I tend to be most interested in the artists who stretch and challenge themselves in new ways, and while I've always thought that Secret Agent 23 Skidoo has made thoughtful, lyrical and above all moveable music for families, he's now pushing himself into new directions. Not only is he releasing The Perfect Quirk, his fifth album specifically for kids, next month, he's also written his first book (with illustrator Stu Helm), Weirdo Calhoun and the Odd Men Out.
So of course I'm that much more interested in what makes kindie's hip-hop master tick. I recently chatted with Skidoo via e-mail about weirdness, both in the past and today, finding new muses as a children's artist, and why he wanted to write a book.
Zooglobble: Were you a "weird" kid growing up? If so, did that bother you at all?
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo: Weird? Nah. Totally normal. As long as you think being a 12 year old white kid with an afro and MC Hammer pants rocking Public Enemy in rural Indiana seemed normal. I guess you could say I stuck out like a sore thumb...on a fish. And yeah, it bothered, confused, sculpted and mutated me, for sure. I took me a while to figure out that I was just around the wrong people, and that eccentricity is relative. Cause I don't have eccentric relatives.
Do you think kids are more or less comfortable with not being part of the crowd these days as opposed to when you or I were kids?
I think it seems easier but might actually be harder. The real challenge is to stand out because of what you love. To stand strong and brilliant against waves of sarcasm and ironic wit. Through greater access to voyeuristic, one way culture and cyber friendships available via the internets, there's less of "rights of passage" aspect to being an intentional outcast, so less character and connection is built and less revelations had. Also, with so many avenues of slander and anonymous cruelty through social media, it may be psychologically more intense to stand out.
The thing is to joyously, diligently be yourself and advance your unique understanding of the world in order to share it. And I think it's a good thing to have access to the myriad ideas in the world so that you see you're not alone, but more important than ever to personally go out and do things that challenge you in realtime and develop actual relationships where you can't edit your responses. (Full disclosure: This interview was via email, and totally edited, over and over...)
You've always had a theme of confidence in one's own skills and personality (e.g., "Gotta Be Me," "Gotta Be You") -- would you describe that interest as a lifelong passion, or something that's blossomed as you've recorded music for families?
That's my superpower. My radioactive spider bite was being a weirdo as a kid, and my belief in the power of uniqueness and my love for the unexpected are my mutations. An oyster gets a tiny piece of sand in it, and man, imagine a sharp piece of sand in your soft side, beyond the shell! So it works on it for years and covers it with layers of smoothness, to make it feel better. And it just so happens that that effort becomes beautiful and valuable to others as a pearl. Metaphorically, as a pearl of wisdom, maybe.
The mythic journey from outcast to king is resonant, especially in a society where most people feel they lack normality, even if it's still underground. So I'm dedicated to that story because I think it's transformative, and especially when you hear it in a volatile time in your life, like childhood, teenage years, or becoming a new parent!
Was there anything different about writing and recording The Perfect Quirk from your prior albums?
My daughter, Saki aka MC Fireworks, has finally grown past the age where she can personally be the main muse, so for this album my inspiration came from all my experiences through the years as a parent and a kid. I think that created more songs that apply to different ages on the same album, as opposed to letting the target audience grow in tandem with Saki, as I did on the first three albums. Although she's still on the album more than ever and more amazing than ever.
What made you want to write a book?
Cause I'm a writer! Kids' books are basically long songs if they rhyme and short stories if they don't. This one I wanted to write because I know an awesome artist named Stu Helm, who was obviously put on earth to do this sort of thing. Also because I want to create an experience for as many senses as possible. Here, you can read, look at fresh art and listen to the whole thing as a hip hop/funk track, a bluegrass song or a bedtime story. You can even rap or sing with the karaoke versions. That's interactive, man! Even at your own house.
What did you learn in writing Weirdo Calhoun and the Odd Men Out?
That publishing deals are hard to get! Seriously, though, mostly I learned that expanding your creativity into new shapes and mediums feels awesome, and that there's never enough good, weird art in the world. Also, I'm reminded how much I love collaborations. This project involves me, three bands, a DJ, an illustrator, and my publisher. And I'm really, really stoked that families will be reading this in that magical time of evening that's half awake, half dream. That's a pretty honored and influential time to be sharing art with growing minds.
Now that you've crossed "write book" off your bucket list, what's the next thing you've never done artistically that you'd like to tackle?
Produce other bands, write novels, create TV shows, produce soundtracks, write movie scripts, paint with acrylics, and possibly learning to do professional grade fireworks shows, bonsai and skywriting.
Photo credits: Ian Ibbetson