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Sunday, June 5, 2011

[INTERVIEW] Rench from "Gangstagrass"

 For more content from our guest contributor Gary Anderson, check out his website at Searching For Chet Baker.

NOTE: This is an interview I did this week with Rench, a member of the bluegrass/hip hop group "Gangstagrass". They are most known for their theme song to the FX series "Justified".

SFCB: Growing up, what types of music did you listen to?

RENCH:  There was a lot of honky tonk around the house when I was little. My dad would play Willie Nelson and George Jones records, also Gram Parsons stuff. But also some more far out material like Frank Zappa and Screamin Jay Hawkins. But I grew up in Southern Cali, and in 3rd grade I would breakdance during recess. The first record I owned myself was Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” single. The rest of grade school was all about Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys.

SFCB: At what point did you think, after growing up listening to both bluegrass and country music, along with hip hop music, that you might be able to combine the two and that it could actually work together?

RENCH:  I rejected country music for a while, it was the music of my folks and that’s not cool for a teenager to listen to. Plus mainstream country really sucked starting in the 80s. It wasn’t until after college I got back in touch with that sound and started listening to Hank and Willie and Johnny. It was the late 90’s and I was producing hip-hop and trip-hop and I started thinking it would be great to work in some samples of pedal steel guitar licks.

Pedal steel is such a beautiful sound. So it started off as the idea of using country samples in hip-hop tracks, and then evolved over several years into doing actual country songs with beats and rhymes. Some of the insight into how to bring about the fusion in the right way came from a whole incident in the desert with some rattlesnake bites and a garbage bag full of Mr. Bubble. But that is a whole other story.

SFCB: Often when you have multi-genre offerings, no matter what the genres are, there will always be a small amount of purists on each side that kind of dismiss it as being bastardizations or "not REAL (insert genre of music here)."  How do you react to that, and is there really any way to bring them into the fold?

RENCH:  I love it when people are outraged, it gives me reassurance that I am doing something at least a little groundbreaking. Mostly it comes from bluegrass purists who think it is morally wrong to mix it with hip-hop. They actually use phrases like “against the laws of nature.”

But that is just the purists and I am not concerned with winning them over. They are a small fraction of listeners. A lot of bluegrass fans love it, and there are a lot of people out there who already listen to country or bluegrass and hip-hop, who have Bill Monroe and Outkast on their mp3 player.

SFCB: Your song "Long Hard Times To Come" is the theme song to the FX series "Justified".  Who approached you about the idea of doing the theme song?

RENCH:  The show producers asked for a new track after they heard a Gangstagrass track used in a commercial for the show, so the connection actually came initially from the promotions department finding me and licensing the track for a commercial (thanks Ethan!).

SFCB: Legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard has sung your praises in the press for the show, and has expressed his love for your music.  How did that feel getting accolades from one of the greatest living writers of our time?

RENCH:  That was ridiculously great. I am still excited about that. I got to meet Elmore when he came to New York last year and that is one cool dude. He came to Bushwick with me and we went tagging some buildings with a graffiti crew.

SFCB: Your song was nominated for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme at the 2010 Emmys.  Where were you when you found out, and how did that feel to receive that recognition?

RENCH:  I found out by checking online that morning when nominations came out. Then I called T.O.N.E-z and told him we were nominated. Calls and gift baskets from the network came later. It is cool that I call always tag my name with “Emmy nominated” from here on, and it was a very strange experience to do the red carpet. Hollywood is pretty weird. But we didn’t win, and I’m back in my basement studio doing this whole thing independently and that is how it is going to be. At the end of the day it is actually more exciting when I hear a new track taking shape and I realize that I am creating something really cool.

SFCB: One of the things I like about Gangstagrass, is that it's not a couple tracks that use elements of bluegrass in it, or elements of hip hop in it.  It's actual live instruments, it's a living breathing collaboration between two musical worlds, and it fits together very well, I think.  Too often you have artists that kind of dip their toe in, so to speak, and do a little bit, but only a little bit.  Bubba Sparxxx's album Deliverance is one of my favorite albums and it used some country/bluegrass music on a few of the tracks, but overall it was more of a hip hop type thing.  And while I was never a big fan of country music, those tracks were the ones I liked the most.   I kind of felt like he would have liked to have done a whole album like "Deliverance" and "She Tried" and "Coming Round", but didn't think that the hip hop audience would buy it.

RENCH:  I had the same experience, always liking it when people did country hip-hop mixes and getting disappointed that they only did it for one song. With Bubba Sparxxx, with Spearhead’s “Wayfaring Strangers” and Morcheeba’s “The Process” etc. So yeah, I’m making something where the country-hip-hop sound is the permanent sound of the band, not a one track thing.  The lineup of the band is geard to make that sound – dobro player, banjo player, fiddle player. We are the experts, the professionals, the Seal Team 6 of bluegrass hip-hop.

SFCB: I've always liked producers who incorporate different genres into their music.  While I was never a huge fan of Sean "Diddy" Combs, I DID like how he wasn't afraid to take a chance and sample some really out of left field records for his music.   Likewise, probably my favorite producer, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Lovage, Dr. Octagonycologist) has pretty much done every type of music.  Who are your favorite producers, in any genre?

RENCH:  Dan The Automator is definitely an inspiration. He takes hip-hop production into interesting new places. When I heard his Deltron 3030 album my mind was blown, and then again with Lovage. Outkast did that as well, and Missy Elliott did with SupaDupaFly – they show how hip-hop can be creative and original and I like that. I think creative beats are really important. Producers can give something an interesting sound so that it transcends genre and just sounds exciting. Gotta give it up to T. Bone Burnett on what he has done with country, roots, and blues music.

SFCB: It seems that every five to ten years there's a cycle in hip hop where people start calling the demise of the artform.  It seems anytime some passing fad comes through, or a commercial artist comes along to set the charts on fire, there are those who proclaim hip hop is dead, and it's over, and done with.  Yet, I think that if you really think about it, hip hop has always had the various types of hip hop music.  I mean back in the day you had the politically conscious type artists such as Public Enemy/KRS-1, you had the party/feel good hip hop like Kid N' Play & Jazzy Jeff/Fresh Prince, you had the hardcore gangsta stuff like NWA, and then you had the raunchy sex rap like Too Short and Two Live Crew,

So when I see some young rapper come along who's message really isn't about anything more than having fun, I don't necessarily think it's time to hit the panic button and declare the death of hip hop.  We still have solid serious and important artists out there speaking truth to power such as Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Immortel Technique and many others. 

How do you view the hip hop landscape at the moment, and do you think there's anything to really worry about?

RENCH:  Worrying about hip-hop is pointless. Hip-hop will take care of itself, and there will always be people that come along and make great tracks – and there is room for all different styles in hip-hop. It is true though that mainstream, top-selling hip-hop won’t necessarily reflect the potential of the genre – what gets play may be more of a lowest common denominator kind of thing, and the quality stuff might not be at the top of the charts, but it will still get made.

SFCB: On the flip side, there are also a lot of people who are down on today's era of Country music.  While I am certainly not as knowledgeble as a lot of others when it comes to Country music, I've heard many people lament the fall of so-called "Real" Country music.   I suppose it's along the lines of hip hop where many feel that the original meaning behind the artform is just not there, and everything is just watered down and lacking in the realness, for lack of a better word, that was there in the beginning.

Share your thoughts on that as well, if you could.

RENCH:  Yeah country has some parallels with hip-hop in that respect. The mainstream stuff at the top of the charts is watered down and doesn’t have the grit that made the genre great initially. I’ve had experiences where people tell me they don’t like country music but when I ask them if they like Hank Williams they say yeah they love Hank Williams and Johnny Cash etc., and other times people have told me they don’t like hip-hop but if I ask about Outkast or The Pharcyde or Cypress Hill they are like “Oh, well I like that!” so both genres have gotten to the point where the label represents something else to people.

But not all of the good stuff is in the past, it is just that the good stuff getting made in hip-hop and in country music isn’t put on the charts or the radio or whatever. You have to search it out. Some of my favorite country and favorite hip-hop music getting made now is completely independent and off the radar. Like honky-tonk singer Lana Rebel, or The Lonesome Sisters, or T.O.N.E-z.

SFCB: What other albums have you been listening to lately?

RENCH:  “Boogaloosa Boogie Man” - a honky-tonk album from the 70’s by Clarence Gatemouth Brown, who generally recorded as a blues singer and guitarist but busted out fiddling and doing great country stuff for a couple albums. I like to listen to old blues sometimes, from the time when blues and country weren’t so separate – Lonnie Johnson, Pink Anderson, Blind Willie McTell. I like Sade’s last album and Lupe Fiasco’s last album. I’m producing an EP for Brooklyn honky-tonk band The Weal And Woe, so I’m listening to the rough mixes of that too.

SFCB : Back in 2008 you helped protest with the SEIU to help unionize the Security Guards at the Empire State Building, and it led to you being arrested. Talk about how that all went down, and how you got involved in that.

RENCH:  I’m a supporter of unions. A union is just strength in unity for working people so they have power together not to get exploited by their employers. Yeah, there have been corrupt unions at times but my experiences with them have been that they are the way that people come together to make their lives better and get some control back, and fight for our rights. I’m living off music now, but I have worked for unions before and I still try to keep in touch and help with the fight.

I believe in trying to solve our problems not just as individuals - we can help each other and lean on each other and recognize that we are in this together and if we have each other’s backs we will rise together. Forget that out-for-yourself stuff – in the end it leaves you stranded. You don’t get out of the desert with three rattlesnake bites and a garbage bag full of Mr. Bubble on your own. You need the strength of people having your back. America, we need to get better at having each others’ backs right now.

SFCB: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Rench, it is much appreciated.   Before you go, what is on the horizon for yourself and for Gangstagrass?   Any tourdates coming up, or new music?

RENCH:  There are some new tracks cooking in the studio, and a few live dates still being worked out. On the horizon for me and Gangstagrass is solid gold banjos, robotic stage dancers, and an underwater live performance while riding on manatees. Probably some colonization of Saturn for a new Rench studio.
Below is a track that Rench did with female rapper Tomasia, a concept based off the Elmore Leonard novel "Djibouti".


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