Even when he dropped out of high school at 16, hopped trains and hitchhiked his way out of Southern Indiana, the man known to friends and fans today as Cactus believed he was on a mission.
“I didn’t run away, I ran to,” Cactus said. “I always knew there was more out there and I wanted to find it as quickly as possible.”
Cactus is the founding ringmaster of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, an amorphous, horn-based funk hip-hop band with music written for families with young kids. Skidoo won a Grammy Award in 2016 for Best Children's Album.
The band just released its second album in collaboration with the Asheville Symphony. And Cactus has a new audiobook, his first, designed for young people, to teach personal and cultural storytelling through songcraft. Secret Agent 23 Skidoo performs on the second night of the LEAF Downtown Festival in Asheville, Aug. 28.
“The book and the symphony project, those are like binary stars,” Cactus said. “Both of these projects have been a process of me understanding how to interact with culture. Myself, as a white kid from southern Indiana, trying to dive into the world and figure out how I can correctly be a guest at the table of these cultures and collaborate in a way that is lifting them up more than talking about me.”
Cactus found his way to Asheville 25 years ago, became a street musician before the busking scene exploded and played the djembe and ashiko drums in Granola Funk Express, a jam band that caught national traction. At one point, the band had five vocalists and two drummers. In performance, musicians would often swap instruments, at times mid-song.
“You just see this mob on stage,” he recalled. “That sorta chaos was what inspired us.”
Once Cactus and his wife had a daughter, Cactus determined never to tour again without his family, and he hit upon a musical concept that solved the problem. He carried over what he calls the “magical storytelling” and social justice underpinnings of Granola Funk Express into words tailored for younger ears.
"When you have a kid, all of the sudden you’re seeing this the way that a 5-year-old sees them for the first time since you were five. It just laces the world with magic in that way,” he said. “I was like, if I can translate that into the format of rhymes and funk and all this instrumentation in Asheville that’s happening at the same time, it just seemed like it would be powerful. We were trying to create a scene where kids could be expressing themselves fully but also parents can be there having conversations and be as into the music as kids were.”
Secret Agent 23 Skidoo found an audience right out of the gate. Cactus toured with his wife and daughter—performing at Lollapalooza, in Australia and at a family festival in India. Cactus also taught rhyme-writing workshops all over North America and Australia. He said the success heightened his sense of responsibility as an artist.
“If your kid loves a Pixar movie, they watch it over and over. They really absorb it. We knew it would be the same thing when it came to hip-hop lyricism,” Cactus said. “We’d put an album out, go do shows and we had kids in the front who knew the words to everything.”
The Asheville Symphony and Cactus first collaborated in 2017 around the music of Mozart. The symphony approached Cactus again this past year, this time spinning off the music of Bach. For Cactus, who had been studying ancient African Griot culture, the new project opened the door for him to invite vocalists from West Africa, Peru, Japan, Egypt and the Cherokee Nation to bring their voices and folk tales into the mix.
Cactus mashed up hip-hop rhythms and the orchestra’s performances of select Bach compositions to create the bed of the album, titled “Beat Bach Symphonies.”
“I didn’t want to only show that these stories existed mostly before America even existed, but to draw the throughline between how these cultures created a lot of what we consider to be American culture,” he said. “West African culture created the rhythms that eventually became hip-hop, and eventually became pretty much all of American music. So not only do we have that song, but then we have conversations with the musicians involved about ‘How did African culture influence United States culture?’”