Sunday, July 23, 2017 This Week's Paper

Hip-hop meets Appalachia in the music of Gangstagrass

Breakbeats and banjos. B-boys and good ol’ boys. These things have a lot more in common than you might expect. Just ask genre-blurring collective Gangstagrass, the main attraction on Oct. 13 at Tacoma’s Jazzbones. Since 2006 the New York-based band has gained notoriety by mashing up the block-rockin’ braggadocio of hip-hop and the banjo-powered arrangements of Appalachia. It’s Def Jam meets dobro; a provocative gimmick, for sure, but also a logical progression for group guitarist and founder Rench, who checked in from rehearsal last week to break down his influences.

“I grew up in Southern California in the ‘80s, and in third grade it was all about taking your cardboard out during recess to put down and do backspins and listen to Run DMC and the Beastie Boys,” he recalled. “But … my dad’s from Oklahoma, so I got home and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash were on the stereo. So those were just the two sounds that influenced my musical thinking.” Years later he moved to the Big Apple and opened a studio, Rench Audio, where he chopped beats and produced for local hip-hop groups. “I couldn’t resist sampling a couple of steel guitars here and there,” he said. “I thought it would be great for adding beats to because bluegrass generally doesn’t have drums. It’s a really rhythm music that’s really tight and, I would say, funky. So I thought there was a natural fit there even though nobody else would really see that. I tried it out and ... it turned out pretty well.”

Rench boosted his band’s following by posting several tunes online for free download. It is a gamble that especially paid off when they drew the attention of FX Network, which was looking for music to promote its new series “Justified.” Gangstagrass cut “Long, Hard Times to Come,” which opens each episode and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010. That year, Gangstagrass released its debut album “Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic” which was followed up this year with “Rappalachia.” The new disc delves deeper into the band’s hick-hop aesthetic with collaborations that feature popular rap acts Kool Keith and Dead Prez, among others. The touring band consists of Rench, rapper R-Son, banjo player Doug Goldstein, dobro player David Yanuzzi and fiddler Jon West. “R-Son is a phenomenal freestyler,” Rench said. “We start going and he’ll have some verses, but there are also times when he just jumps off. If you come to the show that night, what you’re wearing might end up being lyrics in a song.” Local favorites Sweet Kiss Mama and the Breaklites will open the show on Oct. 13, further bridging the gap between urban and rural sounds. Start time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $8.50 in advance, $13 day of show; (253) 396-9169 or for further details.