Headed to town for a Sunday night set at Bourbon on Division in Wicker Park, we checked in with Gangstagrass producer Rench about tying together hip-hop and bluegrass, the importance of improvisation, bridging the cultural divide and much more...
As the internet and streaming continue to lead to upheaval of the major label system, the path for an independent artist has become a more viable one than ever before.
Gangstagrass blend authentic bluegrass, via instruments like live banjo, with rap and hip-hop. It's the type of experimentation with genre and sound long discouraged by radio and record labels.
Improvisation, especially live, is a hallmark of both bluegrass and hip-hop and Gangstagrass make it a centerpiece of their set. Recently the group recorded a series of live shows - including one this past March at SPACE in Evanston - to preserve the live performance of new, unreleased songs. Instead of recording in the studio, the group is taking full advantage of their dynamic live set in the hopes that approach impacts the new songs.
"We wanted to release live recordings because there is so much improvisation and interaction. The live show is really different from the studio recordings and the songs have definitely evolved as we have played them," said Gangstagrass producer Rench. "We are working through those recordings to choose the best performances and we definitely got some great ones at the Chicago show."
Placement of their song "Long Hard Times to Come" as the theme to the FX series Justified helped to expose the group's music to a new audience. Rench also worked with Gangstagrass banjo player Dan Whitener to produce the song "We Are Gonna Be Okay" for inclusion in the new Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman.
I spoke with Rench about recording songs live, bridging the cultural divide, the role of the artist during divisive times and more. A lightly edited transcript of that email exchange follows below...
Q. I read that you were recording live shows for an upcoming album of new material. What kind of an impact does taking a live approach to new songs have on the finished project? Do the songs kind of evolve a bit as you guys approach them on stage as opposed to in the studio?
Rench: We recorded several shows on our tour in the spring, including our show in Chicago, to use as material for a live album. We are working through those recordings to choose the best performances and we definitely got some great ones at the Chicago show. The upcoming performance won't be part of that. We are already mixing the recordings.
We wanted to release live recordings because there is so much improvisation and interaction. The live show is really different from the studio recordings. And the songs have definitely evolved as we have played them. We've added some really cool stuff.
We are excited to let more people hear that.
Q. How important is the idea of improvisation, especially live, to what you guys do?
Rench: Once we started building the live shows and we realized that improvisation was key from both genres, it was easy to integrate that into our act.
It is huge for us. You won't be seeing us do a song the way it is on the album, you'll see things change up, often spontaneously.
We play off each other - the emcee can point to the banjo player for a solo, or maybe he will freestyle the verse and we will just watch him for when to hit a chorus again.
That's one of the key things for us playing shows night after night, is making it a creative process every time and letting things happen in the moment. It makes a huge difference in the energy and the way the audience can connect because we are sharing this totally unique moment.
Q. I’ve heard you say that both hip-hop and bluegrass have been influences on you over the years as an artist. Growing up how were you first exposed to each?
Rench: I was exposed to lots of country music at home by my dad, who is from Oklahoma and put a lot of honky-tonk music on the stereo as well as bluegrass.
But, growing up in the 80s, hip-hop became so popular with the break dancing movies coming out etc. that my 3rd grade recess was spent doing back spins to the Beat Street soundtrack.
Q. Especially in today’s world where everything, art especially, can be divisive, a project like this would seem to kind of bridge the cultural divide in a number of ways, especially live. How important of a role is that for art, music specifically, to play today?
Rench: We like to think we can bring different people to the table together - or to the dance floor as it may be.
Maybe music and art could be a way get down underneath the assumptions about how divided we are. It can start with seeing that hip-hop and country music can actually find common ground, and from there the door is open to see that we may share a lot more in common than we realize.
Q. In the 60s, music really drove the culture. And, in my opinion, artists were able to take a socially conscious approach to music that's a lot more difficult to pull off today. What is the role of the artist in times like these?
Rench: The role of music in social issues has been to provide a more direct emotional appeal to understand what something means. Facts are really important, and we should value the truth, but unfortunately facts are ineffective in moving people's feelings about an issue. Tapping in to the emotion of a situation can get past that and open hearts and minds.
We like to think of the really different people who are all enjoying Gangstagrass and how they might find common ground even if it's just starting at what [music] they can dance to together.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Sunday's Gangstagrass show at Bourbon on Division below)
Sunday, August 26, 2018
Doors open at 7PM
Tickets: $18 to $35
Click HERE to purchase tickets