chrome ball interview #29: james kelch

Chrome Ball sits down with the Mayor for conversation.

Alright James, we’re doing this fresh off the release an epic 20-minute mountain of clips recently put up on Vimeo. Stuff from the old days, most of which has never seen the light of day. How come this stuff is just now getting out?

I just never had it before! Aaron Meza always had that footage.

Some of this stuff rates up there with the best footage I’ve seen of you. Was this the stuff you shot in hopes of getting on Plan B?

Some of it, yeah. I was actually trying to film and send it to a few companies, but especially those dudes. It’s kind of trip though because I wasn’t really pushing it. I was just filming and that was that.

To be honest with you… and I don’t even like saying this kind of shit… I like a lot of that video but some of it was never released cause I didn’t like it all that much. Know what I mean? Like I’d be out raging or something and somehow some stuff got filmed.

But that’s just me judging myself.

Always your own worst critic.

Exactly. I just remember better days, even though those were fun days.

Generic intro: How were you first introduced to skateboarding and what was your first board?

I remember seeing this kid skating around my neighborhood on Treasure Island back in the day. I was riding BMX bikes at the time, jumping off hills and shit, but that was starting to get boring. One day I saw this kid skating around a parking lot, jumping off bumpers doing a boneless. It was hot. People were standing around, smoking cigarettes and all that good shit. I just thought to myself, “Look at them!”

My first board was a Lester Kasai with the splash graphics. Black and blue. Shit was tight.

Now I know your family moved around a lot when you were growing up. I always heard that it was when your family decided to move from Frisco back to Ohio, where you’re originally from, that you decided to return to the Bay on your own. How old were you? Was your return to SF strictly because of skating or was it more of a lifestyle choice to get out of Ohio?

I was 18. Thinking back on it now that I’m older, it was probably for both reasons. I mean I could deal with Ohio but I wanted to get back to Frisco for skateboarding. Mostly just for Embarcadero. I missed it.

What was your plan? Were you even sponsored yet?

No sponsors. I think Jim Thiebaud might’ve given me some SMA wheels at one point but that was it. I wasn’t sponsored at all.

… But I was supposed to be! (laughs) Nah, just playin.

Actually, I was a dick. They didn’t like me. You know how older dudes never like the young bloods that show up to the spots, trying to do their little tricks and talking all that shit? That was me. It’s the same shit I do now as an old man when these young little bastards start coming around. You gotta harass them.

Of course. But where’d you stay? Weren’t you sleeping on the wave at Embarcadero for a minute?

Back then, it was more about just crashing wherever. I slept at parks, underneath shit, behind schools. Wherever. But I did mostly sleep at Embarcadero when it wasn’t raining.

I’d stay at dudes’ houses too as long as I wasn’t disrupting them. I was still a nice guy even when I didn’t have a place to stay. I didn’t want to be bothering people like that. If I felt like I was, I’d just go chill at Embarcadero all-night instead.

Now that you’re older, is this something you’d recommend to some young hungry kid out there trying to make it?

Nah, man. No.

Why not?

Honestly, I was fine with it and still am. But that shit is hard!

I didn’t even do it to try and “make it” really. I did it because skateboarding was my life. Embarcadero was the first thing that ever made me feel like I was somebody. Even as a kid, the first time I went to Embarcadero, some local there praised me for a trick I did and I was like, “That’s tight.”

From then on, I just wanted to be at Embarcadero and skate with my dudes.

So I know you were flow on H-Street for a while until finally getting hooked-up with Dogtown. How’d you meet Red Dog?

I was just skating around Embarcadero and Red Dog and Fausto happened to be down there for this demo. I was skating and just started doing my own little demo. But I had no clue who those dudes were until Greg Carroll told me about them. I was like, “Oh, for real?”

“Yeah, just keep skating, fool.”

I got on Dogtown, Indy and Spitfire all on the same day. I was fucking pumped! They gave me those K-9 wheels and shit. I was stoked!

So when did Real enter the picture? It seems like you and Thiebaud were always pretty tight. Was it well known at the time that you were just scraping by?

Yeah, everybody knew what all I’d been doing. That’s why even when I just turned pro, I was already getting broke down. My body was broke.

But yeah, Thiebaud put me on. He would come down to Embarcadero all the time and was fun to skate with. He was an idol of mine and one night, he gave me a call and asked me if I wanted on Real. Dogtown was gone and I don’t really remember who I was skating for at the time so I was stoked.

Now we’ve touched on it some already but your name is basically synonymous with Justin Herman Plaza. It’s obviously a great spot but what was it that kept you there long before everyone else was taking advantage of it? You posted up there way early on.

Yeah, that’s my spot, for damn sure. I go so far back with it that I remember being able to skate there by myself. Random kids would come through and ask me what I was doing and I’d be like, “Skating, fool.”

It’s as simple as this. I lived off on Treasure Island at first, which is in the middle of the Bay. The first time I ever got on a bus to go skating in the city, it let me off on Mission Street. I remember going up to these kids and asking if they ever saw any skaters around and they said, “Yeah, I see them at the end of Market Street sometimes. There’s a wave.”

So I went down there to skate and just ended up staying.

There were a few other guys down there, too. Ken McGuire, an old pro from back in the day.

I remember that dude.

Yeah, he was weirdo. He'd try to clown me so I’d rob him and his boys for their boards.

I remember the day I got on Indy. He actually rode for them too and was high up in their organization. He said some shit like, “If you ever rob another person for their board again, you’ll no longer be riding for Indy.”

I was tripping. I totally forgot. I was like, “Why? Did I ever take your board or something?” And he said, “No! You took my friends’!”

Classic shit. Now I imagine the younger kids would probably got a pass but did you ever get shit for always being down at Embarcadero?

Yeah, they used to always give me shit. Totally. “All you can skate is Embarcadero. All you got is one spot.”

And would these same critics start coming down to the Bricks after it became trendy?

Oh, but of course! Creeping around the side, we could hear them coming up on the bricks. Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh. They’d come out from around the corner, all wide-eyed. I’m not gonna name any names but hell yeah.

So were the Bricks actually your favorite spot to skate in SF or has that been exaggerated over the years?

There were a couple of spots that I could say were my favorite but with Embarcadero, I’d been there so many times that I just knew it. It was easy for me. I knew every up-and-down of every brick. If grass was coming up through it, I knew. Or you know how they put mortar down with little nails in it? Well, we skated Embarcadero so much that some of those nails were starting to stick up in a few places. And that was serious because sliding on your back, you could get caught. That wasn’t good.

But yeah, it was definitely my favorite spot. It was just home.

Was there a classic spot around SF back then that you particularly didn’t like?

I didn’t like Miley at first. But that was just because I didn’t know how to skate it yet. Know what I mean? I had to get used to it first. Those banks are so tight, man. So little. I just had to figure it all out… then I loved it.

So when did you start going by “Big Dirt”?

When Big Daddy Kane’s first album came out. That’s where it came from. I told one of my friends to call me, “Big Daddy James” and he looked at me and said, “No, fool. You’re more like Big Dirty James.”

It just went on from there.

Regarding EMB, did you realize at the time that you were in a sense the older brother to a lot of those dudes? Was this a conscious thing in your head to be this big brother-type figure who was always saving these kids, especially the little guys, after they’d pull their shit?

Here’s the thing with skateboarding and me: I was always older than my Embarcadero friends. The ones that everybody knows anyway. They were my friends and we were all skateboarders so of course I’m gonna look after them.

But honestly, I hardly ever had to defend the little kids with fights and stuff. There were probably some times where I might’ve not known the real story or been called over to fights and not known why they started. But I never jumped into no fights that one of those little dudes started because there were a bunch of other little dudes that were there already. They knew I was there but for the most part, they could handle stuff on their own.

I will tell who did the most dumb shit back in the day, though. Karl Watson. He used to do the most child-like shit I’ve ever seen in my fucking life!

Like what? Spitballs and shit?

Exactly. Spitballs, always flicking you and shit… just straight-up young, antagonistic kid-shit. Fucking with everybody non-stop. I love Karl.

What were some of your favorite scams to run on T-Dogs back in the day?

Oh God. I ran every scam I could think of. But I’ll tell you what my favorite scam was. This was before I got product and was just being a dick. I used to only ride Gonzos. I had curly dark hair and people thought I was good cause I could ollie up the stage. So I would tell people I was Gonz’s cousin.

I’d tell fools to give me their Gonz board so I could go to Visalia for the demo. I’d say that once my cousin showed up with his boards, I’ll get one for you and it’ll be signed or whatever.

Hilarious. What’s the sketchiest memory you remember going down there?

Late night, sitting on the wave, drinking , smoking. Somebody threw a bottle at a limousine. Didn’t really think about it. 15-20 minutes later, the craziest Asian gangsters show up! Suits, the crazy shoulder pads underneath their clothes, with the ill strap. All just because somebody threw a bottle at their shit.

Holy shit! What happened?

Oh hell no. Nothing happened. We started acting like bitches and hos! We told them we were punk-ass skateboarders and that we were sorry.

It was scary, bro! I felt like I was 13-years-old at my cousin’s house watching some weird-ass movie and something bad was about to happen! I was scared for my life! Some crazy asian guys were going to shoot us!

Now, Alfonso Rawls got punched-out, Ricky Oyola reportedly got chased from the premises, Jamie Thomas got vibed… it wasn’t necessarily all good for tourists at the Bricks. What was your personal policy towards the out-of-towners? I always heard you were one of the nicer dudes.

Nah, Ricky got punched in his eye. Yeah, I don’t know if he talked about it but he got punched, for sure. Said some dumbshit… just people fucking up. I’m sure that’s all that was.

But for damn sure, I was one of the nicer ones. I am a skateboarder, man. That’s all I ever was. I’d let anybody that wanted to come down there skate. It didn’t matter to me. But there were hella easy rules to cross.

Like what?

Just don’t be a kook, man. Don’t snake nobody. Don’t act like you’re hard cause you’re gonna get stomped, you fucking retard. That kinda shit. Just normal everyday shit that you don’t do to people.

I don’t ever try to do anything weird to people and I won’t just be a dickhead for no reason. It was just a respect thing.

So how did you deal with the spot’s popularity after it blew up? The place you used to session by yourself was now world-famous and had made you a household name. When did you start to realize that Embarcadero was starting to get out of control?

Probably right before I turned pro. I remember kids starting to come down from all over… telling me that they had come from Germany to watch me skate. I was stoked, man. I’d start pulling out stuff for them like a little demo. It was a trip.

But one of the best things from that time was when fools would show up and the locals would all play “take ‘em out.” Like if someone went and did the same trick you just did or if we caught somebody beaming with their eyes real wide, someone would just say, “Hey Kelch, take ‘em out.” And you’d go over there and bust’em out with a bigger, better version of what they were trying to do. That was hot.

So sick. Now it’s no secret that you were going through some shit when you were trying to film for the Real video. When did things start taking a turn for the worse?

I filmed for the Real Video pretty randomly here and there. I was still into it but some bad shit happened, man. I got stuck.

Growing up, I was this raging-ass kid and nothing could stop me. I was sick when I was little so after all that, I figured I could just rage and get beat and be okay. Just fuck everything up, that was the route I took. So by the time I was supposed to be trying to floss, I didn’t think any drug could stop me. I didn’t think no dude could stop me. I was a crazy maniac. I was strong, had a good height and weight. I could just act a fool and nobody could say nothing. I could skate good. Nothing could stop me.

But then, by pure accident, I got addicted to that fucking crack, man. Straight-up accidental-style, wasn’t even trying to fuck with it. I remember smoking it the first time and was like, “What the fuck is that, man? Some kind of Opium?”

“Nah nigga, that’s crack!”

I was like, “Hell no!” But a week later, I saw him again and just instantly started following this dude around.

That’s kinda like the unspoken thing I’ve found out in recent years about Embarcadero was how popular that stuff was down there. I mean Hubba Hideout is one thing but that shit definitely made its presence known.

Crack, mothafucker. All kinds of fools gave me crack. I remember Team Managers even having shit. Crack, acid, speed, X: it was ugly. Fools were raving. They used to call me “party pooper” until I’d show up at the spot. And of course, they’d give me drugs.

I’m not blaming what went on with me on anybody though. I did it to myself. I was partying way hard. I’m just saying that’s the point where it got to. Drugs were free and everybody had them. Your best friend’s selling crack, all you have to do is ask.

Damn. So is it true that Thiebaud used to come and pick you up everyday to make you skate for the video?

The funniest thing about all that is a lot of what we filmed didn’t even get used.

But yeah, not as much as its made out to seem but Thiebaud used to totally come and get me. I was going through hard times. I didn’t like going out with fools that knew how I skated before when I’m trying to come out of the house now all broke down. I didn’t want to hear it. So I’d just go cruise with Jim. Have a little bit of fun. Flail some tricks around, trying to get something.

All that crazy bullshit I filmed for Real, I did it all pretty much quick and early. First few tries. Couple of those tricks I just had to try and I got ‘em. The tour shit was fun, skating and fucking around in the cars and stuff. But all the Embarcadero shit and the stuff around Frisco, I was in straight struggle mode.

It’s undeniably a classic part. Who came up the song and for all the heads to do the wave?

The song was all Real’s idea. And the wave must’ve been the guy who was filming, Dave Metty. He must’ve set that up. All I know is that my ankles were hurting and I was having a hard time doing shit. I wasn’t listening to whoever was chilling or who was doing what but I remember when it came out, I was stoked. The only thing I was concerned with at the time was not embarrassing myself.

So with all that going on, were you pleased with the part when it came out? One has to appreciate it even more after hearing the circumstances it was made under.

I’m humble about it but I’m glad people like it. I’m glad everybody doesn’t think I’m a piece of shit. But am I pleased with the video? No. I mean the way they edited it and put it together, they did the best they could. It even shocked me when it came out. But I was also wondering where all the other shit we filmed was.

I just wasn’t skating well. I was dealing with bullshit. I was partying. Skateboarding at that time was something I had to do because I was looked upon to do it.

What ended up happening with you and Real? I know there was that octopus graphic with the stolen VCRs. Did that serve as any type of wake-up call for you?

Yeah, a little bit. It was weird though. Just the mindspace I was in. I wasn’t worrying because I didn’t care. I knew I was getting in trouble. Even in my first Slap interview, the very last thing I said was to let people know that I was tweakin. I knew exactly what was going on but I just thought it was funny.

That’s not to put Real down. They did everything for me and still take care of me. If it wasn’t for them, I’d still be struggling. They’re like my best friends, even after I disrespected them. Mad appreciative of those guys.

I remember seeing you with coverage down in San Diego for a minute before you headed out to Ohio. What led you out there?

Yeah, I went to San Diego and lived with Dyrdek and Bird for a while. I ended up heading out on a Midwest tour with Real and that’s when I came to Ohio and started chilling with my girl.

What ended up happening was we lived in the upstairs of this house with these other people living downstairs. I had the backdoor to get in our part and the front porch was theirs. Real was sending me boards but the way it is in Ohio, you don’t have to sign for shit. They just throw your boxes on the front porch.

Yup. I know how that is.

Yeah, you come home at the end of the day and your stuff’s just sitting there, chilling. It’s stupid. Well, turns out that the people downstairs were taking my shit and I didn’t know it. I was thinking Real was mad at me and just not sending me stuff.

So I’d call them up, “Yo, you’re not sending me any boards?” And they’d tell me that they had just sent me some. But I wasn’t seeing them so they’d send me another one… this happened like four or five times. And honestly, there was never a time where I’d ask for anything and they wouldn’t instantly send it to me.

But finally, Tommy called and was like, “What the fuck? Are you even skating?” I knew he was bummed. And at that point, I just didn’t even care anymore. So I told him that I wasn’t skating, even though I really was, and that was that.

He said, “Alright, we’re gonna give you a retirement board.” I got to pick my graphic and that was it.

Well, I know you were on Experience after that but one company that dudes are always curious about is FIT. What exactly went down with that? Seemed so promising.

I was on FIT from the beginning. It started when Roger from Experience, the team I was on, found this Asian guy named Dave King who wanted to make a new skateboard company. Roger told him that he would get the pros for the team in exchange for a chunk and they could have a company.

So all the riders that were still on Experience got on and a few other dudes got snatched up. And because this guy Dave had the money, FIT instantly started having double-page ads, boards, hella clothes and all types of shit. And it was selling good, too. Mad money was coming in.

The story was that Dave’s dad was the real money man. He actually owned the building that was more than just FIT. It had all types of clothes stuff in it, screening and shit, which is all how they were able to make their stuff for cheap. It was basically free. They’d just send it up.

The problem was Dave’s number one man at the company was this dude Jeff. He was a nice guy but he started doing all kinds of weird shit, like robbing purses of employees that worked in the building. This ended up getting back to Dave’s dad and he snapped. He told Dave that he had disrespected the family name and that he had to get out.

And that’s basically how it went down. No more FIT.

Damn. Never heard that shit before.

That’s because I’m breaking it down for real.

So what’s going on now, James? I know you’re still in the Nasty ‘Nati and I’ve seen bits and pieces of you. Still holding it down?

Always. I still go out and act like ain’t nothing change. I’m living a dream world. I’m working a part-time job at a fancy boutique selling women’s clothes. Hang out with my girl. Play video games and then go skate until my old man body defeats me and sends me home.

Some days I shred and some days I’ll go out, do an Eddie Reategui and pull a lipslide on a double-sided curb and that’s it. It’s crazy. I’ll either go out and rip lines or barely be able to skate a curb.

Best and worst things about skateboarding in 2011.

The best thing about skating is still that pure aggression coming out. That’s the awesome shit, man. The best thing possible for a young man.

The worst thing is that it’s more of a “gotta do my sit-ups and drink my Gatorade” kinda thing now. There’s all this training involved. It’s not so much of a way of life these days. It’s more of a sport. I respect them for doing it but it’s just a total trip to me. We just used to get on our boards and hit the streets.

What do you think of all these parks popping up everywhere?

It’s just a whole different thing for this generation. There’s all these parks and they have sleepovers and shit. It’s ridiculous but it doesn’t mean that these kids can’t do their thing. Look at Torey Pudwill. Yeah, he’ll be in the parks and in the Street League doing all he does but then you’ll see his videos and he’s out there in the streets doing some pretty nasty shit! His lines are ridiculous.

Very true.

But yeah, having all these park are good but it’s not the real shit. Personally, I can’t stand skating manmade shit.

What do you think of the notion that to these kids, the Berrics is the new Embarcadero?

Well, it depends on what dimension they’re living in. I guess it comes down to how serious they want to get with it. The Berrics is a spot that’s mad famous. There’s mad famous skaters there doing mad stuff and its getting put out there for the general folk to see. So in that way of thinking, they’re right. But it’s not at the far edge of a port in the city, sitting in a fog, under the street lights with the rats running around and the fucking maniacs are out. In that way, it’s just different.

I’m probably not the one to ask. Embarcadero was my home. That’s what I remember, just sitting there early morning on a ledge with my back perfect, watching the fog roll-in and slowly hitting the Embarcadero building… the colors, the pigeons… fucking wonderland.

Amazing. Alright James, as we end this thing, does the Mayor have any last words of wisdom that he’d like to pass on to future generations?

Just keep skating. It’s a bummer getting older but time doesn’t wait for nobody. Just skate, have fun, and don’t worry too much about what motherfuckers are doing. Everything can’t be that serious cause nobody knows what the fuck is going on anyway. Just chill out.

Special thanks to the young Burt Reynolds and Jon Constantino


chops said...

Best dude ever.

some poser said...

Kelch is the man!

MPenxa said...

Dirt has always been real. Gotta respect the dude.

Anonymous said...

Been wanting Big Dirty James to get the Chromeball interview treatment for a while. Thank you for never disappointing. Great job.

Five-o Cheapster said...

Re-elect Kelch Mayor - That is the truth. Great interview, props.

DJ said...

I know the Mayor said not to but I'm going out to Cali gunna sleep on the street n shit and skate everyday, who cares about making it although it would be cool I just want to be on my skateboard every second and have a fun time along the way an SF seems like its always been the place to be. Nice interview man hella inspiring.

Anonymous said...

it is definitely wigger week at chrome ball...

Anonymous said...

sooooooooo gooooooooood!!!!!!!!!
i didn't want an end for this one.
i'm going re-read, rere-read...
thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

James is more amazing than you even know. Love, Big L(James's girl)

Anonymous said...

Much Respect.

Dave said...

Such a good interview. I love how positive and upbeat he is about everything. Kelch is dope. As always, great work Chops.

Dave said...

Just re-watched the Fit Industry section from 411 #26. I totally forgot how all my friends and I used to try and bounce our boards off the ground like Kelch did.

Jeremy said...

I was just a little kid from NC living near SF for a year,1991, when I met Kelch and crew. Treated me great, welcomed me in on my weekend jaunts to the city on the bus.
Sure they regulated but only when necessary.
Thanks for the interview and to James for being cool to a star struck little kid.

Oh, and Karl always called the board bounce off the ground dipping if I remember right.

Keith said...

Great interview E!

Always nice to hear more from Kelch in addition to his Epicly Laterd.

His Toronto shenanigans are legendary.

I watched some of those newer clips. I didn't even know he could pop 360 flips that good... for a big dude.

Crazy how many bs tail and bs lip photos there are of him.

james kelch said...

thats cause those are my fav tricks!

Pep said...

Kelch was at one of the first demos I ever went to in the early 90's in Toronto (just after his Real part came out). I asked him to sign my hat, he signed it 'J.Keltch'...I was kinda bummed at how short it was, so he took it back and signed in "You Punk Ass Bitch" underneath it...I was stoked! He was just as cool in real life as in the video!

Tai Kahn said...

Awesome interview. Mad respect.

Anonymous said...

Whats up with Kelch and Turf?

Anonymous said...

Kelch is dope. Skatings dope. Just glad Im part of it

iSapien1956672 said...

I'm so glad I never got T-Dogged when I went there in '91... I must've had a cool vibe/look, and not beamed or snaked anyone.

chops said...

thanks everybody for the comments. truly appreciated.

glad everyone dug this as much as I did.

big up to kelch, big l and kelch's cat (get well soon, homie)

and I agree, man. easily one of my favorite quotations to come out of these interviews. my jaw dropped when he said it.

thanks guys.

Edward Alvarado said...

I can't believe this dude even talks to me... So rad!

Lucas said...

Years ago, I was browsing the old EMB site and noticed that Kelch had an AOL email address. I fanned out and added him on AIM, and a few days later my friend, who owned a shop, was sending him packages. Kelch was really appreciative, and even called my friend to thank him for the hook-up. He said he hadn't skated in a while--I think he said he was fixing cars at the time--but had been going to a park in Kentucky and planned to go to SF for an EMB reunion. We talked about bringing him to Montreal, which never happened, though he did try to pick up a girl I know at a Real demo in 1994.

james kelch said...

i didnt try! i was only testing the water!

Skately said...

That was an amazing read, mad respect for Kelch! Thanks for another great one Chops, you keep outdoing yourself with these interviews.

jamiethomas said...

Thanks Chops!!
This interview was so good!!

James is the realest dude out, psyched to know him!!

abrupt said...

amazing interview

thank you for doing this

Anonymous said...

these fucking interviews need to be in tangible print, they are beyond worth paying for, its sad that such greatness will be swallowed by the web and forgotten by the youth within a week, your interviews are skateboard 101 and should be mandatory reading for every skater over the age of 18......preach chops and spread the gospel. ima need a lavar, penny, pang, clyde, and james craig one too, i will seriously pay you, 48 did their thing, but chromeball burned down london

Anonymous said...

fuck yeah.

He never ganked me when I bussed in from the suburbs to grom around EMB in 91-93. Friendly dude; large as life.

THe drugs and heavy stuff is sad; but that dark shit has always been a part of SF life; he isn't alone in that, and he's clearly a survivor.

Anonymous said...

I first came to SF on a 4 month sols skate trip to the US from the UK in 1990, spent 5 or 6 weeks there then, just riding thru and skating there every night.

Kelch was the one man that made a pnt of saying 'what's up' and gave me a head nod most nights.

it makes me laugh how people get jacked, for the last 25 years i turn up somewhere regardless of how rough it's rep is, skate, give a nod and all is good.

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Nattie Dap said...

I'm personally not anti- drugs. At least Fred Gall and Jason Dill did something productive with their crack smoking. What the fuck did this guy do? ask Thiebaud.... I'm not pro drug, either...

Perhaps he's afflicted with the newly researched psychological disorder; "U.S. Military Family Disorder"