Earlier this month, it was announced that the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will feature skateboarding as an official sport for the first time. Which made me wonder: Will this new manifestation of institutional support extend skateboarding’s widespread, subversive influence on music, film, and art? After all, if there is some connection between Tyler, the Creator, Avril Lavigne, Spike Jonze, and Harmony Korine, it’s the ramshackle cool of skateboarding.
Part and parcel with the dissemination of this brand of cool were grainy skate videos, pieces of teenage agitprop and grace that floated into malls and shops, passed around like volatile secrets. And inextricably linked to these videos were the pieces of music that orchestrated the assorted feats of physical impossibility. You take a song away from a skate video, and some of the magic’s lost.
I started skating as a 13-year-old in the mid-2000s, long past the halcyon days of VHS, and came across many of the videos on this list during the wild west days of YouTube. I don’t skate anymore, but I still feel indebted to my teenage fascination, because it fueled my earliest memories of musical discovery and small acts of rebellion. Coming back to a skate video over and over again also meant listening to a song over and over again.
As I dream about Animal Collective performing from the middle of a halfpipe at a future Olympics opening ceremony, here’s a look back at some of the best musical moments in skateboarding history.
Kevin “Spanky” Long in Baker Has a Deathwish // Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire”
The combination of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” with Kevin Long’s weary yet relaxed style has the touch of troubadour spirit. The song was inspired by a Jewish prayer, sung on the Day of Atonement, and its series of questions and scenarios foretell the possibilities of one’s death. In the song and in the video, the effect is grim yet hypnotic, confronting something palpable in skating itself: the fragility of the human body.
Paul Rodriguez in Girl Skateboards’ Yeah Right! // Nas’ “Get Down” + “Made You Look”
Paul Rodriguez Jr’s part in Yeah Right! kicks off with a moment of startling cinema-verite—the camera angled low towards his feet as he prepares to take off for a kickflip, punctuating the technical perfection of his trick. When he lands, right on cue, the music starts, and it’s like he’s a human needle being dropped onto a vinyl record.
Chico Brenes in FTC’s Finally // Sade’s “Smooth Operator”
When legendary skate shop FTC emerged in the late ’80s it was the command center for San Francisco, a hotbed for skating. And FTC’s Finally is one of the early pieces of skate video auteurship: in selection of music, cinematography, and local color. (The original graphic for the VHS tape’s cover was even designed by Del the Funky Homosapien). Chico Brenes, one of skateboarding’s most fascinating prodigies at the time, appears here as a 17-year-old. His two minute performance set to Sade’s “Smooth Operator” is effortless, low-key, and made somehow romantic by the liberal use of saxophone.
Guy Mariano in Girl Skateboards’ Mouse // Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”
Guy Mariano’s part in the 1996 video Mouse (for Spike Jonze’s Girl Skateboards) was soundtracked to a radically reworked version of Hancock’s 1962 classic “Watermelon Man.” The funkified remake is slinky, protean, tricky, and elastic, creating the perfect backdrop for Mariano, whose skating in this video is quietly jaw dropping. A particularly memorable moment finds him kickflipping from one rooftop to another, right as the song starts to pick up.
Rodney Mullen in Plan B’s Virtual Reality // Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” + “Time in a Bottle”
Rodney Mullen is skateboarding’s great pioneering experimentalist. We wouldn’t have the kickflip, flatground ollie, 360 flip, and more, without his contributions. The amount of coordination and daredevil disregard that went into his tricks made him something of a folk hero; if there wasn’t video evidence of his complex maneuvers, it would all seem fake. Jim Croce’s crooning voice and honky tonk piano in “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” heightens all the Paul Bunyan aspects of Mullen’s own renown. As the video ends, the song shifts to Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and the video slows down to show just how many times Mullen’s board twists and flips in the air, and just how many seconds he spends floating right above the fray. The wistful tone of Croce’s song stamps those seconds in eternity, highlighting why people record themselves skating in the first place: so people will believe all the tall tales they’ve been told.
Jerry Hsu in Enjoi’s Bag of Suck // Cass McCombs’ “Sacred Heart” + Sonic Youth’s “Superstar”
Jerry’s part in Bag of Suck is ineffable, epic—over seven minutes long, it accounts for a monumental achievement of individual exuberance, heroic focus, and poise. The songs that soundtrack his increasingly difficult and adventurous skating give the whole performance a sense of excited calm. The first half is given to Cass McCombs’ “Sacred Heart,” making the video revelatory, religious even. The back half is given to Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar” and it depicts Jerry with all the detached cool of a rockstar.
Jake Johnson in Alien Workshop’s Mind Field // Animal Collective’s “My Girls”
Alien Workshop’s video Mind Field was by and large one of the more eclectic and strange skate videos released in recent memory. It’s soundtrack spanned Dinosaur Jr., Morrissey, Modeselektor, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Elliott Smith, and Animal Collective. Its visual style was an outre decoupage, a cut-up of video art images and skating that was seemingly informed by Darren Aronofsky and Chris Marker. Of all the great sections in the video, Jake Johnson’s is possibly the most affecting. It opens unlike any skate video, with over a minute of collaged scenes that pulled from nature documentaries and time lapses, showing not one second of skating. Even when there is skating, strange images are smashed into the middle of scenes—it’s as if Animal Collective’s manic pace is dictating the world of the video. Pure weirdo bliss.
Matt King’s hoephase // various artists
Matt King’s self-produced skate video hoephase is like the world’s most deranged Tumblr come to life. The video records mostly amateurs at work, and depicts awkward and beautifully clunky skating. The grace of failure is a main theme of the video, and it is wonderfully glitchy and roughly made. Soundtracked by witch house (Salem), vaporwave (Black Banshee), and ’90s nostalgia (K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life”) it honors the deep internet abyss it crawled out of, all while intelligently poking fun at the gross-out aesthetic of “Jackass.”
Intro to Lakai’s Fully Flared // M83’s “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun”
Fully Flared was delayed for nearly two years, its budget was monumental, and it was helmed by Spike Jonze. It took a total of four years to make, and it was perhaps the most dangerous skate video ever produced. It tested the boundary of the form, and its intro is a testament to that. M83’s “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” hangs over a scene filled with explosions, fire, shattered walls, concrete dust, smoke, and destruction. Meanwhile, booming synths, an entire cornucopia of wide open, and soaring sounds make all the moments of Hollywood daring seem like small Biblical miracles.
Mark Gonzales in Blind Skateboard’s Video Days // John Coltrane’s “Traneing In”
Video Days was Spike Jonze’s most well-known skate video, a canonical skateboarding document, and a cult classic film in its own right. Released in 1991, every single skate video since copies it in one way or another. Jonze invented the modern style of skateboard cinematography and editing: the fish eyes, the fluid camera angles. The pinnacle of the video’s artistic heights is Mark Gonzales’ section, a classic performance that has been on loop in skate shops for ages.
The video starts with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka (*tear*) looking into a girl’s eyes saying, “We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams,” setting the video’s tone of wonderment and perfectly describing Gonzales’ style of hazy hypnotism. His skating is smooth, but feels unreal or holographic: It pops out of the video’s frame. The choice of Coltrane for the video’s backdrop immediately makes a statement about Gonzales’ performance as balletic, inventive, and off-kilter. His barn burning grinds and elegant ollies are given historical heft by Coltrane’s winding solos. It’s an enduring example of the flexibility of skateboarding as a medium for showcasing physical, filmic, and musical genius.