Once you get over wishing your family was a cool as Secret Agent 23 Skidoo's, you and your kids will fall in love with his feel-good hip-hop and dance to his beats. We spoke to Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, aka Cactus, about rapping for kids and keeping them focused -- and working with his daughter Saki.
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Credit: Courtesy of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

Meet the Artist: Cactus

Your style as a performer for adults was very positive -- did that help move you toward doing children's music?

I've always been rapping in a positive way; I have a vivid imagination -- lots of pictures, lots of stories -- and to be completely honest, sometimes the grown-up hip-hop world expects a lot more grit, expects you to fit into a certain mold. I was always struggling against the walls of that mold. What I'm doing now is nice because there's no image of hip-hop in the kids' world; not many people are doing it. So I can create and do whatever I want. There's a lot of freedom in it.

How did the idea of performing for kids happen for you?I'd been part of a traveling hip-hop collective for about ten years. My wife Brooke and daughter Saki, who was three at the time, were going to the beach for a couple of weeks. Brooke's a yoga teacher and she was going to be taking some classes, so they decided to make a vacation of it.

I wanted to surprise them with something really big when they got back, so I decided to create a kids' book -- write it, illustrate it, and copy it -- and have it ready for them when they got back two weeks later. I did, and they loved it -- they even cried a little! So then I made more copies and gave it to my friends who have kids and got a good reaction. So then I printed up a thousand copies and took it on tour with my band and sold it and got a really good reaction.

What did people like about that book?It had kind of a graffiti style to it, a little hip-hop. And it rhymed and had the rhythm of an MC. The pictures had the same thing going on, too. I'm not the best artist in the world, but I can definitely get my point across. The characters had baggy pants, goatees, that sort of thing.

The people at my shows said, "I love this, because I can show it to my kids and they can relate to me." If you're in any kind of alternative lifestyle, kids' entertainment just doesn't hit it.

Meet the Artist: Cactus, Continued

Creating that book lead to your doing kids' hip-hop?It didn't happen immediately, but when my band ended up taking a break, I started working on some other things I had ideas for; one of them was making some kids songs. The first song I did was "Gotta Be Me." I made the beat to that, and then I made about three more.

Then, I was doing a solo show as a grown-up rapper and a guy came up to me and said, "I really love your stuff; if you ever want to do any recording, let me know." At the time all I had ready to go was the kids' stuff. And so I recorded that. From the beginning it really caught fire. It became obvious pretty quick that it had a power and momentum of its own.

Your daughter Saki aka "MC Fireworks" -- is a star! How did she become involved in Secret Agent 23 Skidoo?"Gotta Be Me" was the first song I wrote; the idea was to use a traditional hip-hop formula, whether it was storytelling or the back-and-forth call-and-response thing, and bring that to the kids. After I wrote the song but before I recorded it, Saki's kindergarten had a "Bring your parent's to school day."

My wife Brooke (aka Bootysattva) showed the kids some yoga. Since I'm a rapper, I brought in a drum and decided to do "Gotta Be Me" with them. I explained it and said, "So when the hook comes around you're going to this." And they did it so well that I brought an engineer into the same class and had them do it again -- and that's the recording on the CD. I mean, they did it phenomenally well. Saki, who was five at the time, has one or two other lines in there.

Then, we were asked to do four songs at a roller-skating rink as part of a bill. Before the show Saki said, "You're going to tell me when the song is coming up, right? Because I'm on that song." She was taking it very seriously.

So we start playing, and I guess her mom had been deep in conversation with somebody and somehow getting Saki up there got spaced. We started the song, and suddenly, here comes five-year-old Saki in roller skates -- and at this point she can't skate well at all -- barreling across the skating rink, against traffic, trying to get to the microphone with everything she's got.

She finally got there, but I was in the middle of the rap and couldn't prepare her like I'd usually do. The first hook came up and I crouched and looked in her eyes, trying to let her know telepathically when to go, and she looked like she wasn't even paying attention. She was holding the mic but was watching the skaters.

But then, as casually as you can imagine, she grabbed the mic and did it absolutely perfectly.

After that experience, and from her wanting to be a part of it, I decided to write a song with her and that was "Family Tree." She's got her first sixteen-bar rhyme on the next album, Underground Playground, coming out in August.

Meet the Artist: Cactus, Continued

Was it strange going from performing hip-hop for grown-ups to rapping for kids?

At first I was nervous because I thought I might feel like a clown, but after ten years performing for college kids in bars at two o'clock in the morning, well.... First, sometimes the kids are paying way more attention than the average twenty-one-year-old crowd; and second, the kids do most of the things you want your grown-up crowd to do: they're ready to dance, they're ready to come right up to the stage, they're ready to yell back-and-forth with you.

I was worried at the beginning that they'd just stop paying attention. There's a general assumption that kids have a short attention span. But I've learned that it's not that they have a short attention span; it's that they have no couth. If they're bored they're going to act bored. So you've got to make sure to keep changing things up and keep doing interesting things to keep them focused on you.

Where do you find inspiration?Shel Silverstein most of all, a little bit of Dr. Seuss, and Bill Watterson, who wrote the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. All of those people have one foot in the kids' world and one foot in the adult world, and that's what I'm trying to do.

When I started I wasn't aware of kids music at all. I'm a lot more aware of it now because it's pretty much my main thing at this point. But at first I purposely didn't listen to any kids' music while I recorded the first album, because I didn't want to know what other people were doing or what the supposed limitations were.

What can families expect at a Secret Agent 23 Skidoo show? My shows are patterned after traditional hip-hop show and I try to keep it as close to that as possible. It's loud -- but not loud enough to hurt anybody's ears -- and has big booming beats. There's singing and dancing and storytelling and the crowd is very involved. Maybe they're dancing like animals in the song or they're doing the hook with me and we're yelling stuff back and forth. And you can hear the words, because I've always made an effort to keep my words clear when I rap.