chrome ball interview #32: jahmal williams

Chops meets Hopps for some conversation.

So right off the bat, we gotta talk about the incredible ice cream promo that’s making the rounds. Where did the concept for all this popsicle madness came from?

Well, the idea for the ice cream board series originally came from a conversation I had with a good friend of mine, Andy Kessler. I remember we were talking about board shapes one time and he started calling the current style of boards “popsicle sticks” because they don’t really have a shape or figure to them.

Andy saying that really got me started thinking about possibly using the idea for a summer board series. Ice cream cones have always played such a big part during the summertime. It’s always so hot and every kid wants one. I thought that it would be sick to try and make getting a fresh new board feel like how great it was back then to get a popsicle.

I sat on the idea for a long time though. Steve Brandi had brought the idea up to me again some time later but Girl had already done a board called the “Mo’sicle” which was why I hadn’t pursued it yet. I was real sensitive about that but in the end, I figured I could still do it enough in my own way. I’d always planned on doing a different type of graphic for the series that would make it unique so I went with it.

I remember shooting the boards with my friend Tono. We ended up having to eat so much of that stuff. It was super fun.

Once the boards came out, I really wanted to do a fun and light-hearted commercial for them. Something kinda magical with a slight Willy Wonka-ish feel to it. I wasn’t supposed to play the character originally, I wanted somebody else that would look better on camera… but after a few drinks, I got talked into it.

There was gonna be a little more interaction in it at first… a little more dialogue within the piece. And the cart was actually intended to be a full-on ice cream truck. But Marcus Manogian, the guy who actually directed the piece, thought it was gonna be too hard to pull all that stuff together in such a short period of time. It just wasn’t feasible.

Marcus really had a clear vision of what he wanted for the commercial, I was just trying to help out as much as I could at that point.

Well, it came out amazing. So how were you first introduced to skating and what was your first board?

I actually come from a BMX background but I‘d seen skateboarding for a long time. My brother had a skateboard growing up and my friends all had boards. We used to bomb hills and stuff back when I was super young.

One thing that really stands out for me back then was seeing this guy in our neighborhood bomb a hill in a handstand!


Yeah, we all freaked out. We thought he was superhero!

But I didn’t get fully involved in skateboarding until the summer of ’88 when I got my bike stolen. It was a Haro freestyle that I had built from scratch. These bad-ass dudes approached me and I knew that I couldn’t fight them so I gave it to them.

At the time, I had just seen Police Academy 4 and I remember thinking to myself, “Man, I gotta get a board. Nobody’s gonna steal that from me.”

Gotta love Citizens on Patrol.

My first board was a Vision John A. Grigley with a big abstract-type face on it. It was sick.

Now Boston is kind of a curiosity to outsiders because while it’s always had an amazing scene with incredible skaters, there’s just not as much known about it compared to it’s neighboring cities. What was it like coming up there?

It was a rad experience. Boston’s relatively small so you can cover a good amount of ground but still skate all sorts of different spots. The ground here is really smooth and there’s marble ledges everywhere. It’s a really clean city.

The scene was pretty well-established when I came onto it. People were real cool and all down with each other. It’s a very collegiate city so you always had people coming in from all different parts to skate but it was still very tight-knit. Everyone knew each other.

I don’t know if I really fit in at first but I kept on doing my own thing and won acceptance.

Wasn’t Molotov your first sponsor? How’d a Boston local get hooked up with a tiny company out of Minneapolis?

Yeah, I worked at a skateshop back then and used to vibe out on the phone with whoever it was that would be calling-in… random companies trying to do sales. That’s how I ended up getting hooked up with Molotov. Andy Schansberg called in one day and we started talking. Pretty soon, they was sending me ‘zines. I sent them a few clips of me skating and next thing I know, they’re sending me boards.

Andy his brother Matt, the guys that did Molotov, were super-talented artists and just really smart dudes. They were always hip to everything rad. Really cool guys.

Now the first time I remember you getting some shine was back when you hooked up with Ed and Mike V for TV/Television. That’s a pretty unusual situation as an amateur to go through these different-but-same companies so quickly… but I imagine Vallely must’ve been a big influence on you from early on. How’d you first come into contact with Mike and Ed?

Mike V actually came to Boston back in the day with Sal Barbier for a demo. I remember going out street skating with those guys and Mike totally challenged these security guards who were trying to kick us out of this spot. We all thought he was so crazy for standing up to them like that. He didn’t take shit from anybody! But, at the same time, he was such a down-to-Earth guy to talk to. It really blew us away.

So when Mike started TV, he told the guy who ran the shop I was working at to have me send in a videotape of me skating. I remember being so excited that I went out that very day and filmed the whole thing. He seemed pretty stoked on the footy and started sending me boards.

It wasn’t until later when Mike came back through Boston on a Television tour that I got to meet Ed and a few other guys on the team. That’s when I got fully-hooked up and went out on tour. It was rad.

Wasn’t Rocco going to somehow be involved with that project? I was never clear on the reasoning behind the switch from TV.

Yeah, we almost went with Rocco at one point but Mike started having second thoughts after everything he’d already gone through with Steve so he pulled out. The rest of us were really pushing for it but Mike didn’t think it was a good idea.

As far as why TV became Television, I’m not 100% sure. I always thought TV standing for Templeton and Vallely was sick and don’t really know why they changed it.

Now were you actively doing artwork around this time? Is that something you’ve always done? Molotov and TV were both very creative crews. Was this bond a big part in your relationship with Mike and Ed?

Yeah, they were big influences on me in painting and creative design. But I was always drawing and interested in art. I was into graf back in Boston and used to hang out with a lot graffiti artists. Mike and Ed were just doing it on a different level than I was back then, drawing more-commerical stuff that was to be mass-produced.

I remember when Toy Machine decided to turn me pro, Ed basically put a brush in my hand and told me to paint my own board graphic. He knew I was into doing art and really felt me doing my own graphic would be sick. I wasn’t for sure if I could do it or not but went ahead and painted a self-portrait for it. It came out alright.

So did Ed ever barge in on you and take your photo while you’re pissing?

Nah, he never got me.

We were already hip to him being artsy and free-spirited like that so we’d try to see it coming. We’d just be like, “Get outta here!”

Now Toy Machine’s Live Evil already demonstrates that smooth Jahmal Williams style. This part came several years into your career so there must’ve been a lot riding on it for you. Were you pleased with your part? Did you like skating in front of the camera?

No, I wasn’t pleased with the part. Not at all. I’ve never been too stoked on any of those early parts but I also never thought too critical about video parts back then either.

Filming has never felt natural to me. I still battle with blocking the guy with the camera out of my head to this day. It just doesn’t feel natural.

Sometimes shooting photos is rad though. Because it’s more about capturing that one still and using the photographer as he’s trying to create art out of it. He’s trying to capture you in some way that didn’t exist before. It’s a little different and more fun to me.

But no, I wasn’t stoked on that part at all.

What was the story behind Panama Dan? Whatever happened to that dude? Is he still up in Boston?

Yeah, he’s still up there.

He came up from Panama and was gnarly commando-style: sleeping in the park and just getting by but full-on skating. He loved to skate and I loved to skate so we started hanging out all the time, just being street rats. We’d sneak into the movies or into a night clubs. He was always down for whatever.

To me, that’s the real part of being a street skater: Knowing how to get around the city and all the ins-and-outs of it. Having things figured out, like where to get free food, free rides on the transit or whatever.

Now most East Coast skaters basically had to relocate west back then for any hope of career advancement. I’m sure it got pushed on you. What’s your reasoning behind avoiding the Left Coast for so long?

Yeah, Ed wanted me to. He was in Huntington Beach and Keenan, Liversedge, Huf and Eric Pupecki were all there at that same time, too. Ed thought moving out there and being around those guys would be good for me but I didn’t feel comfortable in the culture of Orange County. I just didn’t dig it.

Well, toughing out those winters definitely paid off for the opportunity to be in Eastern Exposure III. Did you have any idea when you signed up for that thing that Underachievers would go on to become such an important East Coast video? How did your involvement in that project come about?

I had no idea at that time what it was going to do. And honestly, I didn’t really find out until much later the impact that it actually had.

I met Dan Wolfe back during this one summer when they were having all of these pro contests along the East Coast.

Yeah, wasn’t that ’93?

Something like that. They had a contest at the Brooklyn Banks, one in Bricktown, NJ and another one at the Playground in Connecticut. It was exciting because it was one of the first times when all the California pros made it out to all these East Coast spots, like Cardiel and Danny Way. It was the first time we were really able to see these guys. I remember basically hitchhiking around or getting rides from whoever I could to be able to go.

But yeah, I was skating at this event in New Jersey when Dan came up and filmed me doing some tricks. He ended up giving me his number that day and asked about possibly coming up to Boston to film for this thing he was working on. I didn’t think he’d actually follow through with it but he did.

I think we ended up filming that part in like a week and a half or so.

Just a week and a half?

Yeah, we didn’t spend that much time on it. When the video came out, I was kinda bummed because I saw how gnarly all the other guys’ parts were. I was like, “Damn, I wish I had more time that I could’ve put in.”

But I was stoked to be in that video with all those guys killing it. Ricky Oyola, for sure. All that stuff kinda started fading out after a while though. It wasn’t until years later, like around 2003 or so, that people started bringing it back up to me and telling me how much they liked it. It really wasn’t until then that I realized how many people were influenced by it.

Did you share the same East Coast-centered philosophies that so many other Underachievers did?

Yeah, I think we all did at that particular time. We were all seeing things and experiencing stuff firsthand that just wasn’t right, like getting ripped off and all the weird stuff that can go down in the industry. We were all pretty bummed on it. Some were definitely more verbal about expressing these views but we all felt that way.

How was riding for Powell through out all of this? Being an East Coast rider and filming for these underground projects, did they have any idea what you were really doing? And I can’t imagine them being too open to any creative input that you may have had.

Yeah, they were pretty stuck in their ways at the time but for our generation, Powell was huge. The legacy of the Bones Brigade and all that… to me, guys like Steve Caballero and Lance Moutain were the “real” pros. Those guys that could skate anything.

When I rode for Powell, I was definitely stoked on the heritage and it’s history. But it really didn’t hit me until years later that I’d actually stayed at Cab’s house… or that I had really gone to the Powell warehouse to cut-out board shapes. Looking back on it now, it’s crazy! I kinda knew how major it was since I was such a big Tony Hawk fan as a kid… but I don’t think I really knew.

I did sorta have an ego back then though. Because the East Coast was starting to get some shine, I thought we were gonna be doing our own thing and finally start gaining some acceptance and so forth. But I’ve never forgotten about my early days.

Wasn’t there a possibility of Mike V getting his own company through Powell at this point?

Yeah, that’s what I thought was supposed to happen when he first went back. He rode for Powell for a while and had plans of possibly starting something, which is why I went to Powell actually. Never happened though.

So why’d you end up leaving Powell for ADI? Just a new opportunity? It definitely seemed like your chance to have a more creative outlet.

I was just vibing off something different. I guess I wasn’t feeling at home at Powell but at the same time, I think it was foolish of me to leave. I’ve made some foolish decisions in my early career. I was being stupid on tour and people were getting pissed at me… I knew my end at Powell was coming. Mike called me up and I knew what was happening. We just parted ways.

I wanted to be 100% into what I was doing and American Dream was doing things that I wanted to be a part of. It seemed really fresh and new with an East Coast vibe that I understood.

Plus, the team was really diverse. This was definitely good because I was starting to feel like the token black skater for a while on teams. That’s a weird thing to go through… getting into the van after demos and being the only brother there.

Along with ADI, Infamous really rates up there as one of the most beloved “what-if” companies of that decade. What was the story there? On paper, it seemed that there was no way the thing could’ve failed. An amazing team. Nice ads. Good product. What happened?

Mike Hernandez, who also rode for American Dream, was the reason I went over to Infamous. He and Ben Liversedge, who lived in Boston for a while back in the day, were both riding for Infamous and asked me to become part of the project. They were trying to do something good on the East Coast and it seemed like a good idea.

I think it didn’t work out because there was people involved behind the scenes that didn’t really appreciate the realness and true spirit of skateboarding. I believe their motivation was more about finance.

On a high note, we have to talk about your DNA part. Absolutely amazing. Were you motivated to make some big statement in this one after not having a part for a few years? You killed it in that thing.

Not at all, I was just skating. We were on tour during the filming of that video so I got to skate all these different spots which kept me excited and motivated.

How long did you guys film? Did you get more than a week and a half this time?

I remember us filming for a couple months.

DNA had come to Boston on a trip and that’s when I met up with those dudes. I found myself getting a pretty good amount of footage at all the sessions and that’s when they asked me to come aboard. My friends were already on the team and they were getting ready to go to Europe on tour… I wanted to go and get out of Boston for a while, so I got on board. We filmed overseas for a while and went from there to a U.S. tour where we filmed a bunch on that one trip too.

Was it always your intention to use “My Favorite Things”? Such an incredible song but damn near impossible to edit to. What made you decide to run with it?

It was strictly an ode to Mark Gonzales and John Coltrane. I first got introduced to Coltrane’s music through Gonz’s part in Video Days and using that song was my way of quietly giving props to him. I really appreciate what Gonz does in skateboarding. He is a true creative person.

The song “My Favorite Things” just made sense to use.

You said earlier that you didn’t like hardly any of your video parts, what about this one?

I like this one... probably because I played more of a part in the making of it and getting time to build the part. That was really the first time that I was ever able to get creative with ideas in the video medium.

I don’t remember who the guy was that edited it… I’m not sure if he was even into skateboarding that much, but I was able to walk into his studio and tell him which tricks to use and which ones I didn’t like, etc.

Plus, I got to choose my own song and was also able to include those postcards of W.E.B. Dubois, Picasso and Martin Luther King in my part. I was really into those guys during that time. They are real inspirations to me.

So what made you finally decide to go for self and start Hopps? How was the company born?

I was in Miami at the time and going through one of those moments where I had separated myself from all my sponsors. I just wasn’t happy. I remember Lance Mountain had told me once to be sure that I was skating for myself, so that’s kinda what I was doing. Not having any sponsors at all, just working a 9 to 5 and skating for fun.

I remember sitting on a curb one day when I started to daydream about what my first memories of skateboarding were, like going to buy my first board and that sound of a board hitting the ground… I remember seeing kids hop onto the benches and I didn’t even know what an “ollie” was at the time. I actually thought they were doing bunny hops because I came from BMX: bunny hops and j hops were how you got off the ground.

But after thinking about all that stuff, I started tripping off of how after all these years, I’m still skating. The spirit I had when I was 14 and going out to buy my first board was still lit inside of me. Skateboarding still had me stoked and I didn’t want to walk away from it. I felt like I still had something to offer. The flame was still burning.

So I started thinking about maybe starting my own company. I wasn’t sure if I could or not but I picked up a journal and started writing down ideas anyway. Slowly it started to come together.

I always wanted the name to be an action word. I was looking around for ideas when I started thinking back to those bunny hops again. It reminded me of the innocence of my early skateboarding days. I liked the sound of it and it felt right.

Hopps had to have that spirit of a youthful skateboarder’s attitude, like how I was when I was starting. Skateboarding was a new world to me at the time and with Hopps, it’s like a whole new chapter. A whole new experience on that initial innocence.

Amazing. So how did “Enjoy the Ride” came about?

My girlfriend’s Mother gave me a birthday card right around when I was starting the company and that’s what she put on it. “Enjoy the ride.” I was like, “Word.”

I’m not sure if people realize this but Hopps is still basically all you. The art direction, the promos, the graphics… hell, you were still packing boxes until just recently. What’s the best and worst part about running Hopps?

The best part is still setting up a new board that I made. The shape, the graphics… it’s a feeling that you can’t describe. When I set up a new board, I like it. It’s not like before where I’d set something up and maybe not like the graphics or whatever. Now it’s a totally different source of pride. It’s so nice when you have ideas where you take the time to work everything out and you end up with something that you can hold in your hand. That’s the best part.

As for the worst part, I’d probably have to say the responsibility (laughs). If I don’t do it, nobody else is going to. But that’s just a part of it.

What’s been the most surprising part?

People diggin’ it.

I gotta tell you that the first skateshop that gave HOPPS products a shot was Supreme in New York.

That’s no joke.

Yeah, they’re the most hyper-critical dudes around. I just walked in there one day and Ryan Hickey was working. I was really insecure at the time about showing my ideas to people but I told him about the brand and wanted to know if he’d critique it. I remember him looking over everything and telling me that he thought it could work.

He could’ve easily been a dick and destroyed it. But he said to bring in some boards in when they were done and that Supreme would take them! I couldn’t believe it!

I remember walking out of there like I was on cloud nine. Thanks Ryan. That meant a lot to me.

I know you mentioned earlier about being kinda bummed on all the responsibility of doing your company but in a way, I imagine it has to be nice after struggling with higher-ups in the past. Having said that, is there an element of fear involved with getting other people involved in this project that you’ve grown yourself?

I’m just having fun. As long as I’m having fun, I think it will be alright.

There’s a certain element of fear with getting other people involved but at the same time, the brand is going to attract like-minded creative individuals. Most of the crew are friends or are on the same wave, it just came about organically. Real natural with nothing being forced. I’m not trying to say that it’s always going to be that way but I’ve been very lucky so far.

I try to deal with fear realistically because that’s what stops you from moving ahead sometimes. If I had let fear run it’s course, I wouldn’t have gotten this far.

We hit upon the promos earlier but they seem to have quickly become a major component of the brand. I know you’ve directed the majority of them but everyone knows you can't do all that on your own. What all goes into making these things? Did you have much experience previously with making short videos?

No experience at all. Video and film are just among the media I’ve always wanted to get involved with.

I try to storyboard as much as possible. When you’re trying to express an idea that you have in your head to someone else, it’s so hard for it to come across like how you envision it. I try to get it on paper as much as possible so I can explain it to whoever I’m working on the piece with. From there, it’s shooting and trying to get it as close as possible to that original idea.

I gotta give props to Josh Stewart for bringing his talents to the table and playing such a major role. His skills with the camera and editing are really unique and raw. Without Josh, a lot of those commercial would've never been. He's very inspiring. 100% skateboarder with a camera.

I'm actually working with Josh now on a possible part in Static 4.

I can't wait for that one. Hope it works out...

For sure. I'd also like to thank Marcus again for doing all of the motion graphics. The "floating logo" commercial was all his idea and it blew me away.

That promo always reminds me of those Naked Gun intros. So sick.

I remember him trying to explain the concept to me at this art show we were at and I just couldn’t understand it but the final work came out amazing. I asked him to direct the ice cream board promo soon after that.

And quick props to the super-talented Ray Echevers for coming through to help put Jerry’s commercial together.

It helps to be involved with others who feel really passionate about what they do. It makes projects like these that much more fulfilling.

Definitely stoked to see what's in store for the future. Who’s currently on the team?

Jerry Fowler was the first addition to Hopps. Jerry's my old teammate and has always been super-talented. “Mindbender” Joel Meinholz just joined the family over the summer. Bender's total controlled chaos on a board, super rad to watch in person. So much power. Steve Brandi is the only official amateur so far. He’s a true street skater... really comfortable on his board and just a rad style.

We have some younger guys I’ve been flowing product to as well.

All this talk of style... you're definitely no slouch in this department. How would you try to define that word? What's your personal definition of "style"?

Through painting and being involved with art, I gotta go with aesthetics. When someone does something and it becomes really natural… when you’re able to develop your own vocabulary to express yourself.

Great answer.

Yeah, I’ll go with that. Don’t want to make it too complicated.

Alright, Jahmal, I think we covered just about everything. Is there anything you’d like to add? Any words of wisdom?

Be yourself and enjoy your time on this planet while you’re here. Try to keep a positive outlook on life because a lot of things are based upon your perspective and interpretation. A positive attitude in your profession can go a long ways.

What’s next for Hopps?

Keeping it moving.

Special thanks to Jahmal for taking the time. CBI #700 on Monday.


s.m. smith said...

speaking of grigley, he's skating again in nyc. you should do an interview with him, or at least a spread.

Anonymous said...

HOPPS is the best! Great interview!

Even more hyped on this brand now!

Anonymous said...

Static 4 part? Fuck yeah!

Great interview on both ends.

darsh said...

The Infamous crooked grind ad is a thing of beauty.

The Chez said...

Always loved that backflip off the roof. It just captures it perfectly and you can see his commitment and also the carefree attitude all in his body language.
Good interview Chops!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this! Jahmal and Hopps are true inspirations that in some ways have helped me through some tough times. Sickest company!

Dave said...

great interview, Chops. Hard not to be a fan of Jahmal and Hopps. He comes across as being very humble and also very motivated to do his thing. Definitely gonna see where I can pick up a board and show some support!

peel said...

Love those Hopps ads

Chops + Hopps = an excellent start to the weekend

Benjamin Deberdt said...

Jahmal is one of the (few) reasons why skateboarding is still cool! A little nod I made to that, recently:
Great interview!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

With the 'copyright' 'C' in front of Hopps Skateboards,it says 'Chopps Skateboards'