Growing up at The Banks, managing the Supreme New York store, inventing tricks with Stevie and how corporations can contribute to skateboarding: this is the story of Charles Lamb.
Let’s get this out of the way: who invented the Sabu flip (nollie inward heel front bigspin)?
Ok, here’s this story. I’ve only been to Love Park once. I went there with my friend Chad Scoville and we stayed at Anthony Pappalardo’s house for a weekend. First day at Love I was so stoked. Everything was just as you would imagine it, in tact. I started doing a nollie heel tailslide on the ledge off stairs, and Blabac happened to be there shooting it. Kalis and Bill were there also and sure enough Stevie came around with one of his homies. I did the trick a few times, sat down to drink some water, and started skating flat again. I did a nollie inward heel front bigspin on flat. All of a sudden Stevie came up to me with his friend. He said “what do you call that trick”? I told him what it was. He said “that’s not gonna fly, you have to call it a SABU flip, cuz that’s my nickname”. I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t really care what the trick was called, but he then followed up with “ I heard you did that in a few (Logic) videos”. So for the record, and I’m not claiming it because he may as well have did it first, but I think I got it on camera and in a video first. I was completely unaware that he did this trick. Stevie is the homie though and has always been super respectful and I’ve seen him here in SF which was dope. His Chocolate part was on repeat in my house. He’s a hard act to follow for sure; such an innovative skater.
Very, very true. Growing up on Staten Island, how and when did you get into skating?
My first exposure to skateboarding was when I saw a group of teenagers skating down the hill I grew up on. One of them hopped up onto the sidewalk and ollied a trash can standing up. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. I said to myself right then and there “I have to do this”.
How big of an influence was growing up skating The Banks?
I learned mostly everything from skating The Banks. You would show up any day and get to see raw street skating. I saw Mike Vallely ollie over the wall after they put the additional fence on top of it. I saw Maurice Key innovating tech moves at the peak of the World era. I witnessed countless tricks being done down the 9 stairs, including Brian Wenning’s switch 360 flip. I learned to ollie and eventually flip my board high enough to get it over the wall. I learned how to do tricks on the bank that I couldn’t even do on flat ground. There was a ton of contests there and the cast of characters was endless. It wasn’t always fun and games at The Banks however. People would steal your board if you showed any vulnerability. Being a scrawny white kid with blonde hair, I knew I was a target, but somehow I never got picked on by thugs because I never stopped skating. I saw a lot of fights there and saw someone get stabbed at a contest. I saw Vinny Raffa get rolled down the hill by the skate shop owner, Benji. The good thing about all this is that it forced me to grow up a little faster. I went to school and heard kids my age talking about stuff and thought “they haven’t seen anything”.
Who was your first sponsor?
My first sponsor was a shop in Chinatown called Benji’s Ultimate Journey. They threw a contest at The Banks and I placed first, and they put me on that day. It was less about a “sponsorship” and more about being welcomed into an already tight knit circle of friends that skate together. Everything was a learning experience from there. Those guys taught me a lot. During this time I only skated around the financial district and Battery Park. There were so many spots these guys were showing me, there was little need to stray further.
Tell me about Vehicle.
Vehicle was the sickest company. It was run by Robbie Gangemi, Jamie Story, and Gio Estevez. Jamie was the one that had initially put me on. I had skated for Supreme at the time and was a local, and the company was run out of the basement of the Supreme store on Lafayette street. I remember being really stoked on the concepts realized by Jamie and Robbie, and Gio’s artwork was so different from what was going on in the skate world and that tied it together really well. It had kind of a Metropolitan vibe, but even artsier, and the team was all really unique. Akira had the wild bag of tricks, Gangemi was the powerhouse legend, Vanik was super smooth, Eli was the Boston manual master and Ed had that crazy yellow jacket.
When you were on Vehicle, you were filming the EST 2 part. What was skating like for you during this time
During that time I had already been accumulating footage with a bunch of different filmers, and RB Umali said he wanted to give me a part, so we just collected it together and he started editing. The timing was good because I was getting into a comfort zone with skating and had been hitting downtown Manhattan long enough to know all the spots. So to the question, I never really felt pressure during the filming of it.
Were any of you getting paid by Vehicle? How were you paying your bills during this time?
I’ve never been paid for skateboarding. I worked in an office right next to The Banks in the municipal building; I had a data entry job for the department that certifies potential civil service candidates. So jobs like policemen, firemen, sanitation, etc. It was 9-5 hours and I would skate all weekend. I was dating a girl that had a place in Chelsea, and also lived at my folks, so I would bounce between these places and didn’t actually have to pay rent.
Nice. Your skating has always been really advanced. EST 2 dropped in 2001 and you were doing nollie front heel switch crooks. Your lines at Chase still stand out as some of the best done there to this day. Did you feel like skateboarders in New York didn’t get as much attention from the industry as they could have?
I always felt like skaters in New York should’ve gotten more shine. Back then, there were only a handful of people filming that actually had ties into the industry, so unless you were filming with them, you wouldn’t get noticed. That was the factor. So much talent went unnoticed, but sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles. I think people just started buying cameras after this point and more independent videos started coming out which was sick to see. Poppalardo and Wenning opened people’s eyes to east coast talent a little more and it got a little more visibility after that.
Do you think that has changed even more now?
I started seeing pro skaters move to New York after the 90’s. I don’t know what it was, but I feel like California was becoming too uniform for some of the more creative pros. Dill moved here and lived above a Burger King on Canal street and I remember seeing AVE there for the first time. I couldn’t believe these people were just there you know? Skating has its’ own evolution for each skater and it’s so important to change your environment. All of a sudden New York had so many iconic spots after all these guys got photos and footage here, and then you have your Midwest groups coming here every summer for skate trips. People are making a name for themselves in skating just by being in New York. I can name so many.
You gave skate lessons, correct?
I actually got a job as a skate instructor for summer camp programs at Chelsea Piers, the sports facility on the west side highway. This was a time way before the Chelsea park that exists now. It was wooden ramps, a halfpipe, a 6 foot mini, a micro mini, and 10 ft vert wall. We ran a skate program through the summer camp, and parents of children who were excited about it signed up for private lessons through the Chelsea piers office. They cost $60 an hour. So after a day of summer camp, it was likely you would get two private lessons. Then I learned that I could just get cash in hand if I organized the lessons without Chelsea Piers being involved. My friend Andre and I started doing that, and crafting the actual lessons to get the kids “street ready”. The response was good, so when summer camp was over for the season, we were booked doing lessons until November. I did this for a few years and it taught me a lot about dealing with people from all walks of life. It didn’t pay for college, but it payed rent!
What did you take at school?
I was an English major in creative writing at Hunter College. This was a challenging time. I was living part time with my girlfriend who lived in Chelsea, the rest of that time I was with my folks on Staten, so the commute made it difficult. On weekends I was trying to give 3-4 lessons in the AM, and skate the rest of the daytime. It was a little overwhelming so as a result I took my time with school, but the reward was I filmed the Lurkers 2 part, graduated college and kept the job.
How did you end up working at Supreme?
I was riding for Supreme during and right after college. This was before Hypebeast existed, and Supreme was a hub/hangout for skaters, artists, and all the riff raff that comes along with the territory. I remember being in the backroom, coming from job interviews, feeling naturally discouraged. I mentioned to Gio Estevez that I’d work there if given the chance. So, I indirectly asked him for a job. I came in a week later and he said “So I mentioned you to James, he wants to interview you Friday”. Just like that I came in and James was really cool and down to earth, asked me the right questions and I started a week later.
I worked at Supreme for just about 9 years. I came in as a manager and worked with Gio, Ryan Hickey, Geo Moya, Ty Lyons, and some others. The role changed when the business expanded. I was fortunate enough to help Supreme after the opening of their London store for a month. That was great because I got to put to use all my knowledge of the business beyond physically running a store. A lot of thought gets put into James’ business and I was able to do the same for that location. Eventually, I wanted to grow more and decided I could better build my skill set if I left the job altogether.
Back Nosegrind, Photo: Stochl
What was it like to see a brand with demand like that first hand? Any crazy/interesting shopper stories?
It was definitely a compelling experience working for Supreme. First off, they just don’t hire anyone. You have to already know everyone there, so no outsiders. That has definitely changed now. Day one was a blizzard of people and a very large sell through. The product has such a following that it sells itself; the staff just has to deliver and maintain order, which is the biggest challenge when dealing with the public. I’ve seen fights, in store and out, I’ve seen absolute fanatics put themselves in the worst position possible to be one of the first in line for release days, I’ve seen dudes hire people off the street to go in and buy quantities of something so they can re-sell, I’ve seen it all. Before I worked at Supreme, I was already head to toe in the gear because for me, it represented a niche, downtown, New York city skate scene. I liked wearing it because NOBODY knew what it was, but the clothing itself was so well done that it was eye catching. I always went for the conversation piece sweater. This is before SB, and “street wear” wasn’t even a term yet. Fast forward six or seven years, and there are lines literally around the block reaching up to Crosby and Houston of people eagerly waiting to get inside this store. There’s a lot of stories and quotes, but there used to be this Japanese kid who called himself “Crazy Mother Fucker”. He came in and knew all of our names. He idolized the 90’s and the KIDS movie. He even had his friend go into Wavy’s (bodega) and film him stealing a 40 by stuffing it down his pant leg, mimicking how Justin Pierce did it in KIDS. He used to shout things out like “DITP…..diggin in the pushy….”. Man, that guy was a trip. I could write a book about things that happened there.
Can you talk more about why you left?
I left with the thinking that I was getting on in age, and even though having Supreme on your resume was definitely a good thing, I wasn’t exactly building a skill set that translated well into other areas of the industry. I left to relax for a few months and start pursuing the next thing. I didn’t even know what that was, but I wanted to move on. I tried my hand at a few different things. Fortunately, circumstances worked out. If I have any advice for anyone, it’s to be cordial to everybody; you never know who can help you out or take an opportunity away.
Working at Supreme, seeing their business model, did it have a big influence on how you look at brands and the demand that can be created for a product?
Definitely. All those years being front and center seeing the demand first hand, I saw how other brands couldn’t compete even though they were in the same “category” or niche. Street wear as a whole came up because of Supreme, because people saw the opportunity and wanted a piece of it. Staying ahead in that world is a difficult thing, and Supreme always set that standard. I couldn’t believe what other competing brands were putting out in terms of product, it was like they didn’t do their homework. Now in the skate world, you have big shoe brands, and smaller board brands that make clothing that pays for the hard goods. So every little company has a story attached to it.
After you left Supreme and relaxed for those months what did you do?
When I left Supreme I actually was doing some PA work on sets for photo shoots. These jobs were usually at studios like Pier 59 at Chelsea Piers. It was just a means to get some money while I searched for a job I really wanted. The actual work part of those jobs and the hours sucked. I’m not knocking anyone who does that full time, but they are not aspirational positions at all. Work like a dog, go home. However, it was good for me: it propelled me to step my game up and start getting after the real thing. Shortly after a few of those gigs, I helped out my friend Moose’s marketing agency, Land-See, who did event projects for Nike SB. I helped on an experiential space in the lower east side, which had weekly events for the skate community; photography workshops, cinematography workshops, and the workshop that had the best turnout was the board-shaping workshop. That was super fun and made all the kids psyched on what goes in to making an actual skateboard. A lot of these kids had no clue how they’re made, and they left very enlightened. After that I realized that I just wanted to be involved making a great product for skateboarding. When I left Supreme I got back into skating ten-fold. I did my best to film all the time after what seemed like years. I guess it was like a 2nd wind or something.
How did the Levi’s job come up and what’s your role?
The Levi’s job came about by bumping into my friend Adam Binette while I was visiting San Francisco. It was by chance that he was on the same street as me, and told me he worked there and was leaving to work at Converse. I messaged him after we had that conversation in the street, and met him at the office the next day. The interview process began, which took quite some time, but that’s how I got in the door. My role is in merchandising. I work closely with design, product development, planning, and marketing. We essentially create a line of products each season with a different inspirational story. It’s a really great place for me to be and I’m lucky to still be working in skateboarding to some extent.
There’s a lot of discussion over the pros and cons of non-endemic brands being involved in skateboarding. What value does Levi’s bring to the skate community? I feel they’ve taken a much different approach entering the skate industry than other big brands.
The big theme of Levi’s skateboarding is that we DON’T want to be one of these large brands that puts people out of business or strictly make money from skateboarding. It’s kind of like our passion project. The message is that we’re into giving back to skating and the communities involved, while making products that are long lasting and can withstand the abuse. Levi’s started as a workwear company and you’ll see that theme come through in our products and iconography. That’s while you see the Levi’s films, are all about building parks or DYI’s in places and communities that not only don’t have skate parks, but lack anything for the youth in their community to do. There’s a documentary on building a park in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, which is an Indian reservation. Having a park built there gives the youth in their community a place to go and an alternative to drugs and the lifestyle that goes with that. If we feel good about what we’re doing and feel good about the product, then we know we’re doing something right.
How has Levi’s been accepted by shops and skateboarders? Has there been push back? Has it been embraced? What are some of the challenges you guys have had to overcome?
Everyone that owns this product loves it. The films and events that our marketing team puts together do a great job in showcasing the mission we’re on. Skateboarders are definitely backing it, but we just don’t want to be viewed as some blood sucking company just riding the skateboarding wave like so many others. We have an actual skate team and they’re like a family. Everyone brings something different to the table. They all work hard when it’s time for a build project, and are always ready to skate it directly after. I haven’t heard anything negative in terms of how it performs, but as always, the challenge is price point. An eighteen year old isn’t going to spend $78 on a pair of jeans, but a 25 year old with a job will. Explaining the technology that is woven into the fabric is really important, but how many consumers read that stuff when our product is sitting next to a pair of $50 jeans? There’s ways around this kind of thing, but we have to be thinking on it constantly.
To be relevant in skateboarding today, what do you think brands need to do?
For me, authenticity is really important. I think you have to be able to have a particular lifestyle attached to your brand for it to be a competitor in today’s market. It’s easy enough to conjure up some imagery and graphics, but the lifestyle is what will draw attention and make you stand out. I always think of Polo as a brand. Ralph is a dude from the Bronx, but his design and taste in clothing suggested the finer things in life. Easy enough formula, but hard to capture the right thing. In skateboarding, the videos really do it all for the brands when it comes down to it. A Magenta clip isn’t going to look at all like a DGK clip. So it’s all those factors of differentiation that create how you look at experiencing a brand and the lifestyle. Brands I like are DQM, After Midnight, Alltimers, Paterson, Bronze, Jamaica, Hardies, etc. They’re all bringing something different, so they don’t compete in a lifestyle space. Being unique, authentic, and having a point of view is definitely the most important thing for me when I look at brands.
How do you like living in SF? How does it compare and contrast to living in New York?
SF is a really beautiful place. When I talk to people in New York they only think of the bums and the piss smell in the tenderloin. That is actually only a tiny area and I’m actually rarely near it. The rest of the place is really great, there are plenty of parks, the hills give you great views of the bay, food is pretty good, and it’s a lot less stressful here. It was perfect for me to come here to settle down and get focused.
I miss New York for a lot of reasons. First off is family and friends live there so that’s important. The convenience of New York is pretty spoiling; it’s not so easy here. I never even rode the train unless I was going really far or it was bitter cold and snowing outside. Especially living downtown, everything you need is right there. My last place was on University and 10th street. Everything I needed was footsteps away.
In SF it is exactly the opposite. Everything is 15-20 minutes away. This requires more planning so there’s a lot less spontaneity (unless during a skate day). I also have to mention that the demographic of inhabitants in this city now are mostly from the tech industry. You can spot them easily on their motorized cruiser boards, tech name branded hoodies, and overall disregard of appearance. Because there are so many of these bros around, I hang out a lot less. I stay at home with the lady, or I’ll socialize only after work very early. Bedtime here is between 10-11 and we get up at 7 without an alarm. In New York, I’d be out until 12 every night without ever having to make solid plans because it’s easier there. The creative community in New York also makes it so that there’s plenty of events to go to and provide those social experiences. Here, there is a creative crowd, but I hear about them less.
What do you think of the independent, skater-owned movement coming out of New York and other places
Independently owned skate brands are important wherever they come out of, but I definitely think the brands from New York have a leg up on being noticed or followed first. Everyone loves New York footage. Footage can look the same, but the energy the clips capture can’t be replicated. There’s always so much going on.
But the novelty of being the new brand or from New York wears off after a while. What can these brands do to keep the excitement around them going?
Everyone wants to watch skating. We’re in the time now where you have to put things out there immediately. Save up the gems, but keep everyone interested.
You still skate all the time. What keeps you going out?
My initial thoughts about SF was influenced by talking with skaters that had lived there prior to New York, and they all said that it was dead here. I’m pretty sure they were just referring to spots. I had little expectation. Once I got here I saw so many little obstacles that I got super psyched on lurking around and I discovered that it’s quite the opposite from what these dudes told me. SF is a city, and cities are always evolving, and in that, new spots come and old ones go. So, while a place like Fort Miley is always going to be around, the downtown area will always have fresh new places and obstacles to offer.
Another factor that adds to the excitement is that the scene here is very strong. I’ve been to at least 10 premiers here, the skateparks are always full, people film all the time and a ton of content comes out of the Bay area. The energy is constant here. I also get really psyched on watching my friend’s insta clips. Eli has been on a roll, and all the random street clips keep me inspired. This is the first time in my life I don’t have to deal with a winter and basically quit for 6 months, so that’s a major factor as well.
Are you going to skate this weekend?
Yeah, for sure.