Gangstagrass unites a divided nation with music
If one were to cross paths with the guys in Gangstagrass on the street—one would probably never guess that they hung out with each other, let alone that they’re part of the same band. The group is made up of an unlikely combination of rappers, fiddlers, banjo players and guitarists, with some members wearing T-shirts and loose fitting jeans and others sporting cowboy hats and flannels. And they say that is precisely their point.
With fiddles, guitars, beats, singing and rapping, the group takes on issues ranging from mass incarceration to class struggle to the pursuit of freedom in the context of the United States and everyday struggles that impact people of all walks of life in nuanced ways. Gangstagrass will be bringing their eclectic band, beats and message to Berkeley’s Cornerstone Beer & Live Music on Dec. 18, and they say they can’t wait to get to the Bay to share a mix of their old and new tunes.
Emily Bernstein Messner, Gangstagrass’ manager, who is known as Sleevs, says she’s confident that the group will win over the hearts and minds of people in the Bay area. “The Berkeley crowd will love the new holiday album that Dolio (an emcee for Gangstagrass) calls ‘Holiday Songs for the Proletariat,’ with songs about robbing Santa to redistribute gifts and questioning why Santa favors rich kids (over poor ones with gift giving),” Sleevs says. “It’s important for the folks in Berkeley (and the Bay) to know that they’re rocking out to the same music as people in (places like) Wisconsin, Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania.”
Sleevs says the band hopes to move people to get beyond the paralysis that sometimes comes along with fear and help them find a common rhythm as they groove to Gangstagrass’ infectious beats, music and lyrics. “Our music is about shared struggles, and what’s super cool at our shows is that you’ll see people from across the political spectrum of multiple generations all dancing to the same music with big smiles.”
Gangstagrass, who caught the world’s attention when they appeared on America’s Got Talent last summer, takes genres of music that most people would never think of putting together and weaves them into a fusion of hip-hop, country and bluegrass to deliver powerful stories in a way that seems to move their eclectic crowds of fans of all walks of life to dance.
Rench, a guitarist, singer and beatmaker in the group, produced the unique genre as a studio project some 15 years ago and is considered the mastermind behind Gangstagrass. He had a vision of weaving together different types of music that he loved and the hope that the music could build bridges and be an instrument of change in the often-times divisive world of today.
“I loved many types of music, and I wanted to break through the barriers that said that those types of music and the people that listened to them, didn’t go together,” Rench says. “I wanted to change that narrative and that assumption.”
Rench’s hope was that combining genres of vastly different styles ranging from hip-hop to country to bluegrass would reach a broad audience and get people who didn’t think they had anything in common musically or otherwise to the same place to move to the same music.
“If the assumption is that rural folks and urban folks can’t have any common ground, or white folks and Black folks (and people of other backgrounds) don’t have things that they can get into together, then how are any of our policy ideas going to include solutions that benefit everybody?” Rench rhetorically asks while sitting beside his bandmates, after a sold out show in a park that had people of all walks of life dancing along.
“If we can approach things in a way that’s communal instead of adversarial, (can you imagine what could we accomplish)? We’re not here as a band to promote particular policies. I don’t think people in ‘Make America Great hats’ are gonna show up and leave thinking about income redistribution, but there’s a long game to this in terms of cultural work to challenge those assumptions. And if we can just plant that seed or the idea that maybe folks aren’t so different or so separate, or that maybe we’re actually all on the same team, we can begin to build bridges.”
While the group has recently gained national attention, Rench and his bandmates have been at this for a long time. He crafted Long Hard Times to Come featuring T.O.N.E-z that opened every episode of FX show Justified and earned Gangstagrass a 2010 Emmy nomination for best theme song.
In June 2021, the group appeared on America’s Got Talent and received unanimous yeses from the panel of judges, where Howie Mandel called them “just the recipe that America needs right now.” Although the group didn’t make the final cut, their appearance on AGT put them on the radar of people and places across the country—as they’ve since played in parks, small clubs and large venues in urban and rural communities, and soon they’ll be back in California.
R-SON the Voice of Reason, an emcee and rapping artist for Gangstagrass, says the very act of showing up on a stage and creating music together is an act of resistance and a way of challenging people’s assumptions. “You are not who you are viewed as, in most cases, and that’s the thing we find important about our shows,” R-SON says.
“I saw a guy walking around here with an Info-wars T-shirt. I guarantee you that guy was bobbing his head as he was listening to us. Maybe he didn’t hear everything, but our music is the kind of stuff that’s very hard to walk away from because the sound is so infectious. And once you get into the sound, you’re going to have to listen to it.”
The group is particularly proud of their track called “Freedom.” After George Floyd died under the knee of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in May, 2020 and they grieved the tragedy (and others that followed it) along with the rest of the country, they bumped up the release of “Freedom” to coincide with Juneteenth.
R-SON the Voice of Reason says the track travels chronologically through the struggles of racial injustice—traveling through times of slavery to the Jim Crow era and civil rights to modern times when people are experiencing incarceration, to a place where someday people will have more control of their destinies. “It’s about dismantling and restructuring things so that everyone in the country can actually experience the promise of freedom. It’s like an article that was written into a contract that just has yet to be fulfilled. And it’s up to each generation to move that marker forward to get it closer to what the actual promise of what the word freedom is.”
The collective all chimes in at this point, adding other arenas where freedom is lacking—voter disenfranchisement, a system that doesn’t afford people with criminal records second chances, socioeconomic hardship and injustice and undue harshness toward undocumented folks in the country.
Dolio the Sleuth, Gangstagrass’ other emcee, says he hopes the group’s music inspires people to lean toward the change they want to see in their communities. “If we move towards freedom (as we’re challenging things like mass incarceration and the criminalization of undocumented immigrants), the energy goes a lot further. If we fight for justice, instead of fighting against injustice, we can begin to shift our culture and work toward a more just world,” Dolio says.
“We’ve got no time to be making new enemies when it comes to fighting for a just and free society, where humans can coexist in what semblance of harmony that we can have, with the short amount of time that each one of us has here. We want to make a world that is better for our children to inherit. (This is why) outside of music, we’re all heavily involved in our communities, and we’ve got our boots on the ground doing what we can.”
Dan Whitener, who plays the banjo and playfully calls himself Danjo, is one of the group’s two white guys. He sometimes performs in an American flag button-down shirt and a cowboy hat.
“I know the flag means a lot of things to different people, and it can represent some real tragedies and atrocities committed by this land, the government or the military. I know there are some flag waving civilians doing evil things in the name of the flag, and you’re not wrong to notice that,” Whitener says. “For me, I want to take the flag and my appearance and my banjo and all the things that often are looked at in a negative way and reappropriate it and put it into another context. I want people to be able to see me (fighting for justice and unity through music with my band) and (redefine) the flag in a better context.”
Whitener says the group has had to learn to be adaptable, not just in terms of making music in the context of a world that was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also in terms of performing in a world that has an epidemic of racial profiling, gun violence and incidents of police brutality.
“When we were all isolated in different parts of the country, we were still recording from our respective home studios and sending them to Rench so he could mix and produce them, so we could deal with that,” Whitener recalls. “But when George Floyd was killed, even though we were all far away, we felt the pain of that and we needed to respond in the way we knew best—with music.”
The group members weave together the stories and narratives they’ve heard, seen and lived in their respective communities and layer it together in a way that a working or middle class white person from rural America and a Black inner city teenager might find some level of commonality in the struggles they experience and observe, and people of different socioeconomic classes might be able to empathize with each other or see their experiences reflected back at them.
Whitener describes his process of writing the song “Never Coming Home Again” as an example of that. “When I joined the band, I wrote a song about the experience of somebody going to prison. I wrote the chorus and the lyrics and then the emcees came in and brought in completely different verses to bring it to a whole different level,” Whitener says. “(That’s the beauty of) different voices coming together.”
R-SON the Voice of Reason chimes in to contextualize his lyrics. “It’s a story about how mass incarceration impacts not only those who are incarcerated but the entire community, especially those who are left behind.”
B.E. Farrow, a fiddler and vocalist in the group, says that just as the band members weave their individual experiences together to tell richer, deeper, more broad reaching stories, the group’s existence, their clothing choices, their unique identities and their eclectic sound serve as an important conversation starter.
“Just by showing up, we’re starting a conversation. We get to be that example,” Farrow says. “And if folks in red hats show up, we hope they feel free to come up to us after the show and just talk.”
The guys in Gangstagrass are from cities across the country, with roots in Omaha, NE; Pensacola, FL; Philadelphia, PA; Washington, DC; and the Bronx, NY. When they’re not on stage together, one can find some of them in day jobs—as one works as a computer programming teacher, another as an employee at a comic book shop and four of them are dads, with kids ranging in age from infants and toddlers to college students.
The band has released six full-length albums and made it to the Billboard Top 10 bluegrass chart multiple times. Gangstagrass tracks have featured Nitty Scott MC, Dead Prez, Demeanor, Kaia Kater and Smif-N-Wessun, among others. The album No Time for Enemies was released in August 2020 and quickly rose to the top of Billboard bluegrass charts.
Gangstagrass will perform at 2367 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley on Dec. 18. Presale tickets are available for $20. For more information about Gangstagrass or their forthcoming tour, visit gangstagrass.com.