Redefining Americana: An Interview with Gangstagrass Producer Rench
Rench, producer of the up-and-coming band Gangstagrass, wants to redefine how we look at American music, starting with an innovative blend of hip-hop and bluegrass on his collective’s sophomore album Rappalachia, due out June 5th on his own label Rench Audio. It’s a daring blend of innovative modern swagger and classic Americana cool which dares listeners not to come along for the ride.
“I’m doing it because I like it, and whether it’s going to be become mainstream and what effect it might have on music in general, I don’t know,” he says. “But that’s certainly something I’ll be glad to find out. I know that, aside from the people who say “I like country and I hate hip-hop” or “I like hip-hop but I hate country,” those appear to be the extreme cases. There are a lot of people out there who have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on the playlists on their iPod.”
Rench sat down to talk to “Hear! Hear!” about the process behind his music, what continues to inspire him, and why sometimes it’s better just to listen to something because it sounds good, meaning be damned.
Elmore Leonard has said that Gangstagrass created a whole new genre of music from polar opposites. But I wondered, do you think the two genres – rap and bluegrass – are really such opposites in the first place?
Only in certain ways. The thing is, they’re perceived to be polar opposites and right now there’s a cultural divide, but definitely under the surface there’s plenty of common ground where hip-hop, bluegrass and country music are all coming from a very American tradition. Each genre is built upon aspects of communities coming together to tell their stories, about the hardships and the heartache, the pain of surviving hard times. That, and there’s always been the American tradition of combining various types of music.
Country music and bluegrass grew out of the combination of the folk music which had come up in Appalachia from European immigrants, and the gospel music which was coming from the south with the slaves. The banjo was an African instrument brought here through the slave trade, and combined with the fiddle from the European traditions, bluegrass was born. And hip-hip started literally through the cutting together of different records to make something new.
So there’s definitely enough common ground for you to look at both genres as coming from similar places. But I think in this country there’s defniitely a conception that there’s a separateness: there’s black music and white music. But that’s something which has been perpetrated by the industry more than anything else. For decades they’ve had separate charts, markets and radio stations.
It’s interesting that you should say that. I live in southern Indiana and over the last fifteen years stations which used to be pop and rock have shifted to more of an urban hip-hop format, going up against the regional country stations. So there’s a sense that the two genres are being set up as diametrically opposed: the country fans hate the rappers, and the rap fans hate the country people. What do you think it is about the two genres which inspires such a love-hate relationship?
They’re seen by people as the most central musical elements in this urban versus rural divide people perceive, the whole “red state / blue state” thing. But I think we’re going to get over that. I think that’s something which has to be reaching its peak. Eventually we have to appreciate the overlap, how much purple there is out there.
Do you think bringing the two genres together bridges that gap and makes them more mainstream than they otherwise would be?
That’s yet to be seen. I’m not sure. I’m doing it because I like it, and whether it’s going to be become mainstream and what effect it might have on music in general, I don’t know. But that’s certainly something I’ll be glad to find out. I know that, aside from the people who say “I like country and I hate hip-hop” or “I like hip-hop but I hate country,” those appear to be the extreme cases. There are a lot of people out there who have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on the playlists on their iPod.
You’re just bringing those two worlds together.
Yeah, and I’m doing some integrating of different styles the same way American music has always been made, by people taking genres which already exist and then combining them in new ways. That’s been “progress” through American musical history, as people pulled together the disparate streams of the culture which came before.
As I listened to other interviews you’ve done, I learned you were raised in California but your father was from Oklahoma. That got me thinking about Bakersfield country. That hybrid was nomads bringing country music with them as they traveled west during the Depression, eventually merging it with Rockabilly. So is Gangstagrass doing that same thing in the 21st century, taking what we already have and making it new?
I’d be happy to say yes to that, to take that on! I’m definitely, myself, a big fan of the Bakersfield sound. I love those guys like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard. They were part of this outlaw movement which definitely bucked the trend at the time of country music getting really soft: “country-politan” as they called it. Like I said, I don’t know where this is going to go, but if this brings in a new direction, I’d be happy because I personally feel what’s happening with hip-hop and country in the mainstream – what’s at the top of the charts – is not that exciting in terms of the potential of those two genres. There is a lot of exciting stuff happening with hip-hop and country music, but you’re not going to hear it on the radio.
Both country fans and rap fans have for years wanted their music to be mainstream. But now they’ve both gotten their wish, it seems perhaps many wish they hadn’t because mainstream success stymies what you can do creatively.
I think there are people doing really creative things. Outkast has done incredibly creative things with hip-hop, so that’s one example and there are plenty of things I listen to in terms of people doing interesting things with hip-hop, like the producer Dan the Automator, who I think has really great sounds going on. But the stuff they’re doing isn’t what hits the charts. The mainstream of hip-hop in general is pretty bland. The same goes for country. The Nashville country music industry has been putting out pop music with drawl, which is all that distinguishes it from pop music. Now and then you’ll get some fiddles mixed up in there, but I’d definitely like to see more out there with people getting back to the real country sounds in a way which isn’t backwards looking. Pedal steel and banjo are where it’s at, but we can use those to go forward in an exciting way as opposed to what happens now: “Let’s just make it sound like a rock record with drums, electric guitar and a singer with a southern accent.”
How do you go about writing music for Gangstagrass? Does the music come first, or is it more of a fluid collaboration between musicians and lyricist?
A lot of it is a managed chaos which I do as a ringleader, and I bring in these different people at different times and I orchestrate the way it all fits together. I’ll have the bluegrass guys come over and do some playing, and sometimes it’s just a matter of having them get together and do a bluegrass jam and see where I can take that by adding beats. Other times I come up with the beats first and see what they decide to play on top of that. I try to mix it up so that each song doesn’t sound like exactly the same thing. On Rappalachia, which we’re putting out in June, you’re going to hear a lot of different ways of mixing things together. Because of that, the songs come out with a different feeling depending on which we started with on that particular track, the beat or the bluegrass music and the rapping.
Speaking of Rappalachia, hearing the album in sequence, I liked how you kept some of the songs as pure instrumentals. But songs like “Honey Babe” stand out, with Brandy Hart singing as Dolio the Sleuth lays down his rhymes over the bluegrass picking. Everything blends so perfectly it’s as though you recorded it live on the spot. I know that’s not how it works, but the illusion is there.
I take that as a compliment, because that’s certainly one of the skills that I try to bring as the producer. One of the goals is to really make it flow together to where everything sounds fluid. Even when they are recorded separately, I definitely take pains to get that feeling right. If it’s not flowing together and feeling like a jam,
then to me it’s not working at all.
On your previous album, Lightning on the Strings, T.O.N.E.z was the main MC, but there’s more variety on Rappalachia because there’s a rotating group of rappers and singers. How did you decide to expand that Gangstagrass collective?
Gangstagrass was initially conceptualized as something where I could be working with different rappers on different tracks. My initial experimentation with that idea was on something called Volume One, which is not available anymore, but we had lots of different rappers on that. But when we did the theme song for Justified, and I knew Justified was about to start airing, that I thought: “Let’s do an album with a bunch of tracks with T.O.N.E.z so we can have more material with this same sound, the same lineup, as the Justified theme song for people who are going to come looking for that. Now that we have that out there, the idea on Rappalachia was to get back to the idea of opening things up to work again with the other rappers I enjoy collaborating with.
Has the association with Justified and the success of “Long, Hard Times To Come” made it easier for you to mainstream the bluegrass-hip-hop fusion?
It has definitely given us more opportunities to get out there where we otherwise wouldn’t have. Being nominated for an Emmy is nice to be able to mention when you’re approaching people. It definitely helps get phone calls returned when you can say you have this theme song on a hit show and it’s nominated for an Emmy. People tend to listen a little bit more. And it’s certainly great to have the exposure every week when Justified is on. Millions of people get thirty seconds of Gangstagrass in their ear, and we see the weekly wave of people on Wednesdays, new Facebook fans who tuned in to Justified and thought: “What the hell was that I just heard?”
Do you ever still come up against audiences who aren’t prepared for what you’re doing?
Online, yes. In terms of live shows or anything like that, no. The people who come to our shows are generally the ones excited about what we’re doing. There are purists, and in that respect it’s more on the bluegrass side of things.
I could have guessed. I’ve seen what they’ve done to guys like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek / Punch Brothers. They’ve run him up the flagpole and here he is the most innovative guy who just loves what he’s doing.
Yeah, there are the people for whom bluegrass is only in this particular formulation, and you can’t mess with it. For people who do something a little bit differently with it, they’ll say “that’s just not bluegrass.” But putting rap on it, that’s more of a crime against nature! It’s just really unacceptable. And there are people out there in the bluegrass community for whom if there’s swearing on a song it’s just not music anymore. But I would say that’s a thin slice of the community. That’s a particular set of traditionalists, but a lot of the bluegrass fans out there are really open to the ideas we bring to the table. We hear from people who say it’s great to have people expanding the genre, doing new things with it. You still have the authentic bluegrass there.
Have you heard any other bands building on your sound?
Not specifically bands which are doing it to imitate Gangstagrass. But in a way I hope there are bands doing that. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for more than a decade as I’ve been doing this stuff, and there have been plenty of people trying it. But it’s very rare that someone does it well. Usually it’s pretty disappointing when I hear of something: “So and so’s doing country and hip-hop!” And I’ll look it up and they just have a boring 808 hip-hop beat with a loop of dueling banjos.
What would you say to people who think Gangstagrass is just a novelty, or that you’re somehow violating the history of either bluegrass or hip-hop?
Those who say we’re violating the history, they just want a certain thing and aren’t interested in us doing new things with it. But that’s not something for me to worry about. Violating the way a genre works is the way American music has always been made. When people move into new ideas there are always going to be people who don’t like it. That’s not going to concern me.
How did the collaboration with Kool Keith come about on “Western”?
We just approached him. He’s someone I was really into, in terms of how creative he is with his lyrical approach. I mentioned it to people we were working with on reaching out to get guest musicians, and he responded positively as I’d thought maybe he would. If there’s anyone who’s going to be into weird stuff it’s Kool Keith.
As a producer, how do you know when you’ve hit on something worth keeping?
You just have to go on the feeling that it gives you. It’s a matter of going with your gut. When I’m in the studio I’m either really excited about something or, if I’m not, I’m saying: “OK what’s wrong here that I’m not freaking out over this yet?” The tracks I put out are the tracks that, while I’m working on them, I’m thinking: “Hell yes! Let me just listen to that again!” Sometimes I’ll end up not getting much work done for a while because I have to hear that particular track one more time. Then there are other tracks I might work on and think: “it’s okay … but it’s not hitting hard enough, something’s missing.” I’ll either take a step back and find something else to do with it, or I move on and leave that one off to the side.
What would you say makes for meaningful music?
Right now “meaning” in the music is not something I’m totally focused on. For me it’s about the feeling more than the meaning. It’s about the experience invovled in creating something that grabs you and makes you feel like dancing or stomping around. I’m very much focused more on that visceral reaction to the process. You’re experiencing and living the music more than you are thining about it. It’s the turn it on, turn it up and rock out approach, which goes back to that gut feeling I was talking about. It has to feel good. Think about food for a second. I’m looking for something with a whole lot of sugar on it. I’m not concerned about whether it’s good for you, I just want to know: “Does it taste good when you put it in your mouth?”
Where would you like to take the music of Gangstagrass in the future?
Well, I’d like to keep making it, first and foremost. I think there’s still plenty of potential to keep exploring new ways to do it, and plenty more music yet to be written. And there are plenty more people to attract to it, people who are going to love it. One of the stumbling blocks promotion-wise for us is that there are plenty of people where if you just say this is bluegrass and hip-hop put together, it’s going to turn them off as much as it’s going to turn them on. They hear it described and think: “That’s not what I’m looking for!” But when they just hear it, Gangstagrass as it is, they say: “Whoa! This is actually pretty cool!” It’s hard for us to go out there and promote with words what we’re doing, which is why Justified is the perfect promotion for us. It just comes on and people hear it. There are still plenty of people out there who simply don’t know that this is something they’d be into until they get to hear it. So we’re just going to keep on trying to get that exposure out there. We’re getting to the point where we can do some more touring and do more promotion of the music we’re putting out, to hopefully reach out to a wider audience.