chrome ball sits down with pangstarr for conversation.
Alright Jeff, let’s start this off by talking about one of the most legendary crews of all-time, the mighty Shut posse. How did you get hooked up with those guys? I’m guessing that was your first big sponsor…
Those were the golden days of skateboarding in New York City right there. Things were so grimy and real back then. And the scene, we pretty much knew every skateboarder for hundreds of miles.
Everyone would congregate at the Brooklyn Banks for ESA contests. I remember one contest in particular that Mike V was at, Coco Santiago called me out to him while we were skating a curb drop. That’s just how it was back then. We were all so hungry and excited about skateboarding that it was all we did. And we’d always skate so hard during those contests. That’s really where the Shut crew came out in force.
I ended up getting sponsored by this shop called Skate NYC with my good friends Kenny Usanamont and Peter Huynh. This was also around the time that we had built a vert ramp in this wealthy kid’s backyard in my Brooklyn neighborhood. It was called Ben's ramp and was located adjacent to what is now the B-Train tracks. Eventually the vert was cut down making it into a mini-ramp and, since it was pretty much the only ramp in all of New York City, people used to come out of the woodwork to skate it. Jeremy Henderson and Jamie Alfamato (a.k.a. Puppethead) came out to skate the ramp and we just ended up hitting it off really well. I started skating with Jeremy almost every day after that and he ended up becoming something like a mentor/godfather to me. He started giving me boards and eventually, I was on the team.
I remember Shut Co-Founder Bruno Musso telling me that before I got on the team, I should start lying about my age because I was already 16 and still not sponsored. But that was before he saw me skate. Once he finally saw me, I got on shortly after.
With Shut being such an underground and very-localized company, was the process to get on more of a homie-type scenario or was it more strict than that? I imagine with everybody from New York wanting on, it had to be pretty selective.
Well, that was the way I got on… and basically only the best of the best got on. It wasn’t easy. And one thing you have to remember is that back then, everyone in New York City had a larger-than-life personality which actually became another deciding factor after a while.
Pretty much the only other person that got on the team during that era after me was Harold Hunter. Now were talking about personality!
But for such a small brand, Shut’s reputation definitely preceded it. Did you guys even realize the impact your company was having on a national-level? I know dudes like Thiebaud, Stranger and Howell were really feeling the brand…
We didn't really know it at the time but when guys started leaving to ride for bigger companies, it became apparent. And at the same time, Rick I got on Shut from all the way out West… although we never met in person until the Underworld Element days. So it was easy to see after a while and it is an honor to know that those guys looked up to what we were doing in New York City.
From an insider’s view, what was it like riding in the Shut Posse back then? Was it as much the tight-knit squad it seemed? Was product pretty much hand-to-mouth with the company? I can’t imagine there was much to go around. Were they still cutting boards by hand on the roof or had they already moved passed that by the time you got on?
Going on tour the few times that we did, we all got along really well. Of course, we’d all be sharing one hotel room if we were lucky. And if not, we were sleeping on random floors but that’s just how it was. One thing that sticks out from back then is thinking how interesting of a person Sean Sheffey was, yet terrifying at the same time. That dude had so much power…and still does.
When I first started hanging out at Shut, they were still cutting the boards by hand in their warehouse space on Mott Street. But once the boards started getting distributed by Jimmy George, their office moved out of there and into the 3rd subbasement of that building.
It’s pretty crazy because the Beastie Boys had a rehearsal space just a couple doors down and you could actually hear them playing when we were in the office. I think there’s a video of them walking through that door on Mott Street and then going down 3 flights of stairs to their rehearsal space. That was right by us.
But yeah, I had to do an internship for my business class during my senior year of high school. Obviously, I did it at Shut. Little did my career counselor know that when I left school at 10 in the morning for my internship, I would just go hang out for 20 minutes and then skate the rest of the day.
My career counselor even told me when she was coming to visit so I had to make sure that I was in the office at that particular time. Some little 65-year-old Italian woman going into a 3rd sub-level basement to see some high school kid doing his internship at a skateboard company? You think she’d be freaked out but she was so enthusiastic about me doing the internship there because she knew how much I was into skateboarding.
So many Shut kids went on to reach full-on legendary status… But on the flipside of that, who’s a Shut rider you remember being super dope that never really made it? I always thought Mike Kepper should’ve been enormous… and we’ve all heard Bici talk about Brian Blake.
Quilon Douglas and Jamal Simmons are two more as well. Jamal actually got the cover of Transworld once. He was our East Coast-version of Ray Barbee, a manual and technical wizard of finger flips and all things having to do with balance. I haven’t seen him in years but I know he’s an amazing writer now.
Quilon had the most amazing style and was always at the forefront of everything that was happening trick-wise in skateboarding. I remember he had that crazy sequence of him doing a backflip in Thrasher. He got into some trouble then spent a few years in prison and I believe he now lives in Alabama and just had a daughter. We communicate from time-to-time on Facebook.
One dude I always heard stories about was Billy Waldman. I definitely remember the phrase “East Coast Guy Mariano” getting thrown around back when Ban This came out. Why do you think Rocco did him like that in Rubbish Heap?
Billy was always really good but nothing compares to Guy!
I don't know why that happened to him in the Rubbish Heap. He just always found himself in the middle of craziness. The phrase “just can't get a break” unfortunately comes to mind.
He’s had his issues over the years but he is a really good person. I just saw him and his two daughters on Instagram in a photo posted by Steven Cales. I hope he’s doing well and clean.
We’ve already touched on him a bit but I’ve always been fascinated by the vibe of Jeremy Henderson and his Ludlow studio back in the day. What was it like skating with him and hanging out in such a creative space at such a young age? Jeremy seemed to have such a huge influence on just about everybody back then… he was basically the Godfather of NYC.
Man, Jeremy was absolutely the godfather/guru of New York City skateboarding in the late-80s and early-90s. Like I said, I first met him at Ben’s Ramp in Brooklyn when I was 14. I already knew of him because was a pro for the infamous Shut Skates but he looked out for us from that day on and opened up his home as if we were relatives.
Myself and Peter Huynh started staying over at Jeremy’s house constantly after that. We spent countless hours in his apartment which was this crazy breeding ground of creativity. We’d spend hours painting on cardboard and paper bags, doing woodcarvings or even burning designs into Driftwood. So much fun. Then we’d hang out, drink 40s of Olde English and listen to his stories of touring Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and doing demos for oil sheiks. Plus, Jeremy had the most extensive record collection of hip-hop, jazz, and reggae. He’d play music into the wee hours of the morning.
And his place was the landing pad for every professional skateboarder that came to NYC back then. It was pretty insane because you’d wake up one day and Mark Gonzales and Jason Lee would be there having coffee. You just never knew what was going to go down. We could be hanging out, listening to music and drinking beer and then suddenly turn it into some crazy skate session going until 7 in the morning. And this was back when the LES was not such a friendly place. Back in the days when the corner of Ludlow and Stanton Street was awarded the busiest drug spot in all of America… now it’s the L.E.S. of Bourbon Street.
The Shut team got picked pretty clean there towards the end. Were you bummed to see old Shut heads with different sponsors? And weren’t you even asked by Jason Lee to join Blind back in the day? What made you stay with Shut? Weren’t you even a little curious about going with a big California company back then?
Of course, I was curious but I didn't really know what I would get out of riding for a bigger company back then. I’ve always stayed loyal to my sponsors… which has translated into my professional life as well with working for Zoo for over a decade as a teamrider, team manager, and doing their marketing; and now I’ve been with DC shoes for over 7 years.
But yeah, when World Industries came to town with Ron Chatman, Jeremy Klein and Randy Colvin, I ended up travelling locally with them to all their demos. Jason Lee was also with them for part of that tour and we became pretty close. He did approach me about Blind. He said he was going to tell Mark to put me on, but like an ignorant kid, I told him that I was down for Shut Skates. Who knows? Maybe if I would have said yes, I could've been in Video Days? I do think there are tricks in Jason's part that I feel I inspired…. especially that backside 180 fakie manual. And I’m saying that with a wink from Pang to J.Lee.
But what do you think ended-up happening to Shut during its first run? Beyond their unwillingness to evolve past spoon noses…
Yeah, the owners were pretty stubborn and didn’t want to evolve past that spoon nose. I actually got to skate a sample board that they’d gotten from Schmitt Stix with a double-kick nose…. Rodney Smith reluctantly let me skate it and I couldn't believe how much better the board performed.
But there was also some bad business deals that were made with people in Ohio that hurt Shut as well. Again, the industry was still in the infancy of street skating and a little hardgoods company out of New York City could be easily taken advantage of.
So I know after Shut’s demise, you started doing some electrical work and weren’t really trying to fuck with skateboarding anymore. Did you quit skating completely during this time?
I never really stopped skating completely when they went under but I was working full-time as an electrician. I was already doing electrical work while Shut was still in business, but once they went under, I pretty much gave up my hopes about doing anything with skateboarding. That was for the span of a year or two before I got back into traveling because of skateboarding.
How did Underworld Element enter the picture? And what did you think of Andy’s “urban” concepts for the company? Did you see where he was trying to go with all that stuff back then or were you just happy to have a sick new sponsor? A lot of what he was doing seemed definitely based on the Shut vibe…
I first met Andy through Jeremy Henderson, of course. Andy was actually the first professional skateboarder I had ever met, outside of Jeremy. But it was one of those trips where Andy was staying at Jeremy’s house when he told me how he wanted to start a new company and that he wanted me to be one of the first teamriders.
I had no idea that it would come to fruition, but as far as the vibe went, it was exactly based on our lifestyles. Me living in New York City, I was all about hip-hop. And Andy seemed be the same exact way, just living in Atlanta. There was nothing strange or out of the ordinary but I can see where he drew a lot of his inspiration from the streets of New York City and Shut.
The original Element line-up consisted of a few former New Deal guys, Julien Stranger and you. Was it difficult coming into that situation after focusing only on electrical work for months prior? I know the squad all came together at Andy’s and hung out with the Anarchist’s Cookbook. That had to be fun. Was it instantly a good vibe?
We all met at the Atlanta airport when we first came together. Julien Stranger had been my favorite skateboarder since the first time I saw Sick Boys and I remember being pretty starstruck by him… even though he was just another skateboarder and probably as socially-awkward as the rest of us. But Rick I was definitely on my kind of level.
The Cookbook stuff was a good time. If we would’ve been the doing all that nowadays, we would definitely be on the news.
How was it filming for your first big part in Skypager? Were you stoked to finally be getting some shit out there or did you have to get used to filming and the pressure? That backside flip over the wall is classic.
Back then, we didn't film much because the majority of coverage was print-based. So yeah, having a video camera around was a lot more pressure. We didn't have any trick lists or outlines of what we needed to do for our parts, we just went out filming on different trips and tours and got what we got. When it was time to edit the video, you worked with what you had.
I remember Josh Friedberg and Rick I working on that video a lot. That's why Rick was in the editing room when his part started, bouncing the basketball off the wall and into the hoop.
I was definitely happy with the video as I didn't really have anything else to compare it to. The feeling of the video was perfect for the time… as it seems like in the early-90s, everyone walked around with glasses filtering the world in hi-8 as opposed to HD.
I was happy with the backside flip as that was shot the first time I ever tried it and I landed it relatively easy. Backside flips were my go-to trick, although I wish it could have been filmed better. But I was really happy with the way the sequence came out in the UE advertisement.
What’s the gnarliest thing you ever saw someone do over the Brooklyn Banks wall anyway?
Man, there's so many memories of stuff going down over the wall but I think the craziest thing was Loki ollieng over the wall at the furthest point possible towards the big banks. He pretty much ollied over the wall on the right-hand side of the planter which defies the laws of physics. I still have no idea how he got enough speed to do that.
Insane. So what ended up happening with Element between the time Skypager came out and Fine Artists? The entire original team basically vanished. Was that all due to Andy’s retirement or what?
Honestly, I don't know what the plans were for the team but what I do know is that we did film a good amount of stuff for the Fine Artists video. I borrowed Andy's camera for a few weeks and got a lot of stuff… probably some of the best stuff I have ever filmed.
What happened was one day, Harold Hunter asked to borrow the video camera. We met him in Washington Square Park and I hand off the camera bag to him before skating over together to another spot a couple blocks away. We’re there for a couple of minutes when I see a good friend of mine and started talking to him. Next thing I know, I see Harold coming up to us and I look to where Harold had placed the video camera and it was gone. Apparently someone picked up the bag and jumped in a car with the camera and all the hi-8 tapes.
Yeah, it would be awesome to have an archive of all of that lost content. But it was about a week after that, I got the call from Steve Douglas wanting to sever ties. Being on the East Coast, I wasn’t so involved in the political side of things but there definitely seemed to be some sketchy stuff going on in the background. I wasn't at all upset about it though, as I was already really good friends with the guys at Zoo and was planning on making the move anyway.
In all honesty, with the company becoming so vastly different than what it originally started out as, do you even consider yourself a former Element rider? Or will you always see Underworld Element and Element as forever separate entities?
I consider myself to be a part of the original Element team, which at its core is Underworld Element. We forged the trail that eventually led to the mall and its acquisition by Billabong… but I'm not holding my breath for Johnny to send me a check anytime soon.
But their team is amazing, Nyjah and Evan Smith are so damn good, and to have people like Barley and Colt working there says a lot.
What was the story behind Cream? I always loved the look of that brand but it never really took off. Wasn’t that just another one of those Experience brands that should’ve been huge but imploded?
Cream was a brand that was ahead of its time. It was the first brand to bring more of a sporting/athletic feeling to skateboarding and you can see its design aesthetic still in skateboarding to this day. The brand did very well but the person running the distribution used the resources we generated to fund other projects, like FIT, and it just ended up not panning out.
You were also a notable peripheral character in Kids that came out around this time. What was shooting that like and how much fun was it on set with your crew? Was that stuff mostly improvised?
The way that whole thing unfolded was through Mark Gonzales knowing Larry Clark. Mark happened to be staying there one time with Micke Reyes, Tobin Yelland, and Julien. Those guys were all coming down and hanging out with us in Washington Square Park and Larry started coming by as well to shoot photographs of us. We were just doing our thing, whether it was smoking, drinking beer or skating. But this is where Larry met Harmony and a couple months later, they decided they were going to make a movie together.
The film did have a script, but the script was based largely on our daily life… besides the whole virgin hunt-thing and the hate crimes against homosexuals.
Always wondered... how much of JustinPierce (RIP) was in Casper?
The character that Justin played was so compelling because it was really Justin just being himself.
With all those dudes suddenly being thrown on the set of a film like that, was it as fun as it seemed? Any particular stories stand out from filming that thing?
It’s basically that whole particular time period that stands out, nothing in particular but the whole time period that was captured and frozen in history. It was all so true to life… except for the sensationalized part about HIV that made it a movie. But it was almost as if life just continued on after the camera stopped rolling… or it was rolling while we were living our lives and just put into a movie. What a screwed-up reality show we would’ve made back in those days.
Thank goodness we had the opportunity to live our lives without everything getting captured and posted on the Internet for all to see within seconds.
Very true. Now was Mixtape a full-on project for the Zoo team that everybody was filming for or was it a little looser… almost like a pieced-together kinda thing? Reports vary. What was your headspace like while filming that thing? An amazing part but I know you retired not too long after it was released…
I really never planned out a video part and it probably shows. The video worked out organically for myself because it was just pieced together. I’d meet RB and go on random filming missions and that’s how we did it.
I didn't feel like I was running out of gas but I did feel that there were other people deserved the opportunity more than I did. I wasn't skating as much and I knew I had other opportunities outside of being a “professional skateboarder”.
You were definitely still ripping… were you just over it?
I was already the unofficial team equalizer and the opportunity came up to become the team manager, so despite the fact that Harold and myself were selling more boards than anyone on Zoo York at the time, I decided to hang it up. It just wouldn't be right for me to tell people that they had to skate more when I was doing the complete opposite. Even though now that I’m a parent, I have no problem telling my kid don't do as I do, just do what I say.
Give us your best Harold Hunter story.
One of my favorite Harold Hunter stories is the one where he’s walking the streets of the LES with Todd Jordan. They're on their way somewhere when Todd tells Harold that he has to mail something. They walk to a mailbox and as Todd drops his letter in, Harold just looks at him in astonishment and says, “Get the fuck outta here! That works!?”
I think in Harold’s mind he thought that the letter was somehow delivered to it’s destination through a wormhole, not knowing that a postman comes by every day to pick up the mail and brings it to the post office.
Classic. So talk a little about UXA Lab and this Zered collabo you guys have going on. I know UXA has been around for a minute but it really seems to have upped the ante in the last few months. How would you describe the company and what its trying to accomplish in a sea of other skate brands? And how did the Zered guestboard end up getting into the mix?
The project has been going on for quite some time now. It's something that Peter Bici, Peter Huynh, and I started when we were still quite active as professional skateboarders. That was a time when streetwear was emerging and I feel that we are the very first brand with authentic roots in New York City skateboarding. Although there are others that might claim this nowadays, we were the first by far and have a true right to this claim. But hats off to everyone else that's had the time and resources to continue doing it, as the three of us were forced to pursue other career paths in order to make ends meet.
But speaking with people like Diamond that are super successful in the field, Nick was just telling me at Agenda how UXA has every right to be on top of the game more than anyone else out there. I appreciate that everyone notices that. And things are in the works, thanks to effort and sacrifices of one of the most-talented designers out there, Peter Huynh.
The Zered Bassett collaboration happened pretty organically. He has been down with us forever and it just made sense. Just to putting the word out about the board through Instagram and social media was extremely effective, and Peter Huynh’s direction of the commercials was terrific.
Did they catch you by surprise doing Zered like that? What are you feelings on Zoo’s current direction?
Honestly, it’s pretty sad to see where it is now. Although I will say that them having people like Westgate and Ortiz does help keep the hope alive, the way they handled Dr. Z and Eli says a lot about what is wrong with the brand.
At the end of the day, I work for a big company whose roots are in skateboarding and they use a lot of resources to make sure that they maintain that authenticity and focus at the core of the brand. Zoo York needs to take note of that and look at what other brands are doing to stay relevant and authentic in skateboarding. It’s quite a simple formula: don’t forget where you came from, as it is what got you there and it’s what will keep you there.
As their former team manager, Zoo definitely made some questionable calls in the face of rising popularity. Was there a final straw for you? You had to be bummed on the Ashton Kutcher ads…
I stuck around with the brand because of my dedication to what it stood for in the 90’s. But I was approached by other brands and their offers were too good to refuse so I had to move on. Even though Zoo did counter, I felt that I was underappreciated for so long that things wouldn’t really change that much for the better unless I kept threatening to move on. So instead of working in an environment like that, I started working for DC Shoes… where it has been quite a rollercoaster ride as well but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
But the Ashton Kutcher thing didn't bother me at all. One of the founders of Zoo, Eli Gesner, was good friends with Ashton and it felt more like a parody of where the brand was going since being purchased by Ecko. I was at the shoot that day and Ashton Kutcher was actually doing frontside pop-shuvs on the set… so he must’ve skateboarded in the past. And I have to admit that it was pretty surreal to have Demi Moore show up to that photo shoot as well. Trust me, it was like nothing I had ever seen in skateboarding before, even though it’s a staple now.
However, I was not at the back-alley photo shoot in Philadelphia where Pharrell was doing inverts with the Neptunes. That was another weird one in that series.
Most effective tactic or best strategy you’ve found for handling riders as Team Manager?
Threats of violence and no per diem.
Nice. So coming from an OG standpoint, what’s your view on the contemporary NYC scene? What’s your take on cellar doors, Max Fish, out-of-towner tourism and the overall feeling that the skateboarding public-at-large doesn’t give a shit about anything in New York north of 15th street? Granted skateboarding is so much different nowadays in general than it was back in the day… it seems that some much gets blown out so quickly anymore. It’s relentless.
My take on the New York City scene is that all this was bound to happen. With the Internet, things spread so fast that every knucklehead on the web can find out every spot in the city from a simple Google search. I can't be mad at the current state of skateboarding in general as technology has made it as disposable and oversaturated as it is. There are some little gems still out there that still get me excited, but for the most part, 99% of you out there under 35 didn't have the privilege of experiencing what an amazing time it was back in the days. I sound like an old-timer, but the fact of the matter is, I am.
Don't get me wrong, this is an amazing time in skateboarding but it's so much harder to make it nowadays because of where the level skateboarding is at in addition to the amount of information that is available at people's fingertips. It's hard to be something unique and special. Back in our day, NYC was barely a blip on the radar so it was easy to stand out as an individual in such a small scene.
All-time favorite New York skatespot and why? I’m gonna presume you’re gonna say the Brooklyn Banks… what was it about that spot that made it so legendary?
Of course, it's the Brooklyn Banks. It was just the place where all of us congregated, no matter what borough, state, or part of the world you were from. If you came to New York City to go skating back then, that was the first place you went. Every major city has their version of “the spot”; be it Embarcadero, Love Park or Pulaski. NYC’s just happened to be an amazing banks spot that was rugged as hell.
Going back there over the years, I couldn’t believe how fucking hard that place was to skate, but then again, we were also putting in 10 hours a day on those banks. It was just the place to be.
Alright Pang, I could ask a thousand more but I should probably end it already. Thanks for doing this. Anything you’d like to add? Shout-outs or words of wisdom?
Thanks to my family and especially to the most supportive wife in the world, Tamara. I’d like to thank DC Shoes, NYC, skateboarding and everyone I’ve met and interacted with through it over the last quarter-century. You all know who you are.
If you’re in it for the right reasons, please continue. If not, please get lost.
special thanks to peter huynh and jeff for taking the time.
follow pang on instagram: @jeffersonpang
...and follow me while you're at it: @chromeball
follow pang on instagram: @jeffersonpang
...and follow me while you're at it: @chromeball