By Mark A. Leon
Music is a powerful force.? It takes us back to vital moments in our lives, gives us the backdrop of reflection, derives emotion and ultimately becomes the soundtrack of our lives.? Over centuries of musical evolution, sounds have changed and pioneers have paved the way for new ways of communicating life experience.? From classical to rap, dance to heavy metal, music is here to tell a story, interpret, commentate and record.
“Welcome to the Church of Gangstagrass”
?On Sunday, Charleston, South Carolina was introduced to the fusion sound of hip hop bluegrass when Philadelphia based Gangstagrass took the stage at the Charleston Pour House.
During the first two songs, the amped up crowd was ready to dance, but they didn’t quite know how to accept this new sound fusing the traditional Southern harmonies of bluegrass with the raw lyrical power of hip hop.? When they played “Man of Constant Sorrow” as their third selection, that all changed.
The crowd continued to dance, with a new sense of engagement with the band, waving their hands and losing themselves in the music.? Later in the set, a second roar erupted as so many realized a band they had not known, but one hour prior was responsible for the theme song to the Fox cult series, Justified (“Long Hard Times To Come”).
To our left, we heard the scream, “Raylan” from the audience and if there were any doubters before that, it was clear, Gangstagrass had captured a new fan base here in Charleston.
With the tunes “Rambling On” and “Put Your Hands Up High”, the audience hits peaks in their energy and participation and put the show in sixth gear.
Prior to the set, I spoke candidly to Dan Whitener, banjo and vocals.? We chimed in on fusion, musical pioneers, radio air play, collaborations, influences and the changing landscape of the music industry.
Supporting Local Fans
?In an unusual act of kindness, a fan of music and the local Charleston Pour House fan community purchased 10 CD’s, laid them out right in front of the stage during the first set and motioned the band to sign them.? If the audience was a bit confused, I could only imagine the band who finishing up their first set.? They obliged at the break, signing all the CD’s along with taking pictures with fans.
After a few songs and two people cautiously taking a CD each, the band announced that these signed CD’s were up for grabs courtesy of a kind stranger.
What does this sound mean?
?Combining the genres of Hip Hop and Bluegrass does pose its challenges for popular radio air play, but it also opens the door of possibility with this breakthrough sound.? Rolling Stone referred this as “Hik-Hop”, not a favorite term of the band’s, but a way to categorize.
I prefer to say the way Jean-Luc Ponty turned a violin into a jazz instrument and play accompanied by an orchestra and the Asian influence Abigail Washburn brought to the mandolin while singing in Mandarin, Ganstagrass is going to turn the music world upside with rapping to a bluegrass band.
We also spent some time thinking during the two-set performance on what the deeper and more important meanings this new music is saying to us.
In a way, this fused sound is North Meets South; Black Meets White and equality meets human existence in a sound that is filled with messages of love, pain, survival and community.
Gangstagrass rolled into Charleston for the first time and gave the local community something special.? Their Southern harmonies filled with banjo, guitar and fiddle blended with raw lyrics of meaningful hip hop, brought a level of energy that made for a memorable evening.