by Daniel Wirtheim
Between puffs from his e-cigarette, the gray-haired man wearing a Furthur shirt was egging on his friend, a dancing man decked out in tie-dye who staggered precariously close to the stage. Someone shouted, “Git-er-done.”
It was a Friday night, Gangstagrass was playing at Ziggy’s, and Texas boots and baseball hats were the height of fashion.
In some ways, it’s what you’d expect from a bluegrass/hip-hop show, but in another, unexpected way, Gangstagrass’ performance showed that mixing two radically different genres can sometimes be more than novelty.
Gangstagrass opened with “I’m Gonna Put You Down,” borrowing a chorus from the bluegrass standard “Dig a Hole in the Meadow.” The song, which was originally recorded with TONEZ, was almost better with Dolio the Sleuth and R-SON the Voice of Reason on vocals. The pair can rap at nearly any speed, sometimes just progressing into gibberish. R-SON is calculated and precise with his delivery, while Dolio is restrained by the slow, folksy rhythms.
Instead of falling into what could have been the ultimate stoner genre, Gangstagrass builds from the essence of lonely gunslingers, creating portraits of the romantic West.
Gangstagrass started in 2006 as a mash-up of hip-hop emcees and classic bluegrass records by Rench, a Brooklyn based hip-hop and country producer. The records garnered enough success to reach the ears of the FX Network, which commissioned Rench to write a theme song for its crime-drama “Justified.”
The subsequent song, “Long Hard Times to Come,” was nominated for an Emmy and incited Rench to produce more albums as Gangstagrass. The line-up changes with each album, but Rench’s insistence that there is a market for hip-hop bluegrass remains.
“I’ve gone flow-for-flow with hundreds of dudes/ knowing all the while I got nothing to lose/ and there ain’t no stopping/ I guess that I’m destined/ to keep rambling on like Led Zeppelin,” sings R-SON on “Gun Slinging Rambler,” underscoring the similarities between the Wild West and the streets where hip hop was born.
Rench often takes on the chorus, his voice lacking the conviction of great bluegrass singers. He sings about being a real cowboy but comes off as a country boy who prefers Mountain Dew to moonshine.
They have all the makings of the standard bluegrass band; a fiddle, an acoustic guitar, a dobro and banjo. The hip-hop element comes in as a thick backbeat, bright and uncomplicated. It’s lame by most hip-hop standards but well suited for the high-tones of the fiddle.
There’s a comical aspect to their movements. Dolio stands near the back, nodding his head during most of the set, but when the song presents itself, he suddenly transforms. He dashes across the floor, making dramatic sweeping movements as he raps. R-SON takes on a master-of-ceremonies persona, introducing band members and hyping up the crowd in-between songs.
There are at least 40 people in attendance, almost all white. The crowd has already been drinking for an hour by the time Gangstagrass began. A flabby man with a shirt that reads, “Beer; because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad” makes an aggressive push to the bar. Near the front of the stage, the tie-dyed shirt is swaying back and forth, noticeable inebriated.
The few instrumental breaks, like the one long, swelling dobro solo — the most impressive part of the set —were often interrupted by R-SON’s hype.
He would chime in with, “Cakalaka, where you at?” or, “Gangstagrass, let’s do this thing.” It was jarring and disruptive to any synergy that was happening, only for the purpose of reminding everyone that, yes, it is very cool to play bluegrass and hip hop all at once.
Despite some of the shortcomings, Gangstagrass has charisma. “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a song originally written for sad and lonely folk singers, expertly arranged the Stanley Brothers classic for barroom revelry. Gangstagrass gets their charm from insisting that what they do will work, and in some ways it does.
For a band that could easily be stuck playing the soundtrack to smoke shops across the nation, there’s enough self-awareness to just how ridiculous bluegrass and hip-hop fusion is that only a purist of either genre would have nothing good to say.