Travie McCoy on new music: “I almost went broke making this album”
Long before Jason Aalon Butler would achieve international renown with letlive. and FEVER 333, he was but a simple kid looking for a hero. Contenders were in no short supply, but few spoke to the everyday experiences of the young man growing up in Inglewood, California.
McCoy had formed Gym Class Heroes eight years prior, with a mission to let every influence in his musical palette shine through. And so Gym Class Heroes soon began fusing everything from hip-hop, rock, emo and funk to create a genre-bending entity that would take not only the alternative world by storm, but also eclipse the mainstream masses. Following a series of chart-topping singles with the band, in 2010 McCoy — not yet even 30 years of age — pivoted to a solo career and even further success, led by his track “Billionaire,” featuring a then-relatively unknown Bruno Mars.
While McCoy experienced the highs and lows that come with a successful career in the music industry, one thing always remained consistent: He has never allowed himself to compromise. In 2022, he will release his long-awaited second solo album. It's a project conceived during a period of trials and tribulations that now will be birthed by a beautiful resurgence, healthy mindset and a drive to create authentically. Now nearly 20 years into his career, the legacy of Travie McCoy is not only established but is far from being finished.
“When I came across Travie and Gym Class Heroes, it was one of those moments where you found something you were always looking for, and not only did I find what I was looking for, but it also looked like me,” Butler says today, as he eases into conversation with a man with whom he has forged a friendship in the intervening years. “Finding Travie and Gym Class Heroes really showed me the path that I thought I should be taking was not only the right one but also already existed.”
JASON AALON BUTLER: Not to gas up my influence so early, but Travie was it. I saw another mixed-race [musician] in the game on some rock shit, rap shit and some shit I personally was hoping to do from the jump that I couldn’t quite figure out. To speak to that initial point, in rock music in general, there is a standard phenotype that we see, which is usually white males. There’s a lot of space that is filled with people that do not necessarily look like myself and Travie and understanding that there are so many of us.
TRAVIE MCCOY: There’s a whole world. I don’t want to call it a subculture of a genre because although it may seem very white at face value, we have always been a part of this shit; maybe not necessarily as celebrated or digestible because of the way we look, which is fucked up, but that’s America. I feel like we have been marginalized and undermined for far too long.
When I first saw the documentary on [protopunk band] Death, they were three Black brothers from Detroit who created punk music, and 30, 40 years later, we’re still seen as just this little pocket. In reality, the influence has always been there. You go from Death to Bad Brains to Living Colour, [and] there are all of these people of color who were probably chastised and berated the same way Jason and I were growing up biracial and being into other types of shit.
BUTLER: That’s a great point to bring up, and it’s not just Bad Brains or Fishbone. There are young brothers and sisters currently, and back when from the neighborhood or in different cities, who were considered to be a subculture that Travie and I know to be much more than just that, because we were involved in it. It wasn’t just the ones who were allowed to break through on a mainstream level. We were allowed to look at a few people who looked like us, but there were so many more. Travie is right: This is not a subculture.
I still remember being in my garage in Inglewood living with my play cousin listening to The Papercut Chronicles, and it was exactly what I was looking for. Now, for me as an artist and a fan simultaneously, to be able to connect with Travie beyond just his music and as a person has allowed me to feel comfortable with a lot of the tribulation I experienced growing up and still do to this day. Travie has always been the guy in the front taking the risk and laying scenes, genres and cultures over each other. My question is, what inspired you to mix these different sounds together?
MCCOY: As far as the music goes, our mission statement was to let everything we have ever been inspired by infiltrate what we’re doing. My dad is a bass player, so coming up, I was exposed to all kinds of different shit. My mother, who is white, was onto some hair-metal shit. When it came to making music, I was like, “Why would I deny any of this?” We didn’t set out to fit into any specific genre — we just wanted to make dope music. With Gym Class Heroes, it was four of us from all different walks of life coming together to meet on common ground. It is almost like an audio version of New York City: a melting pot.
BUTLER: To that point, how were you initially received by your immediate local scene, and did you know that there were others out there like y’all?
There is no instruction manual that comes with overnight fame. I never got comfortable, but I think that’s my staying power”
MCCOY: I grew up in Geneva, New York, between Syracuse and Rochester, which both had burgeoning hardcore scenes. I would go to those shows to release some anger, but I wasn’t always accepted at those shows aesthetically. I became known as the big Black hardcore kid in Syracuse. But when I started making my own music, a lot of those kids started coming to our shows.
The band was spread out all across New York, so we would do the college circuit and had that on lock. It was crazy seeing a lot of those same hardcore kids coming to our shows completely absorbing what we did. They were in turn introduced to some shit that they had never heard before. It was exactly like what I got from going to hardcore shows or hip-hop shows myself. It was very grassroots — but then [Gym Class Heroes’ 2005 breakout single] “Cupid’s Chokehold” happened.
BUTLER: Do you remember the moment when you started to feel the shift? And once you felt it, was it difficult to retain that grassroots feeling?
MCCOY: It was intense. There is no instruction manual that comes with overnight fame. I don’t want to say it was actually overnight, but the power and influence felt like it came overnight. I don’t think I was ready, and I still do not feel like I’m acclimated to it — I never got comfortable, but I think that’s my staying power. That uncomfortably keeps me on my toes.
BUTLER: If I may, I think we should touch on the mental health discussion, especially in Black culture, where it’s just not a thing, though it’s becoming more acceptable.
MCCOY: Yeah, we’ve been brushing this shit under the rug for years. In Black culture, it’s almost looked down upon, like you’re weak. With that stigma, it’s a great correlation with the music because there were a lot of heads rocking with Gym Class Heroes, but then there were people who said the music was weak and I was “crying about bitches.” I’m crying about lost loves, first and foremost. There’s this machismo that we were born and bred with, but the layers are being peeled back more and more. The more that you and I and other artists of color are transparent with what we’re dealing with, the more those layers will be peeled back, and more kids of color will be having the conversation of mental health.
BUTLER: You gave me a sense of confidence; I always thought you were outwardly confident, and it made me feel comfortable in ways nothing else could. How did you feel offstage in your real life, and how did it correlate with you onstage and the things you rap about?
MCCOY: It’s like Tony Stark and Iron Man. Tony Stark is a cocky motherfucker, but is also one of the most insecure motherfuckers in the world. When he puts on the Iron Man suit, he’s invincible. The minute I hit the stage, it’s like my Iron Man mask comes on. I’ve never been overly cocky, but for me, it was a defense mechanism. I built confidence from playing shows and people telling me my songs helped them, but there was always that voice in the back of my head saying, “You can’t be too soft.” I also feel like I let go of that shit 10 years ago, though.
BUTLER: How did you grapple with your success as an artist and human? Especially when Gym Class Heroes took a hiatus and you did your solo thing to then experience a whole other type of success. What was that transition like to being Travie McCoy the solo artist, working with Bruno Mars, essentially putting him on the map, and then the trajectory being both good and bad from the success of your solo project?
MCCOY: The seed for the solo project actually started with Gym Class Heroes’ tour with T-Pain. T-Pain had a studio on his tour bus, and I’d go in there after the shows, and one day he played this one joint called “That’s Not Cool,” and that shit just hit me in the chest. I was like, “Yo, I need this!” and he said, “It’s yours.” We ended up doing three or four more joints on that tour. Halfway through the tour, we decided that we were going to do a solo album. To see him recognize what we were doing really started the roots for this project.
My A&R introduced me to Bruno Mars, and we shacked up in California for two weeks and did “Dr. Feel Good” and “Billionaire.” After “Billionaire” was done, we knew this shit was out of here — we played it back a good hundred times after we finished it. Not to toot my own whistle, but there was no reggae-tinged music on the radio at the time. Then right after it popped, there were so many others. I feel like “Billionaire” pigeonholed me a bit — management and producers all wanted another song like it. It’s crazy, man. This is in no way a diss to Bruno Mars, but they didn’t see what I saw in him.
BUTLER: And it’s not just him, right?
MCCOY: Yeah, there was Tyga, Gata and Katy Perry. There’s always been this lingering voice for me to have the people I love experience this shit. While I’m here at this spot, I want people to not just see me in it, but also experience it as if they were in it. I took Tyga on his first tour, and when I was with Katy Perry, they played “I Kissed A Girl” between every band on our headlining tour. Any way that I could help people that I love who were doing what the fuck I had been trying to do my whole life, I’m all for it. I’m still the same way.
BUTLER: As you’re talking, I’m thinking of a struggle that I face every day: How do I beat that last song, or the one with the most streams? I sit and meditate every day and talk to myself about leaving space that is void of expectation, to allow this new thing to come that may surpass [what I did before]. My metric in mind needs to shift. Maybe it’s not about streams or sales; maybe it’s about a song that makes me feel successful. Do you know what I’m saying?
MCCOY: As much as we put ourselves into our music, we leave ourselves out so much, especially when you have kids telling you how much you influenced them. I definitely found myself watching my mouth on [2011 Gym Class Heroes album] The Papercut Chronicles II, and I never did that before. It fucked me up for a minute, but bro, we give so much of ourselves. There’s a song on the new record that is the most overtly sexual I’ve ever been on a song before. If I had played this for Atlantic Records eight or nine years ago, they would have been like, “Hell no.” Now, having that freedom is special, and I feel like I have the cheat code.
BUTLER: That’s interesting. There are plenty of times where people at the label or in the industry feel like they can talk to me differently based on the fact that I’m more white-presenting than all of these other rappers. It’s interesting because on the other side, they want to activate the “Blackness,” but they only want our rhythm, not our blues.
MCCOY: “They want our rhythm, but they don’t want our blues.” That is real shit. We could spill our guts out in the song, and somebody will find something they don’t agree with, and it will throw off your whole shit. It took me a long time to take everything with a grain of salt.
BUTLER: Looking at the last Gym Class Heroes album, The Papercut Chronicles II, and the limitations you faced versus [making] this new album, what are the stark differences between the two?
MCCOY: With The Papercut Chronicles II, there was a lot of pressure because so many people connected to the first one. I had started working on my second solo record, and a couple of members [in the band] had fucked up their money. I’m not about to let my brothers be hungry, so we made Papercut Chronicles II. We had a good head start, but there was still that lingering shit of outdoing part one. It was heavy for me, and that’s when I was the most critical of what I was writing ever. I also knew the formula, which was cool to know, but not cool to keep to. You can play the game if you want to, but you have to make yourself happy. Have I put out songs that I’m not happy about? Absolutely.
You don’t need people in your ear telling you what’s right if you don’t feel that way. I go with my gut all the time, with not a single regret
As far as this new record, I had to get away from everything. I didn’t want any cooks in the kitchen. We went to Nashville, and unfortunately things didn’t pan out the way we wanted them to. About halfway through the process, things fell apart for Gym Class Heroes. Here I was in this awesome creative space, pushing myself every day, but now my band is dwindling in the wind. I went back to New York to gather myself and realized I invested way too much of myself in this to not see it through.
We decided to put Gym Class on the backburner, and I went back down there to finish what I started. I almost went broke making this album, but the payback for me is listening to [it] and realizing I didn’t compromise a thing. You don’t need people in your ear telling you what’s right if you don’t feel that way. I go with my gut all the time, with not a single regret.
BUTLER: We keep having these full-circle moments in this conversation alone, not to mention our lives, about success, where you can walk into any room or venue and look at this thing that you created and know that you didn’t compromise a thing. Despite the streams, the reception or the sales, and after myriad types of success, you can look at this [new] project as a representation of who you are now, for the rest of your life. That’s the metric of success, and it’s so inspiring.
MCCOY: I hope you know that what you are doing is inspiring as well. I feel like this is what we were put here to do. We express ourselves completely and transparently, and that’s all you can do. There’s this weird misconception that you need to be signed to a major label to be successful; that’s the biggest fucking thud in the world. I signed a one-album deal with Hopeless Records to put out this album, but I feel like I’m back in ’04. Having that enthusiasm and appreciation from the team that I’m working with puts me in a great place creatively.
It’s awesome to know the stamp of influence you and I left on this scene, but we can see these younger kids do this without the use of a recording budget or A&R. These younger kids are giving me fire and fuel and putting batteries in my back, as far as my business sense. It took me almost 20 years to know my worth, and it came with a lot of life lessons.
BUTLER: To your point, and I say this to everybody, but my primary focus and platform that I’m trying to push is that this “scene” — the next Hot Topic or Warped Tour — looks like Travie and I. It looks like Meet Me @ The Altar, Oxymorrons, Nova Twins, the Linda Lindas; it looks diverse. This BIPOC alternative wave is going to be the very thing we talked about at the beginning. This is a subculture that was never a fucking subculture. We’ve been here. I believe that this is what the scene is going to sound like [and] look like. We are finally going to get our flowers.
MCCOY: That was so eloquently and beautifully put. Our influence is undeniable, bro. I know my influence, I know your influence, and I know there are a billion motherfuckers who look just like us that had just as much influence on this scene that isn’t spoken of. At the end of the day, music is what brings everybody of any color together. This shit should all be about unity, but can’t be until the people who have broken their fucking backs and bled onto record are given their flowers.