RB Umali has been living and documenting skateboarding in New York City for 20 years now. He’s spent time cruising the streets with the most legendary skateboarders of all time. RB has also seen the skate scene and city change and evolve over the years, giving him a unique perspective on street culture in the Big Apple. A few months ago, the weekend of New York’s annual Harold Hunter Day celebration approached, I thought it would be a perfect time to catch up with RB and get him to reflect on his time in the city as one of its most important skate filmers in the ’90s. We discussed the old New York, OG Zoo York, OG Supreme, Harold Hunter, Justin Pierce, and more. The following interview is a history lesson on an East Coast scene that shaped a generation.
MIKE CHEQ: You moved to New York to skate and go to school in the early '90s. What are your first memories of the city and skating here when you arrived?
RB UMALI: When I first arrived in the city, I got off the Path Train with my Screw teammates Jimmy Chung, Anthony Correa, and our friend Lennie Kirk (Pre-Christian Gangster Lennie). We were told to get off the train and walk down 6th Ave towards the twin towers to meet Steve Rodriguez, who we had never met before, and was nice enough to let us stay at his beautiful apartment.
We get to the city and out of nowhere, we see this big dude coming at us with a smile. To our surprise it was Steve, who they used to call “Conan” at the time because he was so big. And the city was so big! I looked up 6th Ave and it was miles and miles of marble skate spots with smooth streets as far as the eye could see.
Steve took us skating downtown at the Brooklyn Banks and said, “Whatever you do, don’t stop skating and don’t let anyone ride your board.” I was so shook to even put my backpack down. We skated there for hours and while we were there, I saw a fight between two brothers that skated. And while I was filming Lennie switch backside 180 over the wall, I saw a dude’s board get stolen. The scheme was for someone to ask if they could ollie the wall on your board, they would ollie the wall and keep on going down the hill and they would be out! Needless to say, it was a different city back then.
“When I moved here, Kids had just come out in the movie theaters and the skaters in NYC at the time were larger than life.”
You were involved with a couple of legendary videos at the time before Mixtape—you contributed to Eastern Exposure and 20 Shot Sequence. Were you the primary person filming in New York at that time, and what was it like cruising around with all of those legendary skaters?
When I got to New York, I was already filming for 411VM, so most of the skaters knew to hook up with me to get in the video. It was amazing being here at the time because there were a couple of other skaters who had video cameras, but I was the only one who was dedicated to filming. When I moved here, Kids had just come out in the movie theaters and the skaters in NYC at the time were larger than life.
I was really lucky to be here and welcomed by the NY skate scene, which was so vibrant and full of raw talent. All of the skaters here had so much original style and character. This was during the early days of Supreme and Zoo York, when the East Coast skate scene was popping. There were so many visiting pros here at the time. Which was a shock to me as a couple months earlier, I was filming local homies’ sponsor-me tapes in Houston, Texas, and all of a sudden, I am filming Kareem Campbell in NYC for Eastern Exposure 3!
What are your memories of Supreme during that era? What was the vibe like at the store in those early days?
I remember going to Supreme for the first time to meet my homie that I grew up skating with in Texas—Mat McGrath—who was one of Supreme’s first employees when they opened. This was before cell phones and the Internet, so I just showed up hoping he would be there. As soon as I walk in, Joey Alvarez and N.A. ask me on the low if I want to buy a board or some wheels. I said, “No thanks,” and proceeded to browse the shop. I start looking at this pile of neatly folded shirts on the shelf and Gio Estevez immediately yelled at me to not look through the shirts as he just folded them all.
I got the vibe real quick. But, I was a new jack to the city so I should have expected that. It was a real culture shock to experience the cool guy attitude at a skate shop in comparison to the Southern hospitality that I was used to. I ended up meeting Matt there later, who hooked me up with Justin Pierce to film some lines for 411VM at Astor Place. I remember asking Justin if he could step up his line with a frontside 180 kickflip up the curb instead of a regular 180, and with attitude he said, “That’s the way I skate, yo.” And he was right! Looking back at it now, I see it was all about the style, the location, and the character Justin had—he showed as much off the board as he did while on it.
Astor Place was central to the '90s New York scene. For the people that aren’t aware of the significance of this spot, can you explain what it is and what it was like skating and hanging out there?
During my first year at NYU, I was living at a dorm two blocks away from Astor. I remember the first time going there, thinking, Why is everyone skating here? There is nothing to skate! And when I mean everyone, I mean the entire Supreme crew, the Zoo York crew, and all the top visiting pros from SF and LA would be there at night to roll dice, drink 40s, smoke blunts, skate flatground, and slappy the curb. It was a central meeting spot that was always popping at night, where you would see endless amounts of beautiful girls walk by while you show off your 360 flips, hoping to catch a number or find out where the house party would be at for the evening.
Talk about Zoo York Mixtape. The opening credits it as being by you and Eli Gesner. What was the process for putting it together. What was it like blending that classic hip-hop footage and skating? How did the editing process work?
When I first started filming all the Zoo guys, they wanted to make a full length skate video. Eli, being really good friends with Stretch and Bobbito, had all this old footage from their radio show from the first time anyone heard Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, and Wu-Tang. Skateboarding and hip-hop went hand-in-hand at the time, and it was a natural combination of the two elements. Eli sat down with his friend DJ Ani from Dee-Lite and they took the music from all the radio show footage and mixed it down to a seamless 40 minute soundtrack. We used that as the base for the Mixtape video, and put the skate footage on top. This was the first time I ever used a non-linear video editing system. All my videos were made with two VHS VCR’s and a Sony walkman before that.
What was working with and hanging around Zoo York like at that time when it was still just Eli Gesner and Rodney Smith? How was it when it was completely independent?
The Zoo office was so much fun back in those days. It was one big room with no walls and only 5 or 6 people working there with so much originality, creativity, funny stories, and crazy ideas being thrown around all over the place. Good times for sure, especially on the first of the month when everybody showed up to the office early to get their check and run as fast as they could to the bank or the check cashing spot. Because if you got your check last or at the end of the day after everybody cashed theirs in, you would be lucky if it didn’t bounce!
“The city got smaller, a lot of our everyday skate spots got knobbed or ruined… The level of skating has gone up, while our attention span and the longevity of a video project has gone down.”
Talk a little bit about Harold Hunter and your memories of him. You skated and traveled with him quite a bit, right up until he passed away.
Harold was the coolest person to everyone he met, no matter how famous he was or how cool you were. He treated everyone the same and gave you love. Traveling with him was torture at times, but also an amazing fun-filled adventure every single day. Not a day goes by where I don’t reminisce and laugh about something Harold did while we were on the road together. He lived every day like it was his last and lived his life to the fullest, that’s for sure.
While still with Zoo, you also traveled a lot with other teams on various tours. Do you have a favorite place or memory from a trip that you can share?
I went on all of Stussy’s tours around the world when they had a skate team. They always treated their team really nice and took care of us. It was a real treat staying in these five-star hotels around the world while filming the best skaters in contrast to some of the domestic Zoo tours we would go on with 15 skaters and enough money for only 3 rooms at a Super 8 Motel in Middle America. I also had a great time back in 1999, touring across the US and into Canada with all my favorite skaters on the Girl/Chocolate tour. The Red Bull Seek & Destroy tours with Zered, Supa and Joey Brezinski were also a blast.
Through it all, you’ve stayed with Zoo York as it’s gone through various changes over the years. What keeps you attached to that company 20 years later?
Zoo York has always taken good care of me and I am so grateful for everything that they have done for me to build my career. First I fell in love with skateboarding, then I fell in love with New York City. Zoo York has enabled me to work creatively with two of the things that I love the most for almost 20 years now. It has been an amazing journey with all the changes that both the city and the brand have gone through, and that is what has kept me attached.
Most videographers have a style that’s recognizable throughout their various projects. If you had to describe yours to someone that’s never seen your work, how would you? Also, what other films either in or out of skating do you draw influence from?
I guess my style would be an action-packed montage of gritty 90’s East Coast flavor combined with the technology of today. I am influenced by all the skate videos I see on the Internet as well as movies, social media, foreign films, documentaries, music videos, and commercials. I am a big fan of the current generation of skaters and filmers that are holding down the NY skate scene. I love how they roll with such a deep crew of talent and characters while documenting all the fun that they are having like we used to do back in the day.
How has New York changed both in and out of skating over the past 20 years? What are the biggest differences now from when you first came here and started filming?
The city got smaller, a lot of our everyday skate spots got knobbed or ruined. There are more security guards, more skaters, and more filmers now. The level of skating has gone up, while our attention span and the longevity of a video project has gone down. We used to only skate in the city and we are venturing out into the far boroughs now. The price of everything has gone up, and the quality of life has gone down. New York was an exciting and scary place. It is not like it used to be, but there are still a ton of creative things to influence you in this city, which is why we all love to call it home.