Outkast’s Andre “3000” Benjamin has always been larger-than-life, from those starlet-shaming red carpet ensembles to the svelte croon that out-Princes Prince. But he pulls it off which such nonchalant style that he’s never seemed cartoonish – until now. In Class of 3000, Benjamin plays Sunny Bridges, a superstar musician who retreats from the spotlight to teach a kids’ music class. The delightful TV show, soon to begin its second season on the Cartoon Network, was created and produced by Benjamin, who also writes an original song for every episode. (The Class of 3000 soundtrack, which contains all the addictive hooks and eclectic musical influences of an Outkast album, came out this month.) Babble spoke to Andr’ 3000 about children’s television, the importance of music and the influence of his nine-year-old son. – Gwynne Watkins
So in Class of 3000, you play a music superstar who turns his back on fame to become a children’s music teacher. Is there any real-life wish fulfillment going on there?
Kinda sorta. You know, I think the older I get, the more I question how long I can be relevant to a music that’s pretty much youth-based. As far as the hip-hop side of things, it’s a young man’s sport. And I just turned thirty-two. People like Jay-Z, who’s older than I am, are still doing it. But you know, my subject matter, sometimes I don’t know if a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old kid would want to listen to it. So I always thought, well, what could I do? And before I started rhyming and writing songs, and producing and writing music and acting, I actually thought I was going to be a painter, because I draw and paint. So I said, well, this Sunny Bridges part, you know he’s a music teacher, but I think I may end up being an art school teacher.
Was it your idea to have a TV show about a music teacher?
Actually, this is how it happened – a cool guy named Mike Lazlo at the Adult Swim division of Cartoon Network, he heard the Speakerboxx/Love Below album, and in particular he took to the Love Below side of the album. And he wanted to take that and make it into an animated show. I wasn’t sure at the time if I wanted to exploit that album. I felt like, let’s try something new. And they were like, “Cool.” So I flew my partner, Tommy Lynch, and the animators from Cartoon Network, and a couple of creative guys at Cartoon Network, down to Atlanta. Kind of rolled them around. I grew up in kind of the ghetto slob neighborhood of Atlanta and my mom was cool enough to send me to one of the best schools in Atlanta, Sutton Middle School. I’d be going to school with the mayor’s kids and the commissioner’s children. Right across the street you had horse farms. So when they saw that, they were like, “Hey, this is cool!” So Lil’ D, the main character, is pretty much a small version of me.
Do I hear some Schoolhouse Rock influence in the songs?
Yeah, yeah! That was a lot on my mind when we were doing it, ’cause now, to this day, I’m thirty-two but I still remember the songs from Schoolhouse Rock. I wanted to make real music for kids. Because right now, on the radio it’s a lot of simplicity and a lot of digital-based music. So the kids, I made sure one played violin, I made sure one played guitar, and drums, saxophone, clarinet, harp. So you know, when it comes around for Christmas, they say “Mom, I want a drumset like Lil’ D.” Or, “I want a clarinet, like Eddie.” So it’s kind of introducing, or reintroducing, instruments to kids. Because, this is crazy, they’re taking the music programs out of schools now.
What would you say to people who say that there’s no value in music classes for kids, that they should be learning math or science instead?
Oh, I think they should do both. And it’s been scientifically proven – they should do a little research – that kids actually learn better academically if they have that other side working as well. You know, in Japan it’s actually required that you learn some instrument growing up.
I like that the girls on Class of 3000 all play instruments. In that Jack Black movie School of Rock, which is in some ways similar to your show, all of the girls were all the back-up singers. That really bothered me.
Yeah, of course! Tamika plays that guitar.
You were basically a kid when you started making music, right?
No! Believe it or not, I’d been drawing and painting all my life until tenth grade, when I started to watch videos and said, “A lot of this is terrible.” So I was like, “I could do this!” And so, you know, me and my partner, we started a group, and just started writing songs. And from writing songs, that went to me picking up instruments and messing around with them. Even at a young age he was watching stuff like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, because those were my favorites growing up.
Do you ever watch the show with your son?
Yeah! When I was creating Lil’ D, I used a lot of his style – you know, that little hat that he wears? My son, when he was younger, he used to like to wear a hat to church, all the time.
What TV shows did you watch with your son when he was growing up?
Uh, Charlotte’s Web, Blue’s Clues, Bob the Builder, Thomas the Train . . .
You don’t sound too excited about any of those shows.
No, no, they were cool shows, I’m just trying to remember. But even at a young age he was watching stuff like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, because those were my favorites growing up, so I wanted him to see them. And he was amazed by them.
I loved those movies when I was a kid too, but they’re so much darker than a lot of the stuff that’s out now for kids.
I know. But I think kids are smarter than what we think. Actually, I heard Spike Jonze is working on Where the Wild Things Are, like a live-action version. And I heard it’s amazing. Jim Henson’s puppet company, they’re involved. Actually, my production company, Moxie, we’re working on a couple of kids’ projects, live-action feature films – one called The Hit, where I play a modern-day Cupid. And I have this little friend that lives across the street, you know. But I can’t get too far into that.
So what messages do you want kids to take away from the stuff that your production company is doing for them?
Fun, music, friends. The kids on the show all get along, and even when they don’t get along, they do get along. Tamika, she wants to punch people all the time. But you do have people in life like that. And it’s funny, you meet kids on the street, and they’ll sit and talk for hours about their favorite characters. They know it’s just a cartoon, but they ask, like, “Why don’t they ever change their clothes?”
What do you think is a good way for parents to teach their kids about music and about art?
Let them try everything. When I was growing up, my mom, she put me in everything. Piano lessons, tennis lessons – you know, because you never know what you’ll like. And usually, when you become an adult, you’ll think back, and something that you used to do will help you in your career that you’re doing now. I know that even when I’m eighty years old, Sunny will always be around.
Is your son interested in music?
Yeah, he tinkers around with everything. He actually has perfect pitch in singing. Crazy.
Would you want him to go into the music business?
That’s his choice. You know, it is a crazy business, and it’s not the most profitable business right now, you know? It’s kind of going through a bad little time. But whatever he wants to do – be an actor, who knows? I’m not pushing him in that way. I know if he goes into music, people are going to judge him in a certain kind of way.
Do you ever get recognized by kids because of the show?
Oh, yeah. Because a lot of the kids, they’re eight, they’re nine, so they don’t know anything about Outkast, they don’t know anything about Four Brothers, or the movies – none of that. So they see me on the street, and I wear my favorite hat, which is the straw hat that they designed the character with. And whenever I wear the hat and I’m out in public, a kid may turn to his mom, like “Hey, hey, that’s Sunny! Sunny Bridges!” It’s amazing, I can tell you. Because it’s a new generation, and I know that even when I’m eighty years old, Sunny will always be around. He never grows old.