When Secret Agent 23 Skidoo’s wife and three-year-old daughter left for a two-week vacation, he decided to write a kids’ book and surprise them with it when they returned. Skidoo didn’t realize it then, but that loving gesture would prove to be a turning point in his career.
Five years later, the longtime GFE member, who performs adult hip-hop under the name Cactus, is at the forefront of the emerging “kindie” music scene, with two singles that hit No. 1 on the kids XM/Sirius Radio charts, a listing in USA Today’s 10 Best Kids Albums of the Decade, a nod in Time Magazine and performances at Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and the Smithsonian under his belt.
But this isn’t the cheesy, cliché-ridden children’s music you grew up with. Skidoo specializes in “kid-hop,” ‘90s-style hip-hop beats marinated in messages of individuality, creativity and positivity that appeal to the whole family, with influences ranging from reggae and funk to bluegrass.
His latest effort, Underground Playground, is authentic, old-school hip-hop from start to finish, from the infectious horns and breezy island feel of the album opener “Road Trip,” to the crunchy drums and smooth, conversational vocal delivery of “Never Stop Asking.” This is children’s music like you’ve never heard it before, and Skidoo credits his years as an adult performer with providing him the sensibilities to create music that parents can rock just as hard as their kids, a crucial element of his success.
“I take the formula of what I was doing with grown up hip-hop — which means story songs, party-rock jams, wordplay that goes throughout — and then take it to themes that kids are into,” he explains of the transition. “Originally, I thought it might be a little tough to find stuff that wasn’t cornball. But it really wasn’t, because a lot of the things that I sing in rap music, like creativity and individuality are what it’s all about, are exactly the same as the stuff that I sing in kid’s music. I mean, that’s kind of what I was already doing. All I had to do was take out the swear words.”
What immediately stands out on Underground Playground, though, is not the message itself, but the tone of its delivery. Where many children’s artists are quick to sugarcoat tough subjects and water down the message, Skidoo presents the good with the bad, always careful not to talk down to his audience.
Clichés, he says, come from condescension, and that’s not part of Skidoo’s game. For example, on “Sky Music,” he tells the story of a dream in which a young cloud risks losing the cloud-shaping championships to follow his own creative vision. In the end, rather than rewarding the cloud’s individuality with victory, Skidoo leaves the outcome up to the listener as the dream fades.
“I want the kids to know that it’s good to be yourself, and being weird is fine,” he says. “But they’re definitely going to be made fun of at some point for being weird. You’ve got to give them both sides of it. But through that, trust yourself. When you’re down there in the depths of it, don’t feel like you have to change to be like these people. Maintain your vision of yourself and your creativity, and it will work out.”
“Sky Music” also illustrates another important element of Skidoo’s brand of “kid-hop.” By leaving the outcome unresolved, Skidoo aims to create dialogue between children and their parents. “I always make sure there are certain concepts in there and certain words that the kids aren’t going to completely understand,” he explains, “because it’s my intention that they go ask their parents about it, and that’s going to create conversation.”
On the road, Skidoo creates that conversation himself. Accompanied by long-term collaborator Adam Strange (DJ Mr. Strange) and Supercollider vocalist Vin Damion (Mahira), he engages children with call-and-response hooks, whimsical stories and good old fashioned party songs that keep things moving. The audiences, he says, are a performer’s dream.
“As somebody who has experienced both sides of it,” Skidoo reveals with enthusiasm, “kids do exactly what you wish drunk college kids would do, and they don’t need beer to do it. They’re ready to run up to the front row, and they’re ready to yell the hook back with you, and they’re ready to dance, and they’re paying attention.”
For Saturday’s CD release show, Skidoo’s crew will also include his wife Brooke (Bootysattva), who contributes vocals to three tracks, and his daughter Saki (MC Fireworks), who appears on “Mind Over Matter” and “Never Stop Asking." Already, at the tender age of 8, MC Fireworks is a seasoned performer, frequently spitting rhymes alongside her father on the road.
“We did a whole tour of New York City,” he recalls, “and she was up there with the kids in the park in the Bronx during the heat wave rocking those rhymes. I was real proud of her.”
In addition to the entire Skidoo family, the Orange Peel show will feature appearances by many of the local musicians who contributed to the album — Underground Playground’s credits include Josh Blake, Michael Capra (Foul Mouth Jerk), Jason Krekel and Ami Worthen (Mad Tea Party), Gift of Gab, Jonathan Scales, Eleanor Underhill (Underhill Rose) and members of Snake Oil Medicine Show among many, many others. Skidoo says that incorporating all his friends and collaborators in the official album release was essential, because without them there might be no Skidoo.
“I think, honestly, my albums and the whole 23 Skidoo thing are absolutely a product of Asheville. Not only is it a super kid-friendly town and a friendly-to-young-parents town, but the sound of Asheville is all over the record. It never would be what it is without that.”
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo will also appear at Dancing Bear Toys Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 4 p.m. to read four unreleased children’s books he authored.
— Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, with Snake Oil Medicine Show
what: CD-release show for Underground Playground
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Sept. 4 (1 p.m. $7. Kids under 3 get in free. Face painting, balloon twisting and ice cream. The event will be filmed for an upcoming DVD. theorangepeel.net)