that’s going to be, but he knows how to give a signal to pass that to the next person, and that might be a banjo player to take a solo. We’re able to do that sort of thing at a live show, so it won’t be at all how it was on the record.

‘You’re going to hear some improvised parts and some new parts we make up on the road, and some on-the-fly reconstruction if inspiration strikes.’

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With a steady line-up, the band have learned to trust each other when playing live.

‘It’s been great having some of these players that have been with us for years, we really have that rapport and we can take chances – we’ve got each others’ backs, and it frees us up to do some really wild things on the stage.

‘One of the MCs that travels with us, R-Son, he is just an incredible freestyler and he employs this at the shows. At one point he might start freestyling a verse that’s not on the record. Not only that, but the verse he’s making up off of the top of his head will have rhymes mentioning things that people in the audience are wearing, things we did that day, or are in the city where we’re playing. We’re always blown away by that, and it definitely thrills the crowd to see that happening.’

Other genre-splicing acts have been accused of being novelty acts. What does Rench make of that?

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‘For me it goes way beyond the novelty of it. Some people might assume at first that it’s a novelty, but it’s genuinely coming from a my love of both genres and the fact that I’ve been listening to them both for decades and wanting to bring them both together while maintaining a sense of authenticity, and that brings the best of both world.

‘It’s about the formula that’s creating this as a genre, that’s not just: “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we did a country version of this song?”

‘It’s about creating original songs and exploring all of the possibilities so we can bring it out as a fully-formed thing unto itself and take advantage of all of the opportunities.

‘It is a serious thing, we have some songs that are party-oriented, but when it comes to the identity of the band, we’re doing this as the whole mission of the band – writing originals and fleshing it out as a real thing.’

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One happy side-effect of the band, is that not only that they can cross genres, but their multicultural line-up helps cross other boundaries. Does Rench feel like the band’s diversity is making a statement?

‘Yes, it absolutely does, because there’s this perception that there’s this division that runs so deep – but there’s so much we do have in common and so much to be learned from bringing people together and mixing things up.

‘We definitely want to take the chance to stand as an example, and promote the idea that this is a bridge that can be crossed and a future we can look at while we’re all listening to each other and collaborating.’

Is there an ‘average’ Gangstagrass fan, then?

‘It does vary a little bit. One of the unique things about Gangstagrass is that we can appeal to so many demographics and that allows us to play to one crowd in Brooklyn and another crowd in Kentucky, but have them both dancing to the same thing and that’s a really positive thing for us as a band. We can bridge these different communities – that’s a very hopeful thing for us.’


The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea

Wednesday, January 30


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