Photography provided by Chocolate Skateboards and The Chrome Ball Incident
Words by Stephen Cox
So Kenny, how does it feel to be with Chocolate hitting 20 years?
It’s surreal. I remember when Chocolate first started. When 20 years came around I had to really add it up. I thought, “Wow, I’ve been part of it for 12 years”. I felt really honoured and proud to be a part of it. It just went by so quick and I’ve been reflecting. Of course it’s a brand and a company if you want to look at it in a literal sense. But you look at those 12 years of your life, all those trips, all the friends you’ve made and all the memories throughout. It’s a long time and even before that when Chocolate started, it made me think about seeing the first ad in a magazine and seeing it start after Girl, with all my favourite skaters starting this company. It’s very humbling, to be one of those guys. Going to the art shows, it took me a second to realise I’m a part of it.
Time flies when you’re having fun. Is it hard to pick out moments that stand out because there are so many?
Of course. The Hot Chocolate tour was the first one we all went on. I got on at the end of Yeah Right! but that was the first Chocolate-only tour after I got on. That was a month on the road. It was kind of a way to grow into the team and get comfortable with everyone and myself. I remember Rick [Howard] was on the tour and Spike [Jonze] was in the van. I felt like a little kid. I still feel that way around Rick, every time I see him [laughs]. But you get more comfortable in your own skin. You realise they are your favourite skaters, but you’ve known each other so long. They started their own company and are as real as it gets when it comes to skateboarding. That tour got me on a level of reality and not some fantasy of maybe feeling like I shouldn’t have got on. It was very pivotal.
You mentioned seeing the first ad, what was your opinion on likes of Gabriel Rodriguez, Richard Mulder and Ben Sanchez at that time?
I remember thinking it was as direct as possible, this ethnic group [laughs]. Me and my friends just thought they were pointing that out. There was such a big crew, I loved those dudes: Chico [Brenes] and my favourite skaters. We always referred to it back in Vegas as “a lot of flavour”: the skaters, the art, the music. It all had so much flavour.
How did you first get to know all the guys?
[Mike] Carroll used to come to Vegas and skate with Brian Lotti. I was Brian’s little sidekick. Carroll rode for H-street. It was probably around the Shackle Me Not or Hocus Pocus days. I met him back then. I remember him skating the Vegas spots. It was so raw. He always stood out, I remember watching him do his thing. Then Plan B came out and all that. You just kind of meet these people but don’t know them. I met Rick at some trade show in Vegas. I would see him at contests and say, “what’s up?” I remember we were on a Planet Earth trip out in Miami and the Girl/Chocolate dudes were there and I got to skate real street with them. I knew [Eric] Koston from the H-Street days as well. I didn’t really get to know them until I got on Chocolate. When I got on at the end of Yeah Right! we went on a trip to Europe. I roomed with Rick Howard. But on that trip, man, I felt so out of place. It was a huge culture shock in my life; “What am I doing with these dudes?” I remember when we were on a contest circuit but were filming for Yeah Right! I would wake up early and break out. Literally go out early and skate by myself then meet up with everyone later. I remember Rick’s joke was, “Where’s Kenny?” We were in Barcelona and I would just go to MACBA every morning and wait for everyone to show up.
It was some weird anxiety. It was my personality at the time. We all have it in us. Before I got on I was already travelling the world with my good friends. It was a sense of insecurity. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be on the company at that time. Of course they never made me feel like that, it was just me. That was different to the Hot Chocolate tour. This was with Rick, filming at the end of Yeah Right! which was the most anticipated video at the time. I’m on at the last x amount of time to film a part you know? That got to me too, being in a Girl video: “I should not be here right now”. That was just getting to know Rick and Mike more. Even though I had met them, and we were from the same generation, I couldn’t help but think about their influence on me. You can’t help but be such a big fan of them.
What sort of conversations went on about your move to Chocolate? Was there ever a possibility of getting on Girl?
I was on a random Ecuador trip: me, Richard Mulder, Chico, Danny Montoya. We were all in Miami; “Dude, let’s just go to Ecuador”. During that trip Chico had kind of mentioned stuff. I just took it as, “oh, we’re on a trip and we’re skating” but it didn’t seem real. That was the first thing ever put in my head but I wasn’t sure if it was an actual offer. I definitely didn’t want to assume. It’s crazy because at that time Planet Earth was having some issues, they were moving off hard goods and going into clothing. Then I got home and I didn’t want to leave Planet Earth. I’d been on since I was 14 and I didn’t follow through because I felt like I needed to stay with Chris Miller. I just thought it was best to just go down with the company and hopefully have an offer when it was done. A year later I think we were at Slam City Jam and Scott Johnston asked me what my deal was with Planet Earth. I was trying to put it together, “Is this dude talking to me about Girl and Chocolate right now?” Which is funny because as Planet Earth was going under Chris Miller said, “If you have offers you should probably look into them now”. In my mind, you have to follow through. It’s a second offer from Chocolate. I remember I wanted him to just ask me, but he’s saying, “So there’s a chance you could ride for Chocolate?” I just went, “What?” Right away Rick Howard walked out with his big smile, “What’s your deal?” In my head I’m saying, “Will you please just ask me to ride for Girl or Chocolate?” [Laughs]. He said we would talk when we got back, we did and I got on. I was blown away that the offer still stood. I was getting offers for a couple of different companies and there was one in particular that I was debating because I was lost in my mind. I realised I couldn’t even question what Rick or Mike had started. It didn’t feel deserving, but I swallowed it and just got on.
What about the flip side of that coin, what’s it like when someone leaves the camp?
I guess that’s what is going on with Gino [Iannuci] right now. It’s weird. Gino was like a landmark for Chocolate. It’s like a piece of Chocolate has gone. Chocolate is Chocolate and will always be Chocolate but you know even with the addition of different people, there’s always the conversation of, “He fits Chocolate”. I feel that way a lot but at the same time when I got on a lot of people said, “You fit so well”. But I didn’t feel like that so when new people get on you start to realise that Chocolate isn’t about a specific set of things, it’s about the relationships. So when [Anthony] Pappalardo or Gino got off I felt like no one should ever leave [laughs]. Each person has such a big part of the make-up of what Chocolate is, especially with me coming on later. It was me, Marc [Johnson] and then Pops. I remember thinking that Pops was rad and fit perfectly. It’s the same with Elijah [Berle], Raven [Tershy] and those guys. So when someone leaves it does take a little bit of that away because that’s what makes it up. It’s not just some cycle where people keep moving on. It stabs you a little bit. You’re not mad at them; they obviously have their own reasons. It’s a little bittersweet but in a selfish way you think, “that’s our crew, that’s our team”.
Jerry Hsu seems like the right fit. Did you speak about your anxieties when you first got on to him?
No but I can already imagine Jerry saying that [laughs]. I never really talked to him about that but I know when his name got mentioned and I was thinking about it, he just seemed like the one. There wasn’t even a debate, when we got the call it was just, “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry”. It was rad. But yeah, I can see that for sure [laughs].
What makes the Crailtap camp stand above the rest?
I have no idea [laughs]. You’re going to have to ask every other company. We are what we are. There’s just so much heart in that company, which stems from the history of your favourite skater’s favourite skater’s favourite skater. Then they own it. It’s all opinion, but to me it represents what skateboarding should be in my mind; raw skateboarding, comedy, fun, family. Maybe the majority can relate to that. I think that’s where the longevity lies. There’s no formula though, it’s the feeling that comes out.
If Chocolate is about style, does Girl have the hammers then?
[Laughs]. I don’t know. Say you take Justin [Eldridge], he did a switch heelflip bluntslide down a rail 12 years ago. That’s always been placed upon with Chocolate but then Mike Carroll is known for style, Rick Howard is known for it too. If you ask me to pick someone for Girl, I would look the person that doesn’t have the specific style but can do that. I remember when Alex Olson got on Girl, I wanted him on Chocolate. Not that he didn’t belong to Girl, it was just the way he carves and the way he is.
Going back to Yeah Right! I remember when it came out the green screen stuff seemed pretty crazy.
That was cool [laughs]. I’d met Spike before but that was when I first worked with him. It was another of those things. Remember the intro with the super slow mo flatground tricks?
He asked me to do one and I was like, “um, nah”. I just skated off. I don’t know why I did that. I was just skating around getting used to my board then said no. It was that same thing, just jumping into it, working in this huge production. That kind of stuff is awesome though; Spike had cool ideas. Plus he’s skating around at the time too, you’re watching him do nollie heelflips thinking, “This is what I’m on”. It’s almost like I’d want to sit back and watch it than be a part of it sometimes. Then I realise I should probably jump into these things.
I saw a couple of people believe some of things that went on in that video.
It was a good mix for me. Some people thought it was cool and just completely praise me without even really thinking, “that was so sick when you ollied those tables dude!” The funniest one I got was about when I did the cocky turnaround right after and pointed at the camera. I got some kid talk some shit to me about that, he said it was arrogant [laughs]. I had to explain to him, “You know that was fake right?”
It’s funny that you mentioned those insecurities earlier because in Hot Chocolate there’s so much praise from the rest of the team about your abilities and style too.
Man, I got emotional [laughs]. It was a hard one because it was a documentary you know? They don’t say that to your face. Justin and Gino are saying these things on the screen and I’m sitting there [laughs]. Gino’s pretty introvert, we’d usually just talk about life and bullshit but he doesn’t hand out compliments like that so at the premiere I was just sinking in my seat going, “Oh my god”. I don’t take compliments well and especially not like that. Of course it’s flattering and emotional but I don’t know what to say, to be honest I’m feeling the same way right now.
[Laughs]. I thought it was hilarious when you said, “I didn’t ask to be on the cover” in the video. Was that a case of you not knowing the photo had been sent off?
Exactly. We were all on the tour. You know how it is, you’re at a spot, you try a trick, you don’t get it and you leave. That’s it. All of a sudden I’m on the cover. I say to Ty [Evans], “Dude, we’ve got to fly out and get this now”. It was mental because I don’t skate like that. Me and Ty literally flew back to Colorado just to get this trick. It was so cold too. The first three tries I hit the wall wrong and Superman-dove over the whole gap and hit my kneecaps on top of the curb. I rolled around, he had the camera in my face and that’s what I said. I’m not good at skating like that, planning and flying somewhere to get one trick. It shouldn’t have been on the cover. I landed a bunch but never got it, we tried it a few more times. We flew all the way out there and I got maybe half an hour and the one in the video is where the board jabbed my thigh and I flipped over it. I couldn’t even skate anymore after that and we flew all the way to Denver for it. We sat around to see if the pain would go away but we left without it [laughs].
I hear the tours are mellow rather than crazy which surprised me.
Yeah, not too much. If anything, Rick is always the first one to start anything [laughs]. We’re all in the van doing whatever and Rick is the first one to hit you on the back of the head, start throwing stuff at you or smack you. Rick was the first one to jump in on the fire stuff.
That looked crazy.
I did a switch flip nose manual. I remember it burnt my pants a little. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had of completely caught on fire [laughs].
Your Pretty Sweet part was great, how did you find filming for it?
Thanks. It was going to be Chocolate video but it kept kind of switching around. In that time I was putting out Adio stuff and kept giving footage away. I remember Ty and Rick were like, “Hey, save that stuff”. I guess it was the first one where we were all working on it from the beginning with the new people. It definitely had a different vibe. When you have that many people it’s hard to coordinate.
Was it intense or did you take each day as it came?
I was always doing other things too so I took it as organically as possible. You definitely start feeling more intensity when it came down to how picky everything was going to be; from tricks to the way it was filmed. Ty is amazing but there was a sense that the production was more important than the skateboarding. That’s not a bad thing though. That’s how this video turned into that amazing film as opposed to grabbing a VX and filming really quickly. I don’t wanna get into all that [laughs]. It’s all positive, if there’s anything negative it’s for a good reason. Justin and I had our own issues. It was hard to balance a lot. All in all it’s skateboarding and it was fun.
Justin said he wasn’t there for the opening sequence.
That was cool. That was at a time when I had been travelling so much and doing my own thing, trying to get tricks. That day was a nice refresh button. I hadn’t seen everyone and to see them all in one place was fun. God I’m just remembering [Sean] Malto’s backside 50 on that rail. That was gnarly. That’s morning for Malto [laughs]. It didn’t take too long to do it all actually, but the celebration with the confetti really happened. After that I wanted to meet up with the dudes more for the last while of filming.
The art direction is timeless with Chocolate. Do you remember your first ad?
Yeah, it was a front board on a rail that Atiba [Jefferson] shot. There was a one page and a two page spread. There was a portrait and it had my board on it too. You know we all get a portrait board at the beginning?
Yeah, from Evan Hecox?
Yeah. That’s always been my favourite too. His art reminds me Japanese style stuff, which I grew up loving. I’ve always been a fan of Evan’s too so that made it even more amazing. I remember Bob Kronbauer took a photo of me one day to do some web Crailtap thing and that was the photo Evan used to do the drawing of me for the portrait board. It was cool to have an artist that you’re a fan of draw you. Not that I’m a fan of portraits of myself [laughs]. It was such a real moment; it made me feel like a part of Chocolate.
Have you ever told him about things that are personal to you that have made it onto boards?
Yeah, of Japanese stuff. My favourite board he did had was a Geisha one that looked like a Japanese scroll. Being half Japanese and being raised in a household with that kind of artwork has made it onto boards. It’s been mostly that and Vegas stuff, when I have ideas I hit him up. Evan’s style brings anything you say to life better than you can imagine. He always loves some influence, I should probably hit him up more.
I used to collect all of them but then they come out with so many. Now I collect the personal ones or some of the series. My mom has the Japanese ones.
How important is it to you that you ride for a company that is creative in that way?
I guess I can’t imagine not having that because I’ve been on Chocolate for so long. It was such a big factor of getting on for me. The whole package was right, not just the riders and the rest of it. You’ve got to be comfortable with your board when you look down. It makes the day better.
Let’s say one Chocolate rider has to get subbed for a Girl skater. Who’s coming and going?
Oh, man. No one can leave. Who’s on Girl? I was going to say Alex, but he has already gone actually. Can I take the owner? I’m taking Rick. That’s it though, no Chocolate guys are going [laughs]. Rick’s so funny too, he’ll say, “Aw, I wanna be on Chocolate”.
Quote to summarise the 20 years?
Chocolate is life, and a quarter of mine. Too much to put into a couple of words.