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Jahmal Williams interview by Josh Stewart

If the culture of street skating was born in the ’80s and went through it’s teenage years in the ’90s, then you could say it's now somewhere in it’s ’40s, getting more responsible, becoming more concerned with financial stability and giving up on it’s dream to be an artist. It’s the inevitable life cycle of important cultural movements and skateboarding would certainly be headed towards the same fate… that is, if it wasn’t for our secret weapons. A very few skateboarders who's deviant decision to truly be themselves has functioned as a pilot light for the creative fuel within all of us. Strong characters with even stronger spirits that have helped define that THING in skateboarding that is indefinable. But if it were to be defined, the dictionary would likely have a photo of Jahmal Williams as a point of reference. Because whatever you want to call it, ”it” certainly thrives within Jahmal. From Eastern Exposure III to Static IV and beyond, we’re now well over 25 years deep into being inspired by Jahmal’s skateboarding, creativity and spirit. And I certainly don’t expect him to slow down any time soon.

We’ve done interviews before in the past but not during a pandemic. How’s your quarantine been going?

I’ve been good – just trying to take care of my family. We are trying to keep somewhat of a normal routine going. My wife and I have been doing home schooling with the kids – big commitment.

Have you been able to skate at all?

Yes, I’ve been skating with my nine-year-old son a lot. We hop the fence at his school which has been closed down for the past two months. There’s a little curb and smooth ground. Some of the other local kids have been bringing out ramps and a flat bar.

So I’m gonna rewind the clock a little bit. It’s the late 1980s in Boston. Where is little Jahmal and what is he getting into?

In the late ‘80s, I was just transitioning along as a teenager in a new neighborhood. I was exiting out of my short introduction into the street gang life and decided to stick with what I enjoyed doing the most, BMX riding. I loved building bikes, loved reading BMX Plus, Freestyler Magazine, and Club Homeboy.

"Being somewhat lost in my youth, the street gang life was a natural progression for a lot of poor African-American youth of the time. Many of my friends had come from broken single-parent homes and were raised in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The social, political, and economical oppression lead many of us to feel disenfranchised from the larger society."

I know these things aren’t always the same for everyone, but in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, it was certainly not cool to be a skater. What made you want to give up BMX and start skating?

I was always very physically active, plus I loved exploring my environment. Growing up poor in the inner city, I went from street gymnastics to b-boying to writing graffiti to BMXing to street gangs. I loved adrenaline as well. Flipping off of cars and jumping off rooftops crossed over into b-boying, which crossed over to the trickery of BMX bike riding stunts. Being somewhat lost in my youth, the street gang life was a natural progression for a lot of poor African-American youth of the time. Many of my friends had come from broken single-parent homes and were raised in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The social, political, and economical oppression lead many of us to feel disenfranchised from the larger society. So many of us were seeking acceptance and trying to find a way to empower ourselves. Little did we know we were becoming a product of a destructive, racist environment. One incident that changed everything was when I got my Haro Freestyler bike stolen by these two crazy dudes. I was super bummed because that bike was my pride and joy and I was actually going to put up a fight before letting it go. I had a knife in my pocket that I was ready to pull out but had an extrasensory perception moment that said, “Don’t worry about it and let the bike go.” I remember thinking to myself after that incident, “I’m going to get a skateboard! No one wants a skateboard in the hood.”

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Wow, that’s pretty heavy.

Yes, indeed. As cliché as it sounds, skateboarding saved my life and has been a true blessing for me. In Boston during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, the crack cocaine epidemic hit hard. Crack was sweeping across American cities like a cancer. On top of that, Boston had street gang wars at an all-time high. I was right in the middle of it. It was affecting my family, my friends, everywhere I looked. Skateboarding was an escape from all the things around me that were rapidly decaying. Skating gave me a new sense of freedom, a new set of eyes to see the world around me.

The East Coast was a much different scene back then. Pulaski, Love Park, and the Brooklyn Banks were notoriously scary places. The locals were territorial and kind of brutal. I heard similar stories about Copley Square in Boston. What was that like?

It wasn’t as brutal. We kept it cool and fun for the most part. Copley Square had a scene that consisted of bike messengers, hardcore kids, goth kids, club kids, punks, death metal kids, graff writers, skateboarders, and the good ole local drunken bums. It was a place where all the outcasts went. It became more cliquey with skaters in the mid ‘90s, but even then, it wasn’t harsh. We clowned people for sure – kicked them out, but they usually deserved it. If someone started kooking out or doing disrespectful stuff to people, we would regulate because that was our scene and we didn’t want to get a bum rep from some kook throwing craze. Even the bums would regulate the lame bums that would violate their unspoken codes.

I remember first seeing you in early 411 videos, but the one thing that has stuck out in my mind from early on was that clip of you backflipping off the Love Park sign after that contest. What the hell were you thinking? Why did you do that?

I was hungry and had very little money on that trip. I was eating chips and soda for dinner. I knew I could do it and the $250 dollars could go a long way. I did backflips off of vans and other high stuff like this as a kid in my old neighborhood for fun. I didn’t think too hard about it. [laughing]

"Crack was sweeping across American cities like a cancer. On top of that, Boston had street gang wars at an all-time high. I was right in the middle of it. It was affecting my family, my friends, everywhere I looked."

Holy shit, I didn’t realize there was a cash prize! I knew of you beforehand, but I think that Eastern Exposure 3 video Underachievers is definitely what solidified your skating in my mind. Nonetheless, you had already had quite a career before that right?

I had spent a lot of time on the road touring with Mike V and Ed Templeton, riding for their company Television during the early ‘90s. I had a few board sponsors before this, but TV was probably the most well-known of them and the company I went pro for. They put me in a couple of ads too. Then I rode for Toy Machine after TV dissolved. I toured all over the U.S. with them. Ed produced a handful of pro models for me during this time. So I was pretty active before EE3.

When did you meet Dan Wolfe and how did you end up in that project?

This was around the time I had just left Toy Machine. I didn’t have a board sponsor and was starting to get flow boards from Rodney Mullen at World. I was at the Eatontown Jam in NJ skating this flat-bar-manny-pad obstacle and Dan approached me with his camera and asked if he could film a couple of tricks for his video, which, I think, was Underachievers. The jam was sick! All the heads were there: Fred Gall, Harold Hunter, and Mike V. After the jam, Dan came up and asked me for my contact and if I would be down to film some more. He said he would love to come up to Boston to film. I never thought he would because, at this time, I had never heard of anyone putting out their own independent videos. I knew photographers would work with skaters on projects for the magazines but not independent videos.

Dan was definitely a pioneer. Obviously, there was no way to know back then what kind of legacy that video was going to have. Next year will be the 25th anniversary for that project! Can you believe it’s been that long?

I’m humbled… From the very beginning I was hyped to be a part of a project with names like Donny Barley, Rick Oyola, Jerry Fisher, Reese Forbes, Mike Frazier, and Tom Boyle. Plus, I knew many of these guys personally. There has always been a huge camaraderie amongst East Coast skaters. Dan’s unique vision and talents have contributed so much to our culture in so many ways, it is truly awesome! Especially at a time in skating that some consider to be the golden years or, better yet, a time when East Coast skating was untapped. He documented and exposed the pure underground vibe that kept us all pushing.

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Why do you think EE3 resonated so strongly with skaters around the world the way it did?

Maybe it was just the rawness and the collection of people involved. The timing of everything was really crucial. Dan’s idea to document a bunch of skaters from different East Coast scenes as a collective was never done before. Maybe the people could identify with that type of skating. Maybe it showed the East Coast in a different light. I can never say it enough: thank you, Dan Wolfe!

You once mentioned how big of an influence Ed Templeton was on you as an artist. How did that come about?

I became friends with Ed through Mike V. Those two guys took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. They turned me pro for TV. Ed and Mike were a super positive influence. Ed was always painting or drawing. He is a really creative person and was always encouraging others to be creative. When my first pro model came out, he literally put a paint brush in my hands and said you should make your own board graphics, and then I did.

It seems like every skater who gets an ounce of fame nowadays has started his own brand. Back when you started Hopps, it was kind of unheard of to start a small brand and try to compete with the big dogs.

I started Hopps in 2007 and, yeah, it was really scary. I had no idea how to go about doing a company, let alone running a business. I had a lot of creative ideas mixed with the skate drive that was constantly pushing me. Plus, I had tons of inspiration from watching Mike Vallely and Ed Templeton do it, so I figured it was my time to give it a try.

"Just simple acts like the UPS guy helping me carry boxes down four flights of stairs, drenched in sweat, and telling me how cool he thought it was that I was making my own skateboards was inspiring."

Would you have ever thought the brand would still be going in 2020?

It wasn’t cool to have a new brand in 2007. No skate shops would give me the time of day. People were really discouraging in the skate industry at the time. Then the 2008 economic depression hit. It was a really tough time. I was shipping boxes out of my apartment during the 100-degree NYC summer heat. I never thought Hopps would have survived this long. I’m super humbled because there were a handful of people who really believed in me. That belief and constant encouragement from others helped to keep me moving. Just simple acts like the UPS guy helping me carry boxes down four flights of stairs, drenched in sweat, and telling me how cool he thought it was that I was making my own skateboards was inspiring. I owe so much to all the people who have contributed to everything the brand has done. I’ve met so many talented artists through the years, from skaters, photographers, filmmakers, graphic designers, illustrators, etc. Thank you!

Looking back at the history of Hopps, is there any one moment that was particularly special?

The one thing that stands out the most to me, that will forever be etched in my mind, is the day I received my first run of boards with the sun graphic printed on it. I remember setting up a new board and going skating around Manhattan so stoked. All those days of hard work and dreaming had finally become true.

The majority of skaters I’ve filmed with over the years typically have a specific spot/trick in mind and we plan the day around that, but with you, it tends to work best when there is no plan. We more or less pick a part of the city and just start wandering. Is that method more fun, more productive, or both?

When I first started filming with you, it was all about the exploration and the unknown – not knowing where we were going and being excited on what I might get to skate that day was it. I kept that mindset going for a few years. I was never good at premeditating what tricks to try at a spot. Later on, I tried to change my process. I started to realize that I had to be a bit more responsible with picking spots because I couldn’t expect you to carry all your equipment around with me all the time on some wild-goose chase. I realized I had to be a bit more coordinated, especially getting older and realizing how valuable your time is. I doubt skaters ever put themselves in the filmer’s position. I’ve watched you film people for hours with so much patience. I could never do that. I find it to be a bit more productive to have a process in mind even though it can be stressful.

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Varial Heelflip

Do you think maybe that’s why Static IV took so long? We never really had a plan? [laughing] Well, what are your memories of that experience filming for over five years?

For me, I just really loved the whole experience of being out in the streets, free roaming around – day and night, week after week. I think it allows for the skating to happen a bit more organically. Not having the pressure of deadlines is liberating. Having a solid crew that knows how to navigate through the streets with fun is key.

Hopps just announced some new additions to the team. A lot of fresh, young faces. What do you guys look for when bringing a new rider to the family?

It’s always about the skating first, but skating isn’t everything. We’re people at the end of the day. It’s about relationships and how people get along and carry themselves within the crew. I always try to see what else a new rider can bring to the table. Every rider on Hopps is an individual and we all respect each other. We all learn from each other and deal with real life situations with one another. I have always felt that the common bond between us all is that we all love skateboarding.

When I think of certain brands like Girl or Workshop, I get a certain feeling, a collection of memories. What feeling do you hope skaters get when they think of Hopps?

I’ve always wanted to inspire others to skate. When I was thinking of Hopps for a name, I wanted the name to spark a feeling instantly. The sound of a board rolling across pavement, the sensation you get from just simply riding the board, trying to figure out how to do ollies. All of this brings me back to the innocence of when I first fell in love with skateboarding and this pursuit for fun on the board is what we are about.

What do you have coming down the road?

There are still things such as a full-length the crew and I have been discussing. Everyone is always asking us for more clips and longer video productions. So this is something to keep an eye out for. As for myself, I would like to put out another video part or two. I will be putting out more of my artwork through Hopps, which people have been asking me for, and focusing on a couple of solo exhibitions.

Yeah, it seems to me like your fine art is something we’d all like to see more of.

I have to pursue art. It’s my life’s passion. It’s burning inside and needs to come out.

What would you ideally hope for other skaters to take away from your skateboarding?

Once again, anything that I do in skating, if it helps to inspire others to be creative and move forward – that’s all I could ask for. My intention has always been to give back to the culture because I’ve been given so much from skateboarding.

Any last thoughts you’d like to leave us with or people you’d like to thank?

Thanks to all of the people who showed their continuous support over the years. Thanks to the Hopps crew, I love all you guys. Thanks, Josh Stewart and Pep Kim for making this interview possible. Thanks Solo Mag for giving me this opportunity to share what I do; and thank you to skateboarding for everything!

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