The name RB Umali is synonymous with New York skateboarding. He’s filmed some of the most important clips to be documented in the city over his 10-plus year tenure as a professional videographer. It goes with out saying that RB has an interesting perspective on how skateboarding has developed in New York over the years. He goes in-depth on the topic in the following interview.
Interview by Keir Johnson
Keir: Set the stage for us, where were you born?
RB: I was born in Chicago, IL and moved to a suburb of Houston called Kingwood, TX when I was one month old. My life was really good before skateboarding. I come from a really good family with parents that were supportive of everything I did growing up. Whether it was playing soccer, Tae Kwon Do, guitar and piano lessons, breakdancing, freestyle BMX, or skateboarding. Mom and Dad always hooked it up with a ride to the skatepark and an education from private schools.
Keir: Do you have a “first moment” when skating caught your attention?
RB: Way back in the day—when Back to the Future was still in the theaters—I got a pink Nash Executioner for Christmas. I remember riding in my mom’s car while driving to her office downtown on a Saturday and I saw two older skaters crossing the street in front of us. They both ollied up the curb and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I thought it was so amazing that they could just jump up the curb and keep going down the street without stopping.
Keir: What was the first proper set-up you got?
RB: After the Executioner, I bought a used Vision Gator with Indy’s and Kryptos at a garage sale in Kingwood, TX for $5.00. And then at another garage sale about 6 months later I came up on a used Santa Cruz Slasher with Trackers and OJIIs for the great price of $5.00 again.
Keir: Kids would kill for those prices today. I heard a rumor about your driveway. What was that all about?
RB: My driveway was pretty cool. I had a parking block, railslide bar, some launch ramps, and a three-foot miniramp in the backyard.
Keir: When did skating go beyond the driveway?
RB: We would mostly skate shopping centers and middle schools before I had a car. The McGrath brothers (Dennis, Matt, and Jon) all lived across the street from Kingwood Middle School and my younger friends and I would always be amazed at the tricks they were doing back in the day. Kids in the neighborhood called the McGrath’s the Shut Brothers because they were the only guys in the area who had Shut boards.
Keir: What was the skate scene like in Houston during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s?
RB: The skate scene in Houston in the late ‘80s to early ’90s was awesome. I grew up skating with a lot of good skaters at the old outdoor Skatepark of Houston where they had the Shut Up and Skate contests back in the day. The McGrath Brothers, Jeff Taylor, Kelly Bird, David Nielsen, Heath Pults, Danny Morgan and Travis Sales are local skaters I looked up to back in the day. I grew up skating with Anthony Correa, Mike Holloway, Lennie Kirk and all the original heads in H-Town. They would have the NSA Am Finals contests at the park and other great skaters from TX like Zack Martin, Richard Angelides, Forrest Kirby, and Jake Nunn would all come down to Houston to kick it. Sometimes they would all stay at my parents house too! Mom and Dad have a game room upstairs and on the weekends there would be skaters sleeping all over the place. Those were good times.
Keir: What magazines do you remember being psyched on back in the day?
RB: I remember picking up an old Thrasher magazine at the T&C surf shop in the mall. After reading it, my hands were all black from the ink on the pages rubbing off. I used to read Freestylin’ magazine a lot and was a big fan of Spike Jonze back in those days. I’m a proud member of Club Homeboy. I’ve always been a big fan of Transworld and SLAP when it came out too. But the best magazines back then were definitely the first five issues of Big Brother that came in different formats every time. Like that one issue that came in a giant cereal box! It was so rad that you didn’t know what to expect with the next issue.
Keir: Yeah I remember buying that cereal box issue too, the one with Salman Agah on the cover. Talk about the beginnings of your interests in skate videos.
RB: The first skate videos I saw were the ones on the shelf of the local video rental store. I would go there, rent the video, make a dub of it on my dad’s Betamax VCR, and watch the video over and over and over again. The first videos I saw were Animal Chin and Sick Boys.
Keir: Sick Boys is still to this day one of my favorite videos ever. I heard Bryce Kanights might be bringing it back on DVD soon. What was the first video that actually made you really geek out on skating.
RB: When the H-Street videos came out I knew I wanted to make skate videos like Shackle Me Not and Hokus Pokus. I bugged out on how rad Matt Hensley made chain wallets and chukka boots with striped socks look cool. I didn’t know where to get a chain wallet so I went to the hardware store and made one. Then I would purposely puff my cheeks out whenever I did melon grabs to fakie on my backyard miniramp. I was convinced that Matt Hensley was the coolest skater in the world. When Hokus Pokus came out, Ron Allen and Matt Hensley came to the local Schwinn bike shop to do an autograph signing. I remember every skater in the neighborhood heading over there and asking Hensley to do a melon grab. He did one for us on flat and at the time I thought it was the highest ollie grab I’d ever seen. I’ll never forget that. So all you pros out there that have an autograph signing to do in some shitty town remember the mark you’re leaving on these kids lives. It’s unforgettable.
Keir: No doubt, lets get deeper into your own skating. Don’t front, you were a ripper. Who did you skate for?
RB: I skated for a company called Screw Skateboards”out of Ollie Pops skateshop in Howell, New Jersey. Yep that’s right, the same one owned by Bob Losito wears a Speedo. What’s even crazier is that Mark Nardelli, the current brand manager of Zoo York, was my teammate and told Bob to put me on after seeing my sponsor-me video. I qualified for the NSA Am finals back in 1993 and went out to skate the contest at the YMCA in Encinitas where I met Nardelli. 15 years later, and we’re still kickin’ it hard. Thanks for having my back since day one Screwdelli.
Keir: Sick, I remember seeing you pop up in mags a little and some footage in some old 411s too. What about videography, what was your first camera?
RB: My first video camera was actually my dad’s camera. He bought a Sony TR5 8mm Camcorder in a special white colorway that you could only get at the Sharper Image. I ended up using it more than he did as I would always bring it to the skatepark to film my friends.
Keir: What was the first video you ever made?
RB: The first full video I made was called A World Premiere. I made it during my senior year in high school and edited the entire video with two VCRs and a Sony Discman. Ricky Oyola, Anthony Correa, and Lennie Kirk all had full parts in the video. I sold 1000 copies to Southshore Distribution which was based out of Houston and used that money to buy my first 3CCD Hi8 video camera. The great Sony VX-3 aka The Terminator. Thanks to Damian at Southshore for believing in me back in the day!
Keir: Damn, I’d like to see that video. What other kind of early video projects did you do?
RB: I did a lot of stuff for 411VM back then, like the Houston Metrospective, Southside Skatepark Spot Check, Anthony Correa and Jon Comer’s Wheels of Fortune, etc. Definitely gotta thank Jeff Taylor and Chris Ortiz for hooking me up at 411VM back in the day.
Keir: Eventually, you migrated to NYC.
RB: I went to NYC to study Film and Television Production at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I always thought I would move to California for skateboarding and was looking at USC’s film program. But NYU’s was a four-year program unlike the two-year film program at USC. So I choose New York. Glad I made that decision!
Keir: What was it like going up there for the first time and skating around the city?
RB: I actually made a trip out to NYC a year before I went to college when I was skating for Screw. I came out east with Anthony Correa and Lennie Kirk. We made a trip up to NYC with Jimmy Chung and stayed at Steve Rodriguez’s house who also skated for Screw at the time. The city seemed so much bigger back then! It was just miles and miles of blocks that went on forever and Steve was the raddest host I could ask for in the city. Steve took me skating with Tino Razo back then. Tino didn’t even live here yet. He was just some kid from Vermont and we shredded the banks together and somehow made it into a bar when we were way underage. It’s fifteen years later and Tino and I still drink together every night at the Fish.
Keir: How did you begin to get involved in the skateboarding scene in New York?
RB: When I started going to NYU, I was also one of the main Videographers at 411VM and they asked me to shoot some articles for them. I think they paid $10 a trick at the time. Wow, was I getting dicked over but I didn’t care because I was just so psyched to be filming. I would film a lot with Javier Nunez and Maurice Key back in my freshman year. We would meet at Supreme, skate the banks and all over downtown, kick it at Astor, hit up Union Square and Midtown. After the session we would get blunted in the dorms. A lot of the footage I filmed back then made it into the Trilogy video. Like that classic line of Maurice at the banks where he almost got ran over by a car. Also, Dan Wolfe gave me the opportunity to film a lot of the NYC section in one of the greatest videos of all time, Underachievers – Eastern Exposure 3. After that, I just filmed with the Zoo guys a lot around the city. Ricky Oyola got my good friend Anthony Correa a spot on the Zoo team. I met Eli, Rodney, and Adam at Zoo and they told me they always wanted to make a video. I was in the right place at the right time to make it happen. My second year at NYU, I took an independent study credit for making the first Zoo York Mixtape video.
Keir: Can you break down the whole genesis of the video?
RB: Eli Gesner, the main graphic guy behind Zoo York back in the day is good friends with Stretch and Bob and he already had classic footage that he shot at their WKCR radio show of legendary hip hop performances of then-unknown rappers like Busta Rhymes and The Wu-Tang Clan. The Mixtape video was a natural collaboration of his footage at WKCR and my skate footage of the Zoo guys. Eli’s such a talented guy—he can do anything—make music, movies, art, whatever. It was definitely an honor to do the video with him. We cut that together on a Media 100 system in Brooklyn that was also used to edit the music video to “Body Rock” featuring Mos Def and Q-Tip. I was hyped when we were editing and Mos Def came by to check out the video when he was an underground rapper on Rawkus before he was famous. We knew he was gonna blow up big. I totally fanned out and got the mighty Mos to autograph the school notebook I was using at the time.
Keir: Yeah, Mos went all the way. Getting back to the OG Zoo Team, that crew had so much character. What was it like working with them?
RB: Oh man, the Zoo crew was so intimidating back then. But I did feel like the shit when I was skating around the streets with those guys. Sometimes we would roll deep, right in the middle of traffic dodging pedestrians and hitching cabs. I definitely felt safe whenever I was filming with Pang. Most times I was always scared someone would jack my camera bag while filming, but not with Jeff Pang around. Skating with Harold was always fun and amusing but it could also get annoying at times because everybody knew who he was and you couldn’t go a block down the street without him having to say what’s up to some fan or hot model chick. But that’s just how he rolled. Filming with Hamilton Harris was always a good time. Dude is always smiling and just loved to shred. I first started filming with Vinnie Ponte when I met him up in Boston with Danny Supa. He was the nicest guy since day one and always showed love. Such a funny guy too. You never know what kind of crazy shit he’s gonna say. Robbie Gangemi was always one of my favorite people to film with because he would talk so much shit about anybody and everybody and his skating would back him and his crazy opinions up. You couldn’t touch him back in the day. Dude was a legend and had the best style at everything he did. I don’t think Robbie liked me too much back then. But then again, I don’t think he liked too much of anybody if they weren’t an OG Boston or NYC head. What’s up Robbie keep doin’ your thing. He lives out here and his Vehicle Squad is killing it. What up Eli Reed?! Basically yo, not to throw craze, but Eli should be pro!
Keir: What about the Banks, what was the scene like there back then?
RB: The Banks were so fun back then because you could always go to there and find someone cool to skate with. Steve Rodriguez was the first person to take me there and he told me to always be skating, never sit down, and never let anybody ride your board. We were trying tricks over the wall into the street and some kid asked another to try and ollie it on his board, he ollied it and kept on going. He was out! Mad kids came up on boards that way. Never happened to me though. That same day I saw two brothers get into a fight with each other. The banks were gnarly back then. Cops were right across the street yet skaters were getting jacked and you could drink a 40 and smoke a blunt right there without any worries. Back in my freshman year, skaters that killed it at the Banks were Ryan Hickey, Kyle James, Keith Harrison, Ricky Li, Chow, Jay Maldonado, Paul Leung, Lamont Macintosh, Ray Wong, Jamie Story, Rodney Torres, Loki, Javier, Maurice, Joey Alvarez, Jeff Pang, Peter Huynh, Peter Bici, Hamilton Harris, Jon Carter, Huf, Puleo, Andy Bautista and so many more rippers that probably don’t even skate anymore.
Keir: Yeah, such a historical spot, they should have a museum there. From an outsiders perspective, it really appeared like you took over the game in terms of skateboard videography in NYC. Do you ever think about if you hadn’t ended up there for school?
RB: My good friend Alex Corporan who now works for Sole Tech filmed a lot of the crew before I moved to NYC. I don’t know how I took over. I guess I was just the first person to move here that was simply down to film all the time. There were so many good skaters in NYC in the mid ’90s and nobody was filming them. But you would always see sick photos of them in the magazines. Somebody told me that there were quite a few people who moved to NY and tried to make it as filmers before me. But nobody was really down for them and nobody got the job done. Lucky me I guess.
Keir: What kind of effect did Mixtape have on your life there after?
RB: I was so proud of Mixtape. We premiered it at the New York Underground Film Festival and being a film student I felt like I made my parents proud of me with that one. I feel like it was definitely a video that put NYC skateboarding and the Zoo York crew on the map. A lot of people hated on it back then because the skating wasn’t the most technical and there weren’t a lot of handrail tricks and big gaps. But that’s just the way we skated the city. And to this day, it’s still one of the most watchable videos I’ve ever made.
Keir: What video did you do after Mixtape?
RB: The next video I made was Peep This. Which is probably my favorite video since it showcased a good era of skating in NY and I got to put all my favorite skaters in it regardless of which company they rode for. I think that was my third year in college when Josh Kalis would come up to the city and stay with me every weekend to kill every spot. I also skated with Spencer Fujimoto a lot back then. That’s how he came up on the first part. There were so many good spots to skate in the city that aren’t around anymore.
Keir: Break down your whole professional skateboarding video resume, we’ll call it the “Umali Collection”
RB: Okay here we go, I hope I can remember them all. Zoo York Mixtape 1, Transworld – Greatest Hits, Transworld – Cinematographer, Peep This, Heads, EST Video Magazine (Versions 1.0,2.0, 3.0 & 4.0), Thrasher’s Skate & Destroy video game (intro and transition segments), Stussy’s Japan Vacation, Stussy World Tour Videos for 411VM (Japan, London & Australia), Zoo York Mixtape 2, Vicious Cycle, Zoo York – City of Killers, Zoo York Ellis Island, Zoo York Jump Off Tour, Welcome to Zoo York, NY Revisited 1 and 2, Skate Maps Seasons 1 and 2 for Fuel TV, Firsthand featuring Zered Bassett for Fuel TV, Shut Skateboards Promo Video, and RedBull’s Seek & Destroy videos 1, 2, and 3. That’s all I think.
Keir: Really amazing man, thats a lot of hard work that you put in. In particular, the EST videos were something that united the whole East Coast.
RB: The EST videos came about because I was filming all these really great skaters on the East Coast at the time and we would basically throw away half the footage by giving it up to video magazines. You wouldn’t know how your footage would end up looking or who it would be edited together with. East Coast footage has always been the most appealing to me. I thought it would be a good idea to team up with other good filmers on the East like Bill Strobeck and Roger Bagley and put something dope together. I met graphic wizard Andre Stringer when he came to the city to film some DC heads and we teamed up together to do the motion graphics for the Mixtape 2 video. Andre always amazed me with his ideas and motion graphics work. He was down to help give the EST videos their graphic elements—which really tied the videos together. So many people were psyched on the EST videos and it helped a lot of unknown East Coast rippers get their names out there. I get asked all the time when the next EST is coming out. But unfortunately for all the EST fans out there, it had to come to an end because I was no longer able to get funding from Zoo York to pay for footage that wasn’t promoting a Zoo York rider. Which makes sense from a business perspective. Most good things come to an end and the EST videos were a great thing while it lasted. Sorry to all the filmers of the last issue who couldn’t get paid. I did everything I could to keep it going.
Keir: You obviously are very connected to Zoo. Can you talk about the experiences you’ve had at the helm of Zoo York videography.
RB: Zoo York has given me the opportunity to travel all over the world with and meet the coolest people. I share so many unforgettable memories that I would not be able to do without the support Zoo York has given me over the years. I am also very grateful to Zoo York for allowing me to be creative and make videos of my favorite subject in the entire world, skateboarding! The free clothing and skateboards are also a big plus. Also being able to pay for the roof over my head and buy nice things for my wife is also really cool.
Keir: What’s it been like weathering all the changes at Zoo throughout the years?
RB: Zoo York has definitely seen a lot of changes over the years. I am still good friends with the old Zoo guys and I still skate and film with Todd Jordan and Quim Cardona all the time. I am just psyched to work and film for a skateboard company in the greatest city in the world! I love this city and am glad that Zoo York is here because I plan on staying here a while. A lot of people have bitterness towards Zoo and wish they were like they were back in the day. But I am psyched where Zoo is now. The team is full of rippers. We never fight with each other on tour anymore. A tour wasn’t a Zoo tour back in the day if there wasn’t a fight between Harold, Jeff, or Robbie. But damn, that made it so fun back then. Another good thing about the growth of Zoo York is that I get my paychecks on time now and they don’t bounce!
Keir: True indeed, in terms of videos we talked a little about early influential videos. What would you say your favorite skateboarding videos of all time would be?
RB: Sick Boys, one of the first videos with really good street skating, shot all on film too! Frankie Hill’s part in Ban This used to get me so psyched to skate fast and big. Shackle Me Not and Hokus Pokus were so inspirational to me. They changed the way skate videos were put together. Blind’s Video Days, enough said. That’s everybody’s favorite skate video. Plan B’s Questionable is one of the best videos of all time. Skating was so fun for me at the time this video dropped. Eastern Exposure Underachievers is the greatest East Coast video ever. Dan Wolfe is a genius. Girl’s Mouse features my favorite skaters of all time. Guy’s best part ever. Chris Hall’s Get Familiar is the best video of 2006 hands down. Listen Viajeros Locos has good music and lots of lines. It’s my favorite video of the moment. Lakai’s Fully Flared is not even out yet, but there’s no way I won’t like it when it comes out.
Keir: I think it’s about time we talked about Harold Hunter. Many outside of NYC gained their awareness of him from what we would see in videos and magazines. That content we were all watching was directly associated to you. Talk to me about the man, the myth and the legend.
RB: Harold was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. He was always down for you and genuine despite how famous he was. My favorite memories with him were traveling Europe during the two seasons of Skate Maps. He was always down to go out and have a good time no matter where we were. I remember back in the day we were psyched when he wouldn’t go on tour with us because he was such a hassle to deal with all the time. But at the same time, he made the trips so much fun and something to remember by all the craze that he would throw. He was so good with the kids, the moms, and the crowds. My most memorable memories of Harold are the fights and arguments I got in with him. So many people claim to have the best Harold memories, but I don’t think you really knew the guy unless you’ve been in an argument with him. He just loved to argue. So funny though, not a day goes by without a thought or a quote that Harold once said.
Keir: Looking back, how would you say the skate scene in NYC has changed since you first got there?
RB: The NYC skate scene has changed a lot over the past 13 years. It seemed like there were so many more skaters from NY back in the day. And the skaters also seemed to have so much more character. There are a lot of up and coming young rippers in the city that you’ll be hearing about in the next couple years. But I’m old school now and it just ain’t the same to me. It is also a lot harder to skate in the city now. Especially after 9/11. Downtown is pretty much a complete bust now. Where as back in the day I just feel like there was so much more to hit. Skating in NYC these days, you pretty much need a car to get anything done and the best spots are in Brooklyn, Uptown, or Queens.
Keir: These days what are you up to?
RB: I’ve definitely grown up a lot in the past year or so. I turned 30, got married and bought my first condo. I’m still working hard with the Zoo York team on their next video—which we plan on putting out in early 2008. I just got back with the Zoo Team from the Thrasher King of the Road tour. Man was that a serious mission. I’ve also taken a job working for RedBull as the Skateboarding Team Manager. I don’t manage Sheckler, just the hardcore guys I’ve known over the years like Zered Bassett, Danny Supa, and Joey Brezinski. That has been a pretty cool gig.
Keir: What are your goals for the next year?
RB: My main goal for next year is to put out the best Zoo York video to date! The new Zoo Crew is full of amazing talent and we have so much good footage already for the next vid. We’re about to go to China to film some more bangers. For next year, I’d also like to keep paying my bills through Zoo York and RedBull and also save up enough money for a Panasonic HD set-up. Ty Evans and Aaron Meza just let me borrow their 10k set-up to film the Fourstar guys while they were here in NYC recently. That was a lot of fun. I hope to own my own next year sometime after the Zoo video drops. It’s a weird stage in video we’re at right now. It’s not worth it just yet to invest in HD for me because we are still mixing formats. If I’m gonna go HD, I want my next project to be all HD and put out on HD DVD or Blu-Ray.
Keir: Ok RB, thanks for this in-depth interview. Do you have some thank you’s?
RB: I’d like to thank God, My Parents, My beautiful wife Mae, everybody at Zoo York, RedBull, Shut and Nike SB, all the skaters who let me film them, all the filmers I’ve worked with over the years, the wonderful city of New York, the bartenders at Max Fish, all the heads in Houston TX, all the fans of my videos, and everybody who gave me a chance back in the day. I love you guys and couldn’t made it this far without you.