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Ride sharing

In skateboard rap, hip-hop mashes up with another street culture.

September 02, 2006|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

ON the remix for "Kick Push," a hip-hop paean that has been all over urban radio and Black Entertainment Television lately, Chicago MC Lupe Fiasco and producer-rapper Pharrell Williams trade rhymes detailing an unexpected slice of life in the streets: skateboarding. Fiasco raps about skateboarding as a form of rebellious self-expression, peppering his vocal with the names of street skating tricks and common injuries -- even some intricacies of skateboard-borne romance. "I don't think this board is strong enough to carry two," he informs a girlfriend. Williams, by contrast, fills his rap with a prickly issue of racial identity: the loaded condition of being a "black skater from the 'hood."

With the popularity of so-called "skateboard rap" like "Kick Push," the divide separating America's two most influential street-based subcultures is narrowing fast. Skateboarding, that quintessentially suburban "extreme" lifestyle sport, and hip-hop, in which street credibility is often measured in gunshot wounds and time served, seem to be having a "your chocolate is in my peanut butter" moment.

Skateboarding and hip-hop first started kicking each other's tires in the early '90s when skaters adopted rappers' baggy-jeaned look and hard-core rap replaced punk rock as the de facto soundtrack to the X-Games. In the abstract, the two cultures seem to exist in parallel universes -- not least because one is overwhelmingly white and the other overwhelmingly black. Yet beneath the surface, both share an in-your-face immediacy created by disenfranchised youth. And, not coincidentally, both skaters and rappers have turned raging against the machine into multibillion-dollar businesses with global reach.

Skateboard rap arrives at a cultural moment in which hip-hop's most nimble lyricist is white (Eminem) and the fastest-rising star in reggae is a Hasidic Jew (Matisyahu). So what's so strange about Pharrell Williams becoming a jewelry designer for ultra-luxury goods purveyor Louis Vuitton while simultaneously changing his nickname to Skateboard P?

Williams is better known as part of the hit-making producer duo the Neptunes, which has helped craft hits for Gwen Stefani, Mariah Carey and others. But leading up to the July release of the rapper-producer's first solo album, "In My Mind" (which reached No. 2 on the album chart this summer), he took to calling himself "Skateboard P" in interviews and on songs -- a transformation no less dramatic than David Bowie's 1972 metamorphosis into Ziggy Stardust.

Williams said he feels justified, in part, by his sponsorship of a skateboard team that has appeared in several of his videos and at events such as last November's Vibe Awards.

"Most people think skateboarding is for some kid with blond hair from suburbia," said Williams. "But it's not just that. Skateboard culture is not white or black. Neither is hip-hop."

Berkeley, Calif., teenage rap quartet the Pack have already scored a modest radio hit with their ode to skateboard footwear, "Vans." In interviews, group members insist their skate-rap mash-up isn't just some novelty hook -- they've been skating since junior high. The song's video intersplices footage of fleet-footed skaters doing kick flips and rail slides at a skate park with scenes of "hyphy" rap enthusiasts extravagantly break-dancing in an alley.

And Fiasco, who was pictured on the cover of July's Billboard riding a skateboard and rolled onto his debut BET performance on one, will release his highly anticipated Atlantic Records debut CD, "Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor," later this month.

According to Jake Phelps, editor of skateboarding's journal of record, Thrasher magazine, the sport has always been multi-culti. "If you're down with skateboarding, it's like the United Nations of Benetton out there, bro," he said. But he added that he wasn't surprised rap music would look to skateboarding for a new measure of validation. "Hip-hop's kind of commodified now. How real can you keep it? Connect the dots," Phelps said.

The perception lingers, however, that skating's endless summer image and hip-hop's ethos of "keeping it real" remain fundamentally at odds. On a bulletin board for the hip-hop blog, one recent poster sounded off on Williams' and Fiasco's contributions to rap. "Save hip hop," he wrote. "Don't listen to skater rap."

Even Fiasco, the Muslim rapper of West African descent (real name: Wasalu Muhammed Jaco) who has become the poster boy of hip-hop's latest sub-genre, is reluctant to pigeonhole himself as a representative for skateboard rap. Never mind that his design company, Righteous Kung Fu, creates graphics for skateboard decks or that "Kick Push" was originally intended as a promotional song on a DVD for a Chicago area skateboard shop.

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