Q&A with Gangstagrass
Gangstagrass is a multi-racial group of string pickers and MCs creating a shared cultural space for dialogue and connection between folks that usually never intersect. They combine the great American traditions of Bluegrass, Hip-Hop, and beyond to create a new musical genre that fleshes out the quintessential elements of each with added flair.
We recently caught up with the band during a tour break and talked about their unique style of music, musical influences, songwriting and a whole lot more.
Band Members (left to right): Dan Whitener aka Danjo: banjo/vocals, R-SON the Voice of Reason: MC/vocals, Dolio the Sleuth: MC/vocals, Rench: vocals/guitar/beats, B.E. Farrow: fiddle/vocals
Rench: I also grew up listening to a lot of RUN DMC, Public Enemy, Outkast, Dr. Octagon. A lot of hip-hop influences. And a lot of honkytonk – George Jones, Loretta Lynn
B.E. Farrow: We all bring in our own interests that have a particular Venn diagram that centers around this band.
R-SON the Voice of Reason: I’ve got to throw a little bit of INXS in there because that’s how I work it.
Dan Whitener: Living Colour.
R-SON: Shoutout to The Roots!
Dolio the Sleuth: 8Ball & MJG.
DW: It’s probably worth saying that we definitely have a lot of bluegrass influences, hip-hop influences. But certainly beyond that, just going to INXS, there’s a lot of stuff that you could call out that …
R-SON: Steely Dan, son! Rock represent!
DW: There’s a lot of things that influenced us that wouldn’t necessarily fit into the bluegrass/hip-hop box. But it’s good music and I think we try to let that influence us too and not just stick to root music or a particular recipe.
BF: These two things that people sort of center around when they talk about us - bluegrass and hip-hop - are a culmination of so much. Bluegrass being a culmination of cultured folk forms in America and old-time music, even throwing in a little jazz and country, blues. Hip-hop being a culmination of whatever could be sampled at hand, of recorded musical history, starting with a bit of the black experience.
DW: You could say that bluegrass and hip hop both being fusion genres that we’re doing a fusion of two fusions. But that might be a little reductive because we’re really just taking that mentality and attitude and being open to pretty much anything we want to throw in. If it fits it fits.
What music/artists do you enjoy listening to now?
BF: I think some modern shoutouts - I’ll shoutout Jid, he’s a dope MC that’s been coming up recently. Who else do we want to shoutout?
DW: I’m listening to a lot of the folks that are trying to keep going with the progressive bluegrass idea, so Chris Pandalfi from The Infamous Stringdusters, some of Dan Tyminski’s solo work where he added a lot of production, basically anybody who takes the traditional sounds and moves them forward with some sort of new idea, I’m excited people are doing that.
BF: That Pokey LaFarge tune “F*ck Me Up”. When we all heard that we were like, hey man, we should collab.
DW: Yeah, break the mold. But it’s still so obviously authentically him. It’s like when you do something so outside of what you normally do, as long as it feels like it’s still your voice, that’s really cool. We like that.
R-SON: Definitely have to shout out Salt, everything they do is dope. Every day or two something fresh bubbles up and I’m like, what is this? It’s always Salt. Double K and Thes One from the group People Under the Stairs out in California. Amazing hip-hop group. From a production standpoint, these guys were just next level in what they were doing. Rest in peace to Double K. There’s so much great stuff, whether it’s 100 years old or just came out last week, all of it sort of works in somewhere and something winds up on the track.
What do you like most about performing?
BF: I honestly would say the actual performing, that’s the best thing about it. Getting on stage and doing the thing and getting to play the hip-hop-bluegrass blend we work on. We get to workshop in a live setting and see people react.
DW: Outside of that, there are two moments in this band that are unusual for me, that I haven’t experienced in any other band. The first moment we take to the stage, there are people in the audience who have never seen us before, diehards too, but the people who’ve never seen us and they see what we look like, and there’s that moment of like, what is this going to be. And the next moment is, at the end when we’re maybe at the merch table signing t-shirts and selling CDs and they come over and the transformative experience they’ve had is more than just, you guys turned out to be a good band. I’m very happy about that.
But you actually see people coming together at our shows and broadening their life experience in a very meaningful way. And that wasn’t something we were even thinking about or intending when we started the band. But over the ten or so years has made itself obvious to us and to me.
Do you have a songwriting process?
DW: We don’t keep banker’s hours, but we have a similar thing where we hold up a bank and then ideas come to us and we write about that. [laughter]
BF: I have a process in my individual life, I have to take a good four or five hours to fully flesh out a song and have it finished in one sit down. I also record bits and pieces of songs all the time and when I bring it to the band … we’ll flesh it out together. We set aside that time, we’re in the studio practicing and working on it.
DtS: We get all the pieces together, but we don’t have a set plan. It’s more about getting them all together.
You did a UK tour earlier this year and you are currently touring the US. What’s next for the band?
BF: We had this album come out called No Time for Enemies and we’ve got a lot of things in the bank - reflecting on our America’s Got Talent run, on what we are as a band, we really want to be representing. We’re looking to represent and speak out for the people we’re playing for.
Rench: I’d like to give a shoutout to Fermilab – particle accelerator lab in the United States. They made another breakthrough even though everyone’s focus is on CERN in Europe. We’ve been there a couple of times. Big fans.
R-SON: I want to give a shoutout to our manager Sleevs (Emily "Sleevs" Bernstein Messner). I don’t know if you’ve ever had to hang out with five dudes at once for a long time. Most of the time we stink, there’s food everywhere. It’s a nightmare. She really helps keep this whole thing rolling along and moving. She makes sure everything is going according to plan. Without Sleevs and a lot of people behind the scenes, a lot of this stuff just wouldn’t get done to the level it gets done. We’re here trying to do this music and make the world a better place, thank God we’ve got people that are driving the train while we’re throwing coal on the fire.
Sleevs: I’d also add that No Time for Enemies was the number one Billboard bluegrass album and the first time that hip-hop MCs have been in that position. There was all that hype about Old Town Road getting kicked off the country charts. But this is real bluegrass happening right here and we’re not getting kicked off the bluegrass chart because it’s real bluegrass music happening and it’s real hip-hop music happening. And it’s exciting that there was enough excitement around the music to put it in that position, even though the music industry likes to segregate in a way that stops that kind of thing from happening.
DW: When you’re trying to define a band and trying to figure out what kind of accolades you’ll shoot for, it can be pretty weird and treacherous. You want to make sure you don’t lose yourself and what you care about. We’ll see what’s thrown at us. The America’s Got Talent thing is an example of that. We were initially pretty reluctant and the initial disbelief that this was actually them and they were scamming us. And then we had to make sure they weren’t going to misrepresent us on the show. And they really didn’t.
It was conversations with the producers and just a real concerted internal effort – we all talked to each other before we talked to them and we made sure we were clear about our goals and what we were going to try to do. That extends to other parts of the industry. What’s the point of trying to get a Grammy, what’s the point of trying to do this or that? We just want to make sure we are represented well and people hear the music and dig it. So, if those things help us do that, that’s great. We’re proud to be number one on the bluegrass charts. If to do that we had to sacrifice something, then it’s probably not worth our time. We’re thankful for all the things that have worked out really well for us.
Retch: The number one thing we’re after is for people to listen and appreciate what we do.
DW: One thing we’re not going to be doing (on their current tour) is acting like the pandemic is over. We got COVID on this last tour, every single one of us, and it cost us about half the tour – shows got cancelled. We’ll have a good time, get to our shows, get people to come out to our shows, but doing the whole thing safely. We’ve got to be realistic about the challenges we face.
Do you have any instruments that got away from you that you wish you had back?
DtS: I had a trumpet, it was silver. A Yamaha, it had my name engraved on it. It was lovely. I sold it to buy a set of turntables, but I did pick up the trumpet again. Just not that particular one.
DW: My dad raised me to not let go of instruments. And I was reading Ralph Stanley’s memoirs and he said he had this one banjo – the banjo – and he traded it to somebody for, his words, “A pile of money and some guns.” And he tried many times to get it back and that’s why I don’t have a story like that.
R-SON: He had guns, how did he not get it back? [laughter]
Rench: I did have a guitar that I wasn’t too attached to. I made a video of doing something called high-stakes busking. I’m in New York and I did some busking. There was a box for tips on one side and a hammer on the other side. You could up vote or down vote by either giving some tips or hitting the guitar with a hammer. It’s a little bit hard to keep it in tune now.
Gangstagrass is currently on tour and will be in Colorado on September 3rd at the Four Corners Folk Festival in Pagosa Springs. See this and other tour dates HERE.