August 30, 2010
Let’s face it: For just about any parent who likes hip-hop, the phrase “hip-hop for kids” is filled with dread. Almost all of the attempts at it can be summed up by the word joke—either intentional (I give Elmo’s occasional rapping on Sesame Street, which is meant to be funny, a pass) or horribly, horribly not. So I once tended to view the few children’s hip-hop CDs I encountered with skepticism.
Then Secret Agent 23 Skidoo came out with his first album, Easy, in 2008. As I’ve written before, and so many other reviewers wrote at the time, it was a revelation: “kid-hop,” as he calls it, was suddenly a viable genre after all. The key—really the key for almost all art forms for kids—was that 23 Skidoo doesn’t dumb things down for children. The subject matter was obviously different than it would be on an adult rap album, but the beats, the rhythms, and the rhymes were not, for the first time in my experience. (It didn’t hurt that 23 Skidoo has been a rapper and producer of grown-up hip-hop, with Asheville group G.F.E., for well over a decade—though it also must be said that others of similar description have made such forays with far less success.)
My wife and kids loved Easy as much as I did, and it got tons of play around the house. We found ourselves eagerly anticipating his follow-up, though my own anticipation was tempered by a little knowledge of sophomore slumps. Now that he was established, could 23 Skidoo maintain his high standards without simply repeating himself?
I shouldn’t have worried. Underground Playground, which comes out August 31 (tomorrow!), is still clearly the work of the reigning king of kid-hop, but it expands on his debut, too. He dabbles in crossover with other genres, from the sunny singsong reggae of “Road Trip” to the Pogues-esque final section of “Wildlife” (representing a cheetah, fittingly enough). Meanwhile, his lyrics again convey positive messages on subjects like friendship (“Secret Handshake”) and honesty (the Public Enemy–tinged “Speak the Truth”) without ever getting finger-waggy, or losing the loose sense of fun that’s the core of so much quality hip-hop. (The verbiage in “Mind Over Matter,” a song about being yourself—perhaps 23 Skidoo’s core message—is a particular highlight.)
Perhaps most important, the beats and riffs he lays down are top-notch—catchy and addictive, they have your head bouncing in no time. Even here the new album pushes envelopes, though. While the cement is still the old-school hip-hop sound this artist clearly loves (think KRS-One), you also hear the influence of more modern names, especially in the song arrangements: Eminem, Jay-Z. Frankly, the eclectic nature of 23 Skidoo’s work is reminiscent of a lot of people, but if I had to pick one, it'd have to be Michael Franti, with whom he shares both positivity of message and an ability to rap effectively over many different styles of music.
Like its predecessor, Underground Playground is an awful lot of fun to listen to, and if your kids are anything like mine, they'll be asking to hear certain tracks over and over. (It’s been getting serious car mileage lately for us!) And you won’t mind a bit. In fact, when you realize you’ve left it on in the car when the kids aren’t around, you might just leave it in there, and coast down the road with your head nodding.
As a taste, here's a video for another track from the album, “Chase the Rain”:
[Image courtesy of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo]