The Unlikely Rise of 23 Skidoo, Psychedelic Children’s Hip Hop Mogul

Had you told a young Joel Sullivan he would grow up to be California's most prominent Grammy Award-winning hip hop star, he would have believed you.

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Had you told a young Joel Sullivan — now known professionally Secret Agent 23 Skidoo — he would grow up to be California’s most prominent Grammy Award-winning children’s hip hop mogul, he would have looked at you sideways and believed you. As a boy in Columbus, Indiana, a speck of a town in the south of the state known for its unusually high concentration of modernist architecture, Skidoo knew he was going to do something different somewhere else. “It was boring and oppressive and I knew I had to leave.” At sixteen,  Skidoo left home and began riding the rails. He hitchhiked across America. Wherever he landed, he ingratiated himself with freestyle rappers and funk musicians. Skidoo, who had grown up listening to golden age hip hop, had a quick mind and a slow flow.

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Eventually, he wound his way to Asheville, where he formed a band known as GFE. Though technically GFE is an acronym for Granola Funk Express, Skidoo makes understood, the letters can stand for many things. His suggestions? Great Fucking Energy, Guinness For Everyone, Geometry From Egypt, Granola Funky Express, and Go Fuck Erself.  The band, which he describes as a kind of “white psychedelic cross between Parliament Funk and Wu-Tang” was big to begin with–Skidoo was one of three emcees–but pretty rapidly got bigger in the hype sense. Pretty soon they were touring nationally

The band had followers, but a white psychedelic funk band didn’t go without haters, especially in Asheville.

“We had so many,” says Skidoo, “Once, while we were playing an outdoor show, someone pulled the plug. But we kept on going.” It just went with the territory. After all, he says, “the neighbors don’t complain if you don’t make noise.”

For years, Skidoo toured with GFE. He married a dancer, yogi, and doula named Brooke, and had a daughter, Saki. He moved to Grass Valley, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Though GFE continued to play and to tour, the conflagration of personalities — “staking your destiny with 13 crazy people” is how he describes the experience — and the fact that his daughter was growing up without him forced a pivot point. Skidoo saw the roads before him, the endless interstate of possibilities.

“I killed with two birds with one stone,” explains Skidoo. “I stopped touring as much and began to make music for my daughter.”

The song that will make Cactus Skidoo a household name, that will ensure a future for his daughter and wife, and probably get him a nice house with a pool and maybe even a pool house, comes from his fourth album, 2014’s The Perfect Quirk. The song, which is being turned into a feature film by Jeremy Renner’s production company, The Combine, is unusually ontologically complex for a children’s song.

Skidoo calls “Imaginary Friend,” which mixes up style cribbed from, a mix of klezmer, sea shanties and dark hip hop, pirate funk, but thematically it’s a Cliff Notes version of Spinoza’s interrogation into the nature of being. “Oh my imaginary friend says I’m the imaginary friend/which means I’m imaginary then/if he’s right and I’m really not sure that he’s wrong/so I might be made up of the words of this song.” Back and forth the narrator and the imaginary friend argue about who is a figment of whom as Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, a funk outfit with whom Skidoo often performs, goes to town. Eventually they settle that the real and the imaginary can — and indeed must — coexist.

Mind fucks given.

It turns out Skidoo has been concerned about the multiverse for a long time, or “the swirly nature of reality,” for a long time. “Everything from dreams to meditation all suggests the possibility of other dimensions and the ability to cross over,” he says. “That’s a pervasive theme about being human.”

There is something fitting about the klezmer hook prefacing the chorus. Couched in the music of Eastern European jewry, it gives the track a vaguely scholarly and discursive tone. At the same time, the Phrygian dominant scale on which klezmer is based is the same scale used in Indian ragas, which gives the whole thing some Eastern flare–appropriate given that the multiverse is dogma in much of that part of the world. But whatever. It’s a good song and Jeremy Renner heard it on the radio — SiriusXM’s KidsXM has a corner on the kids music market — and his kids apparently loved it.  Now it’s going to be a movie.

These days, Skidoo, who frequently wears a velvet top hat and always sports mutton chops and a goatee, is hard at work elongating the ideas of the three-minute song into a full movie. There are pickles. There are pirates. There are more songs to write. But, through it all, Skidoo says, he hasn’t stopped asking himself what is real and what is not.

“The gateway to the magical realm is before me,” he says. ” All I have to do is find the courage to leave the door open.”

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