Jan 29, 2014

[REVIEW] @Gangstagrass - Broken Hearts & Stolen Money


About five years ago when the FX series "Justified" premiered, I was first exposed to the music of Gangstagrass.  I had been anticipating the show for awhile, as it was based on characters from the mind of Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Jackie Brown).  Originally titled "Lawman", before being changed to Justified because of an identically titled show from Steven Seagal, the show's theme song was a mixture of hip hop and country/bluegrass.

As anyone who knows me knows, I really dig cross genre music.  Whether it's Hidden Beach Records "Unwrapped" releases which is a melding of Hip Hop and Live Jazz, or Apocalyptica, which is Heavy Metal and Classical, I like creativity. I like the pushing of the boundaries, the blowing up of the box that some artists find themselves trapped within.

Purists may scoff, but there's something kind of genuine about a group like Gangstagrass, an ever evolving collective.  Each album features some old standbys, so to speak, in the way of artists that are longtime collaborators, however they also will often feature brand new collaborators, who will figure into the Gangstagrass ecosystem going forward.


On Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic, you had a primary collaboration between Rench, the frontman of the group, on banjo, and rapper T.O.N.E-z.  Then on Rappalachia you had T.O.N.E-z on a couple tracks, while some newer names came into the mix such as Dixie Bee Liner singer Brandi Hart, Rappers R-Son The Voice and Dolio The Sleuth (who actually has been a frequent collaborator with Rench for years), and quite surprisingly, to me anyway, legendary hip hop names like Kool Keith and Dead Prez.


Now comes their newest album, "Broken Hearts & Stolen Money" and true to form, there's some recognizable names from the past, and some surprising new names as well.  It seems like it's been forever since the last album, although it's really only been about a year.

I think with a project like this, many people who are either in one camp or the other, as it relates to genre, will think that they just can't get with the other.  Hip Hop heads just can't get with the banjos and fiddles, and the Bluegrass/country folk just can't get with the "hippity hop" as someone I know would put it.  However I don't necessarily think that's true.  At one point in my life I would absolutely say that, but I've been proven wrong so many times when it comes to attempting to limit myself that I've given up trying.

My mantra, when it comes to this type of thing, has become essentially, "Why would you limit what you would experience?"  I mean, why would you wall yourself off from a whole subsection of music that you may enjoy, just because you can't wrap your mind around the idea that you might like it?  Especially if that preconceived notion is based around so-called "White Music" or "Black Music".  That makes no sense to me.

I did an interview with Rench, the mastermind behind Gangstagrass, and I asked him about this topic, about so-called purists that don't like the combinations of two seemingly polar opposites, and this is what he had to say about that:

I love it when people are outraged, it gives me reassurance that I am doing something at least a little groundbreaking. Mostly it comes from bluegrass purists who think it is morally wrong to mix it with hip-hop. They actually use phrases like “against the laws of nature.”
But that is just the purists and I am not concerned with winning them over. They are a small fraction of listeners. A lot of bluegrass fans love it, and there are a lot of people out there who already listen to country or bluegrass and hip-hop, who have Bill Monroe and Outkast on their mp3 player.

And I think that's sort of become my view as well.  It's like, if someone is limiting what they'll experience, if they will kneecap their potential to hear and perhaps enjoy something they never saw themselves enjoying before, then that's just sad to me, and those people are just destined to simply live in that rut.

When "Justified" first began, I probably had never contemplated listening to bluegrass in any way, shape or form.  My grandparents used to listen to that when I was a kid, and I think I just sort of associated that with them and other "older people", and felt like that wasn't what I was supposed to listen to. And then when the FX show Justified came along, that's when I discovered Gangstagrass, and that all changed. 

I've done reviews of their two previous albums, so you can click HERE to read my review of "Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic" and click HERE to read my review of "Rappalachia", their most recent album prior to this new one.  I've been anticipating this for awhile, ever since I heard that it was coming out, and had pre-ordered the digital album from the official website a few weeks back.   Then last night it came through, and I was finally able to listen to it.

Fans of their last album will see a lot to like in the features, as familiar names pop up again such as Dolio The Sleuth, R-SON, Brandi Hart, Tomasia, and of course T.O.N.E-z, who most recognize from the Emmy nominated theme song to Justified.  But as I said before there are some surprising, to me, additions to the mix, including hip hop group Smif N' Wessun.

I was pleasantly surprised last album when Rench manged to pull in a couple other heavyweight hip hop names such as Kool Keith & Dead Prez, and it's nice to see he had another solid hip hop name to add to the family.   I think what surprised me the most is that, perhaps out of my own ignorance, I would never have imagined these guys would jump on board with Gangstagrass.


Not out of any negativity towards Gangstagrass, but I just perhaps assumed (wrongly, clearly) that they would have been in that category of "purists" that felt that this wasn't what they did, and that they only did "real hip hop".  There's sadly a LOT of people that feel that way and who are so wrapped up in their image that they wouldn't be able to take, what may be perceived by some as a risk.

It's good for fans of Gangstagrass and those artists that they did not have that mindset, and they stepped up and really delivered.   Smif N' Wessun shined brightly on two tracks here.  First on "Hand me the Money" in which they are unfurl their tales of being on the run as wanted outlaws.  Anyone that has ever heard a Smif N' Wessun track will find themselves right at home with the lyrics and storytelling here, and this is a great song to exemplify the similarities that exist between the hip hop gangster persona, and that of the old west, gunslinger type persona that is depicted, as it were, throughout the album.

So while the settings may have changed, and some of the terminology has been modified (Bounty on our head, on the run from the Marshal/Smif N'Wessun most wanted, but the law can't stop us/Our pictures on the posters, and my partner ridin' shotgun/Our pistols out the holsters, rob the coaches, then we bounce on 'em), Tek & General Steele find themselves sliding seamlessly into new territory.

Dolio The Sleuth is back and is proving he's still at the top of his game on tracks like "rainstrom in Kentucky" which also features Smiff N' Wessun, and the lead single off the album "Keep Talking".  Keep Talking, especially shows off his lyrical wordplay (runnin' off at the mouth with those tales that you keep tellin/my word is my bond and your bond just needs bailin'/my name in your mouth just leaves sour taste/that's why every time I see you, you lookin' sour in the face).

Two of my favorite tracks on here are actually covers of old tracks, the murder ballad "Banks of The Ohio", and Ralph Stanley's "O Death".  Both are standouts on here, and while singer Alexa Dirks handles solo duty on Banks of Ohio, "O Death" finds vocalist Brandi Hart sharing time with rappers R-Son & Liquid. While I had never heard of Liquid before this, I damn sure know his name now, and will be looking for more.  I just loved this track so much, although I imagine there will be some purists that may take issue.

When I did a review a few years back of the excellent release by John Legend + The Roots "Wake Up!", I mentioned that the only thing I could imagine someone finding fault with it, is that on the title track "Wake Up!" there was some added rapping on the track, where there was none in the original.  Likewise on O Death, there was clearly no rapping on the old country standard, and yet it works.  It just damn works.

I have to admit I wasn't sure about it going in.  And when I saw that R-Son and Liquid were on the features for the track, I had no idea what to expect.  I DID know that there was no way in hell that Rench would disrespect such a classic and legendary track by doing something that would "ruin" it or anything like that, and when you hear it, it comes off just...naturally.  Fluid. Liquid, if you will. (sorry, only pun I'll make).

Alexa's vocals on Banks of Ohio were appropriately haunting and beautiful at the same time, as she relates the tale of a woman that takes her potential husband down to the Banks of Ohio, and when he denies her request for marriage, she kills him.   I've always loved the old Murder Ballads (Stagger Lee is probably one of the more famous ones), and this really just kind of hits you as you hear this tragic tale unfold.  This is the only track that does not have an emcee on the track.

One final point I'll make, and that is with Tomasia.  I had never heard her before I heard her tracks on a previous album of Gangstagrass, and I really dig her.  Her tracks have all been ones dealing with those who have been pushed around, the lower class who have been fucked over by those in power.  And this album is no different, as she raps on the track "Mountain Top" with Brandi Hart's singing.

This song has the most incredibly impossible timing of anything I can remember.  A song talking about a company that has polluted a town's water supply?  Gee, I wonder where I've heard THAT recently?

Along with the polluted community storyline, there's also references to the attempts to bust up Unions and other things along these lines.  Seriously powerful stuff, and is a definite must listen.  These topics are clearly close to Tomasia and Rench's hearts, and I actually spoke to Rench about his taking part in SEIU Protests for Security Guard Unions in New York back in 2008, in which he was arrested.


All in all, this is another knockout release by Gangstagrass.  It's not all perfection, though.  While I like T.O.N.E-z (who you may recognize from his rhymes on the intro to the series Justified), the second track "Get Down, Get up" I wasn't that big a fan of.  I've never been a fan of the real fast flow, although that's a subjective aspect, so I wouldn't penalize the album for that.  Many people really dig that, and in fact there were early reactions on twitter praising that track for that very aspect, so your miles may vary.

I really went into this trying to find something that I could single out that I could point to and say "you know, this track really didn't work for me, I just didn't like this, or whatever.  SOMETHING."  I just didn't really find anything.  I usually only review things that I like. If I don't like something, I don't waste my time or anyone else's by writing and posting it.  Unless it's something that was so bad and yet it was from someone that I really liked, and wanted to like.

I did that with Kanye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" which I'm still not sure what the hell I listened to with that one.  But more times than not, I only review stuff I really like, so that may be why the vast majority of my reviews I give high marks to and don't really have a lot of negative things to say about it.

Aside from that one track, which the "complaint" was simply something that was subjective, there's nothing to really complain about here.  As long as you can keep an open mind when listening and enjoy some really good honest to God music, you're in good hands with the fellas from Gangstagrass.



01. Quickdraw feat. Dolio The Sleuth & R-SON
02. Get Down, Get Up feat. T.O.N.E-z
03. Banks of The Ohio feat. Alexa Dirks
04. Hand Me The Money feat. Smif N' Wessun
05. Keep Talking feat. Dolio The Sleuth
06. Mountaintop feat. Brandi Hart & Tomasia
07. All For One feat. Dolio The Sleuth & R-SON
08. O Death feat. Brandi Hart, Liquid & R-SON
09. Rainstorm in Kentucky feat. Smif N' Wessun, Dolio The Sleuth & R-SON
10. Peaches feat. Chrome Cowgirl & R-SON
11. Two Yards feat. R-SON & Dolio The Sleuth
12. Long Grey River feat. Dan Whitener & R-SON

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