Lee Smith has lived the life. He’s held it down in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Barcelona on his own personal world tour. He’s ridden for companies fronted by Mark Gonzales and Kareem Campbell, and probably still has one of those coveted City Stars chains from back in the day. Lee’s story makes you realize that there’s no point in going on the journey if you don’t appreciate everything that you experience along the way. Friends and memories last forever.
48 Blocks: You’re from San Francisco, talk about the early days.
Lee: I actually started skating a long time before the EMB days when I lived in the Oakland hills. I think I was about eight years old. My mom bought me a plastic banana board, and I used to ride it down the hills. Then the nose and tail broke off. I got a Variflex. I was really into to it, but had no idea that skateboarding was a huge thing. My board was just a toy to me then, like a pogo stick or something. After Oakland, we moved to Detroit, then to Inkster, and later Ypsilanti, a small suburb of Ann Arbor in Michigan. I was still really into skating, but biking was pretty big out there. I would skate by myself, and hit the bike trails with my friends. One kid signed my yearbook and wrote that, “I’m gonna be a great BMX’r one day,” pretty funny. We had a book fair at school and I bought some kind of skate book. In the book were Jeff Kendall, Claus Grabke, Lee Ralph, and many others. It really sparked my interest.That book is probably what kept me motivated to skate instead of biking full time. Then, we moved back to SF, and it was on.
48 Blocks: When did you first start going downtown to skate?
Lee: I first went down to EMB with Karl Watson. We went to the same school. I was skating around my neighborhood by myself before we met. So I was pretty psyched to find a huge plaza filled with skaters. I was so used to moving around that I knew how to make friends easily. I was pretty social. I just started hanging around, and before I knew it I was part of the crew. I wasnt a t-dog for that long!
Looking back on the EMB days it seems like a dream.We didn’t have a care in the world and did whatever we wanted with no real consequences. It’s crazy that we would skate all day, drink 40s, smoke weed, and whatever else—get into fights, and generally heckle whoever was around without the police bothering us. Times have changed.
48 Blocks: You were on the legendary old ATM team under Gonz. How did that come together?
Lee: I was just skating at Embarco and Gonz, Fabian Alomar, and Joey Suriel rolled through one day. I guess Mark liked the way I skated. So he wanted to hook me up. A few weeks later, I was down in Huntington Beach staying at his house. It was crazy. It all happened so fast.
48 Blocks: Later, the whole team defected to Menace / All City / City Stars. You eventually went pro for them. How did you hook up with Kareem?
Lee: It went ATM, then 60/40, and then I think Mark was over it so he bounced and so did everyone else shortly after. I was just skating and going to school. I didn’t really know what was going on. Then Joey contacted me and said that Menace needed an am and they wanted me to ride for them. Looking back on my skating ability at the time, I feel like it halted around the time I got on Menace. I don’t know why. I kind of stopped progressing and got lazy. Maybe I thought I was too cool. I don’t know. I was drinking and partying a lot as well. I’m sure that didn’t help my reputation as a skater. I pretty much sucked at skating. But Kareem kept me on, and even turned me pro. I’m sure I would of gotten kicked off had it been any other company. Kareem always kept that family vibe going.
48 Blocks: Menace had a pretty gangsta image. Was that all just natural?
Lee: Yeah, I guess we were just being ourselves. Being a mix of blacks and latinos and all of us coming from the inner city. Menace was just a reflection of who we were and what was going on around us.The tours were just insane! Fabian was always getting into something from fighting Englishmen on their wedding day, to having the Swedish swat team come after him. Steven was just a whole other level of madness that I cant even get into.
48 Blocks: You’ve been pretty tight with Mike Carroll for a long time. How did you guys meet and cultivate your friendship?
Lee: Carroll’s the man. Just coming from SF and Embarco, we have always been good friends. I was the one from the younger generation who didn’t give a fuck, really. I was down for whatever. So when the older dudes were drinking 40s and going to raves, I was right there with them—sneaking in and getting into trouble on Lower Haight and all that. I was there. I think this helped me form stronger relationships with the older dudes like Mike. My first skate trip was to Arizona with Mike, Shelby Woods, and Nick Tershay. I was probably like fourteen. He’s looked out for me a lot when I needed help with things. He’s done it all in skating, and has the style and respect of everyone. To me, his career is perfect. I’m sure he would disagree.
48 Blocks: City Stars went under in the early 2000s. I seem to remember a story about you getting stuck in Europe on tour and ending up in Barcelona.
Lee: I stuck myself in Europe! That was before City Stars went down. We went on a European tour which was City Stars and Axion. After the tour, Enrique Lorenzo invited me to come to Barcelona and stay at his house. I thought, why not? I had recently turned pro and had nothing to come home for really. So I chilled out in Barcelona for a bit. Then, I came home and City Stars dissolved a few months later.
48 Blocks: After that, you were in limbo for quite awhile. You even got a job at Girl for a bit in the warehouse and were living with Sam Smyth.
Lee: The whole time I was riding for City Stars, I made no plans on doing anything else. I think that, along with my reputation as the party / lazy guy didn’t help me find anything after City Stars. So I was pretty fucked sponsor / job-wise. I couldn’t find anything to do. I worked at Girl for a while, then bounced back to Spain for a bit. I was sort of running away from responsibility like most skaters in Barcelona. A few things that were supposed to happen didn’t. After 6 months, I came back to the states and went to work at HUF in SF. When I was riding for City Stars, I think I was pretty delusional. I believed what I was being told. That we would be set forever. Kareem is the man so I didn’t doubt him. I was also delusional about myself as a skater. I thought my ability would take me to a place that most of friends were at, which is ridiculous. I rationalized that by comparing myself to skaters that I didn’t feel were that good, but had a lot. I thought if they could do it, so could I.
48 Blocks: What made you decide to stay in Spain?
Lee: I went out there for six months and loved it. I went just to get away. I was supposed to skate for my friend’s company that never got off the ground. But they paid me for those six months. I guess I got the most out of that situation.
48 Blocks: While in Spain, you stacked a ton of footage.
Lee: I was just skating and having a blast. I made friends with a lot of the local skaters like Marcos Gomez, Raul Navarro, and Julio Arnau. I was hanging out with the Saints guys a lot, and just hitting up spots everyday. I had the money from my phantom sponsor. So that held me down. I knew they wanted to do an FTC video. So I planned on using most of the footage for that.
48 Blocks: How did that FTC part come together?
Lee: Ando just hit me up. I guess he felt that I was skating well at the time and it would be sick to do it together. I’ve been repping and riding for FTC for a long time. So it was only right. The outcome was good. My footage came from all over the place. So it was kind of ghetto. But it came out dope.
48 Blocks: Right after that video, you got on Santa Cruz.
Lee: Yeah, Jake Jones got me on Santa Cruz. They kind of wanted to remodel the team. I suggested that they put on Alex (Carolino), Flo (Marfaing), Raul Navarro, and William Phan. They weren’t hooked up. I felt it was a shame, cause those guys rip. Only Alex and Flo fully got on. A few guys got cut in order for them to get on. I didn’t know that would happen. Then, it happened to me a few years later.
48 Blocks: How did all of that go down?
Lee: It was no surprise to me when I got cut from the team. I knew it would happen sooner or later. That’s why I moved to Spain when I got on. I could of stayed in SF, still worked at HUF, and formed a better relationship with Santa Cruz. But I chose to live it up. Two more years of free money. I’m out! I wouldn’t change a thing. The friends I’ve made in Barcelona and my experience living over there is priceless. Santa Cruz used me to make what they thought was a smart business decision at the time. I used them right back.
48 Blocks: For the past few years, you were on the low in Barcy. What have you been up to?
Lee: Well, I was there for three years. The first two were with Santa Cruz. The last one, I was just chilling, slanging product, hash, and doing whatever. It’s easy to live in Barcelona with nothing. That’s why Macba is full of losers doing nothing and drinking all day! There is only so long you can do that though. One year was enough for me. But I know guys that have lived there like that for six or seven years. I was trying to find something to do there work / skate-wise. But things move at a different pace out there. Plus, there aren’t as many opportunities in general. I also have a guest board on Nomad Skateboards along with Henry Sanchez. Nomad helped me out a lot.
48 Blocks: In the last couple of months, you relocated back to LA and are working for Diamond.
Lee: I came back three weeks ago. I’m helping Nick out at Diamond. Like I said, I couldn’t sit around anymore doing nothing. Life here is the same. It’s like I never left. My time in Spain and Europe is far from over. If anything, this is just the beginning.
48 Blocks: Is it true that retired from professional skateboarding?
Lee: Haha, I like to say that I’m retired. It sounds funny. I’m not mad at all about it. I could definitely do without filming and shooting photos. Skating’s a lot more fun without it. We’ll see what happens. I wouldn’t just skate without doing something else though. I’m too old for that.
48 Blocks: What are your views on the skateboard industry now that you’re older?
Lee: I think the skateboard industry is pretty mellow compared to a lot of other industries. It’ s not as cut throat and backstabbing. I don’t know too much about the business side of it. As for the skaters, we have to be realer with ourselves. If you’re over 25 and all you do is skate and you’re not one of the dudes at the top of the pyramid, you better start thinking about your next move. Don’t think that next sponsor is gonna be that meal ticket.
48 Blocks: You’ve got strong opinions about America.
Lee: I’m by no means an American hater. I love our people. Our government is fucked, like most governments. The system is designed for us to fail. Credit cards, insurance, our laws, everything is about keeping their pockets fat. It’s all a scam. I don’t want to get too deep into it. But it’s crazy. The US government also has no problem ruining the life of a black man. One thing I did learn though is that we are all the same. People say Americans are stupid and ignorant and that may true to a certain extent. But Europeans are exactly the same, if not worse.
48 Blocks: Are you planning on staying here or is this just another stop the Lee Smith world tour?
Lee: I’ll be here for a bit. But with me, you never know. I get bored easy and like change. I’m psyched at Diamond. The next few years should be good. I see myself getting more stable, responsible, and focused. The goal is to buy a house in the Costa Brava. It’s a region above Barcelona near the border of France. That will be my ultimate get away. I’ll set my mom up there so she can sit and write poetry in her golden years.
48 Blocks: What’s next?
Lee: I have some ideas. Things I want to do. I spent my 20s partying, skating, hooking up with chicks, and traveling. I had my down periods. But that’s life. I wouldn’t change any of it. I lived it up. I could of gotten serious earlier. But I didn’t. I have plenty of time for that now. If I apply the same energy I put into living that life into achieving my goals, I can’t fail. I’ve learned a lot. And I’m still growing as a person. I work on my faults and strive to be better as a human being. I think when you don’t acknowledge your faults and flaws, you never grow. You just remain an idiot, straight up.