I think it’s fairly common knowledge at this point that if Secret Agent 23 Skidoo (aka Agent 23, aka Cactus) releases an album, it’s going to be good. It’s going to be shoehorned full of beats and funky melodies, brassy horn hits, thick bass and rhymes that slither and twist, dropping surprise logic and insight at every turn. Skidoo is to positive hip-hop what Yoyo Ma is to the cello — virtuosic.
So I won’t tell you that Skidoo’s new kids’ album, Make Believers, is good. Like its two predecessors (Underground Playground and Easy), it’s a collection of hyper-fun, dancey, bouncey, rhythm-and-rhyme driven songs that work on the level of a child’s imagination and hunger for humorous knowledge, while appealing to an adult’s aesthetic for cleverness, wit and savvy.
Make Believers is a Seussian tongue-twist with tack-sharp lines like, “No one believes in magic beans ‘til you climb up the beanstalk and grab your dreams” and “Sunrise, make the sky blush with a paint brush” and “When emotions take form they become a brainstorm.” But perhaps the album’s greatest strength is its ability to harness community into art. More than three dozen local musicians lent their talents and instruments to Make Believers, resulting in combinations and collaborations that, while hip-hop has proven in the past three decades to be suited to many genres, take the art of spoken word to a new level.
Skidoo raps to vintage jazz on “Space Cadet.” No hip-hop beats here; the pulse comes from a snare and a tuba. That song is a family affair, too, with Ms. Skidoo (aka Bootysatva) singing and baby Skidoo (aka MC Fireworks) rapping. They’re a talented trio and, it’s worth pointing out, that while MC Fireworks (daughter Saki) got her start on the first Skidoo album, her verses and sense of rhythm at this point are not just impressive for a kid, but flat-out remarkable.
“Rocketfuel,” a collaboration with the Secret B-Sides, is a standout track. Here, Skidoo’s rap is a syncopated skipping. Words trip like flat stones cast over a lake, barely breaking the surface. Juan Holladay’s vocal is smooth, floating up the octave effortlessly. Effortlessness is the key here — there’s a lot going on but it’s folded into the lightness of the instrumentation. It’s the best of the ‘70s slow jam, the organ (Jeff Knorr) adding a layer of funk, a cello (Billy Jack Sinkovic) adding a shimmer of elegance.
“Nighmares Disappear” is also an interesting departure of sorts. The track is a ‘60s fast-waltz (think Skeeter Davis style) with Kellin Watson singing the gorgeous, molassesy verses. Skidoo crafts his rap to fit that beat, too (though he leaves most of the spotlight to Watson who is, surely, one of WNC’s most underhyped artists). It’s always good to hear Skidoo in his element (like the beats- and horn-fueled “Make the Future”), but what he can do with unusual music styles and time signatures really showcases his talent as a rapper and a composer. Plus, think: with these many genres and instruments, Skidoo is using rhymes and beats to introduce not just hip-hop but a whole world of music to a generation of young minds.
These are just a few of the standouts on an album that uplifts from start to finish. (“Hi-5 For The Hi-Dive” with Mad Tea, and “Hot Sauce” with Marisa Blake singing in Spanish to a salsa groove are certainly not to be missed.) Yes, it’s music for kids — but it’s also music for the kid in all of us (I’ve heard Skidoo songs in my cycling class, for example). And, while Skidoo has found his calling as a kids’ music artist (applying his supple skill as a rapper to these tracks that manage to be simultaneously fun and educational without ever edging into cliche), there’s a sense in this album that he’s continually pushing his own boundaries, growing even as he encourages his young audience to grow.