In the Chinese zodiac, 2014 is the Year of the Horse. For the United Nations, it’s the Year of Family Farming and Crystallography. And, as designated by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, it’s the Year of the Salamander. No stranger to celebrating diversity and creative thinking for all ages, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo honors these viewpoints and countless others in what he’s dubbed the Year of the Weird. Back at the Orange Peel on Sunday, July 27, for one of his esteemed family hip-hop shows, the longtime former Asheville resident brings with him a plethora of new offerings to ring in these 12 months of quirks. Among them his first official picture book and his latest album.
“As far as my North Star in kids entertainment, I think I have kind of a triple North Star: [Dr.] Seuss, [Shel] Silversteen and [Jim] Henson,” Skidoo says. “Musically, Henson … and Silversteen, to a degree; writing style, Seuss and Silversteen. Silversteen more than anyone. He was able to maintain a simultaneous career as a grown-up entertainer and a kid’s entertainer.”
When Skidoo’s daughter Saki was 3 years old, he wrote and illustrated a book for her called What It’s Like in the Stars and self-published it with a run of 1,000 copies. Since then, he’d been contemplating a more professional follow-up and recruited Asheville graphic artist and food writer Stu Helm as a collaborator.
The story Skidoo concocted tells of Weirdo Calhoun, a boy who follows his oddball interests and inspires other kids to do the same. Skidoo gave it to his friend Allan Wolf, author of The Watch that Ends the Night, who took it to classes and had students read it aloud. The feedback was positive, but Wolf noted that the story read more as lyrics than as a book. “When he said that, I thought, ‘Perfect: let’s make musical versions of it,’” Skidoo says.
And so, Weirdo Calhoun and the Odd Men Out comes with a CD that includes a hip-hop version with Skidoo rapping the story over a track with funk instrumentation from Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band; a bluegrass version by Snake Oil Medicine Show; and a bedtime story edition with Skidoo’s wife, Brooke, reading the words over muted horns by members of the Booty Band and lush strings by other local musicians.
Also included are karaoke versions of all three songs (“It’s my ultimate hope and challenge that parents will rap their kids to sleep and bluegrass-sing their kids to sleep,” Skidoo says), plus witty twists on a classic picture book/audio recording tenet. Like the narrators of the book/vinyl combos from his youth, Skidoo instructs listeners on the bedtime story version that “when you hear the chimes, it’s time for the next page.” On the bluegrass version, however, a fiddle melody fills that role, and on the hip-hop cut, it’s Asheville producer and DJ Marley Carroll scratching on a record.
Continuing the book’s trend of Asheville collaborators, Skidoo’s sixth CD, The Perfect Quirk, is also a decidedly local record. Engineered by Julian Dreyer at Echo Mountain Recording Studio and Jeff Knorr at Collapseable Studios, the album features such area artists as steel pannist Jonathan Scales, Adama Dembele and Matt Williams of Afropop group Zansa and the entire Booty Band.
Since Skidoo has called Nevada City, Calif., home for nearly two years, these continued Asheville partnerships may seem a bit odd, but when viewed as following his own advice and doing what’s right for him, they make perfect sense. “We have a shared history, and I love the flavor,” he says. “It’s a real gumbo. There are so many scenes that are interrelated. There are funk guys here who can knock out reggae and bluegrass guys who can do metal if they want to. That’s the staple of my whole thing, a mutated genre thing,” Skidoo says.
Though Skidoo is confident he will find musical partners on the West Coast, where he and his family plan on staying at least until Saki completes high school, he also says that he can’t imagine being in the studio with someone other than Dreyer. The pair’s bond is so tight that they’re starting a production team called Binary Starchild that will likely launch next year. What they’ll dub 2015, though, remains to be seen.
WHO: Secret Agent 23 Skidoo with Lunch Money
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Sunday, July 27, at 2:30 p.m. $8 advance, $10 day of show (kids under 3 are free)