Mark Gonzales skating to John Coltrane’s “Traneing In” in Video Days
The Good, the Rad, and the Gnarly
An exploration into the music of skateboarding.
June 5, 2018
"But the most important thing is a good song. The best skateboarding in the world can look fucking awful with a bad soundtrack." - Corey Duffel
Growing up, like most skaters, if I wasn't skating, I was watching skate videos, discovering not only my new favorite skaters but my new favorite music.
The videos didn’t just feature skateboarding—each skater’s section was accompanied by a song, often selected to set the tempo for the video, match the skater’s style, and contribute to the video’s overall aesthetic. My first skate video turned me on to a number of artists: Dinosaur Jr., Black Flag, and John Coltrane. In a time before Spotify or Pandora, skate videos provided something of a music tastemaker—a playlist of what's cool. The playlist spanned all genres and all time frames. It felt diverse. It felt countercultural.
In what follows, we’ll examine how the music of skateboarding changed over time, how genres relate to particular styles of skating, and which songs are associated with specific skaters.
Music Evolution Over Time
Over time, skateboarding has evolved: different styles and techniques of skateboarding have come and gone, skateboarding has risen and fallen from popularity, and the general aesthetics of skateboards have changed.
These shifts in skateboarding culture often correlate with changes in skate-video music. Let’s examine how music genres have changed over time.
Following the advent of the VHS tape, skate videos became an established feature of skateboarding culture in the later-half of the 1980s.
For skateboarding, the 1980s were a pretty wild time. DIY, skater-run companies were forming. Vert skating, with its eclectic and show-man personalities, was in full popularity. And skateboarding was, for the first time, seeing commercial success. Early skate videos, borrowing from skateboarding's countercultural origins, were overwhelmingly dominated by punk rock music.
Although many of the featured artists in the first videos were temporary groups formed by the skaters themselves, early punk icons, such as Black Flag, the Faction, and Descendents, saw prominent use, often well before their eventual rise in popularity. For example, the iconic noise rock duo Sonic Youth, an artist heavily featured across skateboarding videos, was first featured in a skate video in 1989, years before their mainstream success in the mid-1990s.
In the 1990’s, skateboarding's mainstream popularity declined. Vert skating died, technical street skating took over, and skateboarding entered the infamous era of “big pants, small wheels.”
The large changes in skateboarding culture brought equally large changes in genre. Punk and classic rock saw large declines in use, and hip hop, the defining genre of the decade, quickly took their place.
The high use of hip hop during skateboarding’s least popular years cemented the genre as something of a new counterculture anthem, with artists such as Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, and Nas seeing finding their way into skate videos.
This was also a popular decade for jazz/funk/soul artists, likely thanks to Spike Jonze's highly influential Video Days, which was released in 1991 and featured the likes of John Coltrane, War, and the Jackson 5.
The Early 2000s
The success of shows such as Jackass and Viva La Bam ushered skateboarding back into mainstream popularity, and popular skateboarding changed. The low-impact technical street skating of the ’90s gave way to a “bigger is better” approach, as skaters began to jump down longer rails and stairs.
The music of skate videos evolved in tandem. Over the 2000s, hip hop's popularity gradually decreased, and indie and classic rock steadily rose to prominence. The faster, more aggressive style of these genres fit well with the new “gnarlier” style of skateboarding. Such changes were reflected in the fashion as well: pants became tighter, shoes less puffy, and hair longer.
The most popular classic rock artists during this time were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. For indie music, MGMT and Modest Mouse held the throne.
With millions of skaters worldwide, skateboarding is becoming more diverse than ever. As a result, this era of skateboarding has no single defining aesthetic, and almost all styles and approaches have an audience.
Appropriately, indie music, itself a broad categorization of music, is the most popular genre. Hip hop, the second most popular genre for much of this time frame, ultimately finishes at its lowest point since 1990.
The most popular artist of the current decade is Joy Division. Sonic Youth, who appeared in some of skateboarding's first videos, breaks the top-five most popular artists. I guess some artists just pair well with skateboarding.
Different music genres are often associated with particular styles of skateboarding. For example, hip hop is often used with technical street skating, while heavier, faster music, such as punk or metal, is generally used alongside transition skating.
Similarly, different skate companies are often affiliated with specific styles of skateboarding. Is it possible to determine a company's primary style of skateboarding by observing the music it employs in skate videos?
To investigate, I examined the distribution of genres for 32 of the most popular companies in skateboarding.
Genre Distributions by Company
Some observations are immediately apparent:
The most dominant example of genre loyalty is DGK's whopping 92% use of hip hop. Other companies, namely SK8MAFIA and Zoo York, also employ hip hop as their predominant choice of genre. Because of their concurrent popularity in the 1990s, hip hop and technical street skating are strongly associated with one another. Sure enough, the companies with high usage of hip hop are principally known for technical street skating.
Metal music is most often associated with transition skating. Transition-focused companies, such as Blood Wizard, Bacon, and Creature, feature the genre the most.
Classic rock is often used with a so-called “hesh” style of skateboarding, which is something of a catch-all term describing a gritty, unkempt style. This is reflected in the high use of the genre among companies such as $lave, Vox, Lurkville, and Zero.
Indie music, something of a music-for-the-masses in skateboarding, proves true to its name, with almost every company featuring indie music in at least 10% of songs.
As a final note of interest, all of the companies that use jazz 20% or more in their videos sponsor skaters who were featured in Spike Jonze's classic 1993 video "Video Days," one of the first videos to pair jazz with skateboarding.
Let’s now turn to artists. In the chart below, each circle represents an artist, color-coded by genre and sized proportionally to the number of times the artist is used across skate videos.
The Most Popular Musicians, by Genre
The popularity of classic rock artists such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd is surprising, perhaps because classic rock has grown to become strongly associated with mainstream music, while skateboarding is generally associated with counterculture genres, such as punk or hip hop. Still, their epic ballads and guitar-laced riffs definitely have their place in skateboarding.
When it comes to hip hop, skaters favor pre-2000s artists, with the most popular including Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, and Public Enemy. While this preference may appear to be the result of a temporal bias (after all, earlier artists have more opportunity for air time), consider that for every year after 1999, the most popular hip hop artist is from the ‘90s.
Indie music in skate videos isn't dominated by a select few artists. Rather, skate videos feature many artists at similar rates, reflecting the popularity and wide selection of the genre. Arguably, this genre is responsible for the largest number of artists most strongly associated with skateboarding, including New Order, Modest Mouse, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth.
Sol, the most popular electronic artist, was heavily used in 411VM, a video magazine from the early 2000s. Baron and Odd Nosdam, the second and third most popular artists of the genre, were each recruited to create soundtracks for individual skate videos. They are the source of the two spikes for electronic music in the time series shown earlier in this essay.
Many of the displayed artists are themselves skateboarders. Bad Shit, Grindline the Band, and CKY are composed entirely of skateboarders. Bad Shit's guitarist is the editor of Thrasher Magazine, the so-called bible of skateboarding. The most used artist from jazz, Tommy Guerrero, is himself a professional skateboarder-turned-musician. The same is true of Ray Barbee, another popular jazz musician.
Fugazi leads punk as the most popular artist of the genre and has been paired with some of skateboarding's most iconic skateboarders. Lead singer Ian Mackaye (also of Minor Threat) was an avid skateboarder before getting into music, and described skateboarding as a defining influence for his life and music. Other highly used punk artists, such as Bad Brains, Devo, and Black Flag, are legends of the genre, and their inclusion is hardly surprising.