Monday, 15 August 2016

Losers and Awkward Socializers - MC vs MJ, Paul Mason and Post-Capitalism

This article was kindly requested and put out there by Brooklyn-based website Buried Muse after an out-of-the-blue, trans-Atlantic Twitter conversation over a mutual appreciation of Long Island indie The Northern Company.  I feel kinda bad, because I'm not sure a dense, 1,800 word piece linking the problems faced by 'core' skateboarding to the last days of the neo-liberal paradigm, segueing into some bright glimmer of hope courtesy of the ideas of Paul Mason and the actions of the bros from the Northern Co and Magenta, quite achieves the clicks needed by an indie web upstart -  but I'm stoked they had faith in me, and apologise if it didn't go as crazy as more of-the-moment articles on Olympic Skateboarding and Brexit.  Hopefully this'll be a slow burner - if contemporary internet behaviour even allows for that - because I'm still hyped on some of the ideas herein.  Skateboarding matters now more than ever.   

This is the article with added links and references.  Peace to Sergio and co for putting it out. 

Proper adults, concerned with weekend suit jackets and real estate value, would label us idiots for obsessing over sub-cultural minutiae.  

In establishment eyes, skateboarders are supreme examples of modern fecklessness. Rather than engaging with the problems of the world, we consume and play, narcissistically broadcasting every banal thought or action to millions of other awful dickheads.  As identity is as much formed by how others see us, or how we think they see us, critiques of modern skateboarding tend to open with self-effacing reference to how small or silly our little world is and how we will all, at some point, need to grow up and move on – handing over our sense of adventure to some miserable cosmic desk clerk.  This is, of course, nonsense. Skateboarding fucking matters just as much as anything else.  It gives us a frame of reference to view the real world along with a little bit of agency to do something positive about it.  Think SkatePal and Skateistan, Long Live Southbank and the range of small community projects Jenkem have shined a light on, from Detroit to Christchurch, to a thousand little DIY builds and micro-companies.   We may be permanently adolescent in the eyes of the sharp-suited alpha males of neoliberalism, but their views are increasingly unfit for purpose.  The philosopher Susan Neiman reminds us that Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant saw adulthood in very different terms.[1]  A life well lived requires one to travel extensively, curate a sense of child-like wonder and accept the world as it is without ever giving up on the world as it should be.  Which sounds a lot like the life of the average skateboarder.

This is just as well, as the world as it is sucks.  Over half my British countrymen and women freely voted to leave the world’s biggest single market, wrecking our currency, international reputation and a vision, dreamed when the ash of World War II still hung in the air, of tolerance, trade and cooperation.  Across the Atlantic, a space-time rift threatens to release President Trump from a dimension of shared liberal and conservative nightmares - like a bankruptcy-prone Freddy Krueger.

Skateboarding, apart from being the thing that gets me through the day, is turning out to be a fine little petri dish to view both the unraveling of late capitalism and some nuggets of hope for the future.  Two interviews, cast out to the internet over the last couple of months, signify almost everything one needs to know about the states of ‘is’ and ‘should be’.  In his Jenkem interview, Girl Skateboards co-founder Mike Carroll broke a niche of the internet for a whole night.  Uncharacteristically fiery of temper for the quietly spoken cool guy, he overrode the entente cordiale between the bigger core brands and the sportswear giants and publicly sacked Marc Johnson, whose jump to Adidas was announced before his previous shoe sponsors, Lakai, had time to implement the agreed exit strategy.

No one, without hypocrisy, can judge MJ harshly for donning the three stripes at this stage in his career.  Nor should one harshly judge another for wearing Adidas or Nike. The reality we have accepted, through our votes and our purchasing behaviour, is the untrammelled free market.   The business of skateboarding is still a business.  The textbooks tell us that competition is good.  It pushes down prices and pushes up quality and innovation.  I’m old enough to remember the 1990s, when one would pay double normal retail price for a brand t-shirt or pair of sneakers that would fall apart in seconds.   Markets should be diverse ecosystems of small, medium and large brands.  By competing with Lakai, DC, Vans, Huf or Sole Tech, the sportswear giants constantly have to up their game, as do the core brands.   In the imaginary world of mainstream economics, monopolies eventually calcify, collapsing like the walls of Rome when the next Schumpeterian young buck ‘disrupts’ the market with a new, cheaper and better product.  So it is in Nike or Adidas’ long-term interests to exist in permanent non-lethal combat with the core brands, neither side ever having too much power – like some hokey 1980s fantasy where the dark and light exist in cosmic balance, otherwise we get red-eyed skeletons and shit.

It now seems that prophecies of skeletons are more realistic than MBA students’ demand and supply diagrams.  Adam Smith’s benign invisible hand has given way to ‘shareholder capitalism'.  Flight-prone investors want rapid returns, either through cutting costs (jobs, R&D investment) or aggressively expanding into new markets. An Exec who pitches a strategy of modest long term growth and gentle competition would rapidly exchange condo and Lexus for a divorcee’s apartment.  The advanced Western economies face a future of low growth interspersed with crisis.  Wages have stagnated, inequality has widened and insecure ‘bullshit jobs’ await the young, condemning a generation to be the new, unloved ‘precariat’ alongside the forgotten miners and steelworkers of yesteryear.  At the micro level, Carroll’s words say it all: “There’s so many different companies and they make skateboarding, and these other companies that want to take out companies… It’s like dude, you exist already, you don’t need to take these companies down. You don’t need every single skater.”   

The culture and market of skateboarding gets less diverse, beloved brands go bust, everything looks a bit more vanilla, and the giants leave for the next newest new thing their ‘cool hunters’ post on mood boards.   I like skating in Lakai.  I also like skating in Nikes.  And, when wanting to channel either Magenta or Kalis and the Sabotage dudes, I may revert to Adidas and then DC, and back again.  This is reflected in the honest purchasing behaviour of most skateboarders, and screaming ‘sell out’ will not save the world.  

What may save the world lies in the second of our two interviews, one on this very site with Long Islanders the Northern Co.  In this and an interview with The Palomino, founders Mike Gigante and Steve Fletschinger set out their reasons for starting their cool little brand, which have little to do with market domination or nurturing elite careers.  Dudes with kids and full-time jobs felt their local scene needed a kick in the arse whilst seeing little that appealed to their tastes.  Rather than chasing the lucrative youth market (that any industry insider would say accounts for the vast majority of sales) with weed motifs or faux-gangster video skits, they opt instead for the imagery of early North American frontiersmen.  Their web edits are bluegrass odes to childhood adventure and the classic Stereo videos, simple, warm and bitter-sweet.  This business model is not dissimilar to Bordeaux’s Magenta skateboards, whose founders, marquee professionals and creative masterminds Soy Panday and Vivien Feil also have day jobs.  

All of these describe their companies more as art projects or social enterprises, prioritising connections with other scenes, the joy gained from producing aesthetically appealing products, and ensuring skating with friends remains a weekly fixture in adult life.   Marx predicted that we would become ever more ‘alienated’ from the products we make, the customers delighted by them, and the satisfaction we experience.  At its core, our ‘species essence’ is the wish to create art and meaning: “Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature” [2 and 3]. Companies like the Northern Co, Magenta, Scumco & Sons and many of the Theories brands offer a new middle way, that contribute to both the richness of the culture of skateboarding but also the quality of life for those running them.

But why does this have wider significance?  Contemporary thinkers, such as the British journalist Paul Mason (author of ‘Post capitalism: A guide to our Future’), believe that the abundance of information (when traditional economic models assume scarcity), has led to the slow, sputtering death of the current model – not least in dissolving the relationship between work and wages that once made it rational for us to give up creative pursuits for the 9 to 5.  Mason is an optimist.  He sees the sort of things the bros at the Northern Co get up to as both a lifeline for wellbeing in the here and now and a precursor to a future way of doing things:  “pulling your energy and time out of the mainstream economic and financial system, to put more of yourself into non-economic things you really care about… Things that make the world a better place – positive projects whose benefits can’t be measured by economists in monetary terms or GDP figures…  So you play the game, you do what’s necessary. You do the ten per cent extra that meets all the emotional labour requirements... But you take another percentage of yourself and you put it into the emerging post-capitalist world.”  [4]

As a keen surfer himself, Mason sees the social, identity and health enhancement of ‘just doing stuff’.  Magenta talk about ‘worldwide connections’, and put their VXs where their mouths are by collaborating on projects all over the world and hooking bros up from Florida to the Channel Islands to Tokyo and Osaka.  This stuff has value already, but it will increase as the phenomena of the open source, sharing and cooperative economies come of age (as it already has in the case of Uber, Airbnb, etc., which exploit neoliberalism’s failure to make full use of resources, including individuals’ skills and ideas as well as cars and homes).  This is not yet a currency that will make many of us materially wealthy, but it has intense, lasting meaning.  In an era where we have allegedly reached ‘peak stuff’, such things will sooner or later gain more tangible value.

Mason’s ideas aren’t without challenge, from both the mainstream and from other radical thinkers (for example, cooperative networks are all well and good, but don't put food on the table, cover  the rent, or pay for the vast servers powering the internet).  But what the critics do accept is we can’t go on like this.  The world as it is has failed to give the younger generation sufficient incentive to engage in the zero sum deal of the traditional, passive and resigned model of adulthood.   Perhaps for the first time in skateboarding’s short life, us bunch of losers and awkward socializers are starting to map out the parameters of what may come next.  

[1] Susain Neiman, 2016 'Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age', Penguin, Philosophy in Transit series. 
[2] John Storey, 2015  'Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction', 7th edition, Routledge.
[3] Slavoj Žižek, 2014. 'Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism', Allen Lane.
[4] Paul Mason, 2015. 'Post Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future', Allen Lane.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Shiny VVs glowin’ in your ear; New (shoe), new jewels, new album new year

This article was first published by my good friends Nick & Sam of supereight to mark the updated re-release of Kalis' first shoe, in the form of the Kalis Lite. Go to these guys for your mail order needs (as well as the Palomino, obvs), they're time served skate rats and Sam owns one hell of a 360 flip , making him a worthy Kalis fan.
Photo courtesy (like most good things):

The single baddest I have ever felt on a skateboard occurred sometime around 2000, alone in a suburban car park, rolling away from my first and only legitimate fakie backside nosegrind and looking down at the DC Kalis 1s on my feet (blue and grey with orange detail, natch).  For a moment those sneakers conjured an illusion powerful enough to counteract the reality of a lonely, middle class kid in Beeston, Nottingham, repetitively honing sub-mediocre skateboard skills.  And what they signified was of course something of the essence of Josh Kalis himself, the once and future king of the downtown plaza spot, the doyen of hip hop street skaters, and owner of at least one of, if not the, best flatland flip games on the planet.

Kalis’ first proper shoe on long time sponsors DC (with some debate over whether the Lynx was to be his first) appeared around the same time as Alien Workshop’s Photosynthesis, and was the shoe to be owned by those with East Coast tech predilections.  They built on the basketball influence trail-blazed by Koston at a time when most skate sneakers looked like big puffy spaceships.  But the Kalis 1 differed from the friendly, cartoon UFOs elsewhere on the market, instead resembling mean, utilitarian military craft designed to deliver grim-faced space marines to hostile worlds.  Perfect for street soldiers in camo cargo pants.  The wedge shaped runner’s toe gave a sharp, quick flick – kidding the wearer they could emulate the steez of the man himself.  And the colourways - bold all red or white & yellow through to understated black & gum or blue & grey - enabled one to select the desired level of pugnacious swag.  They remain my all-time favourite skate shoe, so the release of the updated Kalis Lite as a chilling shoe prompted a covetousness normally reserved for biblical neighbours’ oxen.

As fresh as those sneakers did and do look, this explains a tiny proportion of the appeal.  The lion’s share draws from the name on the box and the direction of his career so far.  Into the second half of the twenty-teens, three archetypes of decades deep pro career have emerged.  The first is the standard sports or music trope of youthful rise and middle-aged decline: the protégé who explodes onto the scene, puts out two or three incredible video parts, peaking in their mid-20s, before resting on their laurels for a decade – perhaps becoming the ‘cool guy’ in the team who’s wardrobe you envy but who’s tricks you can live without; or maybe clearly still having that magic, but showcasing it less productively than we the public would like.  Then you have a variation on that: the redemption story.  Dude explodes even younger, releasing that video part before succumbing to the temptations of party life and subsequent addiction issues.  Ten years pass barely leaving the games console, appearing in occasional team montages to hint at what might have been, before that come-back, drug- and booze-free and full of renewed focus, hungry for lost time.  Finally there’s the shapeshifter.  Injury or perhaps boredom forces an abrupt style change up.  The ambidextrous ledge technician becomes the rugged transition or unexpected combo king.  Kalis is perhaps the only 90s pro of high stature to have entirely avoided all three routes – without relying on a private warehouse training facility.   Year after year, video part after video part, he delivers the same raw technical mastery, the same explosive pop and truculent roll away.  Reliable and consistent could read as dull or conservative if he wasn’t so damn dope, or if his appeal wasn’t as timeless and inter-generational.  Whether you’re 18 or 38, if you like your skateboarding mixed with rap and your obstacles angular, Josh Kalis is one of your favourite skateboarders. 

For a technical skater whose execution is the epitome of textbook, there’s a gangly physicality in his skating.  His approach to the 360 flip illustrates this better than anything.  For many, the trick’s a mid-line chiller, lazily shuffled out to demonstrate disinterested mastery before the end-line money shot. Kalis’ are a spectacle unto themselves – popped and whipped.  The front foot flies out, Bruce Lee-like, whilst the back foot hooks round to catch the board – making stills of the mid-air catch look like a tweaked ollie.  Where his imitators hold their arms down in over-dope forced steez, his are held up like the wings of a bird of prey - together making the Kalis tres flip silhouette as iconic to us as the Michael Jordan ‘jump man’ logo.  Those other tricks to which he can claim ‘best in the game’ – the switch heel, the straight nollie flip – are equally explosive, even when performed mid-line.  If you imagined any of his classic sections, from Time Code through to Parental Advisory, rendered in comic book form, each trick would be captioned with triple exclamation marked onomatopoeia: “Badoom”; “Bratatat” etc.  Perhaps the heart poured into every trick, when compared to the fashion today of minimised movements (as if the trick happens on its own, the skater huffily bored by its existence), is a product of different generations’ formative circumstances.  Kalis perfected his craft in the thick of the great skate cities of the world, from SF, to Philly, to Barca and currently LA.  Although there’s plenty of evidence of his mastery of skatepark set-ups, perfect parks are not the defining context for his skillset.  The uncertainty of the street, the risk that authority, bad weather or self-appointed citizen sheriffs stop play at any moment, mean that practising a trick ‘til you can do it like you’re bored by it doesn't come into the picture.  Kalis’ skating captures both the stubborn commitment and the spontaneity of the true street skater – which is why, after more than 20 years of consistently brilliant sections, anchored to a broadly similar aesthetic, each one (including the more chilled section gifted to recent indie video Sabotage 4) is never boring.

The attitude as well as the level of skill provide the quality guarantee.   Kalis is more pragmatic than rigid skate-moralists like Puleo and Ricky Oyola, but has still refined a strong code of honour and practice.  Loyalty to those who share your values and earn your respect, both contemporaries and up-and-comers, and dogged refusal to drift towards the easy life of warehouse parks and fashion-forwardness.   His patronage of younger skaters has heft because of co-ownership of Hellaclips but, more importantly, as an authentic street rat.  When Jordan Trahan’s incredible 360 flip at J Kwon blazed across the internet, it was helped on its way by the Instagram account from which it originated.    Not only was the king of 360 flips anointing a worthy peer, he was doing so from the same place and time – part of the session:  the king who honours a knight on the battlefield, not from the quiet of the throne room.   That’s why the young’uns don’t need to be reminded to respect him, it’s earned and re-earned.   This is an important lesson for older street skaters across the board.  To keep keeping on, and doing what it takes to do so (whether that’s some stretch and cardio regime, chilling on the midweek booze and takeaway, sticking to some quid-pro-quo childcare timetable, or simply never stopping skating), it’s equally important to remember that you have every right to be in the thick of it.  Exclusively skating the local park is one step towards fading away – and life is both too long and too short for that.  As our boy nears 40, no one wanting to keep their lip un-split would call him a mid-life shredder – agelessness through determination: the veterans’ division can wait.  And that can apply to the rest of us mere mortals.

I engaged my buddies in a post skate debate on the sections they’d include in a ‘Kalis Top 5’, which is where we’ll end this piece. This strategy proved foolhardy, resulting as it did in increasingly angry shouts of “you’ve got to have the DC video”; “no way fool, Mindfield”; “shut up, you can’t miss out Peep This.”  There are perfectly good websites providing chronological back catalogues – skately being an obvious choice – so this list is purely personal. 

Starting with Timecode, his first section for Alien Workshop (after a brief period on Toy Machine), in which he was forerunner of the new breed who combined tech with power and swaggering hip hop sensibilities.  Before Muska and Smolik, it was this section that prompted an army of skinny kids to rock XXL t-shirts and hats crooked backwards at 110°, hitching our cargo pants mid-line as we pushed.

Peep This was a Zoo York video affiliated NYC scene video, and an example of one of many appearances gifted to projects unrelated to his main sponsors.  With filming less pervasive at the time, this was something few pros would risk - preferring to horde footage for the next large production.  Kalis’ productivity meant that he could comfortably give up footy to homies in full confidence that pay day targets would be met.  And as this section contains one of the best kickflips ever performed as well as a beast of a switch heelflip over the wall at the top of Brooklyn Banks, Kalis’ clips in Peep This are the opposite of B-reel.  

The quintessential Kalis section is obviously Photosynthesis, on which reams have been written.  Suffice to say, in my early 20s skate house, this was a key fixture in our pre-session inventory.  That flatland fakie flip in the seaport line, venerated by Quartersnacks as one of the best committed to video, even made it onto a Ride Channel best-of (a site normally reserved for ridiculous headings referencing energy drink sponsors, dork tricks and handrail heroics).

A less obvious choice, certainly compared to Sixth Sense, the DC Video, Mindfield, or In Mono, is his section in Chicago’s Finest, a scene vid filmed in 2005 (that didn't emerge on the internet until 2012).  However, this is worthy of inclusion for what it represents – rather than scouring the world for pristine plazas in Business Class, Kalis chooses a scene with potential, relocates and hunkers down to immerse himself like an obsessive method actor.  In the end Chicago didn't work out as the next Philly after Love Park was done, but this move doubtless gave the scene a shot in the arm and us an unexpectedly dope section.

Ending on a relatively recent section, the surprise release of DGK’s Parental Advisory at the end of 2012 (surprising as it dropped with almost no fanfare amidst the Pretty Sweet blockbuster campaign) included eye popping parts from OGs Marcus and Kalis, somewhat making up for the lack of legends in the aforementioned Girl Video.  This section is dope - with a switch bigspin heelflip across a long roadgap and the signature tres flip thrown into a signature nosebluntslide, foreshadowing many more years of turbocharge in the pop n’ snap as well as the muscle car.