Back in 1996, I lived in Oakland off Macarthur and went to school at St. Jarlaths for a year before getting kicked out for kicking a nun. That’s a story for another day, but in my youth I remember owning an N64 and falling in love with The Legend of Zelda: The Orcarina of Time, I’d get lost in my own world playing that shit. Link was like the tightest ever, and when we moved into an apartment in Alameda I would have friends over so I could school em in Smash Bros with Hyrule’s green-clad savior. But that all changed when one day, my dad brought home a magical grey box called a Playstation, the graphics blew my N64’s out of the water and I got introduced to some of the most iconic figures in video game history such as Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Abe’s Oddworld and the revolutionary Gran Turismo. We even had a Metal Gear Solid demo disc, which I beat so many damn times that I could probably have done it with my eyes closed. But nothing compared to the first time I played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
Skateboarding has long been an underground culture that’s truly the purest of any craft - if you’re amazing then you get your props, there’s no beating around the bush when it comes down to it. Skating and punk culture went hand in hand for so long, but as it reached mainstream America, the culture began to shift (as does anything). The West Coast is responsible for originating skateboarding culture, dating back to the 1940s as surfers threw wheels on boards to ‘surf’ the concrete, and California continued to grow as the hub for the culture spearheaded by the youth. On the other side of the country, New York in the 70s, Kool Herc began talking over breakbeats while DJing, and began what’s known today as hip-hop - the genre has most certainly developed since then, as has the world of skateboarding. After a few decades of both being regarded as a near obscenity, the sport of skateboarding was beginning to ground itself in legitimacy and churning out stars that would gain endorsements from major companies like MTV. Meanwhile, hip-hop was exiting it’s ‘golden era’, with the death of two of the biggest stars, Tupac and Biggie, still ripe in many people’s memory, but nonetheless was a powerhouse on MTV and radio nationwide.
Maybe it’s that we were so in awe of the rawness of it all, the rebellious nature of skating on such a grand pedestal, but when the X Games came to SF in 1999, everyone was watching. I was 7 years old, and Tony Hawk’s 900 at the X Games is imprinted in my mind to this day, the moment that cemented him as a skateboarding God and megastar. After landing the 720 in 1985, Tony Hawk and skaters across the world had been chasing the elusive 900, making the victory on such a grand scale that much sweeter (the X Games were only 4 years old by 1999). A month after landing the 900, Activision and Neversoft released Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on Playstation, which flew off the shelves and didn’t leave my hands throughout the Summer save for when I grabbed a skateboard and rode around the apartment complex we lived in.
Sadly, I never got as good at skating as I did at Pro Skater, but nonetheless I’m sure we can all agree that we spent hours on that game, and as the gameplay progressed throughout the years it became more and more dynamic. The game went from simply chasing a “high score” or collecting the letters in SKATE to an open world style game, where you could customize parks, graffiti throughout the city and even get off your board. One thing that never changed however, was the curation of some choice tunes throughout the game’s soundtrack, initially starting with purely metal and punk songs in the first Pro Skater and making a shift with the second game. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 represented a paradigm shift in the culture of skating as a whole, openly embracing hip-hop culture and infusing it with the already skyrocketing world of skating. Alongside tracks from Rage Against The Machine and Bad Religion we were given tracks from Public Enemy, Naughty By Nature and Mos Def. While this may not seem insane to you now, with current games like 2K getting DJ sets from DJ Khaled and Pharrell, before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater all games had only original scores made specifically for the games (think about when you play Super Mario). Joel Jewett one of the three founders of the now defunct Neversoft Entertainment, the studio behind the original Tony Hawk games (and Guitar Hero) mentioned the reasoning behind the soundtrack’s diversity in an interview with Polygon. "Video games at the time all had orchestral music and we were like, 'Fuck, man, we can pick awesome rock and roll! This is cool shit!' So we spent money on licensing it and sticking it in the game." Pro Skater gave us our first experience of playing a game while being able to listen to music from real life artists, and gave us a soundtrack ripe with flavor.
In 2001, N.E.R.D.’s In Search Of...album was released in Europe, which was our first exposure to the progressiveness of Pharrell who later in 2003 we found skateboarding about in the video to “Frontin” with Jay-Z. Just a few years after Tony Hawk Pro Skater’s emergence, Pharrell continued the seed that Pro Skater had planted in so many’s minds and made it even more relatable by being a black man that represented both skate culture and hip-hop. Pharrell’s influence in itself is something I could write volumes about, and many people have, but as the skating world started to look more diverse, so did the video games. One of the last installments of Tony Hawk’s game I played was Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, where we could skate in a number of worldwide locations (Barcelona was lit) with skaters of differing nationalities and skin colors which was pretty amazing. I remember always picking Paul Rodriguez, simply for the fact that he was a brown kid like me. The soundtrack on that game was equally amazing, giving me my first exposure to Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth all put into a blender alongside Joy Division, Metallica, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and so many other names that added eclecticism and pure good energy.
Nowadays you wouldn’t think twice about skateboarding and hip-hop being separate cultures at one point. You can turn on your TV and catch Lil Wayne, one of rap’s megastars, skating around or on the flipside skating affiliates like Drama Beats, (cousin of Rob Dyrdek) producing tracks for Eminem signee Yelawolf. Particularly within the Bay Area, with the emergence of The Pack, Diligentz and the whole “Vans” era, it’s near impossible to escape someone wearing Vans at a party or event, predicated by Basedgod who still hasn’t retired his. The folks at Neversoft probably never would have predicted what would have come from the seed they planted by dropping in tracks from Naughty By Nature and Public Enemy while we skated around in “The Warehouse” in THPS2. Pioneers like Terry Kennedy, Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco are just some of the famous folks who brought the sport to the light in the black community, not to mention millions of unnamed black and brown skaters who combatted racism and took the brunt of the discrimination to pave the way for the more diverse landscape that exists today. Largely regarded as a “white sport”, for a long time media like Tony Hawk’s video games provided minority kids with more representation (forgot to mention everyone’s favorite show Rocket Power too - woogie woogie woogie).
“My priority has always been to be progressive and if I’m remembered as being progressive or someone that broke limits then that’s how I’d rather approach it”. - Tony Hawk
Today marks the 17 year anniversary of Tony Hawk’s 900, and his impact is felt far beyond the world of video games and music. The Tony Hawk Foundation has been constructing skateparks for low income communities since 2002, providing that positive reinforcement for many who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the sport. Personally, after reflecting on it, I couldn’t name a bigger influence (other than my pops) on bringing fresh music into my life and as a kid I’m sure we all felt edgy as hell skating around to the blend of Metal, Punk and Rap tunes that they enlisted. Tony Hawk and Neversoft became both cultural and musical pioneers from a hobby of theirs and brought that love for skate and hip-hop culture to the doorsteps of millions of kids worldwide. It was that 900 that shocked the world, but it was THPS that changed mine, and 17 years later Tony’s proven to the world that he’s still got it at the age of 48 landing a 900 just today. Here’s to pushing limits and to those that paved the way for the new generation to be accepted, and many more 900s to come from the legend himself.