'Class of 3000' Is All About the Benjamin

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Vibrant entertainer Andre Benjamin, one half musical group OutKast, will become even more animated in the Cartoon Network original series "The Class of 3000."

In the series, which he co-executive produces with Tom Lynch, Benjamin stars as the voice of Sunny Bridges, an international music sensation who chucks his glamorous life to teach music to kids at the Westley School in Atlanta.

"[Sunny's] a little bit Andre 3000 -- not that I would stop doing music to teach kids music," says the artist, "but I always thought that, you know, especially rap, that was a young man's game. And the older I get, I'm like, 'Okay I don't want to be 45 years old rapping.' So I said, 'Maybe it will be cool if I go back to school and actually be an art teacher,' because that was like my love before I started doing music."

Benjamin fondly remembers listening to music while drawing and painting in one high school class and he wanted Sunny to have that same effect on his students.

"Of course you need your academics all day long, but at the same time you need to free your head," he explains. "I wanted to be that 'free your head'-type teacher, so there's a lot of that in Sunny. So you do have a criteria you have to do, but at the same time the way he teaches them is fun. I think there's a line in the show: 'They bring the "fun," and he puts the "k" on it, and that's the "funk."'"

Although Benjamin has acted before -- in his videos and on the big screen -- he had only done voice acting once before for the upcoming film "Charlotte's Web."

"I think with an animated show, because it's animated and they can do so much with your character -- you can jump up in the air and stay five seconds, you know -- so the voices have to go there too," he says. "The first time that I was in a recording session with the true voice actors, I was so intimidated, man. They helped me out a lot even though my voice is pretty much the same, you know, as Andre 3000. I have to be a little bit more whimsical and a little bit more magical when it comes to Sunny."

Mostly veteran voice actors fill the cast, including Tom Kenny ("SpongeBob SquarePants"), Phil LaMarr ("Samurai") and Crystal Scales ("Static Shock"), while Atlanta native Small Fire makes her acting debut as Li'l D. The seven students in Sunny's class each has a musical specialty: ambitious Li'l D on the drums, Eddie with wind instruments, happy Madison on violin, Philly Phil on upright bass, Tamika on harp, and twins Kim and Kam on percussion and keyboard.

While the overall show champions the "save the music" in schools campaign, individual episodes will focus on creativity and even Benjamin's insights into the music industry. In the episode "The Devil and Li'l D," the Li'l D signs a music contract with Soul Man Records, only to find he's shilling ham in his videos instead of doing his own music.

"I hope people don't take it as kind of like bitter to the music industry," says Benjamin. "I think a lot of artists don't understand that it is a business. But what you see in the cartoon is an exaggerated example of what everybody thinks of the music industry, you know, so you'll be familiar with it."

The entertainer also had input into the animation style -- which emphasizes flowing movements and curves, giving the characters a loose, boneless look -- and stepped in with his fashion sense to give each of the characters a unique style. Similarly, each episode will feature a tailor-made musical number helmed by different guest art directors, including Peter Chung ("Aeon Flux"), Charlie Bean ("Ren & Stimpy") and Marvel comics illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz.

"There's new music for every episode, and it's kind of like the episode or the situation dictates what the song's going to be like, even the instrumentation," says Benjamin. "So I'm writing from I guess a character's standpoint. Our characters Li'l D or Eddie or Philly Phil, they may be in an episode or in trouble and have to play themselves out of trouble. Because it's a music section within an animated show, we had to kind of take a trip ... So you kind of think of like 'Fantasia' -- like mini-'Fantasias' within the animated show."

To further blur the lines between reality and fantasy, there may even be a chance for his partner in crime, Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, to make a guest appearance.

"I let him hear some of the songs, and he was really excited about it," say Benjamin. "He was like, 'Yes, man, it will be cool if I can come on.' Maybe second or third season we'll probably get into like bring in different artists then. [Sunny] is an entertainer, so he knows a lot of other entertainers. So you may have Big Boi to stop through the classroom, and he may do a song with the kids or you may have Gwen Stefani, she may come through and do a song, or Snoop. But they'll be animated in our style."

Regardless of whether kids find inspiration, instruction or entertainment with "Class," Benjamin just hopes the cartoon will be memorable.

"So as long as somebody can pick up something from it ... like how I remember Schoolhouse Rock songs. I still remember the 'Scooby-Doo' theme and 'Peanuts,'" he says. "One of my main goals in the show is to have kids grow up ... and one day think back, 'Man, do you remember when "Class of 3000" was on? Do you remember this song?'"

"Class of 3000" debuts on Cartoon Network on Friday night, Nov. 3.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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