By the '90s, however, kids' program producers lost that groovy, bell-bottomed, "I'm OK, you're OK" edge and brought us a certain purple dinosaur. With a host of goody-two-shoes characters (Tickle Me Elmo, Teletubbies, Thomas the Tank Engine) flooding the airwaves, where's a cool kid supposed to turn to learn (preferably in rhyming verse) those important life lessons?
Local hip-hop artist Cactus has the answer. Deeming himself the "anti-Barney," this long-time GFE collaborator has just released Easy (2007), a hip-hop album for kids.
His tag line, "Kids' hip-hop that's actually good ... no, seriously," pretty much sums up the effort. From the disc's opening tracks, it's apparent that this is no sing-songy "I love you, you love me." Instead, the album is rife with complex rhythms, sophisticated chord progressions and fast-paced verse with minimal predictability -- not to mention dragons, robots and mermaids.
"As a parent, it's hard to find kid music that doesn't annoy you," explains Cactus (aka Agent 23, and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo). His own daughter was 5 when he started work on Easy, and she appears on one song, holding her own in a family-oriented rap.
"That's one of the big points of this," he continues. "The beats need to be good enough that a true hip-hop aficionado can listen to the drum sounds, listen to the delivery and be like, 'OK, well regardless of anything, that's good.' Then they can play that repetitively in the car or in the house."
After 10 years of writing and performing hip-hop, Cactus realized that the rhythms appealed to children and provided the perfect medium for telling stories and imparting lessons. The catch: "You either have the stuff coming on the radio which is way too graphic for kids," Cactus says, "or you have what is considered positive hip-hop, which is awesome music, but the kids aren't going to understand the concepts involved."
So, he set about writing child-friendly songs and involving local musicians (Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band, Strut and Caroline Pond, among others) to record 12 genre-busting tunes the artist coins as "kid-hop."
The flagship song for the project, the rollicking "Gotta Be Me," is a "Free to Be ... You and Me" for the new millennium. "Some are young like you, some are old like your grandpa, some frown, some are jolly like Santa. There's a lot of colors and ways to be, but I can't be them, no, I gotta be me," the song tells us.
"Cliches don't really exist for kids," Cactus muses. "As far as building a kid's self esteem or [teaching] them to look at life positively, you always walk a fine line there. But honestly, people who think that's cheesy are kind of cynical anyway. I don't really worry about that."
He also isn't worried about parents questioning his adult work with GFE, insisting that he stands behind all the hip-hop he's created. "I think they're very symbiotic. They work together and are all positive," Cactus says. In fact, he considers kids' music one direction in which he plans to continue.
Along with Easy, the hip-hop artist is launching a Web site, childstyle.org. Online, parents can buy songs and download pages from a children's book Cactus previously wrote (What it's Like in the Stars is also available at Malaprop's).
"As an artist, if you're going to write a horror novel or something, you have to spend a year or however long in that world," Cactus says. "In order to do a kids' album you're going to dedicate however long in that world, which is a beautiful, awesome place to spend time."
Look for Easy at Harvest Records and Enviro Depot.
who: Secret Agent 23 Skidoo Presents the Easy tour
what: Hip-hop for kids with a sound that's all grown up
where: Evergreen Community Charter School gymnasium, 50 Bell Rd. (Saturday, Dec. 8. 3-5 p.m. with Red Herring Puppets and Josh Blake. $5. 298-2173)
where: Asheville Arts Center, 308 Merrimon Ave. (Sunday, Dec. 9. 5-7 p.m. with Jason Krekel and Joe'tse Adams. $5. 253-4000)
where: Mellow Mushroom, 50 Broadway St., Asheville (Saturday, Dec. 15. 2-4 p.m. with Red Herring Puppets and Josh Blake. 236-9800)