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Gangstagrass returns to Bloomington after 5 years, serving up 'The Blackest Thing on the Menu'

A group of six people, including five men and one woman, pose with musical instruments in a narrow outdoor alley between brick buildings. They hold guitars, a banjo, and a fiddle, and appear excited and energetic. Text at the bottom reads "Clean Bobby Photography.
Cloud Bobby
Courtesy Gangstagrass
Gangstagrass returns to Bloomington after a 5-year absence, with new songs leading up to their latest album, The Blackest Thing on the Menu.

Hip-hop and bluegrass might not intuitively go together, but they have a lot in common: improvisation, outlaw vibes, hard times music and shared roots from the African diaspora.

Rench the Mastermind wasn’t really thinking about that when he formed Gangstagrass nearly 20 years ago—he just thought they’d sound cool together.

“At the time, I did think there’s an aspect of this where it’s white music and Black music being combined together,” Gangstagrass founder Rench said. “Since then, I’ve learned so much about the Black roots of country music that I don’t see it that way anymore. It absolutely, 100% came from wanting this sound out there, being in love with the genres, really enjoying having block-rocking beats and having some twangy instruments—and not wanting to have to listen to them separately.”

The core Gangstagrass members are Rench, Dolio the Sleuth and R-SON the Voice of Reason, plus their manager and self-professed Swiss Army Knife, Sleevs. A rotating cast of characters on fiddle, banjo and slide guitar complete the ensemble.

Gangstagrass looks like a full-time gig—with seven studio albums and another on the way, plus a full docket of shows on the road, including a stop at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday. But all of them do other things. Dolio, for example, is an MC and vocalist—and also an MIT-trained mechanical engineer who works on expanding access to the tech industry.

Dolio called Gangstagrass a “retirement plan” more than a “side hustle.”

“When I first ran into Rench, it was right after I moved to New York,” he said. “I had just moved there from Boston. Back then, he was doing this hip-hop honky tonk fusion called Battlestar America. That’s how I originally got introduced to those types of mashups.”

Dolio’s hometown of Pensacola, Florida, primed the pump.

“It wasn’t that far-fetched for me because I had already grown up around country folk,” he said. “Coming up, we used to watch Soul Train on Saturday and Hee Haw on Sunday.”

Neither was it that far of a stretch for Philadelphia native and Gangstagrass MC R-SON. His mom listened to Teena Marie and Barbara Streisand. His dad’s favorite things were Jim Croce and Jesus Christ Superstar.

“I got lucky,” R-SON said. “I met Dolio in a cypher at Penn State. We met that night and stayed cool—this was ’99. I get a call one day in 2011.”

It was Dolio, looking for an emcee to add to the band.

“He sent me two tracks, and I was like oh hell yeah. Let’s get it.”

A day later R-SON was on the Gangstagrass stage and the rest, as they say, is history.

“When it’s dope, it’s dope,” he said. “Quite honestly, the only limit is how difficult it is for people to understand what’s happening. The only limit is people’s imaginations.”

Shrimp and grits in Pensacola

A trickle of singles released this spring tease The Blackest Thing on the Menu, set to drop in June. It’s an embarrassment of riches, boasting collaborations with the “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe, legendary record producer Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, and celebrated dobro and steel guitarist Jerry Douglas, to name a few.

Obligatory Braggadocio is the latest single to hit airwaves, a twangy banger with Country Grammar vibes that started with a cataloged dobro lick. Funk forward Good at Being Bad, produced at Royal Studios in Memphis, is somehow simultaneously country hook-up meets Soul Train with a 21st-century twist.

With time and cred, Gangstagrass has claimed more agency to play with the formula, pressing at the boundaries of hip-hop and bluegrass to bust it open even wider.

“At this point, when something comes out as a funk song, I don’t feel we have to prove anything,” said Rench. “People did react to it—some of our fans said, ‘Where’s the bluegrass in this?’ At the same time, that sexy solo? That’s a mandolin.”

The title for the album came from a diner in Pensacola. It was Juneteenth, and the shrimp and grits were the “blackest thing on the menu.” Returning to New York, they settled on the name at the airport.

“On many different occasions, yeah, we are the Blackest thing on the menu,” Dolio said.

It is perhaps a nod to Gangstagrass’ perpetual boundary breaking: They were the first emcees to perform at Nashville’s Station Inn, quarter-finalists on season 16 of America’s Got Talent, and Emmy-nominated for Long Hard Times to Come (the theme song for FX’s Justified).

More ephemerally, there was “the omen,” as Dolio called it.

“It felt like the universe was telling us that we made the right decision,” he said. “On our flight back, it had been raining. The clouds had just broken. And I kid you not, two brilliant rainbows appeared in the sky. It was like the Lord himself was like, ‘Yes, it shall be so.’ Later on, we discovered more meaning behind it.”

Harmony to a dissonant nation

A recent post on the band’s Instagram page posed the question: Does a bluegrass/hip-hop group have the power to bring harmony to our dissonant nation?

Rench said it’s “one piece of the puzzle.”

“We see the power of music to be disarming and to allow people to enjoy being in the same space together,” he said. “That’s one of the beautiful things we see at Gangstagrass shows.”

Some Gangstagrass fans show up for the hip-hop and some show up for the bluegrass. Many come for all of it—others have no idea what they've signed up for.

“People are coming because they enjoy Gangstagrass and they don’t expect to see some of the other people who are there enjoying Gangstagrass,” Rench said. “Establishing some common ground like that can be a really powerful way to allow people to make connections and build bridges.”

Gangstagrass appears at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East Street, Bloomington. Tickets are $19-$39 at 309-434-2777 and artsblooming.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.