116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Casual music fans might be a bit perplexed upon the initial spin of Gangstagrass. The Philadelphia-based band combines the sounds of bluegrass and hip-hop.
"People are a bit surprised by what we do until they really listen," vocalist R-Son said while calling from Louisville.
The compelling band's amalgam of sounds is akin to the mix of chocolate and peanut butter. The combination of the contrast and the surprising similarities makes for a unique sound that works.
"Bluegrass and hip-hop are both improvisational," R-Son said. "Both genres come from people leading regular lives. You have cats on the front porch, (people) with a banjo and a fiddle, and they jam. You have people at the lunch table rhyming while banging on the table. It's not so different."
Gangstagrass — which also includes vocalist-guitarist Rench, banjo player Dan Whitener, fiddler Brian Farrow, and vocalist Dolio the Sleuth — accentuates the positive throughout its latest album, "No Time For Enemies."
"We have a message," R-Son said "We think it's an important one. We're about peace and tolerance and understanding."
The blend of the band’s rich sound and profound and often hard-hitting lyrics is reminiscent of the sonically dense and provocative Public Enemy.
"I'm a huge PE fan," R-Son said. "People have compared me to (Public Enemy rapper and lyricist) Chuck D, but I'm not ready for that. People have also compared me to KRS-One and that's just too much. Both of those guys have always been so dope. We're trying to do our thing and be the best MCs we can. Me and Dolio are just trying to perfect our craft. Rench, Dan and Brian are real bluegrass artists. We found each other and just try to get better every day."
Gangstagrass, which will perform Sunday at CSPS in Cedar Rapids, is reminiscent of Fishbone, an underheralded band with an eclectic sonic palette, which has been an entertaining and engaging live act for more than a generation.
"There are a lot of great recording artists that have done something similar to us, crossing genres," R-Son said. "We're just doing what we're passionate about. You look at musical styles and the similarities.
“When people talk about the violent side of hip-hop and they say it's so different from bluegrass. But if you look at the big picture with country and bluegrass, you see what it really is. Country and bluegrass have their dark side, which are called murder ballads. You have songs about somebody killing their wife and her boyfriend. It's heavy stuff and it's very much people's music born out of some heavy stuff.
“It's about telling a story. In hip-hop stories are told. Hip-hop is like folk music. If you look a little deeper, you'll see that."
R-Son's lyrics reflect the fact that he's a peace keeper. The soft-spoken entertainer comes from a long line of police officers, with his father and uncles on the force. R-Son attended Penn State University and graduated with a degree in administration and justice.
"It looked like I was headed towards law enforcement," he said. "But my life went into a different direction."
Gangstagrass was formed in 2011 and R-Son amps it up a few notches when he performs live.
"I love getting up onstage," he said. "It's my passion."
R-Son, who has never used drugs and passes on alcohol, is all about clarity.
"I like to keep it straight," he said. "I just want to focus and not be distracted."
Gangstagrass is working on new music.
"We just put together a mix tape," R-Son said. "We have ‘My Brother, Where are You,’ which is a take on (the Coen Brothers classic film) ‘O Brother Where Art Thou.’ We also do a version of (The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's) ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken,’ our version of Woody Guthrie's ‘This Land is Your Land.’
“We're 10 years in and it's obviously working,” R-Son said. “We're doing what we love to do.”