Today, if you told someone that you were taking your kids to see Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, they would still probably call you a bad parent — but “bad” in the sense that Run D.M.C. once famously rapped: “Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good.”
Such is the evolution of hip-hop, which started with urban teens talking over records but has evolved into a multifaceted musical genre that permeates almost every other — including family music.
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo is known as “The King of Kid-Hop,” calls himself a cross between Dr. Seuss and Dr. Dre and says his work appeals to people who are 31, 13 or 3. His 2016 album Infinity Plus One took home a Grammy for Best Children’s Album, and on Sunday, July 23, he’ll join the Folkmoot festivities with a fully choreographed performance at the Sunday Soiree Concert Series.
I recently had the chance to catch up with up with the man behind the mic, former Ashevillian Cactus Skidoo. Here’s what Cactus had to say about authenticity, influences and being a part of Folkmoot.
Smoky Mountain News: Being kinda from around here, had you been to Folkmoot over the past 34 years?
Cactus Skidoo: I haven’t attended but I’ve heard of it. I have a friend who is really into clogging and she’s been telling me about it for years. The more I’ve heard about it since getting closer to it, it just seems like one of those things that makes Western North Carolina such a quirky weird awesome interesting place to be — who’d have thought that people come from all over the world to trade styles and show off their steps in Waynesville?
SMN: I have a daughter and I was lucky in that she was born after the “Barney” craze. We used to watch a show called Yo Gabba Gabba, which I love because I thought the artistic expression was very authentic – the dance, the music, the art. I don’t think you find that a lot in children’s entertainment.
CS: It comes in waves. Think about the 70s – Jim Henson, H.R. Pufnstuf, that stuff was brilliant. Think about Shel Silverstein. Sesame Street. The Electric Company.
That stuff didn’t look down on kids like stuff in the 80s and 90s did, where the educational side of children’s music kind of got dumbed down and the mainstream side of it got real corporate. Everything I watched as a kid, He-Man and Voltron, those were commercials [laughing]!
CS: But now we have stuff like Yo Gabba Gabba and Adventure Time and Nickelodeon blurring the lines, and I’d put Sponge Bob in that category.
SMN: None of that stuff talks down to kids, and your stuff looks at them eye-to-eye. Why is that important?
CS: There are two perspectives to that conversation. One is, kids are a lot smarter than we think they are and kids absorb and evolve a lot quicker than we think they do and a lot of that is because there’s a bell curve going on – they understand and evolve now a lot quicker then when we were kids.
SMN: And they can spot a fraud a mile away.
CS: They have that sense, but a lot of kids are used to being spoken down to.
Being that I do hip-hop, that has room for a lot of complex lyrics. And being that I work with musicians and will have something like 30 to 50 of them per album, that leaves a lot of room for sophisticated music.
I’ve continued to try to push against it — that line — and see if kids are going to follow it or are they going to get lost.
The irony is now, as I move in that direction, mainstream music is moving the other direction. I’m currently in a place where on a level of syllabic sophistication and rhyme schemes and vocabulary, I’m currently using higher levels in my family music than mainstream is using for grown-ups.
SMN: On the other side, your music is about as good as anybody’s out there, but from a children’s entertainment perspective, that’s something that most people wouldn’t expect.
CS: I think hip-hop aficionados are like wine connoisseurs. Bad wine is not OK. With hip-hop there’s a definitive line where, if it sucks, it sucks. I toured for 13 years with hip-hop bands before I started doing family music, and I’m a white dude from the Midwest doing hip-hop. That gives me a little more impetus to push myself and make sure that I’m trying to represent the most intelligent, sophisticated, aware, musically potent version of it.
SMN: In your music I’m picking up influences of hugely influential hip-hop figures like J Dilla and …
CS: You got it. The Dilla/DeAngelo Slum Village album. We’re always working like that. There’s so much funk to it. I’m glad you caught that. Most people say “Will Smith!” and I say, “Ahhh, I wish you’d listen deeper.” [laughing]
SMN: What other influences can you cite as being important to you?
CS: Native Tongues, obviously Tribe [Called Quest], De La [Soul], KRS-One was a big early influence, I like Hieroglyphics a lot, and Freestyle Fellowship. I don’t know who my top five are, but my number one MC is Black Thought [of The Roots].
SMN: So how do you keep all that fresh for adults while introducing it to kids?
CS: There’s a side of me that wants to be influential, that wants to be, you know, a musical revolutionary and following in the footsteps of the people that we’re talking about.
The thing that keeps me feeling like I’ve still got some kind of angle on that is I try to make every song a double entendre in that it’s something kids and adults both deal with – what’s the Venn diagram that we share of being a kid and being a fully realized grown-up? We all have fear. We’re all attempting to figure out how to love. We all sometimes feel like the misfit. We all sometimes feel in awe of the wonder that the world can show us.
Each of those things is something that I can talk about broadly enough that hopefully it applies to everyone listening to it. I want the parents and even people without kids to feel that as deeply as the kids feel it.
Tickets for the Sunday Soiree Concert series featuring Secret Agent 23 Skidoo and Empire Strikes Brass are $10 for adults, $5 for students, free for children under 5, and are available at the door, at www.folkmoot.org or by calling 828.452.2997. Held outdoors at 7 p.m. in the green space adjacent to the Folkmoot Friendship Center – bring blankets and chairs. Food trucks present and beverages available for purchase.