May 31, 2012

[REVIEW] Gangstagrass: Rappalachia


The mark of great art is that it makes you think.  It makes you step outside of what you normally view as your "zone" and forces you to re-examine that.  This goes for all forms of art whether it's paintings, literature, film, music or whatever.   True examples of artistic achievement in music seems to be few and far between these days, although admittedly that may depend on where you look.  If you only look where you're used to looking, then perhaps you won't see all that you could. Experience all you could.

We have an idea in our head that we've allowed to work its way in that says "this is what I like.  I don't like that, and nothing can really shake me of that".  And when you do that you are inhibiting yourself.  You are limiting the enjoyment that you can get, the wonderment that you can experience.

Gangstagrass is a shining example of that.  Something that on it's face many people would reject it out of hand and dismiss it as something they can't get with. And that's a sad thing because it's really good.

Gangstagrass + Kool Keith performing "Western"
In a recent Interview Rench, the founder of Gangstagrass, mentioned that when you say "this is Bluegrass combined with Hip Hop", that many people will simply say they don't like that.  But if you let them hear it, then often you have people that are digging it and really grow to love it.

And I'm sure many people felt that way when they first heard the theme song that Gangstagrass did for FX's "Justified", for which they were nominated for an Emmy Award, called "Long Hard Times To Come".

When I was younger I felt like I could never enjoy country music.  And then I heard some Johnny Cash and loved it, I heard some Christian Kane music and loved it, and the same went for when I first heard the theme music to Justified.

There are many things to like about this album, from Rench's picking and singing, to the outstanding lineup of guest emcees and bluegrass/country singers and of course the painting inspired cover to the album.   One thing that stood out for me is that I had not heard of the vast majority of guest appearances on here.

A lot of cds have guest spots by the same old same old artists, but here you have several solid indie rappers such as R-SON, Nitty Scott MC, and Dolio The Sleuth, as well as hip hop veterans Kool Keith and Dead Prez, and a return of T.O.N.E-z who was a part of the last Gangstagrass album.  It also features vocals from Americana/Country/Bluegrass singers Brandi Hart (The Dixie Bee-Liners), Jen Larson (Straight Drive) and Kamara Thomas (Earl Greyhound).


While there were a lot of great tracks on here, and I'm still surprised to see Dead Prez on that tracklisting and am dying to find out how the hell Rench pulled that guest appearance, the standout tracks in my opinion were "Honey Babe" featuring Dolio The Sleuth and singer Brandi Hart, "Our Life" featuring Ain't No Love, "Red Sky Morning" featuring Nitty Scott MC and "Western" featuring the one and only Kool Keith.

The only track I really couldn't get with was "No Going Back" featuring a group called Brooklyn35 Collective.   I listened to the full album a lot over the past few weeks, and that's the only song that I just didn't dig.

I really liked the music by Rench and the Gangstagrass band and I really enjoyed the singer on the track, however the first emcee that was featured seemed to be more yelling the rhymes rather than actually delivering them, and it was distracting, especially considering the wealth of solid entertaining emcees on this album.

Not to say there's a specific way you have to rhyme, but I think that the second rapper was much better and I enjoyed his verse.  I don't know if this was simply a thing that the first guy did on this song and his other tracks that he's done are not like that, but as it is I didn't enjoy his verse at all and it kinda ruined my enjoyment of that song.

Previous Gangstagrass collaborator T.O.N.E-z shines on "Til My Last Shot" (with great vocals by Jen Larson) delivering some of the most remarkable and chilling lines on the album, "They claim that my days are numbered and I'll be forever hunted/Even try to make snitches out of the team I run with/Respect and honor. Nobody dare to sell me out, if I get arrested, fam of my victims bail me out."

The two "Solo" tracks by Gangstagrass "Rappalachia 6" and "Crossbow" were both very fun bluegrass only tracks, and I especially liked "Crossbow".  Both were very lively and kept with the up-tempo mood of the album.

My favorite of the emcees that were featured here have to be Dolio and Nitty Scott.  I had never heard Dolio The Sleuth before, but will be looking for more of his music.  His verse on Honey Babe was a standout of the album for me, as was Brandi Hart's vocals on that track, which is why that song is my favorite of the entire album.  Nitty Scott MC's entertaining verses on Red Sky Morning and Country Blues were also very fun and I can tell that Scott is going to have a great career in hip hop.

An interesting aspect to this, I think, is that there's a strong correlation drawn between the old school country music/wild west mentality and the hip hop/street edge mentality that is prevalent in a lot of hip hop music.  As the album opens up with "Gun Slinging Rambler", Rench sings of the title character, "The stick up kids know how I roll, I'll shoot you if I like/I'm a Gunslinging Rambler, and I live a Rambler's life".

This bit of the chorus is a great example of just how similar the two genres of music truly are.  If not for the words "Gunslinging Rambler" that would sound like lines from a 50 Cent track. And yet people still insist on thinking that these two musical genres are worlds apart, based on the instrumentation used.

In a recent interview with "Hear, Hear", Rench went into detail about the similarities even though the genres are typically viewed as completely opposite from each other:

The thing is, they’re perceived to be polar opposites and right now there’s a cultural divide, but definitely under the surface there’s plenty of common ground where hip-hop, bluegrass and country music are all coming from a very American tradition. Each genre is built upon aspects of communities coming together to tell their stories, about the hardships and the heartache, the pain of surviving hard times.  That, and there’s always been the American tradition of combining various types of music.

Country music and bluegrass grew out of the combination of the folk music which had come up in Appalachia from European immigrants, and the gospel music which was coming from the south with the slaves. The banjo was an African instrument brought here through the slave trade, and combined with the fiddle from the European traditions, bluegrass was born. And hip-hop started literally through the cutting together of different records to make something new.
So there’s definitely enough common ground for you to look at both genres as coming from similar places. But I think in this country there’s defniitely a conception that there’s a separateness: there’s black music and white music. But that’s something which has been perpetrated by the industry more than anything else. For decades they’ve had separate charts, markets and radio stations.
That's similar in how for a while a lot of people viewed hip hop and jazz as these separate genres that had nothing in common with each other, when that's far from the case.  There are definite similarities between hip hop and country/bluegrass, and when combined properly it can be a thing of wonder.

In summation, this album is excellent all around with the lone exception, in my opinion, of that one verse, and I recommend it highly.  Take a listen to some of the music that I have embedded in this review and see what you think.  If you give it a chance, I believe it'll grab you just like it did me and you will enjoy it very much.








  1. Thank you for your well thought out and well reasoned review, sir or madam!


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