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Gangstagrass: The making of a movement

When this bluegrass/hip hop hybrid band took to the stage on America's Got Talent, they introduced the nation to a new genre of music, to a place where the jam might move, and to a message that is at the core of a real cultural movement. Columnist Ray Chelstowski of Goldmine's Natural Funk Projekt spoke with band members R-SON and Dan Whitener about what it's like being back on tour, the return of the cassette and more.
Gangstagrass. Photo credit: Melodie Yvonne

Gangstagrass. Photo credit: Melodie Yvonne

By Ray Chelstowski

Gangstagrass has never taken the conventional path forward. As a genre bending band, they have brought the worlds of blue grass and hip hop together in a way that has earned them an ever-expanding fan base and a unique position within the world of jam. Founded in 2006 against the groundbreaking vision of producer Rench (Oscar Owens), the band found fast footing by having their song ”Long Hard Times To Come” be picked to the open the FX series Justified. The song would later be nominated for an Emmy and that would further amplify awareness of the band. Albums would follow and the fan base would grow. However it was their decision to compete on the show America’s Got Talent that added much needed momentum after the pandemic ended tours across the globe.

Now they have returned to the road, kicking off their tour with west coast dates and a renewed sense of enthusiasm for what touring does to inform and enlighten their creative process. They are also able to finally now lend live support to the 2020 album No Time For Enemies, perhaps their most celebrated piece of work yet. There in America’s west they are reconnecting with fans. Many haven’t seen them live in over a decade. And they are busy converting those new to their singular sound into disciples. But perhaps their greatest impact comes from the message found within their music. In these troubled and divided times their commitment to communicating thoughts of unity, hope, and perseverance are not only making people move – it’s getting them to think differently about themselves and the world around them.

New Funk Projekt caught up with vocalist R-SON The Voice of Reason and banjoist Dan Whitener (the band is rounded out by Rench on guitar and vocals, Brian Farrow on fiddle, and Dolio the Sleuth on vocals) about how the tour is being received, what it was like to tackle an American folk classic, and how their fans help design and guide their impressively vast line of merchandise. We also found time to talk, pan flutes, cassette mix tapes, and what might lie ahead with regard to new material and messaging.

Goldmine: You’re out on the road in support the record No Time For Enemies. How’s it been being back in front of live audiences?

R-SON: It’s going really well. We’re just kind of rockin’ out. The first shows out west here were both really dope. Just being able to tour on the strength of the album has been fantastic. It’s just really good to be back in front of people.

Dan Whitener: Yeah, for some people it’s been two or three years since they saw a live show because of everything having been shut down. We were just talking about for how it’s been close to ten years since we’ve played some of these spots in Colorado. So there’s definitely a lot of new converts. But there are also a lot of folks who’ve been waiting for a while to see us again.

GM: When John Mellencamp released the 1987 album Lonesome Jubilee he introduced a number of bluegrass instruments to the music and people thought that the success of the album would push the genre to the forefront. It didn’t. That happened when you emerged as a band. What inspired this unique blend of bluegrass and hip hop?

RS: Well, when Rench put the whole thing together he was coming from a standpoint of what he grew up with. He grew up in the '80s with a bunch of country and honky tonk stuff. That was at the same time that hip hop was really starting to pop off. So for him it was a very natural thing to pursue and when he approached the rest of us with this idea it was very simple for us to understand. He went looking for people who were very into both types of music and cultures. It became easy to blend the two together because they’re both so open to it. In some cases, the one thing that bluegrass needs is percussion. And if there’s one thing that hip hop needs its melodies and instrumental samples to go with the beats. That makes it easier for the two to blend together.

GM: Your music has always delivered a strong social message. Was that part of the original vision for the band?

DW: I can definitely say it wasn’t. It wasn’t front of mind in the way that it has now developed. It actually was something that revealed itself to us in the process of performing live in front of an audience. A lot has evolved from that, like the essence of the sound. We have gotten away from the “Mellencamp thing” that you referenced where we just bring some bluegrass flavor to the top of something. It was more important to help people get at the essence of bluegrass and the essence of hip hop. This is something that melded together over time. That’s true for these two cultural elements. They’ve evolved over years as well as we’ve come to learn more about the combined history of what we think of today as “black” or “white” music. That’s come to us through performing and seeing peoples’ reactions to it.

GM: You use banjo, foot pedals, synthesizers, electric fiddle, and guitar. Is there any instrument that would never be added to the mix?

DW: I don’t know if there is anything that’s off limits because we’ve been on stage in our home town areas where we do “posse shows.” We might not be able to take all of them on the road with us but we can sure pack a stage. We’ve had break dancers, tons of guest MC’s, dobro, and we even had a DJ. That’s probably the one thing we’d add if we had a little more space in the van and the budget for it. We’d be bringing a DJ with us. It’s such a great sound element.

RS: I couldn’t think of anything that we wouldn’t do because always pick the right people. With quality people we can do anything. You could be a pan flute player, and if your playing is dope come on in!

GM: The song “Land is Your Land” is a national treasure. How do you decide on how far you can take an interpretation of a song that’s part of the American fabric?

DW: That was a fun one. The story behind that goes back to what ended up being our last live show before the pandemic shut everything down. We had gotten in touch with the Woodie Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were doing a concert in New York on the 80th anniversary of the composition of “This Land is Your Land”. It was a wonderful show with a huge bill. It was just a killer line-up. And everyone did a different song of his. We had the honor of being the band that got to play “This Land is Your Land”, and we did this with a Tulsa-based artist named Branjae, who is the female voice you hear on our recording. We collaborated with her initially for that live show and it worked out so well that we ended up recording that version. One of the things to note, you may hear some verses on the song that you might think we wrote but in fact were unearthed original Woody verses that have been put in the closet and lost to time. We thought they were really good decided to bring them back.

RS: Again, the cool thing about what we did live was that we were able to flip the hook using a song by Nas called “The World is Yours” and transpose it into “This Land is Your Land.” It just worked out great.

In some cases, the one thing that bluegrass needs is percussion. And if there’s one thing that hip hop needs its melodies and instrumental samples to go with the beats. That makes it easier for the two to blend together.

GM: You were formally introduced to the world by appearing on America’s Got Talent. Looking back, do you think that being on the show was a benefit?

RS: It was definitely a benefit. The most important thing is that it brought us inside a lot of new homes and a lot of new spaces got an idea of who we were and what we were doing. That made it kind of cool.

DW: Yeah, nine million people got to see us which is really the name of the game. What we really need is a way to get our music in people’s ears, and that’s exactly what it did. I’d add that the producers really worked with us and allowed us to present ourselves as ourselves and not have any gimmickry layered over us, which was our fear was going into it.

GM: You have one of the most expansive merchandising stores. How do new items make the cut?

RS: Most of that is Rench. For example, the hats? He surprised us with those at a show we were doing in Wisconsin. We had no idea we were even looking to make these hats and he just rolled into the green room with a box and said “the hats are here!”

DW: The Gangstagrass design was created by fans. What’s great is when it’s someone who gets the concept of what we do and they turn it into visualization.

GM: You released the new record on vinyl. Is that a format your fans respond to? And given the role hip hop plays in your music have you considered releasing anything on cassette?

DW: Absolutely. It’s often hard to estimate how much vinyl to bring with us, especially heading out to the west coast. But they fly. I think that for those fans of ours who are old enough to remember hip hop they will understand what is essential about listening to the music on vinyl.

RS: Well, we do a lot of classic “bluegrass stuff.” My idea was to have us do our take on classic “hip hop stuff” as well. So we compiled a list of songs from a beat perspective. If you were a hip hop person at all, you’d recognize the music just from the beat alone, and we did our take on them. The first one that we did we put out on cassette tape. It’s an actual mix tape.

No Time For Enemies

GM: It’s been two years since the release of No Time For Enemies. Where are you at with new material?

RS: For me the coolest thing about it is that anything that begins as an idea can become a song. We just came up with a great one the other night. Just being out in the world with these fans and with this band inspires creativity.

DW: I don’t want to say that so much of it is devoid of intention, but so much is of the moment and the best you can do it respond to it. 

  

Go to gangstagrass.com for more info.