Craigslist ads offer loads of interesting – and sometimes strange – things. When Dan Whitener answered an ad for “a banjo player who could move,” he found a completely new direction for his career.
Whitener plays banjo in Gangstagrass, a genre-bending bluegrass and hip-hop band whose Spotify bio describes it as a “dirty-fightin’, gator-wrestlin’, foot-stompin’, genre-bustin’, Billboard-chartin’, Emmy-nominated team of bluegrass hip-hop pioneers.” I don’t think I could have said it better than that.
The combination of seemingly opposite musical genres began with Rench, an independent producer and songwriter who grew up in Southern California. Early hip-hop was all around him growing up, while at home, his parents played honky-tonk music.
After moving to Brooklyn to pursue producing hip-hop and trip-hop (a fusion of hip-hop and electronica), he found he couldn’t forget about his bluegrass roots. Gangstagrass was born out of this blend in 2006.
Although combining bluegrass and hip-hop may seem like an unlikely mesh, the band has been successful: Its song “Long Hard Times to Come” became the theme song of the FX TV series Justified, and Gangstagrass earned an Emmy nomination for Best Main Title Theme Music.
Since then, the band has produced album after album, the last released this year. Many emcees and singers have been featured in its discography, contributing to a constantly developing sound and continuing conversation.
For Whitener, who joined in 2013, this conversation has remained one of the most important parts to being involved in the band. Because the musicians come from varied backgrounds and perspectives, they’re constantly learning from each other, which has been eye opening.
“One of the most redemptive parts about it is [that] there’s so much in common, too,” Whitener said. “We find out that there’s maybe not as much difference between us – or between our perspectives, or between bluegrass and hip hop – as we thought.”
Whitener is from Washington, D.C., so hip-hop was definitely around, but he said it wasn’t something he paid a lot of attention to. He’s always been interested in different genres, though, and is even formally trained: He holds a bachelor of arts degree in music with a focus on voice.
Whitener is happy that Gangstagrass has given him an opportunity to explore hip-hop – something he didn’t expect to be doing as a career. Yet he found himself auditioning and trying to prove that he could move – as the Craigslist ad requested – and it must have worked.
“In my first rehearsal,” Whitener recalled, “we were just practicing, and they said, ‘All right, let’s just try to move around. Just move around as much as you think you can – just go crazy, get really out there.’ I think I probably bobbed back and forth a little bit and kind of did the bend-my-knees thing, and they said, ‘Okay, great. That’s the baseline. That’s the starting point,’” Whitener said.
Over the years, Gangstagrass has followed the same formula: Everyone contributes ideas and sees what fits together well. What changes are their relationships and interactions, Whitener said.
Though they’ve been standing on stage together for years, Whitener said he sometimes hears a line an emcee says, and it might hit him like it’s the first time he’s heard it. Especially when there’s a lot of improvisation going on, something might register for the first time on stage.
“I always, always try to listen,” Whitener said, “but I’m also up there doing my own thing. So, that’s something that really does evolve over time, and I’m really privileged to be able to be up there and see that.”
This energy that the band has on stage is something its members take great pride in during their shows, and a good crowd feeds it. It’s one of the most important things to the group, and it led to Pocket Full of Fire: Gangstagrass (Live), its 2019 album.
The band members wanted to capture the live experience, so they recorded songs at multiple venues while on tour, picking the best nights with the best crowds. The way they recorded is even more interesting: they plugged a USB drive straight into a mixing board, which gave them multi-track, mixable recordings. That sounds pretty easy, as long as they didn’t forget the USB.
Now Gangstagrass is kicking off a summer tour in support of the album. It’s a lot of sticking to the grind, Whitener said. The group is coming to Door County this May, ready to introduce the peninsula to a genre not often heard here.
“We always like coming to places like that, more inland places like West Virginia,” Whitener said. “Any place where people are really going to appreciate having new music. Some of our best crowds are places like that.”