Gym Class Heroes’ Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo on His Quiet Life in the Spotlight

Often the inception story of Gym Class Heroes revolves around its founding members, drummer Matt McGinley and frontman Travis McCoy. It’s the fabled story of high school friends who met in gym class, started a band and kept at it despite rotating members, until they received the Pete Wentz seal of approval. They started the band, so they get the fame, right? Read the biography on the Gym Class Heroes Web site and it’s McCoy and McGinley who won the MTV Best New Artist award.

Before their breakthrough record Cupid’s Chokehold had teenyboppers singing a Supertramp melody while their parents suffered acid flashbacks, Gym Class Heroes was down a guitarist. The band was in upstate New York, Ithaca to be exact, recording with Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. The missing piece was in town as well, attending Cornell University, but fussy with the academia status quo.

Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo has a name that challenges promoters, reporters, industry execs and fans alike, to a point that he tries to make them more comfortable by shortening it to “Sashi.” His name derives from the African Congo. “I’ve heard so many variations of my name,” he said. “Luckily I had plenty of practice with explaining my name growing up that when I joined a band I was used to it. Lately though, I’ve overheard people using my name in conversations and it always surprises me when they pronounce it or spell it correctly.” But, do not call him “D.” “That’s the only thing that irks me,” he said. “There was this one lady who couldn’t get my name and said, ‘I’m going to call you D.’ I feel like that’s disrespectful because she decided to just not put the effort in.”

Two years prior to joining GCH, guitarist Disashi’s pop-punk band played a show with his future band mates, unaware that the impression he made that day would lead to a life-changing phone call. “I was no longer playing regular shows with that band when [Gym Class Heroes] called,” Disashi said. On the same day he joined the band in the studio, groundwork for Cupid’s Chokehold was laid down. GCH previously spent several stints on Warped Tours and built a respectable fan base in upstate New York, but the inclusion of Disashi on guitar seems tantamount to the pop success it would achieve with one song.

With McCoy rapping and singing lead vocals, GCH was already pushing rap/rock boundaries, causing headaches for record store clerks trying to categorize their albums. The band’s aversion to narrowing its scope or ruling out genre influences forced Disashi to jog his memory for inspiration. “Learning how to use the different styles I had learned over the years was the biggest challenge,” he said. His previous band played with a heavier edge. Disashi said he had to learn how to play “clean guitar.”

Life speeds up when you have a hit single. Disashi admits it’s a welcome change, one of those good problems, to be constantly touring in front of hundreds to thousands of fans. But with the release of GCH’s fourth studio album, The Quilt, attention toward the band was less about the music, more about McCoy’s affairs.

With the spotlight fixed on McCoy and his breakup with pop star Katy Perry, the rest of the band was free to create without distractions. “Whether it’s people I’m meeting for the first time or people I haven’t seen in a while, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’m surprised you’re down to earth,’ or say things like that,” he said. “They do expect you to act a certain way, but that’s the overall perspective of how this industry works.”

Outside of GCH, Disashi quietly works on his solo project Soul. Soul is still in the bedroom stages, with Disashi acting as a one-man band. But Soul is not a backup plan should GCH dissolve; instead, his solo work suffers from a commitment to his band mates. Two of The Quilt‘s most critically acclaimed songs were originally meant for his Soul project, but once McCoy heard “Live a Little” and “No Place to Run” Disashi was coaxed into giving up two of his coveted babies. “At the time that I wrote those songs, they were my songs,” he said. “It was tough to give them up once Travis heard them, but it’s a cool thing that I was able to share these special songs with my band and play them every night in front of our fans.”

In reviews, The Quilt is often negatively critiqued for a lack of cohesive flow as purely hip-hop tracks featuring Busta Rhymes and The Dream, drenched in bravado and deviancy, are followed by power pop songs of urgency. “One thing that is challenging in working with other producers is we have our own thing going,” he said. “But I do think when we focus as a core group, it’s when we’re at our best.” While the singles that broke GCH into the mainstream were not fully appreciated until a year and an album late, the marginal success of the The Quilt and its singles, coupled with Disashi expressing no plans to push another single, suggests a band ready to move on.

My talk with Disashi interrupted a pre-show nap in Connecticut, but after some light conversation he snapped out of his groggy state to discuss the group’s plans after its college tour. “For the next record we’ve already started writing together,” Disashi said. “It was cool to have some other producers on the last record and have songs I had written myself. It was cool to go all different types of places, but with this next one the best way to start is writing songs together, as a band.”

Between tours, GCH retreats to where it all started, upstate New York, living together, demoing and writing new material in an old church basement. Disashi described the output thus far as “organic.” He said they hope to have next record out by mid-2010, but Disashi is not making a concrete quote on that due date. Along with rejuvenating his hit-making band, he’s pushing his Soul project out of the bedroom and onto the stage. Disashi said he has a drummer ready to go, but is still filling out the other members.

Returning to his almost-alma mater, Disashi often crosses paths with former Cornell classmates, most of whom are now alumni. Four years into Cornell, he left to be a full-time musician. When he runs into old college friends, Disashi notices the hesitancy of approval in his aberrant rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle over graduating from a prestigious Ivy League university, but it doesn’t faze him. He has an MTV Best New Artist trophy to acquit him of regret. “When we won the VMAs it was like the whole world was watching us gain acknowledgement,” he said. “Now, everyone can see I’m not just goofing off. Well, I have been, but now I’ve been rewarded for the band.”

Recently, Gym Class Heroes played as backing band for Onyx and DMX for the VH1 Hip Hop Honors ceremony. “DMX introduced me to hip-hop when I was younger, so it was a trip to meet him,” he said. Most would not think DMX, who barks when he raps, could be described as polite, but Disashi said it with earnest that each time they practiced with DMX, he made a point to greet each band member. “The most striking thing was rehearsing for the show,” he said. “There were only eight or so people there, but his energy level, you would have thought he was playing for thousands at Madison Square Garden.”

During the rehearsals, Disashi realized he needed batteries from the Target across the street. He strolled into the store conscious of his incognito, comforted by it. Minutes prior to his errand, he was playing alongside with living legends of hip-hop, but in Target he’s still another casual shopper in need of batteries. “It was funny because I was thinking about how much I value the freedom to be out and not get bombarded,” he said. “But as I was leaving the store, a guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I know who you are.'”

Gym Class Heroes

    Blake Gillespie

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