Gangstagrass is a multi-racial bluegrass/ hip hop group that is currently setting the Americana music world on fire with their new album, the brilliant and politically charged No Time For Enemies. Recently, by phone, I spoke with singer-songwriter and producer Rench, the mastermind behind the group, and R-SON, the Voice of Reason, one of the two MCs in the group, about their origins and unique sound, their songwriting process, and about their aforementioned new album. Our invigorating conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Americana Highways: Who would you say were some of your biggest musical influences growing up ?
Gangstagrass / Rench: Because I grew up in the ‘80s, it was definitely bands like Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. The first record I ever bought was a 45 of “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock, which was what we were break dancing to at the time. My dad had a lot of country music on the stereo like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and a lot of Gram Parsons stuff which was definitely an inspiration too. My appreciation of Parsons’ music grew as I delved into it more and learned about the significance of his music with the way he was bringing together country music with psychedelic rock and soul that a lot of people thought didn’t make sense at the time.
Gangstagrass / R-SON the Voice of Reason: For me, it was an even stranger sort of mix because just like Rench I grew up in the ‘80s right about the time of the start of hip hop. My mom also got me into a lot of classic soul stuff like Teddy Pendergrass and my dad was a big Jim Croce fan. So he got me into him and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and both of my parents were big Barbra Streisand fans as well. So, for me, it was all kinds of stuff. So, coming into Gangstagrass while I may not have known a lot of the bluegrass artist’s names, the aesthetic wasn’t that new to me. It was more about learning the names of the bands and their players because I felt like I was familiar with the sound.
AH: What do you think it is about bluegrass and hip hop that make it go so well together as it does in your music?
GG / R-SON: I would say that it’s because both of these musical genres are very much people-oriented and that they both originated as like the thing that people did when they weren’t working. And because they are both so improvisational you can do either one of them just about anywhere. So, like with hip hop it could be something as simple as just hanging out on the corner and somebody bringing a beat and somebody starting to rhyme and with bluegrass you can have just a bunch of guys chillin’ on their porch and one dude has got his fiddle and the other dude has a banjo and another guy has got some words and they just start creating and coming up with some songs off the top of their head. A lot of the aesthetic is the same as are the stories of people’s lives that are in the songs. I mean we’re all still working for somebody, we’re all still working ridiculous hours and we’re all going through our own individual struggles, but through hip hop and bluegrass, we are all also able to get out and tell a lot of our stories by expressing them through music.
GG / Rench: I believe you can put any kind of music together because there is so much cross-pollination underneath the surface of all music. It’s like listening to bluegrass and the fact it doesn’t traditionally have drums and the instrumentalists are playing really tight and rhythmic stuff and because they are doing that, hearing how you can easily put down beats with it. And like R-SON said, the improvisational elements of both of them are so similar, it’s really just like different vocabulary sets being used to describe the same things.
AH: Picking up on that, it still sometimes blows my mind that so many people don’t realize that the banjo was originally an African instrument and that it’s origins in America come from the slaves. Southern whites copied and adapted what is now known as the banjo literally from what they saw and heard the slaves doing with it. You also have a great quote, Rench, in which you say words to the effect that the separation of what is “White music” and what is “Black music” is a relic of the 20th century that should be basically trashed by all of us.
GG / Rench: Yeah, I think there is a real groundswell of opposition right now against this whole system of artificially segregated genres in the music industry. There are a lot of people pushing back against that and saying that we are just going to transcend that in our music.
AH: So, how does the songwriting process normally work for the band?
GG / Rench: Our new album No Time For Enemies was more of a collaborative effort than the ones before it. As a group, we wrote a lot of the songs together this time around, which was a very different process for us when it comes to songwriting. “Ain’t No Crime” of the album is a great example of this and R-SON, you can speak to how you kicked in with the energy you wanted from that song.
GG / R-SON: As Rench said, structurally we built this album a lot different from our previous ones. With “Ain’t No Crime” we were just thinking about what kind of stuff we really wanted to take a stab at both lyrically and musically speaking. I was listening to a lot of Outkast and specifically their song “Bombs Over Baghdad” and wanted to capture the wonderful energy of that record on the song. You can’t put that record on and not nod your head. I think it was Dan Whitener from our group who came up with the idea of just dropping it to half tempo in the middle of it and working it like that to see what we could do with it. I have to tell you that I am really proud of the way it turned out and that it is one of my favorites of all of our songs.
As far as our normal songwriting process goes, when my bandmate Dolio the Sleuth and I are writing verses we very rarely write verses together. For the most part, we usually surprise each other with the verses and then surprise the band with them. I never find myself wanting more from any of his verses and he’s one of the most amazing MCs that I have ever encountered. I am always really excited to hear whatever he has come up with. And then you know Dan is always writing stuff, and Rench is always writing stuff and we are always able to put it together and it always turns out fantastic.
AH: I want to talk a little bit about the time frame of the album, you guys actually started the album before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, correct?
GG / Rench: Yes, we actually started recording it in February when we laid down “Ain’t No Crime,” “Nickel and Dime Blues” and “Freedom.” We were actually scheduled to come back to the studio to do the rest later in March but then everything went into lockdown. Everything after that point had to be done with everybody recording at their home and then sending everything to me for me to put together.
When we were doing “Freedom” we were smiling to each other thinking that this was going to be a wild track to put out there right now and to play in front of our fans in places like Kentucky. We didn’t know that the whole country was going to catch up with it. Oddly enough, it doesn’t feel or sound as bold now as it did then.
AH: There are so many great lyrics on the album and one of the lines that stood out to me the most is a line from the song “Ride With You” which states “Build more bridges than you will with a hashtag.” What is the significance of or the meaning of that lyric?
GG / R-SON: Anybody can hashtag anything today and it can make them look good and make them look like they care about something. That’s an easy thing for people to do, but the real effort is thinking about what the hashtag means and asking yourself “Am I really about it?” and then “Am I really going to make the effort to create something based off whatever the hashtag means?” If you’re hashtagging “Black Lives Matter”, you need to ask yourself “Do they really?” and “Do you know what it means to say that?” I mean it’s easy to say “Black Lives Matter” and still go out and do something that is racist.The issue is as an individual one in that you really need to ask yourself what you are trying to do by posting that hashtag. Because if you really believe it, you should be saying “ Let’s do it, let’s make something happen to further the cause” and then of course you should be about going to go do it.
GG / Rench: Yeah, it’s a great line that points to the fact that if we really want to build something, we gotta go deeper than just using a hashtag on the internet.
AH: What are some things that give you hope for the future?
GG / R-SON: For me, I’m going to say my kids and for a couple of reasons, the return of sports. The fact that at every NBA game you watch right now, “Black Lives Matter” is right there on the court gives me hope. The fact that so many people are willing to take that stand right now is really amazing and also gives me hope. My kids give me hope because of some of the conversations I have with them about what is going on right now and how well they get it and understand it.
AH: What are some of the future plans for Gangstagrass?
GG / Rench: In the coming days ahead, we are going to have a lot of things coming out like videos and other content that will be centered around promoting the new album. And of course, we never stop writing new stuff and we are building up a stockpile for our next album already. We are all also just so ready and geared to return to the live stage which we hope to do in a huge way in 2021. In the meantime, we are hopeful that people will continue to listen to our songs and be inspired in their lives to do something positive to bring about change in our country and in our world.
No Time For Enemies (Anti-Fragile Records) by Gangstagrass is now available on their website , where you can also access information about their Twitch channel, their videos, and other info about the group.