Extended play

According to Asheville’s Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, most musicians who release a CD feel like the rest of the world can’t help but love it, too. But to actually get public praise is a sweet surprise. However, when it comes to Easy, his hip-hop album for kids that debuted this time last year, the musician wasn’t exactly blindsided by the enthusiastic reaction.

Family affair: Secret Agent 23 Skidoo’s talented wife, Brooke, and daughter, Saki, also contribute to the kid-hop project. Photo by Jonathan Welch

“This was formulated because there was a gap that needed to be filled,” he remarks. “I’m more surprised that the gap was there than by the response to the album.”

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo is one of five aliases frequently used by the artist also known as GFE’s emcee, Cactus. After performing hip-hop for more than a decade with the Rainbow Gathering-initiated, Asheville-based collective, Cactus (a dad himself) decided to channel his talent for rhymes and beats into his kid-tested, parent-approved project, Easy. The positive, feel-good, and hyper-catchy disc not only steamrolls the competition (sorry, Kidz Bop) but offers young listeners esteem-building tools (in emblematic songs like “Gotta Be Me” and “Luck”) and opportunities to explore imaginary worlds (“The Last Dragon,” “Hot Lava”). National media outlets such as family-music blog Zooglobble.com and glossy parenting magazine Cookie raved about the disc.

Even bigger than the reviews are the chart positions on satellite radio station XMKids. “Gotta Be Me” hit No. 5 while “Luck” climbed to the top slot, leading to an invitation for Cactus to play Rumpus Room, an hour-long XM-recorded program. Other events clamoring for Secret Agent 23 Skidoo include local festivals LEAF, LAAFF and Bele Chere, as well as next year’s Kidzapalooza at the Hollywood Bowl. That, and Cactus was named top hip-hop act in this year’s Xpress Best of WNC poll. With a kids act.

It’s that local support that, despite increasing national attention, keeps Cactus connected to Asheville. He just finished work on a video for the track “Family Tree” (in which his 7-year-old daughter, Saki, flaunts her own rap prowess) with help from Echo Mountain Studio, the LaZoom bus, and members of local bands. “I feel like I’m representing Asheville and Asheville represents me,” he notes. “I’m glad I can give Asheville’s kids something.”

The adult aspect of Easy is the business end of the children’s music industry. Cactus has been picking up tips from the godfather of Asheville kids music, Billy Jonas. Far from a competitive arena, Cactus finds that the youth music market is largely untapped. “It’s just starting to happen,” he says. “People are understanding they don’t have to give kids a bunch of wacked-out music to get to the good stuff.”

“For me, I feel like my life started when I realized certain bands were out there, offers Cactus. “Why wait until you’re a teenager or even a 10 year-old to have that greater understanding of the world through music?”

Of course, Easy uses booty-shaking beats and bass lines as the foundation for solidly G-rated themes—but this canvas has inspired other local acts (such as the decidedly non-G-rated Booty Band and rocker Woody Wood) to collaborate with Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. Look for this “it takes a village” effect on Cactus’ new kids book, album and DVD, all due out next year.

The one collaborator not necessarily in the bag is Saki. Cactus waxes proud papa when he points out his daughter’s considerable talent, but he also insists, “I want to raise a daughter, not a performer.”

Though the Secret Agent 23 Skidoo project was originally envisioned as a means for clan Cactus to tour together (wife Brooke also sings), the musician quickly realized that “a 12-hour drive for a one-hour show is a very adult concept.” So, Saki is free to tour or not, as suits her.

“She gets to be a planet that orbits this as much as she wants to,” Cactus says.

Fans are also welcome to add their particular brand of quirk to the project, especially at Secret Agent 23 Skidoo’s one-year anniversary show at The Grey Eagle. The performance will be recorded for the upcoming DVD; the audience is invited to dress funky (this year’s Halloween costume will work; a prize will be awarded for best look) and, as Cactus puts it, “shake your posterior for posterity.”

who: Secret Agent 23 Skidoo’s one-year anniversary
what: Kids hip-hop matinee with members of GFE, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Snake Oil Medicine Show and Mad Tea Party. Woody Wood opens with a kids set. Pre-party (1 p.m.) includes Kabookee the clown, face painting, balloon animals, Ultimate Ice Cream and a roving acoustic set by Snake Oil. Gently used children’s clothes are being collected for a local charity.
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, Nov. 23. 2 p.m. ($5 adults and kids over age 3. www.secretagent23skidoo.com, www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800).


About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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