Gym Class Heroes Fought for Alternative Music and Paved the Way for A New Sound.
The Gym Class Heroes broke the sound years before and haven’t received enough credit for it.
Rap has memorable years like 1994 and 1998. But what came out of that time period from 2005 to 2009 was a rise in rap and rock-infused music. B.O.B., Kid Cudi, and groups like the Gym Class Heroes popularized the sound. Gym Class Heroes’ music drew from the sounds of groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blink-182. Drawing on the rock influence, they fused it with the sound of groups like Fall Out Boy to help the culture advance. Travie McCoy spoke about the group’s impact in a 2011 interview with the Chicago Tribune, saying, “I feel Gym Class Heroes was part of the forefront of the genre”. Today, no one acknowledges what the group accompplished by fusing all of these genres together. Their approach paved the way for other rappers to come like Travis Scott, Post Malone, Lil’ Uzi Vert, the late Juice WRLD, and XXXtentacion.
Travie McCoy formed the Gym Class Heroes in 1997, along with drummer Matt McGinley, Eric Roberts and Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo. The group worked hard for a few years, sending demos out to various labels, but their unique sound made them a hard sale. Often labels passed on them, seeing them as too urban for rock audiences, but not tough enough for rap. Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy described the dilemma: “When we signed Gym Class Heroes, it was like, ‘Where does this fit? This literally doesn’t fit anywhere. We would play it for alternative radio and they were like: ‘This is not alternative, this is hip-hop’. We’d play it for pop or hip-hop radio and they were like, ‘This doesn’t fit, this is a live band. In some ways, it felt like we were five years early.” McGinley, the lead drummer, described the issue, insisting that hip-hop always influenced them, but explained that they never fit fully into one genre from the beginning.
Their sound paid homage to the legacy of groups like N.E.R.D. the Roots, and the Black Eyed Peas, combining live instruments with alternative raps. But GCH blazed its own path by embracing aspects of the emo rock movement popularized by groups like Fall Out Boy. Creating music with lighter vocals and sounds mixed with raps that catered towards more emotional topics made for a winning combination. The group’s breakout single, “Cupid’s Chokehold”, peaked at #1 on the Billboard charts. The song contained both aspects and birthed later records like “Airplanes” by B.O.B. and Lil Wayne’s “How to Love”. By combining the needed pop elements of live instrumentation and white faces to audiences, the group charted a path to success. Rolling Stone explained it best, saying, “Gym Class Heroes’ Travie (formerly Travis) McCoy invented his own market by mixing emo, hip-hop and tween pop.”
The appeal of Gym Class Heroes and Travie McCoy was in their ability to make music that could fit in virtually any genre from reggae to rock. You could catch them at predominately rock festivals like the Vans Warped tour, but also at SXSW. Soon, people took notice and it wasn’t long before Lil Wayne reached out to collaborate with them on the remix of their 2006 song, “Viva La White Girl”. The cosign from Wayne and a co-headlining tour with the Roots in 2008 helped them gain the urban audiences they needed, but most of all warmed urban radio up to the idea of rap, rock and pop working together. Still, in 2006, rap was very much segregated, confined to the realms of either hardcore music like 50 Cent and Jeezy or backpackers like Kanye and Common.
In 2007, Kanye and a slew of artists, including Travie McCoy, collaborated with Fall Out Boy on the remix of one of their biggest singles, “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s an Arms Race”. Almost overnight, the floodgates of rap and rock opened up. From there, it became common to see rappers and rock artists together and soon groups like Chester French, Odd Future and the Internet sprang up, embracing the sound of Gym Class Heroes. By 2009 when Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon album was released, it made perfect sense to see your favorite rapper in a video with Lady Gaga on a DC block, hear Kanye West and Chris Martin of Coldplay on Graduation, or listen to a Lil Peep and Fall Out Boy record, but when Gym Class Heroes first came on the scene, their music was ridiculed by critics and rap fans alike. What we once hated is now called innovative.
Few acknowledge what the group did for music. McCoy spoke of the dilemma they faced in a 2007 interview with the Today show, saying, “They’ve called us emo hip-hop. They’ve called us alternative hip-hop, they’ve called us hip-hop and rock. Whatever makes it easier for them to categorize us so be it.” The group’s biggest records, “Cupid’s Chokehold”, “Stereo Hearts, “Ass Back Home” and Clothes Off, all embody the best aspects of emo-rap by putting the passion and emotion of their experiences in the music, mixing in the right amount of musical dexterity to ensure its palatable for the average music fan.
Before Kanye and Cudi collaborated with groups like Fall out Boy or Pharrell signed Chester French, Gym Class Heroes was consistently making music that embodied both genres. Before Lil Wayne dropped his rock and rap infused album, Rebirth, Gym Class Heroes did. They were emo before we could name it.