Hey, You’re Cool! Black Skaters Matter Creator Lee Smith
“Some people, incredibly, think I’m saying black skaters matter more than white skaters”
“They used to tell us—and some people still say—’If you’re black, you shouldn’t ride a skateboard,’” says the OG skater, who’s been kick-pushing for 25 years, 10 of which were pro. Smith was one of a select few boarders handpicked by Kareem Campbell to join the Menace team—a pioneering sponsor in terms of embracing diverse, urban riders. “It’s like saying, ‘Well, we do matter’. And if you look now compared to like 15 years ago, there are so many black skateboarders.”
MASS APPEAL sat down with Smith to talk about a skate career that’s taken him around the world, the pushback against black skaters back in the day, and the reaction he’s gotten to his Black Skaters Matter decks.
How did you start skating?
I would butt board down the hills—obviously everybody knows San Francisco has a lot of hills. So I just started skating down hills and then one day there was a book fair at my school and I picked one up and it was guys doing tricks on boards. It never occurred to me that you could do that. So that sparked my fascination. Then from there I just kind of took an interest in it and started seeking information. I knew there was more to it than just a children’s toy.
I watched an interview of yours and you’re kind of self-deprecating about your skills. What’s that about?
I think that’s my defense mechanism and kind of my humor, my humoristic style. I know most comedians have that, although I’m not a comedian, but I feel like that’s kind of my go-to sense of humor.
So you were kind of nice on your skateboard then?
Mmmmmm, I was okay. I’m friends with some of the best skateboarders in the world so if you’re friends with Jay-Z and you’re Memphis Bleek, like yeah, Memphis Bleek is a good rapper but Jay-Z’s like a better rapper. So you always compare yourself to your peers or whatever.
Are there some skaters out there that would be like, “I am the G.O.A.T.”?
That would say that about themselves? Ehhh, that attitude is kind of frowned upon in skateboarding. Within the skate community there are people who have had that type of attitude and unfortunately it doesn’t help their career much. But no, the skateboarding community is more or less just supporting one another to the fullest.
You mentioned in that interview that skating was not your priority. What was your priority back then?
It was like just partying, getting girls, going to clubs. We loved skateboarding but in my day—in the ’90s—if you skateboarded but you trained, went to bed early, didn’t drink, stretched and took care of yourself, then skaters would make fun of you.
Has that changed?
It’s changed a lot and I think money made that change because now people have corporate sponsors and they have big-time endorsements. They take it more seriously. We just made a few pennies and would go on tour and sleep in like, Motel 6.
How long were you pro?
I’ve been skateboarding for like 25 years. I was pro for the first kind of urban skateboard company, called Menace. That was like the first company that had inner-city kids and kind of used that as their image or whatever. From there I was pro for about 10 years. I’m still always involved in the skateboarding scene. All my friends are skaters.
What did sponsorship look like back then?
You’d get free product: all that you would want or could need. You go on tours—everything is paid for. As an amateur skateboarder, you might make like $500 or $750 a month. As a pro you would make like $1,700 to $2,500 a month, and you don’t have to work. And it seemed really cool at the time. The more sponsors that you get, the more money that you make. So you make $1,500 from your board sponsor, $1,500 from your shoe sponsor, clothing—you get the idea.
So Menace was the first to cater to urban kids.
Menace was created by Kareem Campbell, who is a black guy. He grew up in Harlem, moved to L.A. when he was young. He would just ride up and down his block and then he met some kids and saw them doing tricks. Just like how I saw that magazine, once he saw these kids doing tricks he was like, “Oh, I can do that. I want to try that too.” So the company was very organic in its image and what it was because he hand-picked everybody who rode for the team. So it was very natural.
They would make different boards for you, like that “Black Bastard” board. Obviously a nod to KMD.
Yeah, definitely inspired by that.
Did you have input into the designs that they were making?
I did not because I turned pro and about a year or nine months after I turned pro the company went out of business. So I had only had a few pro models on that company and then my sponsorship with them was over. After that I rode for Santa Cruz.
Did you have a signature move?
I’m more famous in skateboarding for my personality. I always compare everything in skating to hip hop. So you know how you might see a rapper who might not be the best rapper but for some reason all the rappers like him because they know him as a person and everyone loves him? That’s kind of like how I am in skateboarding.
Since you stopped skating professionally, what do you do now?
I took a different route and I’ve been in television production for the last few years. Behind the scenes, associate producer, helping with with storylines, putting things together, getting locations, things like that.
Where are your top three places to skate?
Barcelona, San Francisco, and L.A.
Not New York?
New York aesthetically is better than all three of those places when you look at it on film or footage. But just to skate it is very rough and there’s not a lot of open space here. There’s no plazas, there’s not a lot of smooth ground. New York is a hard place to skate but it’s visually the best-looking place.
How’d you come up with the idea for “Black Skaters Matter?”
I was talking with a friend about everything that’s going on and we were having some beers and just came up with that. It made me laugh. It’s kind of a message to other black people, because they used to tell us—and some people still say—“If you’re black, you shouldn’t ride a skateboard.” So it’s like saying, “Well, we do matter” and if you look now compared to like 15 years ago, there are so many black skateboarders. Half the kids of all the rappers skate. Every kid wants to skate. So it’s a little tongue-[in]-cheek, saying that we can do whatever we want.
Was the push back initially from other people in the skate community or was it from people outside thinking that it was weird to see a black kid on a skateboard?
It wasn’t internally. It wasn’t from the skate community. It was from other black kids. I know a kid in San Francisco—every time he went home he had to hide his board in the bushes because he didn’t want the guys in his neighborhood to see it. If they saw his skateboard, they would break it, throw it away or take it because they felt like black kids shouldn’t skate. It was just an insane stereotype that we had to deal with back in the day.
Now that’s gone?
I’m not sure if it is, but it’s far less nowadays.
What’s been the response to the deck?
There’s been mixed feelings. A lot of people love it and a lot of people don’t get it. Some people, incredibly, think I’m saying black skaters matter more than white skaters. Just like some people think Black Lives Matter is saying that those lives matter more than other lives, which it’s not. People take it differently. Some people said I’m trying to capitalize on the movement. Or just following trends. Everybody has something to say about everything nowadays. It’s fine. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion and it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s just a skateboard graphic.
How many did you make?
I only made like 50 skateboards. I have like 20 left.
What is your plan for the boards? I heard you might want to use them to raise money for charity, like maybe the Harold Hunter Foundation?
Essentially, I made them for myself. I made them for fun. But if I’m not going to sell all these boards, I’d like to do something with them.
Are you actively looking for someone to partner with?
Sure. I’m open to anything.
Who are your top five black skaters and why?
No. 1 is Kareem Campbell, because obviously I skated for his company for a long time and we spent a lot of time together. He took me from being a kid in San Francisco to traveling around the world with him. I think he’s one of the greatest skaters of all time. He has amazing style and I just think he’s a legend. My next two are brothers: Lavar and Marcus McBride. I grew up with them in San Francisco. Karl Watson—we grew up together. He’s one of the last guys from my generation in San Francisco that’s still pro. I met him at school when I was in 6th grade and he took me to Embarcadero and we started skating together. I look up to him a lot. No. 5 is Stevie Williams. Just a great dude, super successful. I’m proud of everything he’s achieved through skateboarding. He always had a different vision than we had and his vision paid off a little bit more than ours did, which is great. I’m super psyched for him and I just really love him and his skating.
What is the vision that you’re talking about that was a little different?
He was always more into kind of like… making money. And we were more into having fun.
You’ve said that choosing between skaters is like choosing between Jay-Z and Nas. So I have to ask: Jay-Z or Nas?
Ooooh. Oh. Ehhh, I’m going to say Nas.