I’ve been a fan of The Carolina Chocolate Drops for years. A band that focuses on “americana music,” the music that came from small towns and mostly untrained musicians that covers bluegrass, blues, gospel, and has a lineage from mountain people to slaves on plantations. The Chocolate Drops have been especially known for highlighting the African American influence on bluegrass and country music. I’m sure Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, two of the founding members, could teach a class on the history of music in the US from Colonial Times to the present on the spot, with instrumental and dance demonstrations sprinkled throughout. Their music often blends old and new, country and blues, farm and city–with an easy mixing of forms that a casual listener might not find intuitive, but would probably enjoy. “Hit ‘Em Up Style” is a cover of a song by R&B singer Blu Cantrell, but run through the Chocolate Drops, sounds like an update to an old blues song.
I’m no music expert, but I am not bad at making connections. It seems an easy progression reuniting bluegrass with its African American influences. There are strains of it in the old Delta blues, before electric guitars roared in, and the improvisational nature of jazz is right at home with any group of pickers. A less intuitive mix is rap and banjoes. But it was just a matter of time, and a quick internet search of “rap and bluegrass” pulls up one group immediately: Gangstagrass.
I’m a little late in discovering Gangstagrass. Thanks to Hen for recommending the TV series Justified, with its great theme song by the group. The idea sounds like a gimmick, but the reality is sublime. The group hits the exact mix that fully honors both traditions. Their sound is simple–a true mix of bluegrass and rap, with a full complements of steel guitar, banjoes, bass and themes of living from the earth and dealing with violence and oppression. “Bound to Ride” is a good example of their style (language alert).
Musicians today are eclectic–they probably always have been, but with the internet allowing a group to market itself, it is harder to pigeonhole a group into a clean definition of its sound. So classical musicians like YoYo Ma play bluegrass, Loretta Lynn and Jack White do a duet, Lady Gaga sings with Tony Bennett. Run-DMC covering Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” in 1986 was perhaps the closest to the mix Gangstagrass brings, with one difference: Gangstagrass uses original songs that are fully rap and fully bluegrass, not a borrowing from one style into the other. As the internet allows greater collaboration between independent musicians unwilling to accept labels for their style, expect to hear more interesting, imaginative collaborations pulling from all styles of music.