With awesome instrumentals, mesmerising rhythms and creative verbosity, Gangstagrass are a musical sensation not to be missed. Their innovative combining of Hip Hop and Bluegrass does more than carve out a niche; rather, it blazes a trail into a whole new genre which is impressive but, more importantly, hugely enjoyable.
Such an unusual combination of genres meant that, as one might expect, the band cuts quite a strange figure onstage - alternately plaid- and Stetson-clad country musicians standing side-by-side with rappers sporting hip-hop’s signature bling. Any potential visual mismatch is instantly dissolved, however, both by the band’s harmonious sounds and the chemistry between the members.
The musicians were all supremely talented in their own right. Frontman R-SON spat lyrics with impressive speed throughout, with the effect being heightened by his improvised verses, riffing on Oxford’s reputation as a town. It was a shame that at times he seemed a little uninterested, at one point checking his phone and at another going offstage to get a hot drink (although to be fair it was arctic in the venue - most of the audience kept their coats on throughout the evening despite good energy levels) - but he redeemed himself later on by becoming totally immersed in the crowd, posing for selfies and signing merchandise at the end.
Equally pacy and no less charismatic was Dolio The Sleuth, whose rap was accompanied by knowing glances to the audience. Rench, on backing vocals and guitar, was surprisingly low-key, given that the band and the concept are his brainchild - the fact he didn’t take centre stage is a testament to this show being a truly collaborative enterprise with an admirable humility behind it. For me, however, the best aspects of the show were thanks to the instrumentalists. Dan Whitener’s enthusiasm for his banjo was written across his face the entire time, elevating what some may see as a trivial instrument into an undeniable art form.
Meanwhile, Brian Farrow’s fiddle-playing stole the show. I don’t quite have the words to describe my awe at his skilful command of the violin: the standard was what you would expect at the stuffiest of concert halls, woven into accessible Hip Hop act with style and heaps of laid-back charm, leading my other half to exclaim ‘he is the coolest guy I’ve ever seen!’.
When I was first introduced to the idea of Gangstagrass, my initial thought was ‘why not?’. But this band and the music they produce are so much more than a gimmicky experiment. The interplay between the two genres was carefully thought through, so that the R&B rhythms and the country sounds enhanced and elevated each other. With catchy choruses fused with speedy verses and plenty of space for the instruments to roam, it was no surprise that the crowd loved them, bopping along with lots of enthusiasm, and, in my case, wide grins. Instead of ‘why not’, the question should really be: why doesn’t more rap feature violins?
You can listen to what Gangstagrass are about on their website but I would urge you to try and catch them while they’re still in the UK - and as a keen convert, I hope they return to Oxford soon, as I will be telling all my friends to get their hands on a ticket!