’90s LA was an interesting time in skateboarding. Plagued by gang violence, the city was a war zone. And the skaters that dwelled there were a reflection of that. Joey Suriel was a central figure during that era. He came up at the now-legendary Lockwood schoolyard on the east side of of town with the crew that would eventually form the original Menace team. In the following interview with Keir Johnson, Joey provides an insider’s perspective on what it war like to be there.
Interview by Keir Johnson
Keir: How did skateboarding find you?
Joey: I was introduced to skateboarding in the summer of 1987 by the movie Thrashin’. What intrigued me the most about it was the fact that you didn’t rely on anyone else to accomplish what you wanted to on a skateboard. Being that I was highly into sports as a youngster, I never liked the fact that if you gave it your 100% effort, you still relied on others if you wanted to reach whatever goal you had set for yourself in your mind. Not that I’m not a team player, but with skateboarding; it was all on you. You didn’t have to rely on anyone else if you wanted to ollie a flight of stairs or slide a handrail.
Keir: Can you remember your first board?
Joey: My first set-up was a Jeff Grosso, the one with all the toys on it, some tracker trucks with the plastic base plates, some 97a slime ball wheels with German bearings. I bought it at the legendary Rip City Skates in Santa Monica.
Keir: What was your area like?
Joey: I grew up in Echo Park which is five minutes from downtown LA. My area was cool, but only because I grew up there and I knew everybody. As long as you were there with me, you were good. I got a lot of ghetto passes for people and they never even knew it. To this day I’m sure a lot of cats are not aware of how close they were to getting fucked up!
Keir: Were there a lot of spots around then?
Joey: Back then, spots were a dime a dozen. Almost every corner of downtown had a spot to skate. A good example of that is in Blind’s Video Days.
Keir: What was the city itself like at that point?
Joey: Late eighties early nineties was literally a war zone in LA. Gang activity was at it’s peak and drive bys were a common occurrence.
Keir: Damn, what was it like being a skateboarder amidst all that?
Joey: Back then, being a skateboarder was not cool like it is today. In my hood, I was good, but once I left my block, I was on my own. You have to realize that LA had and still has over 400 active gangs in the city. Which means that if we wanted to go skate Beneficial ledges on Wilshire, we were going to have to skate past and most likely encounter at least 5 different hoods. If you’ve seen the movie The Warriors, then you know what I’m talking about. We had our share of close calls, and I mean close, but somehow, we always made it back home safe. Honestly, back then we didn’t even think about it. It was a way of life. We just dealt with it because it was all we knew.
Keir: Who was your original skate crew?
Joey: Fabian Alomar, Billy Valdes, Paulo Diaz, Gabriel Rodriguez, Rudy Johnson, and Guy Mariano.
Keir: What spots were you guys skating the most?
Joey: We skated Los Feliz and Lockwood the most. We all handled our own and put it down, but Paulo Diaz murdered both those spots like no one else!
Keir: Yeah what was Paulo doing back then?
Joey: You got to realize that Paulo was doing switch ollies and nollies over tables well before it was ever suppose to evolve to that… and I’m talking with authority too, not just barely making it over. So for me, to witness that and actually live it is hands down the illest ever for that time.
Keir: Wasn’t Paulo the one that put you down with your first sponsor?
Joey: Paulo was filming for the Propaganda video and we were all skating Los Feliz with him. Stacy Peralta took notice of me and asked Paulo who I was. Paulo basically put the icing on the cake and sealed the deal. Billy Valdez got on Powell that same day as well.
Keir: That’s rad, you mentioned Los Feliz, what about Lockwood, can you kick the whole history of that spot and what it means to you, you definitely had a grip of ill footage there.
Joey: Before Lockwood, the area was actually an abandoned building complex with an empty pool we used to all skate back in ‘88. In ‘90, the school district bought the land and built what became Lockwood Elementary School. Lockwood was low key for quite a while. The sessions consisted of only locals and at any given day you would have spotted a young Kareem, Guy, Gabriel, Rudy, Fabian, Paulo, Billy and myself, skating around listening to music on our boom box and smoking blunts. Lockwood was like a modern day Boys Club with a skate park. We had basketball courts, soda machines, and all the entertainment we needed being that it is located on La Mirada Gang territory.
Keir: You must of seen a lot go down through the years?
Joey: We saw shoot outs, crack heads getting beat up, rival gang members getting shot and stabbed, drug deal transactions, the whole nine. From day one, we were always good there because Fabian’s uncle is an OG of La Mirada Gang, so the gang bangers always showed us love. All that stuff Kareem talks about in the Skateboarder article was real talk. As time went by and we began filming and taking photos there, people began to take notice. We started bringing other pros, being the good hosts that we were and Lockwood started getting a lot of coverage in the magazines.
Keir: When do you think that hit its peak?
Joey: After 20 Shot Sequence and the Chocolate video Las Nueve Vidas De Paco came out, it was over.
Keir: Yeah 20 Shot was the sickest video at the time, people just started migrating up to Lockwood after that huh?
Joey: On any given day you would have at least a hundred kids skating at one time. It was crazy. What made it even crazier is that all these kids didn’t have a clue of the fact that they were in a hot zone with a lot of gang activity going on around them. We stopped a lot of things from happening, but unfortunately, we were not always there for everyone, Chuck Wampler being one of them…
Keir: I think it’s a good time to get into Menace Skateboards, how did this company happen?
Joey: Kareem Campbell and Shiloh Greathouse were on the original Chocolate roster and were contemplating making the move. When Shiloh ended up not being included in the project, Kareem decided he would approach Steve Rocco about letting him start a company under the World umbrella.
Keir: How did you become involved as one of the main Menace riders?
Joey: I remember being in New York in ‘93 with Fabian Alomar and hanging a lot with Kareem when we were there. Kareem and I had history from when we were kids skating the LA streets and the Powell Skate Zone when they had the Quarter Master Cups back in the day. But in New York that year, I felt we really bonded and Kareem noticed that our situation at the time with Mark Gonzales and ATM Click wasn’t working out for us on a business level. He recognized our talents and knew we came from the same struggle he did. He knew he could have gotten well known, more established pros for his new company; but because he’s a real dude he realized that if we were given the chance, we would be just as profitable for his company.
Keir: The whole vibe of the company was ill. On the outside it seemed meant to be.
Joey: To this day, I will always LOVE Kareem like a brother for giving me the opportunity to show and prove. He took me under his wing and always kept it 100% honest with me. On a personal level and a business level I am what I am today as a person and business man because of what Kareem taught me coming up in the game with him. He helped set the foundation for the start of my journey to success.
Keir: I was always curious about what was going on behind the scenes with the company, can you talk about that?
Joey: Behind the scenes it was all Kareem. He had the vision and executed it exactly the way he envisioned it. Menace Skateboards was about coming up in the struggle and making something out of the cards we were dealt in life as kids coming up in the hood. From our graphics, to our ads, it was 100% us. Eric Pupecki was the only Menace rider that wasn’t from the hood, but he dealt with the same issues. And he had a street mentality just like us. He loved hip hop just like us. He dealt with the same politics we dealt with coming up in the skate game too. And that’s why we took him in. He’s a real cat. When we came out we wanted our presence to be felt and heard. A lot of people mistakingly took that as some trouble making kids form the hood trying to instill fear, but it wasn’t about that at all. We were just trying to give the industry a glimpse of our world and show the art of skateboarding through our eyes. And what you got was Menace Skateboards.
Keir: Kareem was clearly on a different level in the early to mid 90’s, what does Kareem mean to you these days?
Joey: Kareem is the Michael Jordan of skateboarding. In his prime, he took skateboarding to the next level and pushed the limits to what was possible on a skateboard. He did it with style and just watching him push around and do a simple trick like a kick flip, to this day, is the most amazing thing you can ever experience. Not only that though, Kareem is one of the coolest people you will ever meet. And that’s why he is so loved by many all over the world. He’s approachable and very humble. I would suggest to all of you reading this interview look him up on Youtube and see for yourself what the Kareem Campbell experience is all about. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. And if you ever run into Kareem, make sure you hit him up and challenge him to a game of skate.
Keir: What was the original Menace line-up?
Joey: The original riders were Fabian Alomar, Billy Valdes, Eric Pupecki, Steven Cales, Lee Smith, Javier Nunez, and myself.
Keir: You mentioned Paulo hooking you up with Stacey Peralta back in the day, can you break down all the companies you rode for through out your career?
Joey: I started out on Powell Peralta, then SMA (Santa Monica Airlines), ATM Click, Menace Skateboards, All City Skateboards and finally City Stars Skateboards. I rode for Vision Street Wear Shoes, Airwalk, Duffs and Axion Footwear. I also rode for Krux, Thunder, and Venture trucks.
Keir: Were you able to travel much from skating, what’s the best placed you’ve visited?
Joey: I’ve been to a lot of places in the world, but my all time favorite would have to be Switzerland. Maybe it’s because of all the money there. You can feel the success when you’re there. It’s one of the riches countries in the world and the way they run it reflects that. People there are happy and very friendly. I like the feeling of being around success, and Switzerland gave me that feeling and inspiration when I was there. Besides, I’m trying to be one of those cats with the overseas Swiss accounts.
Keir: Word, me too. Now what about East Coast skating, you had talked about NYC, what’s up with that?
Joey: I skated the East Coast a lot in the nineties. We discovered Javier Nunez there. To this day, Javier rides for any and all the companies I am affiliated with. He’s good for life. Skating downtown was the best for me. Time Life, Battery Park, Seaport, Brooklyn Banks. I got East Coast footy, check the 411 archives, I rep the East too… Having the opportunity to skate with New York’s finest was the highlight for me. Ivan Perez, Steven Cales, Ryan Hickey, Jeff Pang, Mike Hernandez, Maurice Key, Joey Alvarez, NA, Gino Iannucci, Peter Bici, Rick Rivera, Keith Hufnagel, and Harold Hunter, Keenan Milton, Justin Pierce RIP. That’s my East Coast family. Word Up!
Keir: What was the soundtrack to your life in the 90’s?
Joey: Throughout the nineties for me it was basically Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang, Method Man, Redman, Gang Starr, BDP, Nas, Keith Murray, Erick Sermon, Jay Z, Main Source, Public Enemy, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Black Moon, Smif & Wessun, Mobb Deep, etc. I can go on for days. I’ve been hip hop since b-boys and break beats. Just like skateboarding, I was hip hop before it was cool to be hip hop. I love hip hop. I grew up on hip hop. I live hip hop. I might not like what hip hop has evolved to today, but I still love it. Because I understand that it’s part of the evolution. I always say I am skate and I also say I am hip hop.
Keir: Were you into graf much?
Joey: It goes hand-in-hand. Hip hop don’t stop baby! Ramo, Beat Street, Wild Style – I grew up on all of that. LA in the eighties, it was about TWA (Today’s Writing Artist). Shandu, Hex, Slick, Doom, Syne RIP. Our crew in the nineties was DOC (Doped Out Children) Kareem, Fabian, Guy, Rudy, Gabriel, we all did it, it was a way of life.
Keir: I always remember the end of Gabriel’s Chocolate part where he poses with that ill piece. Now, fast forwarding to the future, what are you up to these days?
Joey: I am brand manager for Diamond Supply Co. I, along with Nick Tershay, Greg Carroll, and Khristi Camarlinghi oversee everything related to the day-to-day success of the company. Greg Carroll and Nick Tershay gave me the same chance Kareem gave me 14 years ago. When I was down and out, those guys took me in and allowed me to show what I could bring to the table, and so far, it’s been all good. Besides, I love business and the day to day power moves that come with running a successful company. That’s my drug, my adrenalin rush. To me, that’s what’s fun about skating right now, the business side.
Keir: Thanks much for the interview Joey, do you have some thank you’s?
Joey: God, my mother, my wife Claudia and my beautiful son Isaiah, I love you both with all my heart. Kareem Campbell and Greg Carroll for showing me the spiritual side of life and for believing in me. Nick Tershay, Diamond Life for ever! Khristi Camarlinghi for her support and guidance. Mark Gonzales for turning me pro, a huge complement coming from one of the best street skateboarders that ever lived (if that’s not legit, then I don’t know what is). Russ Pope for supporting me early in my career. Stacy Peralta for sharing his words of wisdom with me when I was a kid. Ruben Orkin RIP. Chris Ortiz, Rick Kosick and Tobin Yelland for coming to the hood and shooting photos of me when no one else would. Steve Rocco and Fausto Vitello (RIP) for unknowingly being an inspiration to me and helping me realize my destiny. My extended family at Empire Distribution, Girl, and Chocolate Skateboards. Diz Gibran, we’re going to do big things together Diz! Lou Morris, came a long way with that dude right there. Big Dennis, my trainer, for keeping me solid, all my Diamond Supply Co., Fillmore, and Force team riders and 48 Blocks for this opportunity to share a part of my life with you all, God is love!