R-Son The Voice of Reason calls as he’s on his way to pick up his kids. He looks forward to hanging out with them and watching their hometown team, the Philadelphia 76ers, play a game on television. In normal times, R-Son would be busy performing with Gangstagrass, his hybrid hip-hop/bluegrass band, to support their latest album, No Time for Enemies (set for release on August 14, pre-order it!), but the pandemic means that all of their shows are postponed.
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Spending much more time with his kids, R-Son says, “is probably the only real benefit to any of this [shutdown]. I am really only a couple of things: my kids and my culture,” he says. He admits that having his music career somewhat stymied lately has been difficult for him, because “Hip-hop keeps my heart pumping.”
R-Son knows that some people might balk at a band that blends bluegrass and hip-hop, but he’s confident that No Time for Enemies will win them over in the end, just as Gangstagrass have done since first forming in 2006 and releasing their debut album, Rench Presents: Gangstagrass the next year. Their 2019 live album, Pocket Full of Fire: Gangstagrass Live, stayed on the Billboard bluegrass chart for almost 4 months, peaking at number two – proving that there is, in fact, an audience eager to hear their unique sound.
The band only recorded three songs for this release when the pandemic hit, so the rest of the recording process was done while in quarantine. R-Son says that they refused to see this as a setback, though. “It has been an opportunity for us on some levels to still be able to do the recording part of the work. We haven’t been shut down,” he says.
While some artists have been paralyzed by the pandemic restrictions, it seems that this situation actually motivated the members of Gangstagrass. “We were considering an album before the bottom dropped out of the world, and then the more we worked on it, and the more things were changing, the more it fell into place.”
The members have found creative ways to continue songwriting during this time, as well. “We were doing this thing on our Twitch channel this past spring that we were calling ‘Kick the Can,’ where somebody would start something,” he says, explaining that each member took turns building on what another member previously did, in a deliberately systematic way. They did this twice, in five-day sessions. “By the time we were done, we had two songs. One of which, “Do Better,” made it on the album.”
Experimenting with different songwriting styles is nothing new for Gangstagrass; R-Son says there is no typical method. Regardless of how each song comes about, though, R-Son says he always feels that it’s crucial to get their message across with the lyrics, which often deal with socio-political subjects: “I want you to get something out of it, even if it’s just a line, or the whole verse,” he says. “We really want to make sure that you’re hearing what we’re saying because right now, it doesn’t feel like a lot of people are listening to each other. So if we’re able to get folks to listen to us and what we’re saying, that much the better.”
R-Son joined Gangstagrass a decade ago because of the other MC in the band, Dolio the Sleuth. They first met in 1999, when both were attending Penn State University. “I was like, ‘Yo, this dude’s pretty dope!’ And he said the same thing. So we connected.” They stayed connected even when Doliom moved to New York City for a while. While there, Dolio teamed up with Rench, the mastermind producer/vocalist/guitarist behind Gangstagrass.
Ten years ago, when Dolio was unable to tour with the band, he suggested R-Son as a suitable substitute. This led to a whirlwind initiation into Gangstagrass. “Rench called me on a Tuesday, I met him on a Wednesday night at the show we were doing 10 minutes before we went onstage, and then got in the van with him and the three guys that were in the band at the time and we did three shows in North Carolina.” It went so well that R-Son has remained with the band ever since, co-MCing with Dolio.
Even though he recognized that Gangstagrass was doing something highly unusual by mixing up hip-hop and bluegrass, there was never any doubt in R-Son’s mind about joining up with them because he trusted Dolio: “I knew his taste and I knew he wouldn’t try to put me onto something unless he thought it was dope.”
The other reason why R-Son has remained in the band, he says, is because he immediately recognized the talent involved. “I heard Rench’s stuff, and I was like, ‘Okay, I can mess with this.’ Rench is about the realest dude I’ve ever met on any level, in any degree,” he says.
Now, R-Son hopes that other people will give Gangstagrass a listen with an open mind, too, and not jump to the erroneous conclusion that this is some gimmick act. There is, he says, real authenticity in their music – in both the bluegrass and the hip-hop aspects of their style: “I don’t have any trouble approaching anybody about it because I’m like, ‘Look, this is about as hip-hop as anything else, and as bluegrass as anything else.’
“From a hip-hop standpoint, the beats are dope, the rhymes are dope – and that’s really the essence of hip hop music,” R-Son continues. This isn’t just due to his own and Dolio’s MC skills, either: “Rench is as much a hip-hop dude as most of the hip-hop cats I’ve ever encountered,” R-Son says. “He’s got bars – he can spit. A lot of people don’t know that. He’s very, very dope.”
The bluegrass side of their sound, R-Son says, is equally as important and impressive. ‘I’ve met a lot of banjo players in the last ten years. No one I’ve seen playing the banjo is as good as Dan [Whitener]. And [bassist/fiddle player Brian] Farrow is so good.”
For his part, R-Son says it’s not as unlikely that that he’d be drawn to a band that incorporates bluegrass as people might assume. “My dad, he had a little country to him,” he says. “He was a big fan of Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and Charlie Daniels, so he put me on to some of that when I was coming up.”
Still, R-Son knows that some people might be confused the first time that they hear Gangstagrass, just because the band’s sound is so unusual. Fortunately, he says that it seems like almost every new listener has been won over so far. “For the most part, it’s been at the absolute least a good response, if not blowing people’s minds. We have been able to really get people in a way that they were never expecting.”
With No Time for Enemies, Gangstagrass is ready to continue their successful run, and R-Son couldn’t be more thrilled about it. He says that he’d dreamed of becoming a professional rapper since he wrote his first verses while on the school bus during first grade, so being in this band has been – and continues to be – a life-changing situation.
“For me personally, this keeps me young,” R-Son says. “It keeps my strength and energy up. It’s keeping me going. This is my favorite thing. I’m the luckiest dude in the world.”