That saying (often inaccurately attributed to John F. Kennedy) rang in my head while I listened to The Beat Bach Symphonies, the new mashup of hip-hop with world and classical music, crafted by Grammy winner Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. The project features the Asheville, North Carolina Symphony and a number of global performers representing West Africa, Peru, Japan, Egypt, and the native North American Cherokee Nation.
After seven full-length albums, 14 EPs, a vinyl record, and a pair of books, Cactus (Skidoo) needed new mountains to climb. Luckily he found a host of guides from different cultures, delighted to share their folk stories and incorporate them into the music in his head, for this go-round based on melodies by German baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Cactus’s thesis matched folktales with structurally similar Bach tunes. Assisted by his collaborators, they crafted the lyrics to remain faithful to their origins, merging indigenous instrumentation with modern hip-hop beats.
Rather than respectfully borrow the musical stylings from these individual musicians and storytellers, Cactus invited them into his playground. Recognizing that these stories came from their societies, Cactus took the role of guest and let his co-songwriters deliver the narratives. The diverse cast of The Beat Bach Symphonies includes Iranian-American rapper E-Turn (“Chasing Dreams”), Cherokee Nation storyteller John John Grant Jr. (flute and narration on “Origin Story”), and Peruvian rapper QosqoRuna (“Graveyard Shift”), among others.
There’s a finite amount of story content that one can distribute in a four-minute setting, while still maintaining the entirety of its significant message. “Chasing Dreams” is a Middle Eastern tale dating back more than 1,000 years. Peruvian folklore is examined in “Graveyard Shift,” as a young woman uses a cemetery to test her suitors. The 2020 pandemic is lightly touched on during “Origin Story,” a Cherokee fable about a planetary disease and how mankind reacts to it. Can you steal a delicious smell? That’s the focus of the comical West African-based “Common Scents.” The Japanese legend “Looking Back” closes the lyrical section of the release, with koto player Kozue Matsumoto wistfully recounting how the power of love transcends death and helps us survive through tough times. The five original tracks are followed by instrumentals that allow listeners to hear the full scope of the arrangements.
Cactus is just dipping his toe in the multicultural pool with The Beat Bach Symphonies. His master thesis is a full program for elementary school children that he hopes to roll out this September. He has already recorded a rhyme-writing workshop (complete with worksheets and beats) and intends to deliver lesson plans where kids can hear performers speak firsthand about how their diverse cultural upbringings shaped their storytelling and musical sensibilities. We can all celebrate the release of new music from Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. Cactus shares the success of The Beat Bach Symphonies with a large group of people from around the world. That’s not classical, that’s just classy.