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Gangstagrass: Why Can't We Live And Play Together?

Gangstagrass performs Tuesday at The Castle Theatre in Bloomington
Sean Jamar
Gangstagrass performs Tuesday at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington.

You might think bluegrass and hip-hop would mix like oil and water, but Gangstagrass banjoist Dan Whitener says the band attracts bluegrass fans being turned onto hip-hop for the first time, and hip-hop heads who get into bluegrass through Gangstagrass.

“We’ve had people who don’t like bluegrass and don’t like hip-hop, yet somehow enjoy what we do,” said Whitener. “We find the idea of this genre separation is pretty artificial and created by the music industry. What we are doing is not the unusual to a lot of folks.”

"We find the idea of this genre separation is pretty artificial and created by the music industry."

Whitener likes to remind people the banjo has origins in Africa, though it has evolved over three centuries in America. So it may look structurally different than the African gourd, but the three-finger picking style has roots in African technics.

He adds that the band want fans to be aware of the history of the music, and even to the extent blackface was deeply engrained in American entertainment in the 1800s.

“We want you to think about what’s already come before this, and all these things that are influencing our culture and how we feel right now that people don’t think about or know about consciously. Because it’s there, and if you listen to this music and think bluegrass and hip-hop should be different things and bluegrass players and hip-hoppers are different people, maybe you don’t know the history of these musics fully,” said Whitener.

Watching Gangstagrass perform can be a visually juxtaposition for a country still dealing with effects of slavery and centuries of cultural assumptions. In this case, dreadlocked black MCs performing with white banjo players and a female violinist in cowboy boots is quite rare. It could be considered one small step in getting people together who don’t normally mingle with each other.

“I’d like to think so,” said Whitener. “It’s funny, because when you talk with (musician and producer) Rench who originally put this idea together, I don’t think he had any of those lofty ideas in his head. At the time when he put this together, artistically he heard some honky-tonk pedal steel sample and some hip-hop beats and thought, ‘I want to do that, those are the sounds in my head.’”

And they find performing the music conjures a much deeper meaning people take away from the shows, and like to talk about it.

“We encourage people to collaborate and we’re about a lot of positive messaging,” said Whitener. “We know how things are when we tour around the country and the world, maybe as well as any politician campaigning on the road.”

He really believes if people understand the history, they will understand there is a way to bring people together, and that it is a reasonable expectation.

“In some ways what we do is unusual, but in other ways, we are not a new phenomenon at all. We’re part of a larger movement that has been going for a while. People should keep that in mind and keep some hope,” said Whitener, who concedes he has evolved in the six years with Gangstagrass after answering a Craigslist ad for a banjo player.

“I empathize with the fans that come in and have some skepticism around it because I came in with some skepticism. I wanted to make sure that the bluegrass was on par because we all care about our traditions and influences,” said Whitener.

Likewise, the group’s MCs are conscience of the quality of the hip-hop.

“So my evolution in the band has been a lot of just listening. Everybody has been listening to each other and it’s been gelling more and more. There’s increased collaboration and cooperation. There are all these nuances and things you may not hear on the first or second listen, but I’ve been touring with them now for six years, and you catch things night after night you never would before,” said Whitener.

Gangstagrass plays the Castle Theatre on Tuesday night with special guests Wes Duffy Trio.

The complete interview with Dan Whitener.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.