Gangstagrass, the unlikely intersection where bluegrass and hip-hop meet
Bluegrass and rap seem like polar opposites on the musical landscape, but that’s the territory inhabited by Gangstagrass.
The quintet, led by producer and mastermind Oscar “Rench” Owens, blends the acoustic rhythms of Appalachia and the electro beats and sampling of urban America into a style that’s breaking new musical ground. “My dad’s from Oklahoma and country music was always playing around the house,” Rench explains. “In the third grade schoolyard, everybody was putting down cardboard to practice their backspins to the Beat Street soundtrack. When I got home, Johnny Cash was on the stereo. Subliminally, the sound of Gangastagrass began to take shape.”
Like most kids, Rench dismissed the music favored by his parents. He started violin lessons when he was four and discovered he had a natural musical ability. He moved on to guitar, bass, mandolin and drums. He played in teen bands and got his first sampler when he was in high school. “I got interested in production and started making beats, but they didn’t fit in with the bands I was in. In college, I produced a few indie rappers and rediscovered country music. I asked some of the rappers if I could put banjo on their tracks. They said, ‘No!,’ so I started doing it on my own, just to try it out.”
After he had his bluegrass/rap hybrid together, he put the first Gangstagrass album up on the Internet. When Rench Presents: Gangstagrass was posted on BoingBoing.net, it got hundreds of thousands of downloads and created an underground buzz. The FX Network contacted him. They wanted to use one of his songs in a promo spot for a new show, Justified. That went so well, they asked him to compose the show’s theme song. “The show was on for six seasons. It gave us a lot of exposure and created a national fan base.”
Rench put together a band to make an album and start playing live. Since 2008, they’ve put out three records – Rappalachia (2012), Broken Hearts and Stolen Money (2014) and American Music (2015). They’ve been playing to capacity crowds all over North America and Europe, and recently released their first live set, Pocket Full Of Fire: Gangstagrass Live.
“It still astounds us when hundreds of people show up and dance around to what we do,” Rench says. “The live album tracks are from our most recent US tour. We have songs from six different venues, captured on full multi-track files that we could mix. It’s amazing how many venues these days have digital soundboards that can record each instrument individually. I was able to take ‘em home and polish ‘em and get a consistent sound, even though the songs were recorded at different venues.”
On stage, the band plays with drum loops on a pedal board that Rench can trigger to keep things spontaneous. “It’s important to use the improvisational elements that hip hop and bluegrass have in common,” he says. “When you see a Gangstagrass show, the songs are very different from the recordings. The rappers are freestyling and passing it off to the instrumentalists to do solos, and the rappers may follow the rhythm of a banjo solo. You’re gonna hear a lot of things you’ve never heard before. Bluegrass and rap actually have a lot in common, rhythmically. I’m hoping Gangstagrass can help demolish the blue-state/red-state thing. I want to create the soundtrack for a wave of cultural miscegenation.”