Listen: Rappalachia by Gangstagrass

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Just what the title and artist name suggest, Rappalachia by Gangstagrass is a fusion of rap rhythm tracks and old-time mountain music instrumentation and melodies. And it really, really works.

The concept sounds bizarre, but in 1954 Elvis Presley and his mad-genius producer, Sam Phillips, performed much the same trick on “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a waltz by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, which they converted to four-four time with a heavy backbeat and an electric guitar. In fact, African American and white Southern musical traditions share common roots that go all the way back to the tobacco fields of colonial Virginia, where in the 1600s black and white indentured servants slaved away side by side.

Indie rock and rap producer Rench, the son of an Okie father who grew up in the California suburbs and who supervises Gangstagrass, has somehow grasped the primal truth of the American story on this album. Over its persistent booty-shaking drum tracks, Rappalachia features a rotating cast of mostly little-known rappers, including the very promising Nitty Scott, and alt-country singers, most notably Brandi Hart, featured on the traditional tunes “Honey Babe” and “Country Blues.”

But the Gangstagrass raps place the music firmly in our raw and combative present, in the process earning several of those “explicit” warning labels for profanity. On one track, “Dollar Boss,” renowned rapper Dead Prez gives explicit and eloquent voice to those historic shared grievances that lend grit and gravity to both the black and Appalachian traditions with the refrain, “Been 500 years but it feels like we’re still picking cotton.”

If America has a future, we’ll have to find it in our past, and this music can only help.

This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 8, page 42).