(Editor’s Note: with all the talk about the polarizing SCOTUS ruling on Hobby Lobby and birth control, I thought it might be good to talk about something that brings people together.)
So I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve decided that this song by bluegrass hip-hop band Gangstagrass, is more than just a fun, infectious tune. It is the antonym of the common hyperbolic lament about our fair nation; “All For One” is, for once, what’s right with America.
Read no further before watching and listening:
The only way this song could be more thoroughly American would be a cameo appearance by a flag-draped America Ferrera.
(Speaking of which, I searched for an actual image of America Ferrera draped in an American flag, but no such luck. Apparently her publicists and/or image consultants have an aversion to anything too on-the-nose.)
What do I mean?
Well first you have to come to terms with the name and the concept. Where some bands like to wear their name like a bulwark of impenetrable aggression (“Rage Against the Machine”) or a stylish tunic of self-effacing irony (“Better Than Ezra”), Gangstagrass is exactly what it sounds like. Hip-hop beats and bombast with the soul of authentic bluegrass. It’s a simple equation, really:
Gangsta rap + bluegrass = Gangstagrass.
And it’s stunning how well those two ingredients go together.
Now, for those who’ve been listening to hip-hop for the better part of three decades, it’s not a completely new concept to bring an old West aesthetic to rap. Long before the Will Smith remake a decade later, Kool Moe Dee did it in 1988 with his hit “Wild Wild West,” and the same year Marley Marl brought a similar vibe with “The Symphony.”
So it’s no surprise that the principal creative force behind Gangstagrass is also from NYC, Brooklyn-based producer Rench. In one sense, it’s like he took that gimmick and ran with it.
And yet, when you listen to any Gangstagrass tune, it’s clear that their identity is more than a gimmick. The name and the concept is attention-grabbing enough to get you in the door, but it’s the music itself that’s good enough to keep you open and coming back for more.
(That was an unintentional rhyme, but ATTENTION GANGSTAGRASS PR FOLKS — feel free to use that as a pull-quote. Just spell my name correctly, please.)
Gangstagrass’ initial claim to fame was their tune “Long Hard Times to Come,” which was tabbed to become the theme for the FX western drama Justified (and earned them an Emmy nomination in 2010 for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme).
And a large part of their appeal is that, just like The Roots (or for a less-well-known but equally as legendary example, The 4th Avenue Jones crew), Gangstagrass is a hip-hop band. Their beats are layered with standard bluegrass instrumentation — banjos, fiddles, acoustic and pedal steel guitars galore. Not only that, but their lyrics are often infused with a gritty, threadbare aesthetic that feels equally at home on the streets of New York or the dusty vistas of New Mexico. When they tell you that they go hard, you believe it.
Which makes plenty of sense, because there are many thematic similarities between many rap and bluegrass or country songs. They’re great vehicles for storytelling, and they’re often set in resource-poor areas, where violence and hopelessness conspire to overwhelm.
And yet, amidst the hardscrabble tundra, there are moments of real beauty — like “All For One,” their latest single. It stands out for being much more cheerful and fun than much of the Gangstagrass oeuvre. Both the twangy chorus and the rapped verses by Dolio the Sleuth and R-Son are celebratory. In liturgical terms, it is both invocation and proclamation. And the message is simple — good music brings people together:
Now the beats are breakin’,
returnin’ to greatness
Put some Gangstagrass joints on your playlist
Whatever your faith is, say your prayers
Meet us on the Hudson or the Delaware
We gon’ take what we do, once we get it there
Put it together and send it to every hemisphere
Even though we bring the heat,
you can bet it’s rare, and everybody’s
gonna want a piece, so you better share
Now, these would be typically hyperbolic rap lyrics under normal circumstances, but seriously, people. Look at the video again. Where else are you going to find people line dancing in a city park and a country barn — in the same song? It’s like Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” and Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” hooked up and made a single together. It’s really good music.
In polarizing times like ours, we need everything we can get to preserve and strengthen this fragile experiment called the United States of America. And since we can only fake an interest in World Cup soccer until the US Men’s National Team gets eliminated, here’s a great way to enjoy the rest of your summer.
Crank up the Gangstagrass, and let the good times roll…