Interview with Rench from Gangstagrass

Karin McLaughlin: Talking with Rench from Gangstagrass.  We’re gonna start by talking about your performance at Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival.  How did you guys like headlining that festival and shutting it down there last weekend?!

Rench: We absolutely loved it – it was a wonderful festival and we had a show the night before in Chatanooga, which is about a 9 hour drive and when we got offered the chance to headline at Kingman, we’re looking at this drive thinking ‘is this even possible?(laughs) But we couldn’t pass it up. You know, hearing some of the things that they were doing, and actually Dan, our banjo player, had played in last years festival with his other band, Man About A Horse.  But hearing that Don Flemons was a resident part of it, putting some things together and the chance to interface with him and just knowing, through Dan, that it was such a cool festival, we decided to do it and we were thinking about doing the drive and then staying somewhere near by and then going and then getting there just in time to play.  As it got closer and our excitement was, kind of, to be there, we ended up driving straight through overnight and taking a couple hours (laughs) and then getting to the festival and in time to go around to see some of the other bands that were playing which were really, really wonderful.  Just such an amazing lineup all around.  And then the thing that Don Flemons was doing, with the Songster Revue was so great, I really enjoyed it.  A lot of the people that he was bringing on the stage were people that we were familiar with and we had run into on other occasions.  In fact, Kamara Thomas is somebody we’ve worked with before and had on the Gangstagrass track on one of our albums.  So that’s just one example of how we’re already familiar with some of the people that he was bringing up, but to see them put together as a group like that was so exciting.

KM: I don’t know if you’ve been back to DC much, and don’t even know if you recall this, but I remember seeing you guys years and years and years ago at a place called Artisphere.

R: Yeah, we loved Artisphere!

KM: Yeah, it was Record Store Day or something like that and you guys got to play and that was my first exposure to Gangstagrass.  I bought the CD and I played it in my car and people would be like ‘What is this?  Is it bluegrass? Is it hip hop?’ So we were definitely glad to have you back.  Now that was way back in I don’t even know when, so you guys have been around for a while, over 10 years ago.  You guys have been doing a lot since then.  I’m curious to know between your gigs and tour dates, how you’re received in the north and the south and if there is a significant difference if any on the reaction to the music.

R: Hmm, well, at our shows, we’re always received well because most of the people coming to the shows are familiar with us and what we do and are excited to see us.  There’s different people, so the audience changes but the enthusiasm is there.  That’s part of what is so exciting and sort of gives us hope about seeing people with the same kind of enthusiastic reaction for this, who otherwise, wouldn’t see themselves as having any common ground.  So we play in Texas or Kentucky for people who would be proud Rednecks and we go into places where there are Trump supporters and conservative is kind of the majority there and then we’ll play in Brooklyn or Portland or LA or somewhere and we’ll play for hipsters, you know, city folks and we’ll see the same kind of enthusiasm.  Part of what’s exciting about this project is the chance to have a platform that can speak to, sort of, across the divide and focus on ways that we might be able to find some common ground.

KM: So you are a producer and you produce hip hop tracks and put on country shows.  You’ve worked with some great, great hip-hop names, I mean, Dead Prez, Smif n Wesson on there.  Are there some, kind of, country or bluegrass legends that you guys haven’t gotten to work with yet that are on the list of people you’d like to see, maybe a collaboration with or write a track with, or even just do a show and share a stage with.

R: Absolutely!  If you name the bluegrass legends, I’m sure we would be happy to work with them.  Whether it’s Dan Tyminski or Jim Lauderdale or anybody like that – EmmyLou Harris.  There’s tons of people that we’d be so excited to sort of get in on this and have the chance to put them over some hip hop beats.  That would be really exciting.  We’d love to work with Aoife O’Donovan from Crooked Still or all kinds of bluegrass people.  We’ve had some excellent guests on the albums in the past, not just on the hip hop side but on the bluegrass side.  We had Jen Larson from Straight Drive and Brandi Hart from the Dixie Bee Liners.  Other great vocalists that have really done some amazing bluegrass singing over the Ganstagrass tracks that we’ve given them.

KM: A lot of people might not have heard of you before this, but you guys got quite a boost with ‘Long Hard Times to Come’ – I mean an Emmy nomination in 2010!  What did you notice change after that as you had that notch on your belt and could say ‘Oh well, you know, you might not have heard anything else but this is us and we got nominated for an Emmy because of that’?

R: Yeah, yeah.  I’m not the kind of person that can parlay a title like that into something.  I can do a lot of schmoozing because of it but it certainly has been a lot of exposure to people that have become fans through seeing Justified.  It is the perfect kind of exposure for Gangstagrass, because one hurdle that we face a lot is that when people hear it described, if it’s just communicated through words and we say, ‘Oh this is bluegrass hip hop, you should check it out’, they imagine something really terrible.  They don’t think it’s gonna be good so that’s something that we kind of have to overcome because they run in the other direction instead of coming to check it out.  When people just hear it, that’s when they say ‘Oh this works, this is cool’.  So when we got the theme song to Justified and that started coming on the T.V., you know, people are just tuning in to watch this show and they get 30 seconds of Gangstagrass in their ear, that was the perfect way for people to say ‘Whoa, what was that?  That was cool!’ and then they Google it and find us.  That certainly was a game changer in terms of the amount of fans that have been exposed to us out there to give us the kind of reach that allows us to go on tour throughout the country.

KM: Tell me a little bit about the song writing process for you guys.  I know you’ve done a lot of production stuff but do you think it’s a vast difference from other stuff that doesn’t cross genres?  And who does what – do you come up with the beat and then come up with the lyrics or vice versa?  Just take us through a little of the process in general.

R: Well, I like to try to start from different points and go either way with it because depending on where you’re starting from, it kind of changes the feel of what you’re doing so you get a lot of variety that way.  There’s so many different ways that you can create this kind of cross between genres.  So in order to not make it sound like the same thing all the time, there will be some tracks where I’ll start with a beat that I heard from one of the rappers tracks and I’ll think ‘Oh I like the rhythm and the flow of that, let’s write something like that’ and I’ll do a beat and then have the bluegrass players find a lick to play over that and that goes in one direction.  Then other tracks, I bring the bluegrass players in to just jam around and find a progression and play something and record that and then create the beat and have the rappers write a rap to that.  You sort of come out the other end with a whole nother feel because the production style ends up different.  Then, a third way is sometimes, actually starting with the bluegrass players and recording them but sort of going in a hip-hop style of production where I go through what they played and then actually just pick out a few measures here and there as samples and start looping that and turn it into a beat loop and stuff like that and it’s more hip-hop production.  We get to experiment with the recipe of exactly how much of each thing we get to add in and whether it’s more of a hip-hop style of production where it’s a lot of loops and some sampling or more of a bluegrassy flow where they’re playing through the whole song and then everything is put on top of that.

KM: Another way that you guys get fans involved, or kind of give them an opportunity to experience Gangstagrass in a different way is with Rappalachia. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind and the goal of the Rappalachia Challenge.

R: Well we’ve enjoyed doing some instrumentals on the albums and this is one in particular that, not so much as a hip hop beat, but as a bluegrass jam.  I think the interesting thing is the way that different people find different ways to incorporate a different hip hop verse over that and so we just open it up and let people know that ‘Hey, if you want to try something on this, go ahead, put vocals on it and post it.  If we like it, we’ll post it too and share it around’.  I would love to encourage more people to experiment with this and we can help kick start that – with people feeling ok to rap over a bluegrass instrumental, that would be really cool and inspiring to me.  It’s cool to see people from around the country, we’ve had about a dozen or so, that have sent us links to them rapping over it.

KM: Nice – you guys can make Gangstagrass the next Grammy category (laughs).

R: Yeah (laughs).

KM: So, last question, and we touched on it a bit before, but as far as 2018, anything that as a group or individual is on the music bucket list?  It could be anything, working with someone on a song, doing a tour with a group or person, collaborations, playing at or seeing someone at a certain venue – anything?

R: Yeah, I mean all the people that I mentioned before – Dan Kyminski, Jim Lauderdale is actually going to be at a music festival that we’re playing this summer in North Carolina,  so who knows about that.  I would say we actually – we had a great moment and would love to play again with Clemens and having that kind of relationship with him where we see him at a festival and we can say ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and we catch up and we keep running into each other, it’s great.  We’d love to probably run into Rhiannon Giddens, the other side of Carolina Chocolate Drops.  She’s been doing some amazing work in terms of talking about and spreading the idea of bluegrass’s diverse roots and the perception of bluegrass in terms of how much of an African American influence it originally had in it and how much it still should have if we get back to it.  That’s someone we would love to connect with more so, maybe a team up with Rhiannon Giddens would be on the bucket list for us coming up.

KM: You guys have quite a busy summer too.

R: Yeah mainly August, it’s gonna be our big trip around the eastern part of the country -including a return to Hill Country Barbeque.

KM: Yes, August 17.

R: Right, right.

KM: Rench, thanks so much for the time.  It was a pleasure seeing you guys back in the DC area.

R: Yeah, so glad you got to catch the show and that we got to catch up afterwards.

Ganstagrass will be back in the D.C. area playing a show at Hill Country Barbeque on August 17.  Find tickets here

About the author
Karin McLaughlin

Karin McLaughlin

Karin has been a live music junkie all her life, however is a fairly new fan in the world of jam bands and bluegrass. She grew up on hip hop, classic soul, motown and classic rock but has found a new home in the festival world and that is what, in part, had brought her to DC Music Review. Karin produces and hosts a weekly radio show in the area called Karin's Calendar, where she talks all about 'Where to be in the DMV'. She is very excited to be starting down a semi-new road with us and hopes to use her interview skills and write ups of shows to contribute even more to DC Music Review.