In something as physically (and mentally) taxing as skateboarding, it’s rare for a street skater to make a name for themselves and actually remain at the top of their game for very long. The constantly lurking perils of physical injury, the party lifestyle and the always possible potential to kook ones self out of the industry, most pro skaters are lucky to stay on it for a decade. And the few that do make it tend to get there on a high-powered rocket ship of ego. But there are those rare few who stay balanced, healthy and humble enough to set an example for all others to strive for. Jahmal Williams is one of these pillars. If you’ve had the good fortune to befriend or skate with Jahmal you will agree when I say that he is a special person and a true artist in every sense of the word. In an era where the term ‘DIY’ is used as a cheap tagline to sell products, Jahmal Williams sets a new standard. Because his long path from a poor, rough neighborhood in Boston to an icon of east coast skateboarding and owner of the highly-respected brand Hopps in New York city, Jahmal truly has ‘done it’ himself.
There are very very few street skaters in existence who have had a popular video part in the mid 1990’s while at the same time are finishing up a brand new, highly anticipated video part today in 2014. Jahmal Williams is one of those few. I first met Jahmal in Miami, Florida in the early 2000’s where he was living for a while and taking a break from the fast-paced northeast lifestyle. But it wasn’t until I moved to NYC in 2006 that we really became friends. Soon after we began working together on a new video part for a future Static project. Since then we have spent countless hours pushing through NYC late at night battling skatespots, security and pedestrians to refine a part that will come as close as possible to demonstrating to those who don’t know how special his voice on a skateboard is. A task that is, as with most skaters who have that special ‘something’, a tough challenge to meet. Since we started working together Jahmal has started his own brand, he’s gotten married and he’s become a father. All the while, taking little breaks whenever possible to meet up with me at odd hours and take a crack at getting a few tries at a spot before the security guard looks in his cc tv monitor. It’s been a long battle but the honor of getting to capture and present Jahmal’s unique spirit has been well worth it. And just when you think the stress of adult life and our 4th attempt at meeting at the same spot at midnight to get one clip is going to be too much for Jahmal to handle, he picks himself up off the ground does a backflip off a newspaper machine and runs back with a smile on his face ready to try again. Jahmal is an inspiration to all who know him and I’m really excited to be wrapping up his epic video part and honored to call him my friend.
What’s up Jahmal? A little bird told me that today is your birthday?
Yep it’s my Birthday. Never thought I would make it this far.
Nice….happy birthday! Do you care to tell us how many candles we should be putting on your cake?
There is no cake.. So there will be no candles.lol. But I can say that I’ve spent most of my life riding a skateboard.
And you’ve spent HALF of that time filming for Static 4. Amazing.
Well, I probably first learned about you from the Eastern Exposure 3 video in the mid-90’s, and it seems like you’ve made a mark in 3 different decades. How have you managed such longevity.
I’ve been foolishly following my heart the whole time. I also had some great role models along the journey. Thanks Ed (Templeton), Mike (Vallely), Cab and Lance (Mountain).
I don’t know if anybody else notices this, but when I watch you skate I can pick up on some of your history of breakdancing….and maybe even a little martial arts? Does anybody else ever say that?
No not really…..but usually after taking a bad fall and its dead quiet someone might say ‘how did you get out of that one?’
Kickflip to pivot in Harlem, NYC-Photo: Josh Stewart
And the secret answer is because you were a young B-Boy…..haha, nice. Well then, how did you get into B-boying?
It was the new thing to do in the hood after ghetto gymnastics. It was around 1981? I was always doing crazy stunts and flips. We wanted to be ninjas. B-boying caught my attention instantly. You didn’t need anything but your body and some music. Most of the time we there was no music. We would just pretend and use our imagination and creativity.
So were you in a crew that did like street performances? I think you told me that you were the kid they’d flip and toss around in the air?
I was never in a street performance crew but I was in a few neighborhood battles and I was the little kid that they would do the helicopter move with. That’s when one person stands up straight while the other person balances horizontal on their head. The person standing starts to spin around really fast and stops while the guy on top spins like a helicopter blade. I was the little kid getting thrown around. But I never got dropped.
Big shout out to the Floor Lords for keeping real Hip Hop alive in Boston.
Pre-teen Jahmal, ripping in Boston before you could tie your shoes
I was speaking with a friend the other day about how glorified the 90’s has become. It seems like young skaters almost study the 90’s era and try to emulate the styles, tricks and fashion from back then. But one thing people don’t really ever talk about was the vibe back then. It seemed like most cliques that made up each city were very territorial and ruthless to outsiders. I remember being terrified the first time I skated Pulaski in DC, Love Park or EMB in SF. Was Boston similar?
Back then not many people skated. Plus you had to stick together in the city and look out for each other. It was more for survival in a sense. So when new jacks came and tried to get down we weren’t having it. You gotta remember that we skated all day and night rain or shine. We didn’t like heads that would try to be a skater one day and switch up their steez another day. You had to be down and prove yourself. No cornballs, kooks ect. That’s just how it was. We were all street kids. When things got sketchy you gotta know who you’re rolling with. Once we got bum-rushed by security guards at this one spot in Copely Square and we all dipped on them. They tried their hardest to nail us as if we were criminals doing something really bad. Ray Echevers was the little one in the crew and got caught. Or it might have been our friend Gabriel….but we had to go back and fight grown men to get our friend back. They were dragging him into the building and we had to sstop it. Situations like this naturally made us grow into tighter clique because we had to take care of each other.
Yeah, that’s another thing that seems to have changed. Security guards aren’t agro like they used to be. I think because street skating was newer and less common they would go hard because they didn’t know what was up with it. Like maybe they feared it like it was gonna be some gang shit. Cops too…..haha, this is sounding like the old man ‘back in MY day, it was so much harder’. Ok, moving on.
What skaters would you say influenced your skating the most in your early years?
I was always a big fans of Matt Hensley, Vallely, Sheffey, Jovantae, Rick Ibaseta, Mike Kepper, Gabriel Rodriguez and Rudy Johnson.
What skaters do you find influential in the present?
I get influenced now by the younger new skaters I see and skate with in person. Heads like Arron Herrington, Cyrus Bennett and loose trucks Max (Max Palmer), Brian Clarke, Josh Wilson.
F-side wall ride at Lincoln Center, NYC-Photo: Stewart
When did you first start Hopps and where did you get the idea for that name?
I started Hopps in 2007. The name was sparked by one of my earliest memories of skating, when I first seen an Ollie. It was around 1988 and I was into BMX bike riding pretty heavy and I thought an ollie was a bunny-hop but more like a j-hop. Skateboarding was new, exciting and innocent to me at the time. So when I was thinking of a name for the brand that memory came up and I started tripping because it finally hit me that I was still skateboarding after all these years. It made perfect sense. Hopps reminded me of the innocence of why I started skating in the first place. I want this to be a new beginning that was fresh.
It seems like you with Hopps and Ricky Oyola with Traffic, that you guys started off a little early before people really started supporting these underground brands. Have you seen things change a lot since you first started out?
Big time….In 2007 I was calling shops all day getting the run around and getting shut down. I couldn’t get my foot in the door at all with a lot of shops. I thought that being an East Coast Pro that paid mad dues would carry some weight. Boy was that a eye opener. It was really tough. I didn’t give up tho. It was like learning a trick…I just kept trying. Big shout out to Ryan Hickey for opening the doors at Supreme which I’m proud to say was our first account. I remember showing him the line and being geeked out because he’s known for being brutally honest. He gave me the green light and said bring ‘em in when I get boards pressed up. Being a new company and trying to get into Supreme probably wasn’t the smartest thing to try and do at the time. My dreams could have been easily shattered. It’s a lot easier now a days I most say. You don’t have to prove yourself, anyone can be called a pro nowadays. Anyone can start a brand and have riders etc….which is rad too. But I feel like something is getting lost and skateboarding is becoming more of a commodity.
OG’s Quim Cardona, Jahmal and Billy Rohan loungin between 2 pillars of ivory -Photo: Stewart
Hopps seemed like a slightly risky approach for a brand. From the beginning your commercials were often very out-of-the-box, some didn’t even have any skating in them and your team consisted of mainly older skaters in the late 20’s or mid 30’s. Was this a deliberate decision or just chance?
Most of it was by chance but 30% percent of it was deliberate. There was no formula other than have fun and try to make something out of nothing. It all came together really organically and naturally. Kinda like when you force a trick and it doesn’t feel right. No matter how much you force it, something’s just doesn’t click. It’s when you don’t try so hard or when you allow it to be spontaneous it feels natural. That’s how a lot of this has happened.
What are some of the challenges to owning your own brand in this industry? With so many new brands popping up, how do you stand out from the crowd?
It’s a challenge to keep coming season after season. You’re so stoked after the first run of boards. 2nd and 3rd run of new graphics is still pretty cool. But to keep it up season after season is tough. Deadlines kick in, production gets messed up. Things always go wrong. Next thing you know you’re stressing over some stuff that you had no control over in the first place. It’s weird to me how competitive the industry is. Everyone falls under the spell off the dollar. There’s no escaping it. We’re not trying to stand out from the crowd were Just trying to be ourselves.
Seeing everything that’s out there, is there a certain message or ideal that you feel is lacking that you want to get across with Hopps?
There’s all the things that I grew up with in skating that I embody that I will try to transfer into Hopps. I can’t be too specific but we’re trying to be honest. We love skateboarding and I love doing it in the streets. There aren’t too many pros from my generation still skating or who have the opportunity to express their ideals and messages through their brand. I feel honored. Big ups to Rick Oyola and Traffic Skateboards. Real recognize Real.
Slappy up to feeble grind, NYC-Photo by Pep Kim
Do you think Joel Meinholz might actually be a super hero? Like maybe one of the X-Men? Is he the real Wolverine?
That’s Bender. He doesn’t exist all the time on the same plane with us all. Trust me. I’ve seen this dude defy all logic and reason and do some off the wall craze. It’s like the scene In ‘The Matrix’ when Neo is trying to bend the spoon. I will ask Joel how he did what he did sometimes and he will say some shit like ‘you can’t think about it..you have to be it.’
Can you explain why his new pro model features the Kool-Aid man smashing through a wall?
Hahaaa. He’s always coming in hot. You said it one day clowning him that he’s like the Kool-Aid Man busting in on the set and we all just start laughing so hard. It was too good. It stuck in my head ever since. The graphic is a totally inside joke making fun of him. He got a kick out of it which was the point. That’s how he is. 100% percent full throttle. We get to a spot to skate and he’s full throttle. No warm ups. Just going for it. Sometimes he gets broke off too. Not a pretty site. Half the time I don’t understand how a person can deal with so much pain.
You’ve recently made some new additions to the team. Can you tell me who all rides for Hopps now?
There is a few of us now. Joel Meinholz, Steve Brandi, Brian clarke, Dustin Eggeling and Keith Denley. We also have some other fresh new talented riders that I’m proud to be putting boards under their feet. I think people will be stoked on who they are when the time comes to introduce them. Each and every one of them are super rad street skaters and all of them embody the rawness and spirit of Hopps.
Jahmal and Steve Brandi NYC 2013-Photo by Josh Stewart
We’ve been filming together for about 6 years now working on ‘Static 4’. Or has it been longer, haha…..why do you think it’s taken so fuckin long?
It hasn’t been that long…..really? I don’t know I’m just skating. I’m just going out for the sessions. I’m not editing or putting together everyone’s part. That’s too much responsibility for me to handle. I just try to pretend the camera isn’t there and we just jam.
Does any one memory stick out from the countless nights of being out filming in the city over the years? Anything sketchy or funny?
Na, I can’t say. I just like being out there creeping around NYC exploring the concrete jungle. The first couple of sessions going out with you, Bobby, and Steve was probably the most memorable because I really didn’t hang with you guys and there I was pushing around with you guys, tight logging clips.
Looking ahead to the Static 4 premiere, happening soon hopefully, is there a specific part you’ll be proud for people to see? Like, a specific skater you’ll be stoked to finally get seen or recognized?
I’m looking froward to seeing Mark the Shark’s part and Arron Herringtons part. I’m stoked to see the whole body of work. I feel like this is gonna be a pivotal video for this moment in time kinda like Eastern Exposure was.
You and Marcus Manoogian worked together on a new little video piece that is releasing today for the first time. Can you tell me about it and warm up the crowd a little before we check it out?
Marcus convinced me to let him and Vic film me painting. Painting is very intimate and personal to me so I wasn’t into it at first. We were trying to figure out how to show the creative process of painting and how parts and pieces come together visually. Being that a lot of my inspiration for art comes from music and skateboarding it worked out well in the end to form a 3 board graphic series.
Describe an ideal skate session in New York City.
Uptown and downtown with the Hopps Crew. No bust. Hi energy. On a beautiful summer day with lots of eye candy around. Then skitching a car uptown on smooth avenues doing 35mph through blocks with a cool driver behind the wheels enjoying watching us in the rear view window living it up.
What does the rest of 2014 look like for you and for Hopps?
We’re just gonna do what we do. Push harder and faster, only looking back when we’re switching lanes.
Ollie up f-side no-comply NYC-Photo by Pep Kim
Well, happy birthday Jahmal. I’m pretty honored that we’ve been able to work together for so long and polish off a full video part this deep into your career. Pretty incredible. I think people are going to be blown away. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.