“There are a lot more people out there with Jay-Z and Johnny Cash on their playlists than you think,” says Gangstagrass Mastermind Rench, who had previously made a name for himself as an in-demand Brooklyn country and hip-hop producer and singer/songwriter. He should know – he’s toured the country and abroad with a band of bluegrass pickers and hip-hop MCs to the delight of standing-room crowds everywhere.
Making beats for local NYC rappers and hosting country music nights in popular NYC venues, Rench had a musical itch that needed to be scratched – he was listening to the 1970s recordings of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and couldn’t help imagining what classic bluegrass would sound like with rap vocals and beats. The result was a genre-demolishing blitz called Rench Presents: Gangstagrass. He put it up for free download and people took notice. Hundreds of thousands of downloads followed creating an intense underground buzz. When FX Network came to Rench looking for the Gangstagrass sound for the theme song to their new series Justified, he had bluegrass players lay down an original track with rapper T.O.N.E-z, the younger brother of early hip-hop legends Special K and T-LaRoc.
The result was “Long Hard Times to Come,” the song that opened every episode of six seasons of the hit series. “Long Hard Times to Come” was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2010, contending for best theme song after critical praise and massive fan response.
The same live-bluegrass-band approach was used to make Lightning On The Strings, Thunder On The Mic, a full-length album with T.O.N.E-z, the MC featured on the Justified theme song. Two years later the Gangstagrass sound expanded with the release of Rappalachia, a 15-song album featuring a variety of rappers, including Kool Keith, Dead Prez, Nitty Scott MC, T.O.N.E-z, BROOKLYN35, R-SON the Voice of Reason, and Dolio the Sleuth. Country singers Brandi Hart and Jen Larson contributed gritty harmonies to Rench’s choruses. Broken Hearts and Stolen Money -– featuring performances by legendary rap team Smif-N-Wessun, Juno award-winning rapper Liquid (of BranVan 3000), Brandi Hart of the Dixie Bee-Liners and Alexa Dirks of Chic Gamine, in addition to the now regular crew of MCs and pickers – was released in 2014 to critical acclaim, with the Boston Globe labeling raucous single Two Yards “Essential.” A fourth official album, titled American Music, was released in April 2015, debuting at #5 on the Billboard bluegrass charts. With American Music’s collection of standout original cuts and traditional folk anthems the band once again broke new ground, while also paying tribute to their cast of American songwriting heroes. The 2019 live album Pocket Full of Fire spent 20 weeks in the top 10 Billboard bluegrass charts, making it to the #2 spot.
Gangstagrass has toured internationally, blowing minds on main stages from SXSW to Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, with a live act taking full advantage of the improvisational aspects of both hip-hop and bluegrass. With MCs R-SON and Dolio the Sleuth trading verses, Dan Whitener on banjo, Brian Farrow on fiddle, Rench on guitar and beats, and frequent three-part harmonies, the Gangstagrass stage show has garnered a reputation among fans for its dynamism and spontaneity. Through touring across the United States and abroad, Gangstagrass uses live performances to organically develop new material to further explode the boundaries between genres generally thought to be incompatible.
Their 2020 offering, No Time for Enemies – which features “Nickel and Dime Blues,” the inspirational “Freedom,” the jump-starting “Aint No Crime,” and the hugely popular “Ride With You” – has more than a million streams/views so far. It quickly hit #1 on the Billboard bluegrass charts. No Time for Enemies takes you for a ride through the hoods and hollers while having a sweat of a good time.