If Lance Mountain built The Firm as his vision of the skateboarding world, Ray Barbee was his Original Man. Ray was Lance’s first recruit, and his longest running team rider- from day one until the sun set. Although their careers were built on very different kinds of skating and they established their legacies independently of each other, Ray instantly comes to mind when I think of Lance because of the support they gave each other for so long.
Despite an incubator period on Alva, Ray Barbee’s official entrance into skateboarding’s consciousness is the Rubber Boys section of the 1988 Powell Peralta video,“Public Domain.” A shared part with three other skaters, it was meant to showcase Powell’s up-and-coming recruits out tearing it up in the streets, but what it really did was serve to make the other three look totally blah compared to Ray. Over the four-minute part, we see the other guys doing a series of ollies, boardslides and wallrides while Ray is doing 360 no-complies and kickflip 50/50s on benches. This was 1988; it would be several years before flipping into tricks would become commonplace. But it wasn’t so much the tricks he was doing that made people take note—over his 20+ year pro career, it’s never been just the tricks that have kept him in the spotlight and in people’s hearts—it is the fluidity, the endless bounce, and the smile on his face that made him so notable.
There have been a lot of people who are amazing to watch just going down the street: Tommy G, Matt Hensley, Ricky Oyola, Natas, etc., but what puts Ray at the top of that list was his next part, in “Ban This.” Roughly 20 years before the current slow-mo craze hit, “Ban This” saw a nearly all slow-mo part of Ray (in a Bangles shirt and those Vision Street Wear shoes that Powell made him cut the tags off of), focusing on him passing down completely average streets, often with nothing but flat. What you come away with is the sense that Ray is dancing. That might sound funny, but as he spins, twirls, glides and hops his way down these empty stretches, it’s like he’s dancing across a stage. His speed is steady, there are few pushes but constant movement. It’s somewhat mesmerizing, and after it came out, there wasn’t anybody who didn’t like Ray.
As skating progressed at warp speed over the following years, Ray seamlessly followed suit. From launch ramps to double flips to ledge tech, Ray was never behind the times or trying too hard with the trends. Looking back at it, it’s pretty remarkable to think that a street skater who was pro in the ‘80s was still wining contests in the ‘90s, putting out their most progressive video parts in the ‘00s, and being a universally acknowledged, respected and still in-demand vet getting mag covers another 10 years on. Not many people can claim that, but Ray can. It’s been his always-smiling and easy-going approach coupled with his smooth style and always-developing bag of tricks that have made him a timeless classic and not a dusty relic. Yeah, he’s the undisputable king of the no-comply, but his f/s 360 heelflips are just as awesome.
There are so many other noteworthy things about Ray: the fact that while he wasn’t the first African American pro, he was a huge pioneer and opened the door for the following generation of street skaters who were much, much more ethnically and racially diverse; the fact that he can hold very deep religious and moral convictions without anybody having to worry about getting a sermon when hanging out with him; his ridiculous musical skills which have grown tremendously over the past 15 years, to the point that he is as gifted a jazz guitarist as just about any I have ever heard; his late-blooming obsession with film photography which has resulted in images every bit as refined and beautiful as his music and skateboarding, though he has only been doing it for a few short years. But what is truly Ray’s legacy place-holder and what has held him high for so long is that he represents fun. It is as simple as that. No freak-outs, no board throwing, no ADD melt-downs at the top of the stairs. With Ray, its just jump on your board, smile, and go.