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".
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".