Gangstagrass is blending bluegrass and hip hop to create a message of unity and freedom

By Linda Caudell-Feagan

This year’s Juneteenth will be the third anniversary of Gangstagrass’s release of “Freedom,” the opening track of No Time for Enemies and the first album featuring real hip-hop MCs to reach number one on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart. 

The song “Freedom” was created through collaboration and serendipity. It started with Gangstagrass fiddle player B.E. Farrow playing a Solomon Northrop fiddle tune described in the book, Twelve Years a Slave.

This sparked Gangstagrass MC Dolio the Sleuth to remark to his fellow MC, R-SON the Voice of Reason, that songs about liberation are so often about waiting for eventual salvation, and there should be one that stands up and declares that “we’re not going to wait any longer.” 

The first verse in “Freedom” tells the story of the successful slave revolt in Haiti. It then goes into the chorus, “I ain’t gonna wait no more to get this freedom!” 

Gangstagrass photo
Gangstagrass blends two kinds of uniquely American music, bluegrass and hip hop, and creates a third that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The second verse flashes forward in history to the civil rights movement, and the third verse looks ahead to two possible ways to move forward: taking the power by any means necessary or increased representation bringing peaceful change.

Gangstagrass, a United States and world-touring phenomenon, blends two kinds of uniquely American music, bluegrass and hip hop, and creates a third that’s greater than the sum of its parts. 

What started as a studio project 17 years ago by Brooklyn-based producer Rench first gained national attention when “Long Hard Times to Come,” the theme song for the hit FX television series, Justified, was nominated for an Emmy award in 2010. 

Today, MCs R-SON and Dolio the Sleuth trade verses and freestyle alongside the unparalleled skills of fellow vocalists Dan “Danjo” Whitener on banjo, B.E. Farrow on fiddle and Rench on guitar and beats. The band members hail from all over America, including Nebraska, Philly, Pensacola, California and Washington DC.

Americana Highways proclaimed Gangstagrass “America’s band” because they take so much of what’s amazing about this country — ingenuity, freedom, creativity, people’s strengths and struggles — and distill it into a message of common ground and unity. 

After their America’s Got Talent audition in 2021, Howie Mandel described Gangstagrass as “the recipe that America has been looking for” and “what America needs right now!” And Gangstagrass was thrilled to be featured on PBS’s The Caverns Sessions, which debuted last fall and is still appearing on PBS stations around the country. 

The themes of racial, socioeconomic and environmental justice flow through the music of Gangstagrass, as the band stays true to its roots in both traditional bluegrass and old-school hip-hop – and those roots are not as far apart as people think.

Bluegrass and hip-hop both originated in economically depressed communities where people used these distinctively American art forms to come together to lament their struggles and find joy in music. The cypher in hip-hop, which could materialize in a club or on a sidewalk or front stoop (but could happen anywhere), involves MCs trading rap verses over music or with someone beatboxing.

As it turns out, that’s very much the same concept as the “pick” in bluegrass, which one might envision happening on a front porch somewhere in Appalachia (though it too could happen anywhere), in which instrumentalists trade solos over the music being played. The banjo, which is widely thought to be an Appalachian instrument, actually comes from Africa – as do so many of the roots of America’s unique culture. 

Historically, southern music involved a lot of blending and cross-pollination of differing styles by white folks, Black folks, rural folks and urban folks. In the 1910s, recording technology started the mass-market of recorded music. 

Companies that were first offering these records from Southern musicians faced choices  where Jim Crow laws physically separated audiences. The companies that were selling records at the time decided that these were two different markets that needed separate products, even though the recordings were often sold with different labels – “hillbilly music” or “race records” – were the exact same recording. 

Today, even as we see the increased blending of musical genres by artists and broad tastes among listeners, that legacy of segregation continues in genre-based music marketing and playlisting and is in stark evidence in the still-pigeonholed categories of the Grammy Awards.  

At every show, Gangstagrass strives to tear down the walls that divide us and demonstrate that what we have in common is so much greater than our differences. 

The magic of Gangstagrass is that their audiences cross all lines – demographic, generational, political, musical.  When folks who are different come together for something they can enjoy together, it creates an unspoken understanding, and at the shows, people of all descriptions who don’t share similar life experiences or political views bond with each other and become friends. 

Each show is a celebration, with little kids and grandparents and everyone in between dancing together, like a congregation sharing a dynamic experience rather than an audience watching a show. 

As Gangstagrass MC Dolio the Sleuth explained, “When we perform, we get conflicting notions of what we are; someone could see us and say ‘See, racism doesn’t exist,’ but we do this in spite of racism. Our existence doesn’t prove that the problem doesn’t exist – it shows that there is hope to get past it, and do the work to fix it. That’s why we address those things in our music: we talk about racism, and classism, suicide, depression, water rights, workers’ rights. But we also get people to shake their butts; revolutionaries gotta party too!”

So for a truly unique, memorable and inspirational experience, grab your dancing shoes and your favorite people of all ages and come see this incredible band at one of their favorite venues. Everyone is welcome at the Gangstagrass party!

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