Amid a bustling music era of the 1990s, four visionaries from Geneva, New York, dared to defy the ordinary. With Travie McCoy, Matt McGinley, and Ryan Geise, Gym Class Heroes emerged as a band of friends looking to express themselves creatively. What it turned into was more than a group of music-loving misfits, but a movement. Soon, Geise and Levine would exit, leaving room for Eric Roberts to emerge on bass and Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo to pair his vocal talents with his guitar skills.
Their sonic experimentations were a heady blend of Hip Hop, Funk, and Rock that resonated far beyond charts. When Gym Class Heroes dropped As Cruel As School Children in 2006, they were venturing slightly left from their previous recordings. Released under the venerated Decaydance label (founded by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz), an imprint of Fueled By Ramen, the Heroes found themselves in the cradle of burgeoning Pop-Punk and Alternative Hip Hop synergy.
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July 2023 marked seventeen years since the release of As Cruel As School Children. It is an album that marked a pivotal moment for Gym Class Heroes and embedded itself into the very fabric of the 2000s, Myspace-era, Emo pop culture. It was a pivot from their sophomore attempt (and my personal favorite Gym Class Heroes release), 2004’s The Papercut Chronicles. While the group’s breakout project was rooted deeply in experimentation with those aforementioned sonic elements helping create a sound all their own, ACASC explored a more mainstream Pop sound without losing their original essence. Hits like “Cupid’s Chokehold” showcased this balance impeccably, sampling Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” nostalgically and freshly. The track, originally on TPC, was given a reboot for ACASC, and it skyrocketed up the charts. “Cupid’s Chokehold” enjoyed its place in the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, further solidifying the band’s position in pop culture.
“The creation of As Cruel As School Children was an epic ride, to say the least. I had no idea when we were working on that record what a profound impact it would have on my life, Gym Class Heroes fans, and the world in general,” Disashi told HNHH while reflecting on the project. “‘Cupid’s Chokehold’ on our previous album was my first set of musical contributions to our band, including guitar and some fun vocal harmonies. But As Cruel As School Children was really my first full album opportunity to showcase my songwriting ability in terms of range, production, guitar solos, and more complex vocal harmonies.”
At its heart, the album presented a musical cocktail that few dared to experiment with and even fewer mastered. The band, fronted by the charismatic McCoy, had a knack for storytelling that felt personal and universal. McCoy was no stranger to putting his deepest struggles and fears on wax. From his battles with addiction, his feelings of isolation and depression, to the ebbs and flows of his romances, listeners identified and felt a kinship with the lyricist with the help of the musicians who aided in bringing rhythmic life to his rhymes.
Further, critics and fans alike noticed a sonic shift with ACASC. Where The Papercut Chronicles was a deep introspection, ACASC felt like a celebration, an anthem of youth and vivacity. Yet, beneath the buoyant melodies were sharp commentaries on love, school life, and the pains of growing up.
Take “The Queen and I,” for instance. On the surface, it seems that McCoy raps about falling for a woman who may have an alcohol abuse problem. For some, it’s not merely a song but a narrative of excess. Others believe it tapped into the roller-coaster of stardom, wrapped up in a catchy chorus that had listeners humming along, perhaps oblivious to its more profound ruminations on the pitfalls of fame. This capacity for layered songwriting marked much of the album, enticing listeners to revisit tracks and uncover deeper, previously unnoticed meanings.
Then, there’s the infectious “Cupid’s Chokehold” that hosted a look from Fall Out Boy’s lead vocalist Patrick Stump. The intertwining of Supertramp’s iconic Classic Rock refrain with fresh verses that captured the headiness of young love was a masterstroke. The music video was just as entertaining as the track itself, but beneath all of the fun is a deep appreciation. Disashi noted that this song is one that he holds near and dear, not only because of its impact.
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“As our crucial creation turns 17 years old, I also have to acknowledge Roger Hodgson (of Supertramp) because I believe in giving credit where it’s due,” Disashi said. “When Cupid’s Chokehold’ made its way onto ACASC, he found it in his heart to allow our album to flourish when he could have done exactly the opposite and ruined our momentum and career. And for that, I’m truly grateful. There was a lot of hard work, sacrifice, turbulence, and magic that went into making that album what it is today, and it’s a true blessing that As Cruel As School Children is still culturally and musically relevant 17 years later.”
Yet, the brilliance of As Cruel As School Children wasn’t solely in its singles or the radio-ready tracks. Deep cuts, like “Sloppy Love Jingle, Pt. 1,” showcased the band’s ability to play with form and content. Moreover, beneath the glossy production was an undercurrent of poignant social observation. “Viva La White Girl,” for example, dissected the allure of escapism through substance abuse in fame. It presented a sharp commentary yet the music never overshadowed it.
The juxtaposition of playfulness and profundity, levity and lyrical depth, made As Cruel As School Children a standout. Seventeen years later, it remains a masterclass in blending genres, perspectives, and emotions into a cohesive whole. Yet, its authenticity made it resonate even more with its audience. Gym Class Heroes never seemed to be chasing trends or bending themselves to fit a particular mold. They were unabashedly themselves—a group of talented musicians sharing stories and experiences. In doing so, they invited listeners into their world.
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For those who were there during its initial release, the album is a sonic time capsule, evoking memories of a distinct era. For the newer generation, it’s an exploration into a time when boundaries in music were being stretched, redefined, and sometimes outright ignored. When I first met Gym Class Heroes in 2004, they performed at an art gallery in Arizona that housed 50 people. They were an unknown band from upstate New York who showed up with a broken trailer (which they argued about outside) and learned the show had been canceled. Still, they decided to push forward and delivered a performance as if they stood in a packed arena. They thanked the staff for letting them showcase their talents before apologizing to me for having to witness their aforementioned argument. As Travis put it at the time, “Underneath it all, we’re brothers.”
“To this day I’m still regularly overwhelmed by the feedback that I receive from GCH fans across the world,” Disashi noted to us. “[They] express the ways in which that album has positively affected their lives and brought them together with new friends, as well as how ACASC introduced them to genres of music that they previously never listened to. I became a professional musician in the first place to help people and also to bring people together, so it’s EXTRA meaningful to know that we‘ve managed to break down some musical boundaries along the way.”
In celebrating this album, we aren’t just commemorating a collection of songs. We’re acknowledging a work that defied expectations, broke conventions, and, above all, showcased that music—like school—can sometimes be as delightful, heartbreaking, and cruel as we remember. However, ACASC didn’t mark the end of the Heroes. Although a lengthy hiatus was had, they’re back in action. These days, you can catch them on tour beginning in September with All Time Low. In October, make sure to head to Las Vegas to see them at the When We Were Young festival.