R.B. UMALI: 6 or 7 VX-1000's Later
Bending down to pull the laces on his Timbs tighter, the weight of his equally puffy and seemingly non-skateable DCs shifted in his backpack. Besides his wallet, it was the only thing in there but there was no way he’d leave home with those on his feet. Instead he was decked out in Polo from top to bottom, yesterday it was Hilfiger. Ain’t nobody was gonna seem him sweat, especially those kids who hung out on the corner, egging him on in between drug deals and throwing up, in gang signs and in spray paint. ‘You wanna be a white boy?’”, they’d taunt, “ ‘you should be hanging with us’.” This was New York City in the ‘90s, where spouting fire hydrants were the summer rain, where your pants were as big as your mom’s hair in the ‘60s and when skateboarding was considered a “white sport”.
For R.B. Umali, a Texas born, sponsored skater turned filmmaker and NYU grad this was the New York he would come to call home and these were the skaters he would meet up with at Supreme on Lafayette Street where they’d pull their gashed DCs onto their feet, shedding the Polo, trading it for a skateboard. “When I first moved here I remember getting off the train and thinking the city was enormous. The first time I went to Harold’s (Hunter) apartment on Avenue D in broad daylight and I was with another kid my age and he was like, ‘dude, we’re going to Avenue D, so if any kid tries to step to us don’t be a punk okay, have my back’. I’m like what are we getting into? Back in the day they would say, if you go to Avenue A, you’re adventurous, Avenue B, beware, C, you’re crazy and D, you’re dead,” R.B. said sitting on his sofa a few stories up on Essex street in early May. He just turned 38 though the stress induced wrinkles from having to dodge security guards with $15,000 of equipment on his back had not surfaced.
Taking it back 20 years to the boy getting off the train, it was 1995 and everything R.B. previously held in 2-D with two hands in the form of Thrasher Magazine and other printed matter, he now held in a blink of an eye, with every click of the “record” button on his Hi8 camera as New York loomed in front of him. Out here the Empire State Building was the north star and the Brooklyn Banks and Statue of Liberty were the southern ends of the earth. He spent all his money on that camera in high school after South Shore Distribution, a local skateboard distribution company, bought 1,000 copies of the first video he ever made featuring his friends in Texas. Momentum began to churn in concrete waves. That video is what got him a job at 411 video magazine which in turn, an article done there got him into NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he was trained on primitive equipment, mastering the fundamentals while doing side gigs for TransWorld Skateboarding. Out on the streets there were a lot of skaters tearing down Broadway’s sneering sidewalks, doing the craziest shit and there was no one there to film them. That’s where R.B. came in. And he was hungry. Soon after he was approached by Zoo York as they asked, so graciously, if he would film their first video.
- Zoo York was birthed sans uterus from SHUT Skates, New York’s first skateboard company, manifesting generation two in this street-driven, Gotham imbued mutiny of skateboarding away from the long-haired fairies on the west coast. Zoo York had been around for about 20 years at that point. Their personification of New York’s underground cultures who often were caught trespassing with cans of paint or destroying property with trucks and wheels was still raw, definitely un-manicured. They weren’t able to offer R.B. much money but to a collegiate underclassmen that didn’t matter. Instead of benjamin’s, R.B. was given brotherhood. United as derelicts against baseball pants and societal obligations to traffic rules in a city that raised not only the American dream, but hell alongside it. “I was really scared in the city but if I was rolling with the Zoo crew, I had no fear. I would leave my bag anywhere because I knew these guys had my back and they were a very intimidating bunch to be around. It was really amazing, like oh wow, I’m their filmer? They said a lot of people tried to be their filmer and they just clowned all these people. They took me in like I was family off the bat,” R.B. said.
As a crew filmer and riders, including the greats, Harold Hunter, Peter Bici, Anthony Correa, Hamilton Harris, Robbie Gangemi, they began to work on what would be known today as the first ever Zoo York Mix-Tape video which premiered at the New York Underground Film Festival. If it was a Thursday evening you’d find the crew lounging and bobbing their heads at the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Radio Show. This is the show that every hip-hop head would tune into to hear the latest drops from Jay-Z to the Wu-Tang Clan back in the day with their ears glued to the speakers. The first mixtape featured a soundtrack scored exclusively by Stretch and Bob themselves making the combination truly murderous. “They were creating history in the studio and we were creating history on our skateboards in the street. We didn’t really plan it out, it kind of just happened and when we edited it all together, it took a while, but it all just fit perfectly,” R.B. said taking it back.
Since then, his Hi8’s been replaced by six or seven VX-1000’s and the city of New York feels a lot smaller than it once used to. The Brooklyn Banks have beenunskateable as the city found a better use for them as a storage site for construction materials even though it was once a place where people used to say, “oh, we can always go to the Banks” about. Skateboarding has now almost become mainstream and posers carry their longboards around while wearing salmon colored Sperry’s. And, Instagram has made quality skate videos that used to take five years to produce a thing of the past. Nowadays skaters slap tricks that would be a last trick in any video part to Instagram three to four times a week. “Skateboarding and the level of skateboarding we’re expected to produce is really high and we have tricks we know we want to shoot at certain locations. It’s a lot more planned out now, not as organic as it used to be but I try to keep everything feeling like a raw skate video,” R.B. said. Even though skateboarding has “sold out” and become a “sport”, it is the videos themselves, the stories they tell, the conversations and rousts they will start years and years after they were filmed that matter. R.B. continued, “when we’re out in the streets and we’re creating a video part, that’s where skateboarding’s an art form.”
With each video produced, the hours he spends tweaking in front of his computer, editing, splicing moments into seconds, deleting, losing footage, missing a trick, maybe not missing any, it’s inseparable from R.B.’s own life-story. He’s seen the world in pushes and ollie’s, he’s broken bones, ate shit and ran his ass off trying to get away from security guards until he got what he needed on film. “Skateboarding has been one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. I can go anywhere in the world and I’ll instantly have a brother because we have skateboarding in common. I can’t compare that with anything else. Music doesn't even have that, it’s more of a universal thing but there’s just something about skateboarding where like you see somebody that gets it and you know they’re on your level. You’ll take them in as a brother, they’ll give you a place to sleep and help you out,” he said with a straight face and smile in his eyes. It is, has been and continues to be his life though he doesn’t know what will happen when he reaches 55 and if he can continue to run around with teenagers on the daily but he wants to stick with it for as long as he physically can. So as traffic gets worse, taxi drivers get more angry, skate-stoppers have long since been invented and pedestrians get more clueless, watch your back. If you hear the thunder of wheels on concrete, R.B. won’t be far behind.
Banner image by Ryan Flynn / Courtesy of Nike
Written by Lindsey Okubo | Fall 2015