The Gym Class Heroes’ Guide to Hip-Hop Guitar

Ever since Run-D.M.C.’s “Rock Box” blasted airwaves as one of the first rap singles to incorporate heavy-as-a-freight-train guitar riffs (courtesy of Eddie Martinez) in 1984, urban dance music and electric guitars have enjoyed a raucous alliance. Sometimes that partnership has involved actual performances (as in Martinez’s case), and, other times, it has embraced sampling of pre-existing guitar parts. But whether the “live” or “Memorex” approach has taken the popular lead throughout the years, the very nature of constructing a stylistic hybrid—such as rap-rock—places some creative heat on both instrumentalists and producers. For the guitarist, playing over rap or hip-hop music typically requires parts and tones that propel the rhythm, but steer relatively clear of the sonic space and impact of the all-important groove.

To dance amidst the driving rhythms unleashed by his popular hip-hop crew Gym Class Heroes, Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo takes an almost emo approach, eschewing obvious rock riffery in favor of ambient arpeggios, old-school wah chatter, and shimmering single-note lines. On the group’s most recent release, As Cruel As School Children, Lumumba-Kasongo also displays a tremendous amount of musical empathy as he slyly darts in and out of classic soul, R&B, lounge, rock, and pop motifs.

Your parts are so clean, light, and bouyant—what tools do you use to craft those guitar sounds?
Since 2000, my main guitar has been a Parker Fly—although I also used a Gibson SG and a Fender Stratocaster on the album. The Fly is really light, so it’s a great guitar to gig with, and it’s also extremely playable. As the name signifies, it kind of flies as you play it. Before I joined Gym Class, I played a lot of rock and roll through Marshall amps because they drive really well. But I needed something different for this band, so I switched to Orange amps and cabinets. The clean tones on the Orange are so crisp that I feel like every note I play is kind of shouting out at the audience. I don’t have too much going on as far as effects go. I used to use a Boss RC-2 Loop Station to trigger a couple of samples—like on the song “Papercuts” [from 2005’s The Papercut Chronicles]—and a Boss delay, but I ended up switching to the Line 6 PODxt Live. It’s a pedalboard version of the POD, and it’s really convenient because I can tweak all the sounds I need, and then name the preset. For example, I’ll just have my “Papercuts” program that will bring up all these delays. It’s a super intuitive and versatile pedal. It’s really fantastic. I also went from using a .010 set of D’Addario or Ernie Ball strings to a .012 set. I like the resistance of the heavier strings—they hold back a bit more. It was definitely brutal on my fingers for like a week or so [laughs], but all you have to do is play a whole bunch, and you get used to it real quick.

Considering your rock and roll past, what was the main challenge of incorporating guitar into a hip-hop rhythm section?
Well, it’s always kind of a mind trip playing with other bands. I was definitely used to rocking out with the distortion full up, but that approach didn’t really work with Gym Class because it was too dense and messy. Those kinds of tones just ate up everything. I quickly realized that if I wanted to make it work with Gym Class, I’d have to play pretty much 95 percent clean tones. So that was the first challenge—playing without distortion. But that actually forced me to become a better guitar player, because there’s nowhere to hide when you’re playing a straight-up clean tone—every note is clearly heard. Another benefit was that I fell in love with more expressive chords, such as minor sevenths. I never experimented much with other chords before because I was stuck with power chords. Playing clean opened up my brain in really surprising ways.

Did any particular sounds inspire you while you were developing your clean tones?
I really got into the Cardigans a lot. The band’s melodies are beautiful, and the songwriting is amazing. They also have good rhythm-guitar parts, and they use these fairly clean and breezy guitar tones. They’re not a crazy lead-based band, but I definitely respect what they’re doing.

Playing conventional rock guitar typically means dealing with a fairly straight 4/4 drum-kit groove. But hip-hop rhythms often involve layers of live drumming, samples, and sequences with top-line percussion that’s quite syncopated. Did you have to reorient your internal clock to nail the rhythmic accents just right?
Well, that wasn’t too hard for me, actually. Even though I played in rock bands before, I listened to a lot of hip-hop and dance-oriented music. Also, my parents were really into Afro-Cuban music, so I already had a little bit of background in terms of rhythm. A lot of rock music is rhythmically driven, as well. Listen to Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan—they’re pushing and pulling the beat in subtly different ways. It’s not all bam-bam-bam-bam.

True—but making a transition from, say, old-school blues-rock to hip-hop seems a bit more difficult than just critically listening to Stevie Ray.
Well, yeah. I’d say that you have to cut back on your parts, but you have to cut back in the right way. For me, a big part of the whole process was listening to the music, and saying, “Okay, what’s the right thing to do in this specific part right now?” I had to pay close attention to the kick drum and the bass—because those are the things that are really holding it down—and play around them. You have to nail the feel. It’s kind of a lot of pressure, because while you may not be playing as complex parts as you might in a straight rock band, the parts you do play have to be seriously locked to the song’s groove. I found I could get away with being a bit sloppier when I was playing rock.

Do you miss stepping on a fuzz box and blasting it out raw?
I can still do that—the tone just has to fit. But I will say, for me, it’s harder to imply emotion when the majority of the parts are a clean guitar or an acoustic guitar. I had to learn a lot about developing the right tones to fit the song. It’s hard to be explicit about what I did, other than that I was doing some very subtle tonal shadings to change up the emotional impact of various parts. A strummed part might go totally clean or with a bit of an edge, and a melody line might get some delay—you know, little audio-sweetening sounds to help the parts stand out. I looked to Hendrix for some inspiration, actually. Not for his tone or style, as much as for his ability to think beyond the boundaries, and be creative. I think a lot of the influences I draw from are subtly thrown into the music—they’re not direct.

Is there anything else about arrangement or sounds that you learned during the process of making As Cruel As School Children?
I learned a huge amount about songwriting from the album’s producers, S*A*M and Sluggo—Sam Hollander and Dave Katz. I learned different things from each of them. Dave taught me a lot about patience, as well as when to cut back, what to cut back, and how to use different tones to produce different feelings for the songs. From Sam, I learned a great deal about song arrangement and song structures. A lot of the lessons were about subtle stuff, such as using pre-choruses, or cutting back on the pre-chorus so that the chorus seems louder. I even learned when it sounds cool to repeat a chorus. Both of them really charged up my interest in production and arrangement, and, as a result, I’ve actually been listening to a lot of Billy Joel. I just downloaded “Honesty,” in fact. That arrangement is classic—there are no parts that feel awkward unnecessary. Everything is there for a reason.

Uh, Billy Joel?
[Laughs.] It’s crazy! I heard “Honesty” in some department store while we were on tour, and I was like, “Billy Joel wrote this?” Then, I started spinning through his repertoire, and I discovered a whole chunk of songs that I liked. It kind of impressed upon me that writing a great song takes a lot of work, and I’m trying to bring a better focus on details, arrangement, tones, and emotion to my work with Gym Class Heroes.