A Brief Conversation - Don Brown
Getting up for a 9am interview doesn't sound that alluring to most but SoleTech head honcho Don Brown kindly removed himself from his morning routine to discuss our shared love of skateboarding. It's hard to fathom for a 20-something from the Midlands, but Don grew up in 70s Brighton, competed across Europe and alongside Pierre Andre built one of the largest skate shoe companies on the planet.
The original intention for the chat was to help me through my current fascination with freestyle a now much under appreciated form of skateboarding. With the growth of the wooden toy Freestyle was sort of left by the wayside and put under the 'kook' or 'circus trick' heading. However this side of the skate world deserves a bit of light in our current turbulent times, the freestylers who isolated themselves are now joined by the other 99% of skaters looking for a quick fix in a small section of their house, garden or local car park.
As we bounced from subject to subject it became clear that this short(ish) interview needed to be peeled back, spliced and categorised much like the aspects of skateboarding that we all itemise on a daily basis. Take a read, look at the photos and send any continuity complaints to my email.
When I really got into it was 81, that’s when I connected with it emotionally, that was an all time low for skate history too. There were probably only 50 skateboarders in the whole of England and 1 or 2 skate shops. All these people were isolated to an extent.
The 'freestyle' side is different. If you were looking at a ‘Thrasher’ or whatever skate mag available from the US, you’d notice everyone was skating everything; freestyle, slalom or downhill. Street skating was just emerging at that point. There’d be pictures of Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, Billy Ruff etc, doing freestyle as well as vert. We thought it must be cool!
I'd borrow my friend's freestyle board when I found that it was a creative escape to go do whatever I wanted to do, by myself. There were no burdens of having anyone else around me. It was a good thing, every night I'd escape the family setting. I’d go down to the beach in Brighton where I grew up, go skate and tinker around just do whatever on a skateboard. It was just that foundation of finding skateboarding and me growing up. It came from freestyle. I wasn’t a freestyler, I was a skateboarder who borrowed the freestyle board who blossomed from there.
It's interesting you bring up slalom, downhill, vert and obviously street came later. ATV is a term that gets thrown around so-so, for example OSKI is an ATV he skates street and transition? Cone skating, downhill, freestyle, street, vert... surely that's the genetic make-up of an ATV, perhaps Andy Anderson could be close to this version?
He’s definitely one of the closest, at the same time he’s on that other side of skateboarding. Andy grew up in freestyle I believe, then got more onto the street and vert whatever.
There are others I see though, TJ Rogers believe it or not. Its like he's not even trying. He can do freestyle tricks like to Rail or Casper. I have the feeling they’ve never tried it either. Its easy for him. Freestyle brings out that extra creativity especially in the static environment that's right to your point about isolating. It's going to be interesting how the paradigm will shift with the creativity in skateboarding. A strict rule like this might be embraced by skateboarders for the better.
That's rad to know, the man's got it all! Could you take us through utilising small spaces?
Growing up in England as you well know the weather is so shit. Freestyle was easy you could go do it in a car park and in a small part of it too. You'd be by yourself, avoiding crap, piss and oil patches. You relatively get left alone if its just yourself. You didn’t need the huge space a 10x10 would suffice, Steve Rocco and others were working on those static tricks with movement; headstands, 360s, ‘pirouettes’.
Haha. That kind of stuff, in late 79/80 it transitioned to Nosewheelies, 360s, then to Rail, Casper and flipping the board. It was a new world, not just rolling on the wheels. It wasn’t about rolling. You didn’t even need the skateboard ha, you could probably have put two squared blocks on trucks, glue it and do stuff. It almost took away the act of skateboarding. It created a bag of circus tricks. You’d learn to get to rail and start flipping off your tail whilst in Primo, 1,2,3 or 4 flips, then to Casper landing flips onto trucks too. It kind of opened up a whole new thing, handstands to primo or even in primo. Truckstand to handstand. It was crazy, a whole new realm that hadn’t been seen before.
Other than Rocco did you have any other inspirations at the time?
Obviously Rodney (Mullen) took it to it to a whole new level in the US and Per Welinder from Sweden. Shane Rouse from England too because he was someone who brought the community together in the 80s, from a freestyle standpoint he was one of the best in the world. Just from watching Shane, seeing him doing all the static tricks was always kind of inspirational.
Being so close to the capital in Brighton did you end up travelling to and skateboarding in London much?
It was the 80s, it was the recession period, if you put that into the context and personally we didn’t have any money growing up. I didn’t get to go that much, I did with Ian Deacon and the Pig City Brighton crew. There was a freestyle scene at Southbank we’d see and skate with.
There's some great images in the Long Live South Bank book. I love those Slalom images at SB it's about time they do that again.
Slalom on the English side was massive. Simon Levine was from Brighton, he was in the Santa Cruz videos slaloming, being punk, smoking and telling people to fuck off haha.
Martin Screemy was probably the best slalom skater in the world and he was from South Bank. (Dobie, Chris Jalmpous) had Freestyle boards too. Paul Sumner was one of the best round there.
Were you buying your stuff from Slam City at the time or did you have a local store?
Our local shop in Brighton was called 'Alpine Action' but it closed pretty much because all the product got stolen constantly.
You would have to travel so far, to buy a skateboard. If you did you’d hopefully get a skate mag too. It could be up to 6 months old though, so Innovation and progression came slowly from media outlets on a European standpoint. The US was leading the way, pioneering skateboarding both physically and on an 'industry' level.
It’s funny the shop we went to was in London which was 55 miles away. Skating was still really small. We’d go to London and Slam when it was underneath Rough Trade. It was kind of early days over there; but that’s where we’d go to get all the product.
Skateboarding like any other culture can get competitive whether its friendly or not, can you talk about your first experiences of comp skating, was it in the UK first then the US?
The first one I went to was Farnborough in 1981. Randomly, this is where I met Pierre André. They were having a freestyle and vert contest so we drove up in Ian Deacon's old Ford, we had a stolen bottle of Pernod mixed with blackcurrant and we went up to to London with that, the whole way up we drank that concoction. It wasn't just my first comp, it was the first hangover I ever had too.
You know the feeling? Your first hangover?
We slept on the ramp that night. I felt like shit, I couldn’t even skate. When I eventually woke up everyone turned up and someone was cleaning my puke off the ramp. Haha.
The French crew JP, Jean Marc and more would build groups of people who would travel to these contests, it meant a lot to people. I didn’t understand there was a Euro skate comp community. Belgium, Germany, France, a few people from England too, they'd go to every comp.
That was my first introduction to comps, which was my inspiration to what was possible, we’d be sharing tricks, you had your own unique set of tricks and everyone would freak out on what each other were doing. Everyone would leave and learn it back home. It kept everyone going and evolving the 'discipline'.
The Olympics are coming up and you skated in the UK, Münster, Grand Prix and the Gold cup series. Do you see those roots that began in the 80s still in these huge competitions now or have they become a beast of their own?
Yeah, they are a lot different and they have evolved. I’m so blessed or whatever to have been there in the early days, being from the 2nd/3rd generation. The first time seeing that side of it then the 80s, but seeing this unknown growth and where it is today, we had no idea it would be this big and impactful on global culture where it is today.
When I was 15 we would skate in Hove and mostly Hove town hall. Nice little elderly ladies would give you shit haha. ‘You’re too old, get a job’, it was that time when skating was just something kids did. It was a toy, for children who were 5 to 10 and never do it again. It’s weird to see the progression. All the way back at Southbank there would be 10 people gathered around, challenging each other all compared to all the way to Münster which was pure chaos.
People would go so hard drinking and drugs pushing it too wild. I watched Gator and Steve Schneer one night fighting naked between themselves and hotel managers, as well as people falling out of windows on drugs that whole 80’s excess definitely isn’t there anymore.
Today at Street League people will hang out with their managers, trainers and yoga instructors drinking energy drinks. Fuck I don’t know, being from that older generation of mayhem, I loved the mayhem. It’s not there now at SLS, there’s the Japanese Olympic coach instead. Wow. I just always loved skateboarding and the progression I don’t hate the cleanliness of big marketable competitions, its just something I’m not about.
It’s a new thing and it’s there for a wider audience.
I appreciate the format. It is what it is. It’s not what it was. It’s definitely weirder and wider now.
Would you say it's just separate from the original intent rather than different then?
Yeah, there wasn’t training facilities in the 80s and no big sponsors from the outsiders. Skateboarding is influential, so it will cause that intake of larger companies. There's always someone with more money who wants a piece of subcultures and what's 'cool' and at the moment that’s skateboarding. But, it's great in this situation for skateboarding. It's amazing, as a much as I'm not a fan of Nike and Adidas buying up the industry I appreciate the fact they are giving people money to skate. They can give back in certain ways but I feel they are homogenising it to make skateboarding like the other sports they have, and making sure who they’ve got hits that podium. It’s a constant battle with the cultural side of skateboarding whether its art or street cultures. Its all about winning at any cost. Which for them defines success.
For me with comps, the winner has to be skateboarding. You can give whoever $10,000 for coming first but what has it done for the culture as a whole?
Exactly, throughout the comps Neil Blender and Mark Gonzales would come through and they didn’t need to win the contest, you felt satisfied they could turn up and do stuff no one had ever done before.
Getting everyone together at that time was a chance for skaters to see new tricks, they were isolated in their own little countries and they’d come together learn and take it back to their own 10 x 10 square at home. Competitions were almost about the spreading of new tricks and new ideas.
However these new events large or small are a good things, they are few and far between but it will be something people are looking forward to wherever they’re self-isolating in their own countries, theres that 'togetherness' which you can get out of contest skateboarding.
You mentioned the Blenders and Gonz's of skateboarding, they were early innovators in their own rights but do you see skateboarding going any further from where it is now?
It’s a good question, for a wider group of people.
Skating always goes through a loop. It gets super tech then it goes back to basic style. A quad flip is ugly and you'd prefer to see one clean single kickflip. It’s a loop of style, that’s the foundation of everything. It's hard to say where it can go next, it will go somewhere I just don’t know.
I have a weird feeling that freestyle as a format could come back, I’d prefer to see a Koston, Jason Lee or Luan skate flat than see a freestyler though. It's a different mindset. Imagine if I could have done that stuff back then now, wow. There are a few freestylers out there Connor Burke, doing a combo of good street and freestyle, Mike Osterman does a good job of keeping everything going with a solid mix old and new.
Hopefully more Womxn and 'non-traditional' skaters will get involved too and they will become even better than the ones out there killing it now. SoleTech had always supported them, now we have less money we can't do it as much unfortunately, we tried to pioneer it but the big companies did it on a larger scale and have kind of taken credit for the push of inclusivity.
It’s a good question, for a wider group of people.
I’m still thinking of where it’s going to go. Will slalom comeback? A cooler generation or will there be more segments? Will kids be more competitive and less in to the culture? Are they going to be bothered? Skateboarding at a competition level will be bigger but will have to be more technical. El Toro set the mark, someone is going to do something gnarly, tre flip? What is achievable for new entrants?
Then there's the gnarly Japanese kids, who are 3, skating before they are walking. Kids come out of nowhere on 'Metro' or whoever is reposting Instagrams. There are NBDs happening everywhere. You can find some kids that are more tech and sometimes better than current pros, but no one is in a rush to pick them up and put them on a programme.
On your end there's not a scramble for those young Instagram talents?
No not really. There's a number of reasons why, for example you still have to be connected to the right crew.
Where do you think it's going?
I don't know haha. I'm no expert. For every comp-head there are 10 kids who aren’t into it. The competitions side of things is so minute, it may have the biggest platform but they are 0.001% and those small numbers have to be winners too. Fuck there's only one Nyjah out of 1,000,000 skateboarders.
As long as skateboarding is winning I will be happy. When skateboarding wants to stop winning whether that's part of society or localised and stops trying to progress that's when I’ll be over it. I'm down for wider participation as long as we don't forget our history and roots. This is a difficult for question for me too, I wasn’t supposed to skate. It was the thing I didn't get support for at home but thats a different story. There will always be outliers and misfits, kids who need bolts and bearings, I still want to be that kid.
It's weird it all came from wood and four wheels. The impact skateboarding will have on the world will be insurmountable. Non-for-Profits like Skateistan, SkatePal and Skate After School will help get more people involved. Skateboarding is contributing and giving back more than it ever has. Maybe the biggest thing going forward will be that the Prime Minister or President will be a skateboarder? The person who's building pump tracks instead of cycle paths.
Everyone should look into the Uganda Skateboard Union it's disconnected but is integral to what we all love. It's purely skateboarding, they’ve raised money and built a ramp. I've managed to watch it and them progress all this time. It's everything that we hold dear in skateboarding.
Random photos taken from Don's Instagram account - @Don_Brown
Gossip Monger - Fraser Doughty