How I Got Here: Secret Agent 23 Skidoo (Midnight Marauders)

Many years ago, I started a series called "How I Got Here," which was my attempt to get kids musicians to talk in their own words about albums that influenced them as musicians.

Well, calling it a series was generous, because it consisted of exactly one entry.

But it's time to make it an actual series, with the next entry (and I promise you won't have to wait another 5 years for the third).  It's from the master of words and beats Secret Agent 23 Skidoo.  I think Skidoo's most recent album Make Believers is the best in his line of excellent albums for kids, and he's working on a live album for possible release this winter.

Here he writes about A Tribe Called Quest's 1993 album Midnight Marauders...


The first time I heard hip hop was at a friend's house, somewhere in the late 80's. We'd spent all day skateboarding and riding his 4 wheeler, and then he busted out the boombox and slid in a tape of RUN DMC. When I left that day, it was with a blown mind and a cassette dub of Beastie Boys' License to Ill, which I would wear down till it broke. These first tastes of rap single handedly moved me beyond Metallica territory and solidly into the land of Public Enemy and N.W.A. in which I would stay for years afterwards, and fully infected my brain, laying the groundwork for who I am today. But above all, I think it was A Tribe Called Quest's 3rd album, Midnight Marauders, that might have taught me the most.

Although many intelligent and artistic rappers have laced many funk fried beats before and after that time, something about that tape and when it came into my life made it become the bedrock of my style. I had to go listen to it again to write this, to figure out why it's such a depth charge to my psyche, and it turns out it has everything I love about hip hop in one neat package. The beats are sharp and full of pocket, right in the 93-99 bpm zone that I love best, and they sample dirty funk and jazz, complete with the crackle and pop of old vinyl heard for the 500th time. Lyrically, the 2 rappers, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip aka The Abstract Poetic, encapsulate everything it means to be an M.C. or Master of Ceremonies.
From the first song, "Steve Biko," it's obvious that these cats love rapping, that the act itself is the most fun to them. You can see them rocking a house party with a crappy plastic mic, in the corner busting freestyles endlessly to the party people, with hilarious punchlines, witty wordplay and perfectly in-the-funk-pocket delivery. By the time they get to "Award Tour," they become the prototype for the Super Emcee, globetrotting the whole planet not based on hype or gimmick, but high level, sophisticated, intellectual lyrics over unpredictable, head knocking beats. Then they flesh out their skills further, using "8 Million Stories" and "Midnight" to show mastery of storytelling, some straight day-in-the-life stuff that pulls you right into their world like a 3 minute documentary with a dope soundtrack.
Later in the album, they get serious on social issues and the state of the culture. These guys tackle topics with skill and intelligence, actually thinking things through instead of going with cliches and easy outs. And even though this is one of the deepest and most complex and artistic rap albums at that time, it never stops being fun.
No matter wether I'm creating for kids or grown ups, Party Rocking, Storytelling and Topic Tracks - these are still the 3 basic categories of songwriting for me. The freestyle feel and pocket flow of Q Tip's delivery is like one of my first teachers, and lives on like a funky ghost in my head, and if any of my beats cause me to screw up my mug into a funk face anywhere near as extreme as I do for some of these tracks, I know I've done right.
That was in the golden age of hip hop, when the most popular groups were also the most intelligent, skilled and unique. I miss those days. But it's nice to see that by that description, this must be the golden age of family music!
Photo credit: Mike Belleme