I think that the history of American music has been about creating new forms by combining different influences that come together in this country.
The premise of your project Gangstagrass is something that could put off a wide audience by its description alone – bluegrass meets hip-hop. But listening, it ends up being so much more of a natural combination than I ever would have guessed. It goes to show that they aren’t mutually exclusive forms of music. What parallels do you observe in the origins of hip-hop and earlier American roots music?
First of all, I want to say that the first part of your question is absolutely right. Our stumbling block is in trying to promote it! If people hear about it as a description with words, a lot of people run away. So the best form of promotion for us is when people just hear it first, because it is something that a lot of people who probably would think of something bad if they tried to imagine it based on the description actually like. That is our hurdle that we are constantly trying to overcome.
We see a lot of parallels between roots music and hip-hop. When I was getting bluegrass players and hip-hop MCs together, we were discovering a different vocabulary from the same things. A lot of it has to do with the similarities and origins of peoples’ music, music that was developed outside of any kind of industry thing. In the case of the hip-hop, the music of the streets, and bluegrass, the music of the hollers, it was about people coming together to make this stuff informally out where people gather, so you have a lot of the same forms. For example, the improvisational nature of each being music where people can get together, maybe not having rehearsed or known each other, but they’re able to sort of speak through that.
One example of this is in bluegrass, getting together and starting to play a song with people that you don’t necessarily know, but having it be a common chord progression you can shout out. Then you have people trading off solos and improvising over them, which is called a pick. In hip-hop, getting together on a street corner with people you may not have met before, having somebody beatboxing while people trade improvised verses, that’s called a cypher. Once we realized “Oh, a pick and a cypher are basically the same thing!” it just clicked. The MCs and the bluegrass folks can be like “Okay, that’s what we’re doing!” And it just flows because they know that format of doing things, to be able to take a section and then pass it to the next person to improvise on it, and it was totally natural.
Another example is the outlaw narrative. It’s a lot of the same subject matter that comes from being the music of the people. Songs about struggle, being on the wrong side of the law, doing dirty deeds and having a bad past. We found that that narrative underscores the two genres.
Beyond how both genres separately began, what do you think is at the root of any form of art, going back to cave paintings? Do you think a tension or pain exists at the root of the urge to make anything, or is creation a celebratory act to you?
I think it’s the whole gamut of emotion. What we certainly want to do is share our experiences, in a way. Sharing is a form of catharsis. It’s not just pain, but joy as well. We let our experience make us feel less isolated and more connected to people through sharing joy, pain, sorrow, heartbreak, excitement and humor. All those things we feel as an individual, when we share them directly through art, it connects us on a deeply human level, I think.
Please tell me about yourself as a child. Was there any single flashpoint moment to where you knew this was what you wanted to do? How did you go through trial and error in your creative life?
I didn’t set out consciously to be like “This is what I’m going to do,” but I can definitely see the direction things were taking. I was growing up in Santa Barbara, CA, in the ‘80s, where hip-hop exploded with the movies and other popular media. In third grade, recess was about putting down some cardboard to do your backspins to the Beat Street soundtrack or Run-DMC. But my dad’s from Oklahoma, so when I got home, on the turntable was Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. I’ve always felt a strong urge to bridge gaps and bring these things together where people perceive divisions. That’s kind of my mission. When I started making music, that’s what came out naturally.
Are you generally attracted to putting two juxtaposing ideas together and seeing how they click?
Absolutely. Part of what attracts me is innovation. I’m not as interested in making things or listening to things as I am in pushing boundaries. I think that the history of American music, especially, has been about creating new forms by combining different influences that come together in this country. There’s always been a story about the inflow of new inspirations ever since this country was started.
The banjo is a great example. It was an instrument that came over in the imagination of slaves in the Middle Passage. They’d come from cultures that used a gourd with a couple of strings and they recreated it once they were here. It was then passed on and evolved as other folks, like European settlers and white indentured servants took it on and started using a drumhead to string things across. It became like the banjo we know today, but that was something that was convergent with other things, joining us alongside the European fiddle tradition that was there.
The gospel songs of the slaves and of the European tradition collided into new forms. The blues colliding with the Appalachian culture created country music and bluegrass in the first place, and then everything thereon has kind of been people innovating by incorporating and recombining these different cultures that were coexistent, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Beyond this, have you ever thought of using your powers of combination and innovation in a nonmusical field? What would you see yourself doing if you never became a musician? Where was your life path headed beforehand?
I’ve written very political as well. Part of this, for me, is an aspect about trying to come at a different angle about civil discourse and the way that we have trouble communicating over perceived cultural gaps. Aside from music, I’d certainly be dedicating myself to trying to expand dialogue around what we have in common and understanding our shared interests, understanding what we actually have in common in ways we get divided by race or gender. I’d like to try to help people overcome those divisions and be able to hear each other better. I think that’s definitely something that needs to be focused on more.
A lot of times, these stories that we share on peoples’ social feeds consist of people sharing the worst examples of each other.
That kind of reminds me of how quickly the world is changing. Certain ideas on both sides that were kind of in the woodwork have come into the mainstream. For example, I think of how conspiracy theories and inside jobs are now part of daily discussion, whereas it would have been on some weird hidden forum years ago. What do you think about alternative sources of history? Do you think there could be a larger, hidden context to what’s going on societally, or is that just a method of manufacturing meaning out of chaos to you?
Ah, I don’t know. It is harder to differentiate our sources right now, but I do think that there’s a lot to be said for just listening to each other on a personal level rather than this social media that goes on now, with a lot of people just sharing links at each other. There’s so much more to be gained by talking to each other personally, rather than just “Oh, look at this story, look at that story.” Here’s what I’m doing right now: I’m putting the kids to bed. I’m cooking dinner. I’m starting on a personal level like that. I’ve seen that be so much more powerful in the chances that I get, in the contacts I make with what I’m doing that are all over the country and political spectrum, in different locations with different experiences. But when people are able to sort of break that down and say “Here’s who I am as a person,” that’s what’s breaking through stereotypes.
A lot of times, these stories that we share, what I see on peoples’ feeds is people sharing the worst examples of each other. In rural areas that are conservative, they’re getting shown the worst examples of their perception of leftists or urban situations. And the same is true in reverse! I’m here in Brooklyn and a lot of our progressive circles or whatever, we may get shown stories that reflect the worst in rural America’s biases or prejudices or whatever, as opposed to being able to just go talk to people and see a more nuanced view of someone who is there struggling economically just like we are. In situations with people not as close to us, we tend to see them as not having the same struggle as we do.
I think there’s so much to see in common there that we think “Oh, it’s the cities that are struggling,” or people in rural areas saying “We’re the ones who are struggling!” and actually there’s so much commonality, economically and over the same prejudices. If we were sitting at dinner with each other, it’d be so much easier to overcome stereotypes, rather than these sorts of echo chambers that we get into with social media.
Beyond being inspired by styles of music, what do you think about the very idea of influence, following in someone’s footsteps. Do you feel we are all built on a series of influences from others, or should we always forge a new path?
I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive! I mean, the new paths are built out of our influences. In a certain sense – and this is not a phrase that is original to me – everything is a remix. That’s what new ideas are, sort of recombining the things you’ve learned as you’ve gotten them from other people. I definitely see that in the history of musicians and artists in this country. There’s this stifling by the industry that has happened to people who wanted to learn from each other and cross-pollinate, in a way, determined by the labels, radio stations or media channels of the music industry perceiving what’s going to be good for their perception of the market. The demographics of something playing to white people, who they thought would not tolerate music that is mixed or collaborative with other artists.
If you go back to half a century ago, you had country and soul musicians who were always influencing each other and covering each other’s’ songs. Buck Owens, a country singer, and Bettye Swann, a soul singer, were actually recording duets together that would never be released because the labels and radio stations thought “That’s not what our demographic can handle.” I think they were wrong, but the people in control of the money and the media have always perpetuated this idea that the markets and demographics are separate. They needed to be presented separately. But if you follow country music and rhythm & blues back far enough, both essentially go back to this point where blues and the earliest country music were indistinguishable. It was poor whites and poor blacks basically making the same music and teaching each other the same kinds of guitar playing and singing.
For example, Jimmie Rodgers, who is considered one of the earliest fathers of country music, learned his singing, including the yodeling, from blues musicians. And the blues musicians of the time were learning their guitar parts from Appalachian fingerpickers. All of that was cross-pollenating into something that was basically the same, but when it was first recorded in the 1920s and sold to audiences for the first time through records, the record companies decided they had to sell it separately. So what was essentially the same music was put on different labels for black audiences and white audiences. One was called race music and the other was called hillbilly music. Even the same band might record an album that was sold as race music to black audiences and then, under a different name, as hillbilly music to white audiences, when it was the same music.
That was just the start of what’s been perpetuated from there into separate labels, charts, magazines and radio stations. And what you can trace along with that separation by the industry has always been attempts by the musicians at crosspollination and collaboration. They’ve been influencing each other the whole time.
There is a history of people remarketing somebody’s stuff to make money by appropriating it in a way that is kind of stealing it. But it’s certainly not a black and white issue. It’s not easy to draw a clear line.
Right, which always makes it kind of funny when one songwriter sues another for plagiarism. I don’t think you should steal anybody’s work outright, but I’ve always sort of secretly been pro-plagiarism. Because all those great artists you mentioned were completely ripping each other off in awesome ways!
Yeah, there are certainly stories about the difficulty of trying to draw a line there. For example, I believe Hank Williams had a lawsuit against maybe Kitty Wells, who had used a song of his and put it out with new words to sort of recast the song or respond to it. But in court, they ruled to show that the Hank Williams song was actually just putting new words on a traditional melody in the first place. So you know, there is that history, and at the same time there is a history of people remarketing somebody’s stuff to make money by appropriating it in a way that is kind of stealing it. But it’s certainly not a black and white issue. It’s not easy to draw a clear line.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: November 9, 2017
Total questions: 8
Word count: 2337
Reading time: Eight minutes
Mutual exclusivity: Nah
Race or hillbilly? Yes
American music: Yes
appropriation, banjo, Beat Street, Bettye Swann, bluegrass, Buck Owens, catharsis, chart, collaboration, country music, cross-pollination, differentiation, division, folk music, Gangstagrass, genre, hillbilly music, hip-hop, history, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, magazine, MC, music, plagiarism, radio station, rap, Rench, Run-DMC, sharing, social media, stories, Willie Nelson
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