Remember when gangsta rap was being decried as the most violent and degenerate form of music ever created? When even the President of the United States was pressuring Warner Brothers to pull Ice T's "Cop Killer"? In 1994, Spin magazine's Eric Weisbard made an excellent point about that hoopla.
MTV was playing a heavily censored version of Warren G's "Regulate," with awkward silences in place of its gun references. "At the same time, in light rotation, Johnny Cash is allowed to offer up the far more explicitly murderous 'Delia's Gone' in its entirety," Weisbard noted. Nearly 40 years earlier, Cash had delivered a classic, in which brags he "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," but the world wasn't ready to hear about Warren G cruising the streets of Long Beach with "sixteen in the clip and one in the hole." Weisbard concluded: "White music is allowed significant artistic leeway."
This comparison came to mind upon hearing "Pistol Packin," from Gangstagrass, a Brooklyn-based collective that tries to bridge the seemingly sizable gap between hip hop and country, with MCs rhyming over live bluegrass musicians. The song's most bad-ass lyrics come from the chorus: "The hold-up men all know me, and they sure leave me be / I'm a pistol-packin' papa, and I ramble where I please." Those words come not from either of the rappers but from a sample of a 1930 recording from the yodeling "father of country," Jimmie Rodgers.
In both pre-Nashville country and modern-day hip hop, "there are a lot of songs about outlaws, being on the run, hard times and heartbreak," says Rench, the producer behind Gangstagrass. "There is a different language, but there are stories from country [songs] that would fit perfectly in hip hop."
"And both have a strong improvisational basis," adds Rench. "We show that onstage with one MC freestyling and my banjo player going off."
Rench has always had a foot in both worlds. Growing up in Southern California, he and his friends would set down cardboard to breakdance to Run DMC on the playground — but when he went home, his Oklahoma-born father had Cash, George Jones and Willie Nelson on the stereo.
When he made it to Brooklyn and began producing rap and trip-hop acts, Rench would insert loops of steel guitars and banjos into tracks. "Those instruments are very rhythmic, because bluegrass traditionally doesn't have drums," he says. The reaction to his mash-ups was strong enough that he recruited a few musicians from New York City's roots scene to record with his hip-hop collaborators.
Ganstagrass's first proper album, 2010's Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic, featured one rapper, T.O.N.E.-z, while last year's groan-inducingly titled Rappalachia expanded the concept to several MCs, including the legendary Kool Keith. The band hit pay dirt when its "Long Hard Times to Come" was selected as the theme to FX's Elmore Leonard-inspired neo-western Justified.
The project has only Rench as a permanent presence. For the current tour, he recruited rappers R-SON and Dolio the Sleuth, along with the less colorfully named Dan Whitener on banjo, Jon Westover on fiddle and Landry McMeans on dobro.
Zig-zagging from the country enclaves of Kentucky and Tennessee to the mean streets of New York and Philadelphia, the sextet plays to all kinds of audiences.
"The hip-hop crowds have been harder to reach because all the hip-hop cats have an opinion of what hip hop is supposed to be, and it probably isn't us," says R-SON. "But when my man breaks out that fiddle, they recognize what he does is dope. Any true hip-hopper will realize what's dope is dope. A dope ballerina is a dope ballerina. A dope pianist is a dope pianist. A dope MC is a dope MC, and a dope fiddler is a dope fiddler."
He adds that both genres "are communal music, of average people getting together to talk about what their lives are like. They're both people's music."
Still, Rench says the audiences of the two art forms are polarized. "It's like North versus South and urban versus rural and red states versus blue states. Hip hop versus country is the same thing, and it doesn't help that there are different radio stations and different charts for both."
"People have this impression of the two Americas, and you can't be in the middle," he adds. "My goal for Gangstagrass is to make good music and have fun, but if we can bring people together, that's all the better."