Time has come today for Gym Class Heroes. Rightly recognized as true pioneers of live hip-hop, the Geneva, NY-based band has won popular and critical acclaim for kicking out genre-busting jams that seamlessly meld rap, rock, R&B, and anything else that happens to strike the musically voracious outfit’s fancy. Now, with their new Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen release, “AS CRUEL AS SCHOOL CHILDREN,” Gym Class Heroes have stepped up their game on every level. Produced by S*A*M (aka Sam Hollander, hailed for his collaborations with Method Man, the Sounds, and Earth, Wind & Fire) and Sluggo (the alter-ego of renowned session bassist Dave Katz, known for his work with Roger Daltrey), with co-production from the band’s close mate, Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, songs like the witty MySpace anthem, “New Friend Request,” explode out of the speakers with a rollicking sonic irreverence ideally suited for the hazy days and hot nights of summer.
“It’s just a complete full-on summertime album,” acknowledges frontman Travis McCoy. “The whole fun element of hip-hop has disappeared. Everybody takes themselves so seriously, it’s become a fashion show more or less. We wanted to the vibe to be as fun as possible.”
The roots of Gym Class Heroes reach back to 1997, when McCoy first met drummer Matt McGinley in where else but gym class. The band officially came together in 2001 with the two high school friends eventually teaming up with guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo, and bassist Eric Roberts. Their goal from the start was to create a new palette for hip hop, one that replaced the genre’s trademark programmed beats and samples with the live instrumentation of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Our music is rooted in hip-hop,” McCoy says, “but not restricted to it. We never drew ourselves into a corner, which made it easy for us to play for all kinds of people – from jam band fans to death metal fans to punk fans to hip-hop fans.”
Gym Class Heroes toured non-stop, living life on the road while simultaneously building up both a fanbase and a repertoire. In 2001, they self-released their debut collection, “FOR THE KIDS.” Two years later, they hit the studio once again and after a four day burst of creative energy, emerged with “THE PAPERCUT CHRONICLES.” The album’s deeply personal lyricism and inventive sonic vision caught the attention of Decaydance founder Pete Wentz, who promptly invited Gym Class Heroes to sign aboard the Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen roster.
The band spent much of the next two years doing what they do best – playing live. They headlined sold out dates, lit up Vans Warped Tour, and toured the world with bands like Fall Out Boy, constantly out there bringing their unique hip-hop vision to new fans. As 2006 began, Gym Class Heroes pulled off the road – albeit temporarily – and got busy making the record of their career.
“AS CRUEL AS SCHOOL CHILDREN” is marked by its diverse grooves and warm, organic textures. The band took inspiration from an array of dissimilar artists, spanning dark sonic provocateurs Interpol and Radiohead to pop power balladeers like Phil Collins and Hall & Oates. But most crucial to the album’s buoyant sound was the band’s love for the funk-flavored mainstream R&B of the 80’s, including such colorful icons as Prince and Ready For The World.
“That music was not only fun and innocent,” McCoy says, “it was really well crafted. Some of the arrangements in that stuff just blow me away. Those are the songs that last forever. We’re definitely interested in making that type of music. I sing a lot more on this record. I really feel that most rappers are afraid of melody. Why? Melodies get you girls, man!”.”
Just like any righteous beach party blowout, “AS CRUEL AS SCHOOL CHILDREN” sees Gym Class Heroes visited a number of special guests, including William Beckett of The Academy Is… on “7 Days,” and Arrested Development’s Speech, who lends his inimitable MC stylings to the unforgettable “Biter’s Block.”
“That is a real honor,” McCoy says, “having a Grammy-winning artist on our album. I can’t say enough about how much that meant to us.”
With Gym Class Heroes, what you see isn’t always what you get. Though the overall feel of the album is bright and breezy, McCoy’s personal, playful lyrics can often be peeled back to reveal hidden layers of emotion and introspection, notably on songs such as the first single, “The Queen and I.”
“It’s a personal song,” Travis says, “about girls who fancy alcoholic beverages, girls who like to have too much of a good time. I have weird underlying issues with females and alcohol. This song is kind of like closure, though you’d never get that vibe listening to the song. It’s fun to do things like that, make music that’s fun with a really poppy vibe, but when you listen to the lyrics, it’s like, ‘Holy shit, that dude just said…’ If you’re not paying attention, you think it’s just another radio ditty that sticks in your head, but then when you really listen you see it’s a whole lot more.”
That sense of artistic juxtaposition extends to the album as a whole. “AS CRUEL AS SCHOOL CHILDREN” might appear upbeat and carefree on first glance, but attention paid unveils a far darker underbelly of personal and social commentary. The album’s title, McCoy explains is “a metaphor for the world today. It’s crawling with lunch money bullies and insecurities. Once you come to realize that, the second you decide to live by your own rules and push aside outside opinion, you really begin to live life.”
From the word go, Gym Class Heroes have defined themselves via that kind of free-thinking philosophy, always breaking musical boundaries and changing perceptions of what hip-hop or indie or rock can be. With “AS CRUEL AS SCHOOL CHILDREN,” Gym Class Heroes make plain that they are proudly unified in their disorderly vision, confident that their integrity will pay off dividends in the end.
“We’re doing this on our own terms,” McCoy says. “We’re not interested in changing who we are or what we do to make anybody happy, which makes it even cooler when people start picking up on it and noticing us.
“In a sense, we’re a lot like the chubby kid smiling away on the album artwork. Everyone has their opinion of who he is and what he should be. He keeps smiling and doesn’t change. Instead he waits and watches the world around him change to fit his standards. This album is the chubby kid’s middle finger held high.”