Dan Whitener of Gangstagrass

by Jeff Suwak

What do bluegrass and hip-hop have in common? A lot more than you might think.

Dan Whitener and Gangstagrass combine bluegrass with hip-hop. It may seem like a strange musical marriage, but Whitener doesn't see it that way. Not completely, anyway. The banjo-playing songwriter thinks there are far more similarities than there are differences between the genres, even if they aren't immediately obvious. Exploring that common ground, not only in terms of the sound but in terms of broader cultures surrounding the genres, is one of Whitener's missions.

Gangstagrass has been around since 2006, but it was with the song "Long Hard Times to Come" in 2010 that they were elevated in the public consciousness. The song was chosen as the theme for the FX series Justified and earned an Emmy nomination for Gangstagrass producer Rench and rapper T.O.N.E.Z. It was the kind of opportunity that could either launch a band to new heights or get them hopelessly pigeonholed. Gangstagrass opted for the former by making new, meaningful music, and connecting with their fans.

A key part of the Gangstagrass formula is live performance, where they make their deepest connections with listeners. In order to capture that sound, they released a live album titled Pocket Full of Fire earlier this year. After hitting #4 on the Bluegrass chart, it promises to elevate the band even further.

As he prepared to tour for Pocket Full Of Fire, Whitener took some time to talk about the Ganstagrass method of blending bluegrass with various MCs. He also made a case for why the banjo is really an African instrument, and for why bluegrass and hip-hop can both fall under folk music.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Pocket Full Of Fire has gotten a great reception. How's the experience been?

Dan Whitener: It's gone surprisingly well... although maybe not that surprising when I think about it. We wanted to do the live CD because the live experience is the best thing that we do. People come away from our shows really appreciating the energy. We wanted to capture that and replicate that.

People are really enjoying it. The hope is that they'll take a lot away from that, tell others, and more people will hear about us and want to come out to the shows. That's what it's all about for us in the end.

Songfacts: "Long Hard Times To Come" was a big song for the band. Any particular reason it's not on Pocket Full of Fire?

Whitener: Well, the CD is nine or 10 songs long. That's not even a full set for us. That song was a huge start for us, but we don't necessarily play it at every show.

We considered everything, but we narrowed it down to some of our best performances of some of our best songs. I think if we had a really killer performance of "Long Hard Times To Come" we would have gone with that. It's nothing against it. We do play the song live, but we listened to every song of every show we had recorded, and we wanted to make sure that they were good performances and we played all the notes right, but also real good live energy.

That was the most important thing to us about this project: to capture the live energy. So, we wanted to make sure we really picked out the right performances.

Songfacts: Could you tell us a bit about your personal background and how you got involved with Gangstagrass?

Whitener: I grew up in DC listening to my dad play bluegrass. I've loved it ever since I was a kid. So, I was playing banjo from a young age.

True story: I got connected with the band through a Craigslist post. It was kind of enigmatic. You know, Looking for a banjo player. So I went in and checked it out.

Songfacts: The post was in New York City, correct?

Whitener: Yes, it was New York. I was living in New Jersey at the time. Not that far. So I went in and checked it out.

Turns out I knew some of the folks that have come and gone through the band over the years. So, I had some awareness of it, but I wasn't exactly familiar with what the band was going to sound like. I had an early bit of initial skepticism about it - a healthy skepticism. I wanted to make sure that it was something that was going to be a good representation of the music that I love. I've got some pretty solid standards.

A lot of bluegrass musicians and hip-hop musicians have a lot of hardcore purists. I keep this in mind when bringing in new musicians to collaborate with. You have to have an open mind playing what we do, but I don't mind it when somebody has a little bit of skepticism because I know it means they love their music and they want to make sure what we're doing is being faithful and isn't some hackneyed gag or novelty.

This isn't a novelty, and we take it very seriously. I like being able to prove that to people.

Songfacts: In a past interview, you made a comment about there being similarities in bluegrass culture and hip-hop culture. Could you expand on that?

Whitener: Absolutely. There are so many things that over the years have become so clear to me, and I have to remind myself that other people don't necessarily see it this way.

On the basic level, bluegrass and hip-hop are both folk musics. We were just at the Folk Alliance Conference up in Montreal. We're trying to spread the hashtag #hiphopmusicisfolkmusic.

If I told you bluegrass music is folk music, unless you're a serious purist about it, you understand what I'm saying. Bluegrass is a music of the people, and it comes from folks. It's a very egalitarian music in a lot of ways. It comes from typically working-class and lower income folks from rural areas, and a lot of the songs are about particular issues that are meaningful to them. So you have lost love and outlaws, murder ballads. What a great subgenre there: "I loved somebody and then I killed her and I disposed of her body and I ran away." What a great thing we have in bluegrass [laughs].

Let's not forget, robbing banks, getting away with it, not getting away with it, getting hanged, all that's rife in bluegrass music. Then, what is hip-hop music? It's been fascinating for me as a bluegrass musician to get to sit down and spend a lot of time really thinking about the true origins of hip-hop culture.

Hip-hop culture, in the late '70s in the Bronx, was a very intentionally created movement, really trying to redirect gang violence and negativity and restructure it into something positive. So, this is a tremendous folk movement. You have MCs and DJs, graffiti and break dancing, the whole combination of it is this wonderful, positive movement, and it really is a folk music.

So, many of the themes are common. You listen to the stories being told and the way that we sit around and improvise. So, the way you might come across bluegrass in the wilds, so to speak, you'd see a bunch of guys sitting around on a porch picking their instruments in what might be called a "pick" or a "jam." We play the melody, and then we'll take turns improvising on it a little bit.

A hip-hop band will do exactly the same thing. They'll just be standing around on a street corner and they'll do a cipher. Get in a circle, somebody gets a beat going, or maybe the beat's just implied, and they're just MCing and they're just sitting around spitting, rhyming, making things up. Then one of them takes over and freestyles something off the top of his head and the others listen.

I could go on all day, maybe the whole interview, talking about all the amazing similarities. It just comes down to unification and culture, where we see all this division. We see this division more and more today. Even just the idea that bluegrass and hip-hop are separate genres is divisive. Not even 100 years ago a lot of this stuff was the same music played by the same people and then you have record companies coming in and introducing genre labels. Those aren't really based on anything other than the idea, We want to sell these records to these people and we want to sell these records to these people.

So, you had hillbilly records and race records. Sometimes you'd have the same group and the same artist playing the same song, but they'd have a different picture on the cover so people knew who they were trying to sell it to.

In some ways what we're doing is new and somewhat innovative. When you look at people like Dom Flemons, you find those people who are really historically minded about American music. We're finding that this is really not new. It's tying to a real strong trend in all American historical music.

Dom Flemons (full name Dominique; born August 20, 1982) is called "The American Songster" because of his huge repertoire of traditional American music. Formerly a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, he plays at least seven instruments, including banjo, harmonica, fife, and rhythm bones. His most recent album is Black Cowboys, released in 2018 by the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Songfacts: That seems particularly interesting because both genres are typically associated with different races. Bluegrass is white guy music, and hip-hop is black guy music.

Whitener: We run into that all the time. Everywhere we go, the idea that it would be particular cultural or societal groups. Honestly, it's not even us that disproves that - it's the audience.

People ask us what kind of audience comes to our shows, and it's really just anybody. It's such a mixed bag. Any age. Some of the strangest people, or the most normal people, if that's a thing. But anybody's welcome at our shows. That's been a great thing that we've gotten to do, to tool around and meet all these different people.

Songfacts: How does the Gangstagrass songwriting process work? Are some of the songs spearheaded by specific musicians or is it all collectively done?

Whitener: It's all of those. We have a few songs that have been truly co-written throughout, but there's always some collaboration. Even a song like "You Can Never Go Home Again," I wrote that as a bluegrass song, with this particular band in mind. So, I'll perform that. I just performed it earlier today, with another band of mine. That's a strictly bluegrass song. Then I bring it into Gangstagrass, and the MCs read their verses. So sometimes it goes like that, where you have a musical element.

Sometimes it goes the other way, where the MCs will have an idea or a verse or two and then we might bring in something to that, or we might adapt an old traditional melody and see if we can't do something about that. Wherever the inspiration comes from we'll just bring it in.

It's a fusion. We bring things together, but we're always going to try to keep the elements distinct. We want to make sure you hear the bluegrass and that hip-hop, and hear those as distinct elements. It works really well to have a here's my contribution, here's your contribution. The more clear those elements are, the more you can hear what it is that we're putting into it.

Songfacts: "You Can Never Go Home Again" was your baby. Could you talk a bit about the song?

Whitener: Absolutely. That's a song I was writing with the band in mind. I wanted to include my voice and also write about all these common issues that bluegrass and hip-hop culture have between them. I was thinking of something that affects everybody equally but also in very different ways, so I thought about prison. It's about recidivism and it's about how if you go to prison and you get out, statistically you're very likely to find yourself back in prison again. Why is that? I certainly don't have an answer, but it's our role as musicians and songwriters to observe something and ask why.

Beyond that, I was thinking about how people get into all kinds of prisons in their own minds and in their own lives. Depression and the feeling of hopelessness are powerful, important things to me, and I really want to give voice to that.

I'm always really honored every night to hear the verses coming from the MCs. That's a great thing as a songwriter, when you can bring in what turns out to be 50% of the finished product and then you just hand it over to these other guys who have their own lives and their own perspectives. That's very important to me. I would never presume to write their verses. I couldn't, because that's not my life and that's not my voice. So it was bringing balance, and hopefully if I leave the canvas with enough room, this is something they're actually inspired to write about.

I couldn't have asked for anything better as a songwriter. I would encourage anybody out there who is trying to do things meaningful and rewarding with their work to collaborate with somebody who has a different voice than yours, because they're going to be able to provide something you could never think of.

Songfacts: How about "Ain't Going To Heaven"?

Whitener: That's a fun one. I have a credit, but the way that track worked out, that's a posse track.

It's the last track on an album, American Music, which I think features 14 different MCs on the different tracks, and then the last track of the album has all of us. When I say "us," I don't rap, typically, but when I saw it was coming together and there were 11, 12, 13 people together on this track, I said, "Hmm... I wonder if I could say a little something on this," so I ended up doing it.

At some of the live shows which usually don't get recorded, I feel very encouraged by the band to do it. I'll try to rap a little bit. I certainly can't freestyle to save my life. That is an amazing skill. Props to any MC who can do it at all. R-SON the Voice of Reason is one of the best free-stylists I've ever seen in my life. I have to write stuff out.

That was a fun one to do. It was a nightmare getting the paperwork together for that song, but it's cool the way it features all the MCs on the track like that.

Songfacts: How about "John Henry?"

Whitener: I'm singing, and the terrific MC is Soul Khan. Fun fact there, I actually went to college with him. As it turns out, he was established as an MC in New York and I was in this band. All our friends know each other and we ended up bringing him in on the track. It had nothing to do with me knowing him. The guy's a force. I just ran into him the other day. He's doing great work in the city.

So we put that together, and that's a terrific one because "John Henry" is certainly one of the older traditional folk songs in America. It's a great one that talks about a railroad worker, a "steel driving man," so he's got a sledge hammer that he's driving rail spikes into the ground and breaking rock to tunnel through the mountain. There's all sorts of different versions. People change different elements of it, but the basic nature of it is that he gets into this race against a steam drill. He always wins, but the exhaustion kills him. There are a lot of really important, interesting elements that sometimes get forgotten and overlooked in the original.

In the early versions, John Henry is black. He's a worker, and he may not necessarily have agency over whether or not he competes in this race. The history of labor in this country, you go back to miners and railyard workers, and the amazingly deep history of injustice, it's embedded in a lot of our folk music, but you hear different versions of the song and you might not necessarily get all those details.

Soul Khan just nails his verse. He put every layer and every element on that - listen to his words and listen to his subtext. He really makes sure you catch everything.

You think about who John Henry was, and the struggles he had to contend with and the symbolism. What does it mean that this guy is racing against the steam drill? What does it mean that he wins and he dies? What does it mean for his life? I love what Soul Khan did with it.

On face value, it's a cool thing, like, man, that guy's so strong, and you can read sort of an allegory about the Industrial Revolution:

This thing is coming to automate all our jobs away. But don't worry, this guy will take care of it, he'll work until he dies!

Wait a minute, what? What's the good thing about that?

When you really sit down and think about it, that's the great thing about bluegrass and hip-hop. Bluegrass, I grew up with all these songs and you sit and listen to the words and you realize these are terribly sad songs, but they're played really fast and usually in a major key, and it sounds really uplifting. But then he did what? He threw her in the river? This is awful.

It's people smiling through the pain. I think it's true of bluegrass and of hip-hop. You take this really interesting honesty that's almost like a jester's honesty. You just look this thing right in the face and you have to make a joke out of it. You have to say, "That's the way it was."

Songfacts: Like gallows humor.

Whitener: Absolutely it's gallows humor. You know, that should be the title of the next album, because it really is.

I think it means a lot to the people we meet. Fans, friends who've gone through legitimately horrible times in their lives, will talk to us and tell us that our music has helped somebody personally through some hard thing. That really means a lot, because of course playing happy music is great, but you also have to acknowledge people's hard times and suffering.

Songfacts: Right. I come from a Rust Belt town where there wasn't a lot of opportunity. I know exactly how much music means to people when you're down and out.

Whitener: Where are you from?

Songfacts: Just outside Scranton.

Whitener: We have a mandolin player from near there. Pottsville.

People ask, Where are we best received? I think it's the Appalachian region for sure. We get over really well there. People are already familiar with bluegrass. They already know what it is.

But also the Rust Belt, for sure. When you sing a song and you see people in the audience and you see people just sort of nodding, they understand what we're talking about. We really understand each other. That's a powerful thing.

A big bluegrass breakthrough came in 2013 when the EDM artist Avicii teamed with the R&B star Aloe Blacc on "Wake Me Up," one of the biggest hits of that year. The banjo-heavy tune proved that bluegrass could mesh with just about any genre.
Songfacts: Speaking of other countries, I know you played at least one major music festival in Germany. Do you have a big European following?

Whitener: Yeah, we do. Depending on what you look at. We've been looking at our Spotify stats. We always see how we're doing streaming in other countries. That's a great way to see who is listening. There's a pretty good following all over the world. Then we'll go abroad, to various festivals. It's always hard at a festival to discern how many people are there to see you for the first time and how many know you already. Either way, they definitely come away liking us, and if they haven't heard of us before, they've heard of us now.

We were in Germany, Czech Republic, France, and just recently in the UK. That was our second time there. The turnout has definitely improved. Just like touring in the States, if you go to a place and come back, you want to see fans coming back, and maybe they bring friends.

So it's not about breaking and getting big overnight all of a sudden. It's more the steady combination of farming and fishing. Just go and go back. It's work, but you see it pay off.

Songfacts: Since you've basically invented a genre, have you found the sound evolving in any particular direction, or are you finding different ways the two genres gel together?

Whitener: Someone on a video comment described it as "tomato sauce with spices." Just let it simmer and marinate and stew, and the flavors are going to intermarry more and more, and that's absolutely true.

We've been doing it for a while, fundamentally the same way. The formula hasn't changed. We'll perform a song every night, but it does organically change over time, certainly as different members of the band come and go and have their own influence on it. The more you learn to listen, and the more you pay attention and listen to each other, that takes it to a whole other level. You realize, "Wait a minute, that's what he's saying."

That's been the evolution, just becoming more collaborative, more in sync as a unit. Then again, I was talking about the history of American music, that's something that's really interesting right now. We have some folks in the band that are more historically minded that are interested in that. I would love to see us turn even more in a historical direction and find those common roots.

There's some interest in that. Dom Flemons, folks that are in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, just in general there seems to be a real movement towards getting back into the history of black string bands, great black fiddlers and banjo players, which is so obvious if you think about it. The banjo itself is an African instrument. The way that it's evolved, it came to the country some 300 years ago. It came over the Middle Passage with the African slaves that were stolen from their countries. They would build instruments out of whatever they had at hand. It used to be gourds, often. They'd build it out of it whatever they had. Basically, the white slave owners got a hold of it and said, "Oh, that sounds fun," and it became a white instrument that it's known as today.

There's been a lot of talk in the news recently about blackface in this country. In the mid-19th century there were blackface minstrel shows in America. This goes beyond bluegrass. This goes beyond subgenres. This was American culture. It was white people putting on blackface and trying to act out these stereotypes of what they thought black people were like. The level to which that's embedded in the American entertainment consciousness, it's mind blowing the ways it's evolved. It got away from the blackface but a lot of the songs are still around, a lot of the characters and behavior are still around. People talk about that but it's amazing how pervasive it is.

It became vaudeville, and then into things like the Looney Tunes. So, just the history of the banjo alone is something people are starting to think more and more about, and trying to get more of this complete history that takes everything into account.

Another thing bluegrass and hip-hop have in common is that they're both less than a century old. Bluegrass was only invented in the '40s and '50s, and hip-hop was created in the '70s, but when you come down to it, they both came from tremendous roots and were continuations of a long history.

Hip-hop is a continuation of the R&B records they were spinning, and of course you had that tradition that is old as human communication, which is just speech, rap.

Bluegrass is an evolution of Old Time music which is an evolution of Scots-Irish fiddle tunes, taking in a little bit of American blues and different things. But, both genres have long traditions but in themselves are relatively new.

Songfacts: That's fascinating stuff. I had no idea the banjo came from Africa.

Whitener: Well, in some ways it did, because the instrument has evolved in its time here. I tell people it's an African American instrument because it comes from Africa, but it has this huge history in this country, too, and it's changed. When you look at the precursor instruments in Africa, it's not the same instrument as what we have today. There have been changes to it. So, it's important to think about the roots, but also just the enormous journey it's been on.

Songfacts: This just popped into my mind, but some time ago Gangstagrass did an interview and the band was asked something about how to go after their dreams. The response was to find something you love and just go hard with it. Is that related to the song "I Go Hard"?

Whitener: I think so. It's definitely the philosophy we have, talking about our live show, talking about being committed to just going for something. Part of what it is for us comes from that little bit of pushback and skepticism that people have. We have to fight that because of the newness of what we do.

Like, you talk to a bluegrass or hip-hop purist, or somebody who likes it but just isn't ready for them to be combined, and they are reluctant. Mostly people love it and are encouraging, but you have some people who prejudge it before they actually listen to it, and they say, "Ah no, I don't think I'm going to like that."

So for us, we just have to commit and say we love doing this, and we're going to do this, and we just have to do it 100%. And of course we just bring great energy. I always remind myself, I'm up here with some of the greatest live performers in the world. They really make me raise my game.

You look at a bluegrass band and sometimes the banjo player in particular will be just locked in, and their fingers are going a mile a minute, but their face is completely blank, feet square, knees locked, everything's all about that lick, and that's fine, and they're playing some amazing stuff, but when I look at what some of these MCs can be, I say I have to be out there, I've got to be moving at least half as much as they are. I have more fun that way. I think the audience has more fun that way.

There's a shirt I started making that has a picture of a jumping banjo player, and it says "Go Hard."

Songfacts: Do you have any plans for after the tour?

Whitener: The tour is going to be great. After that, I think the big goal for next year is going to be doing a big full-length studio album. American Music was the last one, so it's been a few years now.

Songfacts: I was looking at the location for your tour, and it looks like as far west as you go is Texas. I'm curious, are you planning to reach the West Coast?

Whitener: Absolutely, we'll be there. I think we've only ever driven to the West Coast one time. That was 2014, when we went coast-to-coast in a month. That was tremendous.

Coming up later in summer or fall, we should come through Portland and Seattle, and as far south as we can. We usually like to fly out there, drive up and down the coast, hit some major hot spots. So, with the upcoming tour we'll hit as many spots as we can out there, and then I'm sure we'll be to the West Coast later in the year.

April 11, 2019
Get tour dates and more at gangstagrass.com

Further reading:
Interview with Jerry Douglas

photos: Melodie Yvonne (2), James Pederson (3)

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