Every time I hear more of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, the more I'm convinced he's going to be a Big Thing. Of course, he may be already, with the first great kids-hop album Easy set for re-rerelease this summer and appearances at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Festival lined up for later this year. In this interview, you get a sense of both the studied and self-examined approach he's taken to understanding his particular path as well as the positivity and enthusiasm that has taken him pretty far down that path to Big Thing-ness already.
Read on for details on how he got to recording music for kids, the occasional difficulty of writing rhymes for kids, and how he knew his daughter Saki was ready for the big time. (Oh, and if you're thinking you've already got Easy and you don't need the re-release, read on...)
Zooglobble: What music did you listen to growing up?
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo: I remember my first tape, a dubbed copy of Beastie Boys License to Ill. It now blows my mind to go back and listen to that album and get the nostalgia echoes from songs that I listened to as a youth without even slightly understanding them. Now I get all the slang and references, everything. But I still remember trying to figure out what "I fly a fat burger when I'm way out west" meant on a 4th grade field trip. And Brass Monkey sounded like a cartoon character. Nope, not at all!
How did you decide being a touring musician was what you wanted to do with your life?
I started with the touring part before the musician part. I grew up in a culture-starved small town in Indiana, and blew that popsicle stand real early. By the time I was 18, I had already taken Greyhound and Amtrak everywhere from New Olreans to Cali to Mexico. After that, I spent a while hitchiking, trainhopping and backpacking all across America. My musical side started with a drum I carried with me, and eventually myself and a friend started freestyle rhyming over the beats we made. By the way, that friend is DJ Mr. Strange a.k.a. ADAM STRANGE, the DJ for 23 Skidoo and my rhyming partner for over 13 years. So, we attracted more weirdos and started busking (street performing) which eventually turned into a hip hop/funk band called GFE. As seasoned travelers, it was no question we would take the show on the road, and we began touring before we hardly even had a set put together. Now it's just in the blood, can't wait to take it international!
What (besides having a child) made you want to record a kids' album?
Besides having a kid, I kinda am a kid, and never lost the awe of magical things. Also, (adult) hip hop culture has a hard time accepting positive rhymes. I guess it's not "real" enough for some. But I believe reality is what you make it, so I've been writing optimistically for my whole career. In the kids music world, positivity is welcomed, and the style I have been working with for over a decade is well respected. I think the grown up world, both hip hop and in general, could use a strong dose of kid-centric awe to battle the cynicism ladeled on heavily by current pop culture. So I push that.
How easy was it to write kid-appropriate rhymes? (Meaning, was it harder because there were some content or language barriers you couldn't cross or easier because it was a whole new frontier?)
For me, it's been really easy and fun to write the kid stuff. At the beginning it was tough, as a rhymer you develop this on-hand artillery of what rhymes with any word, and a lot of those get knocked out, either by the swear factor or just context. What rhymes with people...let's see..."evil"? Can't do that..."needle"? weird connotation, could be taken wrong...."free throw"? 5-year olds won't get it..."Nemo"? good, but I'm not trying to push the corporate world...
You gotta take a lot of things into account. But now, I got the hang of it, now it's easy. Now freestyling at kid shows, that's a bit tougher. I do it, and to date, the worst thing I've let slip is "crap", but it's dangerous.
Do you have any favorite memories from recording with Saki?
So here's how "Family Tree" happened. It started with career day at Saki's kindergarten. I came in with my drum to show the kids what being a rapper was all about, and I'd just written my first kid-hop song, "Gotta Be Me." I didn't yet know how the hook would be recorded. So I did the back and forth hook with her class, and they did so well that a week later, I brought a whole recording set up into her class and did it again, which is the final version.
Not long after that, the first official 23 Skidoo show (though I didn't have that name yet) happened at a roller skating rink. Saki was real adamant about coming up and doing "Gotta Be Me" live, but when it was starting, she was all the way across the rink. And she couldn't skate for squat, though she's pretty good now. So Saki comes soldiering straight across the middle of the rink as the first verse starts, barely able to walk with the skates on, and makes it to the mic just in time to perfectly lay down the hook. That was when I knew she could handle doing a rhyme. Thus, "Family Tree."
Did you find that the Asheville musicians you brought in to record Easy were receptive to the idea of a kids' CD, or did it take some convincing?
First off, let me say that in my wide travels, I have never been to a town like Asheville, and its music scene is a phenomenal anomaly. There are gobs of great musicians here, and they have no problem with trying new styles. Nobody here took any convincing, everyone was excited to do something cool for the kids and put their best foot forward instantly. Easy would not be anything like what it is without the skill, coolness, and musical generosity of Asheville, NC. Nostrovia!!!
What are the challenges you've found in trying to sell the kids' CD and do shows as Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, challenges beyond what you've found for your GFE work? (Or has it been easier?)
The tough thing about touring as a kids musician is if you want to play club gigs as opposed to school shows, you can't tour. You can only do weekends. I'm not against school shows, but the sound system usually sucks, and I'm trying to throw a hip hop show, not a pep rally. And sometimes the teachers like me getting them up to dance and scream, sometimes not. But this ain't Row Your Boat, this is HOT LAVA!!! I believe that club owners will see within the next five years that they can make money on weeknights doing 5:00 kid shows, and more New School Family Musicians will rise up to fill those timeslots. And I'll be right there, on tour for real.
And the easy thing about selling SA23S CDs and booking shows?.... How many GOOD kids rappers you know?
What are a few of your favorite kid-friendly hip-hop disks (not necessarily kid-hop)?
I like Andre 3000's Class of 3000 show and CD, though he doesn't really rap on it very much. The song "I Know I Can" by Nas is probably the most positive song to reach out to kids by a mainstream rapper almost ever, and there's a song by The Coup, "Draws", that tells the truth about the princess myth, and gives some very good advice to a young female about dealing with the world.
What's next for you?
Many good things are afoot. My disk, EASY, is about to be nationally rereleased by Happiness Records on July 14. I went back and reworked 6 of the beats, and now they sound a hundred times better, and I recorded 3 new songs for the new version: "Robots Can't Cry," "I Like Fruit," and "Boogie Man." "Robots Can't Cry" is one of my all time favorites. Also, I just released my first DVD, available at secretagent23skidoo.com, including a whole show, plus videos for "Gotta Be Me" and "Family Tree." The "Family Tree" video is CRAZY!!! Saki got swagger! I'm playing Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits this year, and bringing Saki aka M.C. FIREWORKS and my wife Brooke aka BOOTYSATTVA along for both. I'm also working on some books and a TV show, but all that's on the Secret Agent Highly Classified list right now.
In the long run, I guess I gotta figure out which countries teach their youngsters English early and start filling up my family's passports. More good music, more good traveling, MORE GOOD LIFE!!!