A Wrong Turn Down a Country Road...
If you were browsing your local record store, you might find it hard to pass up an album entitled Rappalachia by a group called Gangstagrass. The sheer cleverness of both the album’s title and the band’s name is more than enough to leave you curious…after all, how could such a traditional brand of music mesh with a genre that was essentially created to break the rules? If you were hoping for Tupac’s edgy poetics blended with Bill Monroe’s “ole-time fiddlin’” and “high lonesome sound”, you will likely be disappointed.
Under the direction of New York City native guitarist and producer Rench, Gangstagrass is the unusual effort to fuse country and mountain roots with rap lyrics and backbeats. Rench is joined by bluegrass musicians Jason Cade (fiddle and banjo), Todd Livingston (resonator guitar), and Ellery Marshall (banjo), and the group’s most recent release Rappalachia features acclaimed MCs such as Kool Keith and Dead Prez along with rising country artist Brandi Hart.
Although there are some big names associated with this album, most of the songs seem somewhat contrived. The lyrics are almost always trite or generic and the bluegrass backdrop forgoes the genre’s time-honored instrumentation (missing bass and mandolin), leaving many songs sounding hokey and lacking in depth. Although it is apparent that Gangstagrass’ Rappalachia was a bold experiment, the album unfortunately manifests as country’s answer to Limp Bizkit—just another glitch in music fusion.
The album begins on a tawdry note with “Gunslinging Rambler”, a maddening hoedown song that seems to keep “ramblin’ on”. With unbefitting yodeling and trite lyrics such as “This ain’t my first rodeo”, the song suits neither bluegrass nor rap but rather poorly parodies Wild West traditions. Featuring rap artist R-Son, the song speaks to the struggles of a music career, only with deficient metaphors and subpar bluegrass melodies. Perhaps the most infuriating part of “Gunslinging Rambler” is the line “Keep rambling on like Led Zepplin”, seemingly insinuating that Gangstagrass is on the same innovative level as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. The line comes across as insulting, only reinforcing that one should be careful before he starts name-dropping for the sake of being clever.
The album’s second song “Honey Babe” is only moderately better. The song incorporates country singer Brandi Hart’s vocals as what would be the R&B mixture in songs such as “Love the Way You Lie” featuring Rhianna, and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” with refrain vocals by Kelly Price. Although Brandi Hart gives the song that ever-popular Carrie Underwood touch, “Honey Babe” remains just as artificial and clichéd as other songs on the album.
It would seem that listeners would look forward to songs such as “Western” featuring Kool Keith; however, the song is incredibly distant from what Kool Keith fans expect and appreciate. While Kool Keith’s songs usually act as non-sequiturs, both abstract and graphic, here Kool Keith performs in yet another stale and trifling rap song—a disaster reminiscent of I.C.P.’s “Bitches” featuring rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Although most of the songs are busts, Rappalchia does have a couple of good tracks to offer. “Crossbow” is an instrumental song blending modern bluegrass with conventional hip-hop beat sounds such as electronic handclaps and snares. In fac,t Rench might have been better off to design more tracks such as “Crossbow” as a fresh way to transform bluegrass music.
Rappalachia also gains a victory with “Dollar Boss” featuring Dead Prez and Kamara Thomas. The background instrumentation for once sounds like bluegrass and the song truly addresses struggles of oppression that were, and still are, prevalent to Appalachia and the southern United States. “Dollar Boss” is the most well-written, best performed and most poetic song on the album. The refrain, sung by Kamara Thomas, is haunting like an old African American spiritual. The song is short, but is definitely representative of what rap music originally aimed to do. One of the album’s most significant problems is that it has no cohesive direction; the album would have been better if the album would have featured one rapper who could be on-board with rapping about being in Appalachia.
All in all Gangstagrass’s Rappalachia is a poor attempt at a new style of music. Perhaps Andre 3000 could have pulled off Appalachian rap if he had experimented with it in one song. Maybe a “Gangstagrass” genre could have succeeded with instrumental blends of bluegrass and hip-hop backbeats, but the album is stuck in mediocrity. Rappalachia, unfortunately, got caught stepping in horse shit as Brooklyn35 Collective so eloquently expresses in the album’s twelfth track.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.