Simian sounds

Taming the monkey mind: Agent 23 harnesses all aspects of his career, from GFE to kid-hop, to make a collection of positive adult-and teen-friendly hip-hop that asks the big questions.
Taming the monkey mind: Agent 23 harnesses all aspects of his career, from GFE to kid-hop, to make a collection of positive adult-and teen-friendly hip-hop that asks the big questions.

"At one point I couldn't imagine myself as a 50-year-old rapper, but now I think, why not?" says local hip-hop artist Agent 23. "Tom Waits is killing it and Tom Waits is essentially a storyteller with an old, grizzled personality."

Of course, Waits isn't a rapper. But 23 points out that hip-hop and its possibilities are growing, and he doesn't consider himself a mainstream rapper, anyway. He describes what he does as rhythmic poetry; "I'm really into storytelling," he says.

If storytime sounds like a kid's activity, keep in mind that 23 is the adult music moniker of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, who, since his debut children's album Easy, has coined the term "kid-hop" and turned out a collection of child-pleasing rhymes that doesn’t drive parents crazy.

Agent 23 has certainly found success in kids' music. Aside from an enthusiastic local following, Skidoo's song "Mind Over Matter" — with daughter Saki (aka MC Fireworks) — hit No. 1 on the XM radio chart, and his Underground Playground was reviewed on NPR's "All Things Considered"). But he isn't ready to leave adult music behind. Sometimes billed as Cactus, he got his start in hip-hop collective GFE; his newest offering, Monkeywrench, is adult-oriented hip-hop that nods to both the heady rant-rhymes of GFE and the affirmative anecdotes of Skidoo. But Monkeywrench is its own entity.

Agent 23 is calling his 15-track album "pan-generational, pan-experience, weird-psychedelic-monkey-funk." He says he can see in it the path of how he got here, from his early days emulating the rappers he loved, to the hippy-tinged freestyle of GFE, to the purity of kids' music. "It just keeps molding to this new thing," he says.

One thing he learned from writing kids' music is that limits can inspire creativity ("The most limiting thing in the world is absolute freedom," he says) so these were the parameters: "No cursing or overt sex and drug references … when I took out the sex, drugs and battle raps, I was left with the big questions like, what creates the direction of a human's life, how do we overcome addiction and repetition, what is God?" And also to not talk about himself much — something almost unheard of in the ego-driven world of mainstream rap.

The end result — an album that adults and teens can relate to and kids can still be in the room for. Its overarching themes are uplifting.
      "Positive is a really funny word," says 23. "A lot of people think positive means happy. I think it has more to do with your live evolving toward what you want it to be."

On "Better Way," he raps, "I'm loving the life I live, it's nice in a crib with a wife and kid. Think about what I mighta did, saw the wrong road, took a right instead." It's (as he puts it) "bald-faced" and spiked with reggae beats and Rasta creed, thanks to Jamaican dancehall artist Garro.

And there's so much on the album that, positive or not, is just so slickly eloquent. "There's no magic like being nomadic to kill the old habits and clear the soul static," 23 raps on "Vagabond." The lithe lyrics roll over a choppy funk melody that could have been culled from the original "Starsky & Hutch."

While Monkeywrench might offer suggestions for righteous living, it's far from dogmatic. Or corny. "Hip-hop lovers are like wine connoisseurs," says 23. "They will be really mad about something that's not in the right taste. You can experiment as much as you want, but you better be doing it right. Even if you have a good experiment, but it sounds wack, nobody's going to give you the time of day."

Figuring out how to make positive hip-hop in the right taste took some trial and error. The American public wants to be thrilled and it's hard to make harmonious situations thrilling, says 23. A picnic by a waterfall with the family: "That could make a good indie-folk song," he says. Hip-hop, not so much. "That's been some of the challenge I've been dealing with — making something exciting that's not degrading. I'm trying to promote harmony from my reality."

One way he promotes harmony is by tapping a list of contributors that cross genres and cultures. Members of the P-Funk Allstars, Blackalicious and Soulive, wordsmiths Breez Evahflowin and Gift of Gab and local musicians including Jonathan Scales, Matt Williams, Ben Hovey and others. (Even MC Fireworks makes an appearance.)

The P-Funk connection (vocalists Kendra Foster and Steve Boyd are featured on opening track "Contagious Cages") dates back to the early days of GFE, when the hip-hop group was invited, through a mutual friend, to record at Boyd's studio in Atlanta. Eric Krasno of Soulive went to the same college as GFE alum Josh Blake. "He'd given me a couple beats," says 23. "That dude just breathes funk."

Gift of Gab is another story. He appears on the track "Storyteller." Says 23, "This is our third song together, but in all that time it's been over the computer or over the phone. We haven't actually met yet."

Breez Evahflowin (who can be heard on the nimble, brassy "Rusto Bombs") serves not just as collaborator but as inspiration. "When I first started writing, I loved wordy hip-hop," says Agent 23. Now, "the more words you can take out when it's done, the more funk you can put in there. I learned that a lot from Breez Evahflowin. With hip-hop, you don't need all the ands and the buts. You can just hit them with words that will form the image in their mind." Efficiency is key: These days, 23 writes most of his songs in a single setting, in a single take.

"I'm a real big fan of focus," he says. "I pretty much don't write anything I don't use at this point. If I really want to make everything happen, keep the albums popping out, keep the promo happening, keep riding bikes with my kid, keep paying the rent …" Within the pressures of the limitation, he says, he's learned to make it happen.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Agent 23
what: Release of Monkeywrench
where: Pre-releases available at the Secret Agent 23 Skidoo kid-hop show at the Orange Peel on Saturday, March 19 (2 p.m., $8, theorangepeel.net); Official release date is Wednesday, March 23 (Agent 23’s birthday!) with albums available at Harvest Records; Live set from Monkeywrench performed with musicians from the album at Emerald Lounge on Saturday, March 26 (10 p.m., emeraldlounge.com/calendar. GFE set will follow).

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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