GYM CLASS HEROES have faced plenty of obstacles in their quest to break down the musical and cultural walls around them. With an ambitious new album and a new lease on their future, upstate New York’s finest are ready to march strong-even with their leader’s triumphant limp.

Story: Dan LeRoy
Photos: Dave Hill

I’m a Young Money Milli in aire, tougher than Nigerian hair.
My criteria compared to your career just isn’t fair.

The words belong to Lil’ Wayne, but the voice delivering them belongs to Travis McCoy. It’s about an hour before stage time at the Columbia, Maryland, date of this past summer’s Warped Tour, and the Gym Class Heroes frontman has put on his favorite pre-show music to get himself fired up, mugging and giggling in the narrow corridor of the band’s main tour bus. Wayne and Gym Class, according to McCoy, “are practically family now,” following Wayne’s appearance on the band’s “Viva La White Girl” remix, and a joint appearance at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Yet hearing Wayne’s song come from the lips of indie hip-hop’s leading spokesman still takes a moment’s adjustment. After all, “A Milli” is mostly about the “Benjamins,” and contains the boast, “I don’t write shit/Cause I ain’t got time.”

But it’s only one signpost in Travis McCoy’s path back to hip-hop, which inspired him to form GCH with drummer Matt McGinley more than a decade ago in Geneva, New York. On the eve of their major-label debut two years ago, McCoy confessed to AP, “I don’t even listen to hip hop any more. It doesn’t intrigue me.” Today, that’s changed, and in a big way, as a quick look at the playlist on his laptop confirms. There’s everything from Wayne to Native Tongues-era classics by rappers Poor Righteous Teachers and X-Clan, and a generous selection of rhymes McCoy has done recently for various mixtapes.

“I’ve fallen back in love,” McCoy explains. “There are a few artists that kinda brought me back around. You know who I’ve been listening to a lot lately? This is gonna fuck with a lot of people’s heads, but Ice Cube, man. His early shit is so dope-you can hear that scowl, before he became the dude from Are We There Yet?” McCoy now thinks reports of hip hop’s demise have been vastly overstated. “Yeah, things got stale for a while when everybody wanted Pharrell or Timbaland to produce their shit,” he says, shutting his Macbook. “But you know what? When there’s disaster, something beautiful always comes out of it.”

Taken along with the news that GCH’s new album, The Quilt, features some productions by Cool & Dre-the Miami duo who’ve crafted hits for the Game, Fat Joe and Wayne’s mentor, Birdman-a picture might be emerging. You might even be thinking Gym Class Heroes have finally turned into a mainstream hip-hop act. At first, that picture might not appear beautiful to every GCH fan, especially those who rocked out to “Nothing Boy vs. The Echo Factor,” a cut from their second album, The Papercut Chronicles, on which McCoy derided MCs who provide little more than “shallow babble/And a bunch of punch lines.”

The question, however, is what is a mainstream hip-hop act, circa 2008? Can they include the dub-soaked basslines of Eric Roberts and a pair of killer punk-pop anthems by guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo, as The Quilt does? Can they make an album which displays McCoy’s skills on the mic, but show what a top-notch band GCH have become? In short, can GCH spend some time in what has become Lil’ Wayne’s World, and not only refuse to be changed, but change the game themselves?

Even though he altered the title and lyrics of one new song that directly challenged listeners’ perceptions of mainstream rap (“Tell Hip Hop,” which became “Guilty As Charged”), McCoy and GCH think the answer to all of the above questions is “Yes.” Spend some time with their music, and you might find yourself agreeing.

Backstage at Merriweather Post Pavilion, the trek from the buses to the amphitheater is long and often uphill. Travis McCoy is making it now, and he doesn’t look happy about it. Earlier in the day at the AP autograph booth, he’d playfully admonished one female fan. (“Smile! You got sun, live reggae, sexy mulatto guys. What else do you need?”) But now, the man whose old nickname is Schleprock-after the bad-luck Flintstones character-seems like he’s traveling under a similarly dark cloud.

The reason is a damaged knee, which causes the 6-foot-6 McCoy to drag his left leg like a sideways-baseball cap-wearing zombie. A slip on a wet stage earlier in the tour re-aggravated an old injury, and it’s inhibiting McCoy’s normally hyperactive onstage demeanor. Surgery will be required following Warped; earlier on the bus, some of his bandmates had discovered recent X-rays of McCoy’s knee. “I’m not a doctor,” offers bassist Eric Roberts, holding up the scan, “but that looks fucked up.”

An even bigger concern than McCoy’s injury, however, is how he’ll respond to it. He’s battled addiction to painkillers since he first injured the knee as a teenager, and that addiction took a turn for the worse during the making of The Quilt. “[It was] the greatest year ever for our band,” McCoy recalls of 2007, which saw Gym Class’s As Cruel As School Children go gold, “but the darkest year ever for my life. It was a crazy, crazy period, man. Super dark.”

The darkness began in earnest last October, when he witnessed a man stabbing an elderly woman in his Murray Hill, New York, neighborhood. He and some friends had stopped at a store for food on the way to a show in Philadelphia, and a horrified McCoy watched Lee Coleman stab 67-year-old Susan Barron repeatedly with two butcher knives stolen from a restaurant. “The dude stopped five feet in front of the car I was sitting in, looked at this old woman, and just started hacking her up. It’s broad daylight, and people are just watching. I knew if I woulda got out of the car, I would’ve gotten hacked up, too. He was that far gone. You could see it in his eyes,” McCoy recalls. “So I covered my eyes. I just couldn’t look at it. And then I’m thinking, ‘My friends are in the store!’ and I’m freaking out, crying. Fortunately the cops came and shot the dude, but he was still standing. So they shot him again, and he still put up a fight.” It took five officers to subdue Coleman, but the gory attack, McCoy adds with a shudder, “was burned in my brain. It was the type of shit, if you had seen it on television or in a movie, it would’ve grossed you out. So just imagine seeing it in real life.”

His psyche took an even tougher blow only a few weeks later when his cousin Isaiah committed suicide shortly after spending time with GCH on the Young Wild Things Tour. “He was out with us for a good month and a half, and that was the most time I’d spent with him since we were kids,” says McCoy. “He and his brother Louis and my aunt moved in with us for a while when we were kids, back in Elmira, New York. We kind of became brothers then.”

McCoy says there were no apparent signs that his cousin was troubled when he left the tour, but the last conversation the two relatives shared still lingers in his mind. “Two or three days before my cousin did what he did, we were on tour with Fall Out Boy, and they run a really, really tight ship. So Isaiah was walking around backstage in an area he shouldn’t have been in, without a pass. He got in an argument with one of the security guards, and it got back to us. That night he called my assistant, Danny, and he was like, ‘I know Travis doesn’t have time for me.’

“So when I found out, I went to talk to him, and I was, like, ‘Dude, don’t ever think that! I’m trying to share with you something that I’ve worked so hard for, for years and years. If I didn’t have time for you, I wouldn’t have brought you along.’ That really hit me hard, y’know? That night, after we had the talk, he said, ‘I’ve never told you this before, but I love you and I’m proud of you’. That was the last thing he said to me.

“When I talked to my aunt afterward, and told her about the guilt I was feeling, she actually got pissed at me. She said, ‘Don’t you ever put that guilt on yourself! He chose to do what he did.’ I know in my heart that I wasn’t the reason… But I was real hard on myself for a while.

“And the only crutch I had was drugs, and I dove in really, really deep, to the point where I was really scaring the people around me-and scaring myself, too.”

McCoy dove in deep enough to affect the making of The Quilt. Work on the album had begun in Miami, where McCoy had consummated a new, post-VMA friendship with Cool & Dre by coming up with a promising song, “Peace Sign/Index Down,” after the first day’s work. But when the sessions shifted to Los Angeles with producer/Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump and the full band, McCoy’s dislike for the city (“I just couldn’t catch a vibe out there. The place just has no soul, you know?” he says disgustedly) and his demons began to catch up with him.

“Over the years, I became such a great pretender. Aside from nodding out and scratching myself profusely,” he says, laughing. “I was a functional drug user. I’d blow two OxyContins and play a show and nobody would know. Then I’d black the fuck out afterward.

“But I was in denial. Patrick and Bob [McLynn, GCH’s manager] would be texting me, telling me, “Please don’t use drugs,” and I’d be getting real offensive, saying, “Fuck you! It’s fucked up that you guys would think I’m off somewhere doing drugs when I’ve got a record to write!’ When, in all actuality,” he adds, chuckling bitterly, “I was off numbing myself.”

McCoy would eventually go back to Miami to write, return to L.A. to record, and later enter rehab, “without any intervention. I finally realized the last thing I wanna do is put anyone who cares for me [through] what I had to go through with my cousin.”

As Matt McGinley notes, “Travis isn’t the type of person that you could say, ‘Hey, you’re doing this wrong,’ to and he’d say, “You think so? Okay, I’ll change’. He’s one of the most stubborn dudes I know, flat out. But that’s part of his charm, as well.”

So while McCoy hobbles through the tour, he’s doing so with little or no medication. Trying to keep his knee from getting worse, he says, is what prompted his recent arrest in St. Louis for assaulting a belligerent fan with his mic. It wasn’t being called a “fucking ignorant nigger” (“The weirdest thing,” marvels McCoy, “is that the guy was darker than me!”), but the fan’s grab at his bandaged knee, which prompted his uncharacteristically violent response. The singer was released after posting $500 bond, but evinces more puzzlement than regret over the incident. No one is still certain what exactly prompted the hostilities, and when McCoy tried to invite the fan onstage to air his beef, he refused and went for McCoy’s knee instead. “I felt like I had to respond somehow. To just let it go…it just seemed like it was condoning what the dude was doing,” he explains.

Instead of dwelling on his arrest, McCoy is focusing on his knee. Treating his injury without painkillers “is a scary line to walk,” he admits. “But the fact that I’m not relapsing makes me feel like a champion.”

In the air-conditioned calm of the main bus lounge, McGinley is listening carefully to the final three mixes from The Quilt. Although the album has already been mastered, GCH have requested a few subtle, but important, revisions. “I don’t think time is of the essence now,” says McGinley, as he patiently steam-irons a T-shirt. “I think we’re a little pickier this time, partly because we can be.”

If his high school friend McCoy is the face of Gym Class, then McGinley is the rudder. Sometimes bespectacled and almost always smiling, he seems to be a calming presence when he enters a room; he’s gone from being “overwhelmed” on School Children because he felt his drumming was being overpowered by the programming on certain songs, to a drummer confident enough to request new mixes. In fact, McGinley’s steady enough that it almost comes as a surprise to hear him describe how he once left his summer job on the assembly line at a shampoo factory back in Geneva because it was conflicting with GCH’s schedule.

However, he didn’t quit on his old friend during the making of The Quilt. Panic might have been a reasonable response to McCoy’s recent meltdown, but McGinley realized his bandmate simply needed space and support. “I just feel like I’ve watched enough Behind The Music episodes to see how [addictions] can destroy a band,” he says. “It sucked, because I wanted Travis to be able to share L.A. with us, but I was like, ‘Dude, you need to be in Miami-so go!’”

Unlike McCoy’s distaste for L.A., the other three Heroes found the experience of recording there a blast. Ensconced at Deathstar Studio, located behind a barbershop in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, the band and Stump banged out about a track a day, while drinking Hite “Fresh Taste” beer (“It was so cheap and gross, kind of like the Korean Budweiser,” Eric Roberts offers later) and sucking down bowls of noodles.
“It was the best choice we could have made, to be so far out of our element,” says McGinley. Recording in New York City, which is now the band’s headquarters, “I think would’ve been a lot for us to handle, [because of] the distraction of business, our record label, management, friends. So to be in a place that was foreign, at least to me, was a good decision. It definitely was a relaxing, quiet experience.”

McGinley, who breaks tour monotony by studying to earn a liberal arts degree from Boston University, took a similarly low-key approach to surviving the City of Angels. “When we were doing the record, I was just reading a lot, and playing a lot of Warcraft. I went to one show, I think. I saw the Roots, which was cool,” he says. “But it definitely wasn’t a lot of L.A. nightlife.”

On the back of GCH’s second tour bus (“the quiet bus” some call it), Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo and Eric Roberts are in the midst of an animated discussion about videogaming. They speak derisively of “button mashers,” trade tales of the toughest games to top, and even engage in a lengthy analysis of the best videogame music. Their reverie is interrupted only briefly when Blue Jay, Lumumba-Kasongo’s girlfriend, reveals that she once beat the game Time Crisis in an arcade. The pair is impressed, but as Lumumba-Kasongo reflects, “She’s good with guns.” He continues with an impassioned soliloquy about how to tell when someone is lying about beating a game, and then smiles shyly. “Yes,” he confesses, “I am a dork.”

However, drawing the thoughtful Lumumba-Kasongo out on musical subjects takes greater effort. It’s far more likely you’ll hear about his prowess from others. It might be from McCoy and McGinley, who frequently tout his contributions to the band or it might be from his significant other, who encourages him to talk about his side project (formerly called the Midnight Society but now simply rechristened Soul) or might be from an old friend like tour manager Seth Conley (“Disashi can really shred”).

Born to African parents and spending his childhood in locales that ranged from Houston to Paris to the Ivory Coast, Lumumba-Kasongo has finally put down roots, recently buying a house in Ithaca, New York, with Blue Jay. (“I need the stability of that other world,” he confesses.) But in GCH’s world during the making of The Quilt, he made his biggest contribution since joining the band in 2004 as a replacement for guitarist Milo Bonacci. The straight-ahead, harmony-filled rock tracks “Live A Little” and “No Place To Run” were written about Lumumba-Kasongo’s own dilemmas, particularly his “feeling of being overwhelmed by everyday life, and that we only live once.” But, as McCoy explains later, the tunes “just fit so perfectly with what I was thinking, it’s like Disashi got inside my head. It’s the first time I’d ever sung something that someone else wrote, but it felt completely natural.”

Yet the way “Live A Little” became a Gym Class song says something about Lumumba-Kasongo’s modest demeanor. It began as a solo number that McCoy overheard being performed acoustically. “Travis came up afterward and made me pinky-promise,” Lumumba-Kasongo recalls. “He said, ‘You just pinky-promised that we’ll use that song on the album.’ I was like, ‘Shit!’”

Still, his involvement is a marked change from the making of 2006’s As Cruel As School Children, an experience McCoy and McGinley credit with causing a couple of nervous breakdowns apiece. Following two independent albums, they struggled to adjust to a big budget on Atlantic Records, and seasoned producers Sam Hollander and Dave Katz. The experience wasn’t always a picnic for the band’s other two members, either. McCoy now admits that Lumumba-Kasongo “wasn’t used to his full potential on that album at all.” In retrospect, neither was Eric Roberts.

With his shaggy hair, near-perpetual grin and expertise at rolling the perfect blunt (“I’m like an old woman gardening,” he jokes one morning, while lovingly sealing the edges of a mammoth joint with his lighter), Roberts seems tailor-made for the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. A longtime friend of the band and former member of screamo act Florence Manifesto, Roberts replaced original GCH bassist Ryan Geise in 2005. The switch not only solidified the lineup, it dissipated some of the tension between Geise and McCoy, two strong personalities who weren’t shy about squaring off in the tour van. But discussing the making of School Children-and how it made him feel, as a newcomer-temporarily interrupts Roberts’ normally sunny demeanor. “My place in the band. That’s a funny question,” he murmurs. “Definitely out of place, let’s say that.

“Put it this way, man: I was on the computer one day, and there was a MySpace bulletin on the Gym Class Heroes page that said, ‘We’re in the studio, writing the album.’ I was like, ‘We are? Really?’ But as a new guy, I gotta accept those things.”

When he did get to the studio, under the direction of Hollander and Katz, it was a learning experience for Roberts. “It was just all this studio crap that I basically had no fucking idea about, really,” he says.
“[I was] in front of a computer around some guys I didn’t know too well and being told, ‘Learn this and play this.’ In, like, three days. That was the last record for me.”

However, Roberts acknowledges he was happy with the results of School Children and glad “to be involved with it, even a little bit.” The subsequent tour helped solidify his role, and it paid off this time around, as his love for the Ithaca reggae band John Brown’s Body, a GCH favorite, comes through in the deep, dubby grooves of songs like “Drnk Txt Rmeo” and “Blinded By The Sun.”

The metalcore acts Roberts grew up with, “stuff like Madball, Overcast, Snapcase… I really couldn’t channel that into what we do. But I really became a fan of John Brown’s Body, and their bass player Scotty Palmer is one of my biggest influences ever. He died of cancer, which was a really shitty thing, so I was really stoked to get his influence in there. But I was just happy to write with my band. I’ve been wanting this ever since I joined.”

If he wasn’t a successful frontman, there’s no question Travis McCoy would still be in the music business. To watch him play tune selector on the tour bus and to see his animated, uninhibited performances of songs-not just his own, but anyone’s-is to witness a man consumed with music. But McCoy’s computer contains some particularly revealing songs, like the material he’s created with Philly producer Stress for the mixtapes, filled with the guest spots and exclusive tracks that are an indispensable part of hip-hop culture. Along with a variety of GCH outtakes, one-offs and side projects, these “extra” songs hold important clues to the bigger picture of Gym Class Heroes, and what they might become.

One such development is the distance McCoy is trying to create between his life and lyrics. It might seem odd to claim The Quilt, which contains songs about his father (“Like Father, Like Son”) and his cousin’s suicide (“Live Forever,” with a coda featuring McCoy’s idol, Daryl Hall, in full falsetto wail, which is the band’s consensus goosebump moment) is less personal. But listening to McCoy’s recent mixtape contributions-like “Soundboy,” which contains a verse about Isaiah’s death-it’s clear he’s reserving the most intimate details about himself for outside projects.

“It’s like Jack White with the Raconteurs,” he contends, settling his new Nike hightops on a bus couch. “When you have a side project, you can just do whatever you want, show another side of yourself.”

So if McCoy were going to write another song like “Pillmattic,” the track from The Papercut Chronicles about his painkiller addiction, where would it end up?

“Well, hopefully, there won’t be another ‘Pillmattic’,” he reflects with a smile. “But it would definitely not end up on a Gym Class record.

“I feel like I’ve given Gym Class fans enough of me. Not to say that Gym Class fans can’t or won’t listen to this [personal] stuff, but it’s gonna be harder to get to. I’m big on making people have to work for things.

“It’s like when I was a kid, trying to find new things. I remember going to Fat Beats [the New York underground hip-hop boutique, a four-and-a-half-hour Greyhound trip from Geneva] and they’d be like, ‘You gotta get the new Non-Phixion. But if you’re gonna get that, you gotta get the Jugganauts.’ And I was overwhelmed. It’s real elitist, almost. But I kind of felt like a part of it.”

At the Merriweather amphitheater, the sun is going down and the crowd is amping up, as Gym Class Heroes are preparing to take the stage for the day’s final set. It will last a scant 30 minutes but will speak volumes about the band and their capabilities. Despite the natural focus on McCoy, it’s first and foremost a band performance. With old friend Marc DeJesus bouncing around while reciting Busta Rhymes’ lines on “Peace Sign,” Lumumba-Kasongo spitting out U2-style sparks on “Cookie Jar” and McGinley creating a thunderous racket behind the kit, the seams and squares of The Quilt disappear, replaced by pure music. Then the Heroes careen into a cover of Lamb Of God’s metal anthem “Laid To Rest,” and as the multiracial crowd goes into mosh overdrive, all but the most cynical observer might imagine hearing the last few existent musical barriers falling as well. But it’s the brand new “Live A Little” that gets an even more passionate reaction, as the crowd pogos wildly in unison.

Backstage post-show, as the band’s spartan stage set is hastily disassembled in the grass, the Heroes bask in the cool of the evening and the fans’ response to the new material.

“It was like a Fall Out Boy song,” marvels a wide-eyed McGinley of “Live A Little,” while Lumumba-Kasongo, grinning from ear to ear, offers, “I think it’s starting to occur to us that we can pretty much do whatever we want. It’s sweet when a solo starts, and you see the kids in the front doing the rock ‘n’ roll hands. It’s like they needed this.”

Mainstream hip hop-whatever that is now-does too.