'Word is Born' Proves that Music is in Our DNAGrammy winning hip-hop artist Secret Agent 23 Skidoo’s Audible Original debut breaks down the main components of songwriting and performing while paying homage to cultures with strong musical impact.
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Sean Tulien: Hey there, I'm Editor Sean, and today I'm lucky enough to chat with Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist, lyricist, and family man Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. We're going to talk about his brand-new Audible Original, Word is Born, an out-of-this-world listen he wrote and performed about rap, rhymes, beatboxing, and the history of hip-hop. Welcome.
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo: Hey, man, thank you. I appreciate you guys taking the time to make this happen. Thank you.
ST: Yeah, we're excited. So I got to listen to it this weekend and I have a lot I want to talk to you about. Is it okay if I call you 23 for the interview?
23: 23 is fine, man.
ST: Speaking of names, I'm really curious as to how you got the pseudonym of choice, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo.
23: Like a lot of MCs, it kind of starts with who I am to begin with. I was born on March 23 and so my first MC name was Agent 23, and then when I moved into the realm of making music for families, I wanted to expand on that. I knew the secret agent part would be cool, but I wanted to expand on the 23 as well. Right around then I was hearing the term "23 Skidoo," which is a relatively mysterious slang term originating in the 1920s and there's a bunch of different apocryphal stories for how it comes about. But you see it pop up every place from The Simpsons to Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus trilogy to even MF Doom rhymes.
ST: I wish I'd put that much thought into my own name.
23: I'm almost what, 15 years deep on that name? And I still like it. I'll tell you what, there's too many words in it. That's for sure.
ST: In hip-hop tradition, the idea that you get to choose your own name is something that's been a tradition for a while. Would you mind speaking a little bit about that?
23: That dovetails a lot with what this project is about: seeing a lot of things about being an MC and a rhyme writer not [only] through the context of hip-hop history itself, but also through the context of human history, the time that humans have been on this planet and using storytelling, words, song, and ceremony as a way to bring community together.
So I think a lot of what you're talking about, they're putting on a new mask, right? Putting on a new identity in order to step into a place of power that's more archetypal than mundane. That is what ceremony is all about ultimately, and that's why people take on a new name and a new persona for themselves, even as much as, you know, MF Doom actually rocking the mask, which has had impact on a lot of MCs to understand exactly how deep ceremony is and how deep the identity is.
ST: I also really appreciated how you described picking your name to your kid listeners, as in it has to be authentic, because if it's not, nobody's going to take you seriously.
23: Yeah, that's right, and that's not just about the name either. That's about the entire identity of yourself as an artist, where you can adopt a persona, but it has to be true to you. You know what I mean? You can take a step into something that is a more exaggerated version of what your heart and soul is, but if you try to just take somebody else's mask and put it on, it's not gonna fit.
ST: One thing I've noticed about your lyrics and your music is that you take some elements of science fiction and weave them into it. I noticed that some of my favorite lyricists, like Saul Williams and Del the Funky Homosapien, do that as well. Why do you think science fiction and hip-hop work so well together?
23: One reason is because hip-hop is the perfect storytelling medium. When it comes to music, there aren't very many genres that fit that many words into a song to begin with. There's some really great, relatively complex concept albums out there and a lot of genres, but the depth of storytelling that you can fit into hip-hop, it's unparalleled. You'd basically have to make the jump to just straight up audiobook to fit more in.
ST: Listening to a lot of your songs, it is like a journey or a trip.
23: Yeah, sure. Kind of hero's journey type stuff. I think that hip-hop is very first person, right? Not only in terms of bragging or battling, but in terms of being on an epic quest, taking a journey, having a desire or a goal, and how they work their way towards that.
If you try to just take somebody else's mask and put it on, it's not gonna fit.
When I jumped into the family music scene I continued using the first-person format to tell stories and to talk about things, but I stopped actually referring to myself. You won't really hear me say "23 Skidoo" in the family albums. For the most part, I don't do that because I don't want those songs to be about me. I want those songs to be about what I'm talking about. Ultimately, I would love it if I could pass it on eventually to somebody else and people could still be performing those from their own identity, maybe with a few tweaks or whatever. Sometimes I think maybe my daughter will be able to play these shows. I've thought about those rhymes in about 75% of them. She could do them exactly as is and it would be completely applicable.
ST: Has your daughter taught you anything about music or creative expression?
23: Oh yeah, absolutely. The experience of raising her gave me more fuel than anything else in my life. I used to go to a relatively prestigious art school called Interlochen in Michigan and I dropped out. I'm an art school dropout. I remember thinking to myself around 16 years old that this school could teach me technique all day long, but it couldn't teach me what I wanted to say. If I didn't have any real experience in life, then all the technique in the world would be pointless.
Honestly, the experience of my daughter coming into my life, being a family man, wanting to raise my daughter, wanting to teach her about the world, that gave me something to say more than anything else in my life. By that point, I had also developed technique and whatever from running around and being in bands and traveling and being influenced by all kinds of amazing musicians. But when I started thinking about what would my music say to her, then all of a sudden I had a potency and a clarity for what I wanted to say that were much stronger than anything I'd done before.
ST: I think one of the reasons Word is Born resonates so well with me is because when you're talking to kids it feels authentic. It doesn't feel forced. You don't talk down to them. That's something that a lot of people don't realize—kids want to be taken seriously. I especially found that evident in the way that you imagine a beat for the music you're making as listening to your own heartbeat and using that as an initial tool to start making music. How did you come up with that?
23: I don't know. I think it was when I started understanding what BPMs I love the most on beats. And then I started understanding the heartbeat set and kind of just seeing that with the people around me, there were people who were a little bit more high strung and their heart beat a little bit faster and they tend to play faster beats. And then there were people I knew that were real laid back and because they were so laid back, their heart beat a little slower and they tend to like slower beats.
We're walking around and we're just these machines that are cycling through all these perfect rhythms all the time, whether it's the heart or the breathing or whatever. There's all these rhythms happening constantly, and they're all building off of each other. So all these things that I'm talking about in the book in terms of being aware of yourself, being conscious of these rhythms happening inside of you, those things are happening with everybody.
I guess the greatest awarenesses we can get are the things that we already know. So yeah, I think that was a good place to start just because this book in a lot of ways is about origins. We began as a heartbeat. And as soon as we started understanding consciousness and dealing with other humans, we did that through words and concepts.
If I didn't have any real experience in life, then all the technique in the world would be pointless.
I'm just in love with that idea, man. But a lot of the process in his book was just me seeing that again and again, just how magical the idea of words and beats are. So yeah, that's what this book is really all about, man.
ST: I noticed that a recurring theme is definitely how that creative expression comes from within, right?
23: Yeah. I'm glad you got that, man. You're probably the first person to listen to it all the way through, honestly.
I just went into this like, "We're just gonna do this book that's about not only how to write songs, but also the sort of international origins within Indigenous societies and going back to the beginning of human culture, and we're gonna collaborate with people from all these cultures in order to make that happen. And not only that, but I'm gonna find MCs that also represent different Indigenous cultures so that we can rap about the connection between Indigenous cultures and hip-hop culture." I figured I'd take about six months. And three years later here we are.
ST: You bit off a lot, but it works. It feels like a natural journey from one subject to the other. I especially love the musical interludes where you're going over the history of one specific part of either hip-hop or African beats or funk or things that have contributed meaningfully to the music you make.
23: Thanks, man. We were working individually for a very long time, and then I think it was about a week and a half ago that I actually heard it all strung together for the first time. I was overjoyed because until that moment, I didn't know if the whole thing would work as a concept or not at all.
ST: I'm consistently amazed at how much information is in Words Is Born as well. Like the entire section where you're talking about jazz in America, and it's set with this awesome music in the background. Who was that music performed by?
23: What you're specifically talking about is performed by some of my favorite musicians from Asheville, North Carolina, people that are very schooled in that sort of turn-of-the-century jazz that we were going for. I could go to them and say, "All right, what we're looking for is not an actual standard, but something that sounds like it would have been a standard written at the turn of the century and with that correct lineup." That's why there's no standup bass in it. It's a sousaphone instead because that would have been proper for that time period.
When it came time to do the Viking section, all of a sudden I had to be like, okay, well, how do I reach out and find traditional Viking musicians? To which I started reaching out and realizing, well, you know what, Viking is not actually an ethnicity. Viking is a profession. Viking means raider. It means pirate.
But luckily I was able to find a German guy who handcrafts Viking instruments based on artifacts that have been dug up and then writes as authentic as possible Viking music based on the scant pieces of music that have been found. So what it comes down to is combining what we knew about them as a culture and then the pieces of music that they did leave behind. And again, I was super impressed on every single level by the people that I dealt with, their expertise in these things and their ability to create the spirit of the thing that we're talking about.
ST: What I love especially is how your words work over the rhythms, which shouldn't surprise anybody given your career.
23: Thank you, man. I'm just so glad that something so strange worked out at the end, the way that it sounded in my head originally.
ST: Maybe you guys have already tackled it, but why not make it like a mix tape or an old CD where you have the instrumental tracks at the end too?
23: We have the beats for all the actual hip-hop joints at the end because the point is that people will listen to this project, hopefully be inspired by those parts, and then learn enough about the technical aspects of writing that they'll want to go to the instrumental beats at the end and write their own songs on top of those.
ST: What did you do to celebrate after you won your Grammy?
23: Man, you know what, after so much connecting, I was just kind of an introvert. I went home and I said, okay, I wanna buy two things. I wanna buy a bed that's comfortable enough for me to start to sleep about 11 hours a night and I wanna buy an espresso machine that can wake me up afterwards.
You know, that was an amazing moment. One of the coolest parts of that was when I started the band with my daughter, she was six years old and she was the first student of me teaching how to get up on stage and how to do the thing. We got to perform on stages. We performed at Lollapalooza together. We performed Austin City Limits. We performed at the Smithsonian, we got to fly to Canada, and then 10 years later when she's 16, we got to walk up on stage together and she got to grab the Grammy, and it's like, amazing things can happen if you put your energy into them, but they don't just happen only because you put your belief into them.
ST: Could you talk a little bit about what it's like working with your wife in your music?
23: It was basically a family effort from the beginning, where my wife would go on tour. Actually this is a funny story. So originally, my wife was there more sort of as support than anything else. She's a fantastic dancer. She's trained in African dance and ballet and all that. She's a yoga teacher and actually has her own yoga school. Look up the Wild Temple, wildtemple.com, and you can check her out.
So originally she'd come and basically dance, but we had this one gig offer at one point. I came home and I said, "So check it out. We have this offer to fly just two people. It was just me and somebody else out to Paso Robles in California, which is this big wine town. They're gonna put us up in this house in the middle of town. They're gonna give us free passes to all the nicest restaurants in town. They're gonna take us to a winery, and then they're gonna give us wine and then we're gonna play the show, and it also happens to be on our anniversary. So either we could teach you to sing real quick, or I'm gonna have to go with the dude that sings the songs. So what do you say?"
She's like a sing-in-the-shower type. Beautiful voice. But as far as getting up on stage, that's a whole 'nother thing. But through that situation and through us walking on the beach in California for the days up until that show, cramming and just practicing, she got her sea legs and she got up on stage and she crushed it.
After that, for years, we would travel with her. She'd be singing, she'd be dancing, I'd be rapping. Our daughter, Saki, would be rapping, and it's cool 'cause it's like having these family vacations in that sense where we get to go places all over the United States and up into Canada and to be able to have at the center of it these performances with total celebrations. It was just really, really cool.
ST: Obviously, a lot of the inspiration for your music is from family and you thinking about kids. Who is this listen Word is Born for? Who's the kid or the adult or the family that's going to get the most out of this?
23: I tried to write this in such a way where it's not just for kids but also young adults and older children, because I think that's what that mentality of still growing is all about: are you shuffling your personality and your identity with all the new experiences that you're bringing in? I think as long as somebody has that element to them, as long as they're trying to continue to evolve, and they're enthusiastic and excited about how many just wild experiences there are out in the world, then this book is for them. The point of this is really taking in all the inspiration from all these stories and the very idea of storytelling and its power from all over the world and throughout history, and then finding yourself in that inspiration, and having the technique and the ability then to take that inspiration and turn it into your own song.
Telling your story through song is the most elemental thing that humans have. That's in a lot of ways what our civilization is based on. So the point of this book is really to convince people of that, show them that, let them feel some of that power from all over the globe. And like I say, throughout history, through 77 generations, the West African griot, or through 50,000 years of Australian Indigenous songline culture, and really bring that to where we're all related and connected in that way through story, through song, and then be able to tell their own story through song. So yeah, anybody with the open enough mind and open enough heart to do that, it's projects for them.
ST: It felt like a true celebration of culture and paying respect to the roots of a lot of the music that many of us grew up loving.
23: Yeah, absolutely. I'm a white dude from a relatively small town. So for me being in hip-hop culture, I understand that I'm a guest, glad to be at the table. I'm also a guest to the other cultures that we're talking about, but I feel lucky to be able to sit down with people and have real conversations with them and learn from those experiences. The interconnectivity of stories and songs across the planet, that's a big part of this project. I think right now in this moment in history, especially in the Western world, we're very concerned with being an individual, very concerned with who I am and what I'm about, and sort of like the limits where my personality is, but really I think more than anything, song and culture will always teach us it's interconnectivity that answers a lot of those questions truly.
ST: I love that idea, the overlap between identity and community.
23: Yeah, that's it. It's really the only way to get to any place where we hungered to get to as individuals. All the things that we buy, all the things that we hope for, all the things that we're afraid of in a way, those come from the void that is left by not having the connectivity of community. So it's not like you can snap your fingers and return to a time where we have more of that, but by understanding that that is something that you want and something that you need.
ST: Listening to the way you talk about this is so passionate and creative. You're like a human quote machine. I love it.
23: Oh, thank you, man. I appreciate it. I got deep into this project and I was kind of having my own existential crisis that happened in the middle of a project. As an art school dropout, I never had the college experience, and a friend of mine who has multiple masters was like, "Yeah, you don't really know this 'cause you haven't been through this, but you know what you're doing right now?" And I was like, "What am I doing?" He was like, "You're writing your thesis. That's what you're doing."
Telling your story through song is the most elemental thing that humans have.
This is why I'm linking together things like rhyme writing and Indigenous Australian songline culture that goes back 50,000 years. Why else would you weave a tapestry like this unless you're trying to express your whole self and your whole kind of philosophy, you know? I'm glad that it comes across as a piece that's cohesive, because I really was trying to put everything that inspires me into one project.
ST: The last thing I want to know is: what's next for you? What's after Word is Born?
23: Part of what this did is it spawned a sister project in the middle of it where I did a collaboration with the Asheville Symphony where I found folktales from all over the world and then we found Bach pieces that resonated with them. We reimagined the Bach compositions as hip-hop songs played on the Indigenous instruments of wherever the folktale originated. This is called The Beat Bach Symphonies, and it's actually on Spotify.
So what we're doing right now is we're taking that and we're expanding that into a curriculum for elementary school kids that we're going to roll out at the beginning of this school year free to everybody in the Asheville area, and then we're going to go ahead and license it to other people across the country and maybe even further than that. I feel like I'm going to keep doing it in some sense. I don't know exactly what that is yet, but for now it's creating this curriculum. As to what's next, who knows, man. I'm going to just keep walking down this path basically.
ST: Well, that's something else. Thanks a lot for making time. It's been a lot of fun to hear you talk about life and music and Word is Born.
23: Cool. I appreciate it very much and, yeah, I'm really excited about this project coming out. So thanks for shining a light on it.
ST: Yeah, my pleasure, man.
23: All right. Peace.
ST: And thank you, listeners. You can check out Word is Born on Audible right now.