André 3000 on the 10th anniversary of his ‘Class of 3000’ soundtrack
The music icon talks everything from Sonny Rollins to ‘Dead Poets Society’ to Tyler, The Creator to the creative life
Where we were on July 3, 2007, the day the soundtrack to André Benjamin’s animated series Class of 3000 was released: It had been a year since the premiere of Outkast’s movie and soundtrack Idlewild. Three years since the duo won the Album of the Year Grammy for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Yet the musical futures of Three Stacks and Big Boi were up in the air. André 3000, especially, was keeping mum about any future projects but was dropping unannounced guest verses — “International Player’s Anthem (I Choose You)” and “Walk It Out” among them — and stealing the show each time. The world was clamoring for more output from André, even dreaming of a solo album (fans are still begging for that album in 2017). But what many don’t know is that 3000 actually released a full-length album — just not what anyone was expecting.
Class of 3000 is the soundtrack to Andre 3000’s short-lived but brilliant Cartoon Network series. In it, André plays a music teacher who exposes his class to adventures and a new appreciation for their respective instruments. The show is like if you put The Magic School Bus in a deep fryer and put a side of yams next to it. He produced the entire album, provided vocals and, yes, even rapped. A decade later, the album is still as innovative and replayable as it was in 2007.
“It actually happened right after Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” said Benjamin via mobile. “Adult Swim was getting aggressive with television and for new content. [Then-vice president of programming for Cartoon Network] Mike Lazzo heard The Love Below and said, ‘Man, I gotta reach out to that guy and make The Love Below into some kind of animated thing.’ The show was originally supposed to be an Adult Swim show. It was going to be more edgy. But I felt The Love Below was its own entity. I wanted to create something new.”
André and Lazzo were at a loss as to what their new concept should be about until they took a trip around Atlanta. “André started talking about his youth,” said Lazzo, now a senior executive vice president at Cartoon Network. Andre took Lazzo to his neighborhood in southwest Atlanta — and to Sutton Middle School on the other side of town, in the wealthy Buckhead area. “It was two completely different worlds. His mom insisted he get a great education, so she got his transportation arranged. As I’m listening to all this I’m thinking, ‘André, this is the show I want to see.’ ”
As the concept for Class of 3000 began to take shape, loosely based on Benjamin’s childhood at a performing arts school, it became apparent that the show would be better off geared toward kids than on the Adult Swim imprint. André 3000 had only one demand: The show had to be about Atlanta. There’s never been a cartoon set in Atlanta, and setting Class of 3000 in the city was a way to expose its culture to a wider audience.
“I know these kids. I grew up with these kids. My childhood was put in those characters. I was [character] Lil D. I grew up in Bankhead, and I went to school in Buckhead. So I know that world. I had to ride the bus through the projects and through these rich a– houses. I was that kid; I knew both sides of it.” André 3000 tells me all of this over the phone while I’m sitting in front of the painting of Outkast in my man cave.
Wait, let me back up.
Any parent can relate to the sheer eye-gouging boredom of driving their young kids around and trying to find music that won’t warp their brains and lead them to a life of crime and sexually transmitted infections. For the most part, the kid-friendly music options available are somewhere between Radio Disney, gospel music, about three Chance the Rapper songs and an endless library of children’s movie soundtracks.
I remember buying the Class of 3000 soundtrack when it came out in 2007. It was out of a fevered desire to hear any amount of new Outkast music, and I figured it’d be great for my kids to listen to as well. Listening for the first time in years reminded me of the funkadelic, eccentric fantasy world André created with the soundtrack by immersing the listener in a jazz- and drum kit-laced fusion of unforgettable melodies and whimsical comedy. The songs are accessible to kids but deeply engaging enough for adults.
The more we listened, the more I looked into the show. After two seasons, it had disappeared. There’s no way to get a physical copy of any season, and the soundtrack is available from only the first season. I sent feelers out, as well as direct messages for answers. Then on a Sunday morning I got an email. From André 3000. One of the artists who defined my childhood and Southern upbringing, who gave voice to my lifestyle and represented me whenever he spoke. Not only was he interested in talking about the soundtrack, he sounded downright excited to talk about a passion project that has been overlooked by so many. For someone who’s revered for his brilliance and past works, the feeling of an unheralded project has to be unfamiliar to him. Especially one so masterfully constructed.
“I watched Peanuts growing up,” said 3000, “and the music was always strong. Vince Guaraldi, a great jazz artist, was doing all the music for Peanuts. And at the time — I know it’s a sensitive subject now — but Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids had music involved. So I was really looking for a vehicle to do music. I thought it’d be dope for kids to hear something different than what they hear every day. I wanted to expose them to different sounds, and instruments they might not be hearing … on the radio.”
He said that, coming off The Love Below, he was already producing. “I decide to produce whole songs for Class of 3000. The premise is every show would feature a song that had something to do with the story.”
The actual recording of the songs for the Class of 3000 soundtrack provided a challenge somewhat foreign to André 3000 at the time: deadlines. “It was … a learning process,” he said. “I had to have those songs ready for each episode because they had to animate around those songs. I’ve always been a leisurely music producer, so it was sort of pressured.” One rushed moment led to a snafu and the most unforgettable song on the album.
“We Want Your Soul” is all frantic drums, a haunting horn and devilish laughter. And most importantly: It’s eight monstrous bars from André 3000. The problem is, those bars weren’t supposed to be there. At least not as rapped by André himself. The recording process for the album was simple. André would lay reference tracks — he’d speak in the voices of the kid characters from the show and send the track over to Cartoon Network, and they’d get the kids to say the lines over the tracks. But that didn’t happen for “We Want Your Soul.”
“There was a mistake made because we were rushing to get that song out,” Benjamin recalled. “That was supposed to be Lil D’s voice on that song.” Instead, it’s a fully rapped André 3000 song hidden in an obscure, decade-old album. A treasure trove of Outkastian excellence.
Overall, the process of trying to record as a group of children was another challenge for 3000, especially as he was fresh off a sexually charged album of lovemaking and songs such as “Spread.”
“I’d have to change my voice to act like a kid,” Benjamin said. “Had to think like a kid, and that was the hardest learning curve musically. I knew I wanted to introduce kids to certain instruments and keep it upbeat. But it was a challenge to bring my inner kid out.”
He found his motivation in the form of a movie and a real-life jazz inspiration. “One of my favorite movies is Dead Poets Society, and I felt like doing that with kids. I also thought it’d be great to have this teacher teach kids in an unorthodox way, so I stepped in as the teacher, Sunny Bridges. People don’t know that the name is a nod to saxophone player Sonny Rollins. There was a legend that he stopped playing music live at a certain point and he’d just play his horn under a bridge. So that’s how the name Sunny Bridges came together.”
And for a whole generation of kids, André 3000 will be known as Sunny Bridges first and rap Mount Rushmorian music luminary second. At least, that’s how my son will first learn about Andre Benjamin.
“That is the coolest thing about the show. I’ve had a blessed career. I’ve had the Isley Brothers’ career. They came up from the ’50s and survived through the ’90s. Kids know them from different eras. Some kids know early Outkast. Some kids know ‘Hey Ya,’ singing. And some kids know Class of 3000. So when I hear a kid who knows nothing about rapping, who knows nothing about The Source Awards but who knows me from the show, it just shows you that you don’t have to stop. You don’t have to rest on what you’ve done in the past. It’s beautiful.
“When I first talked to Tyler, The Creator, one of the first things he said was, ‘Man, those songs like the crayon song and the peanut song … we were kids!’ I forget these guys that are superstars now were kids listening to the songs. It’s like, ‘Wow, those kids actually paid attention.’ They got it.”
Unfortunately, Class of 3000 now mostly only lives in the memories of people who saw the show when it aired in 2007. The show is only available for purchase on iTunes, and of course there are random clips on YouTube. Class of 3000 simply came at a time when Cartoon Network was transitioning from landmark kid-friendly shows such as Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and The Powerpuff Girls to its Adult Swim imprint. Class of 3000 was the last show that Lazzo greenlit before heading over to Adult Swim to be a senior executive vice president.
“It was a victim of that transition,” said Lazzo. “Had I stayed at Cartoon Network, I would have been superfocused on Class of 3000. It was some of the best creativity I had seen.”
There’s clearly a need to revisit the show, though, a fact not lost on Lazzo and Benjamin. “You never know which shows will stick with people years later,” Lazzo said. “I think maybe it’s time to bring it back.”
I don’t want to be too idealistic — but maybe this very essay will persuade them to at the very least release the songs from the show’s second season, or get the full episodes from the series a proper Blu-ray release.
“Sometimes you just have to bring attention back to something,” André Benjamin said with excitement. “There’s room to bring the show back. Cartoon Network owns the property. It’d be up to them to bring it back in some kind of way. You know what? I think it’ll happen now.”