Wu-Tang Forever

A skateboard from the Wu-Tang Corporation and Shane Heyl's Baker board. Baker/Grant

For two decades, hip-hop collective the Wu-Tang Clan has struck a special chord with skateboarders. Our panel of experts -- Wes Kremer, Matt Miller, Evan Smith, Shane Heyl and Chad Muska -- explain why.

When traveling on a cross-country summer tour -- with 15 or so skaters all packed in a hot and not necessarily Downy-fresh van -- tensions can occasionally run high. This is the case when Wes Kremer is on the road with his board sponsor, Sk8 Mafia. During these road trips, as perhaps on all road trips, there are inevitably moments of interpersonal friction. Different riders will have entirely different ideas about how often is too often to stop at Starbucks, Burger King or Waffle House. Some will argue that yes, the directions to reach the next demo are correct. Others will argue no, it's too soon to stop for another bathroom break. Still others will claim that yes, one shower every two to three weeks is perfectly sufficient to maintain basic levels of personal hygiene, and no, this is not why the van smells like that.

But there's one thing the team of occasional rivals all can agree on: the Wu-Tang Clan.

If someone puts the rap group on the tour van's speakers, no one voices objection. Within minutes, many of the skaters reliably start singing along to such classic power ballads as "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," "Incarcerated Scarfaces" and "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta F--- Wit."

Call it a bonding ritual that rights the ship, brings the little ecosystem back into balance.

Suddenly the freeway does not seem quite so endless; petty squabbles start to recede.

It would seem that a family that listens to Wu-Tang together, stays together.

In fact, when pressed by ESPN.com, Mr. Kremer -- a 23-year-old San Diego native with an easy, off-kilter laugh -- could not recall a single occasion on which any of his fellow Sk8 Mafiosos expressed dislike for Wu-Tang Clan, the seminal Staten Island hip-hop collective known for littering its eerie soundscapes with fragments of kung-fu films, Marvel comic books, Eastern mysticism, inscrutable slang, ornately imagined criminal empires and drug deals gone horribly awry.

"Oh dude, they'd be kicked off the trip if they had no respect for Wu-Tang," said Mr. Kremer. "Are you kidding me? Everyone who skates listens to Wu-Tang. How could you not?"

Kremer, it must be said, is an ardent fan even by the Sk8 Mafia's hip-hop-friendly standards. He has literally worn his feelings for Wu-Tang on his sleeve, often appearing in video parts and magazine shoots wearing a Wu-Tang T-shirt. Much like a latter-day "Deadhead" -- an itinerant follower of the disbanded rock group the Grateful Dead -- Kremer has attended Wu-Tang Clan concerts on several continents. (A true connoisseur, Kremer cites Russell T. Jones -- aka Ol' Dirty Bastard, the flamboyantly unhinged hip-hop artist who died in 2004, at the age 35, of a cocaine and prescription-drug overdose -- as being among his favorite emcees.)

"I saw them in concert last year in Sweden. The whole Wu-Tang was there, except Ol' Dirty Bastard, of course," said Kremer. "One of his sons was there: Young Dirty Bastard."

Enter the Wu-Tang

And yet, among professional skateboarders of his generation, Mr. Kremer is hardly alone. Despite the fact that many, like Kremer, were mere toddlers when "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" -- the group's first full-length album -- was released in 1993, a new breed of high-profile, millennial skaters have embraced the quintessential East Coast rap group with the passion of converts. At the same time that many cultural artifacts that emerged during the first Clinton administration ("Macarena") appear thoroughly dated, an informal survey suggests that the Staten Island rappers still strike a fresh emotional chord with many skaters.

"'36 Chambers' is probably the best hip-hop album of all time. When you hear the album start to finish, it's amazing and you can't deny it," said Evan Smith, a 21-year-old Pittsburgh resident who first encountered the Wu-Tang Clan while living as a teenager in Orlando, Fla. Never mind that Smith also plays in a psychedelic rock band called the Drowning Clowns.

"I have a Wu-Tang eagle sign deep in my heart," Smith said, in reference to the rap group's "W" symbol, which resembles a bird.

Shane Heyl, a Baker Skateboards pro often seen wearing Wu-Tang T-shirts and who moonlights as a lead singer in the antic skate-rock band The Goat, also pledges allegiance to the acclaimed hip-hop group. Heyl has even gone so far as to insert a subliminal Wu-Tang message into one of his board graphics.

"I recently just got a board on Baker Skateboards and for one of my first graphics I threw up the [Killa Beez] in the background of my name," Heyl wrote in an exuberant e-mail. "If you listen to Wu-Tang, you'll get the graphic. If not, it's still tight." (The Wu-Tang Clan often incorporates bee imagery into many of their albums and artwork.)

Like his counterparts in Sk8 Mafia, Heyl says he and fellow skaters from Baker and its sister company, Deathwish, will often listen to Wu-Tang while on tour. Though many of the Baker/Deathwish dudes look like they could double as roadies for the Rolling Stones circa 1970, their hip-hop tastes skew toward the '90s, when Wu-Tang's dynasty was in full bloom.

"When we're posse deep I'm always screaming Wu-Tang, just 'cause we got mad heads in the van squished in ready for war. Beagle, Nuge [Don Nguyen], Andrew [Reynolds] -- everyone's down for Wu," said Heyl.

Matt Miller is another of the skateboarding industry's prominent devotees.

"I was like 14 or 15 when my older friends showed me Wu-Tang was the best thing ever," said Miller.

"Skaters like raw s---, and that's the rawest it's ever been. Nothing else comes out like it," Miller said when asked to conjecture why Wu-Tang has maintained such a strong following among skateboarders for nearly 20 years.

Like many professional skateboarders, Miller has yearned to use one of the group's songs to accompany his skating in a video part -- a monumental decision in a skater's professional life.

However, Miller's personal experience with attempting to license a Wu-Tang song also underscores one of the quirks in the skateboarding community's relationship with Wu-Tang. Save for a few striking exceptions, the group's music has not often appeared in skateboard videos. Reportedly, it's often proven difficult to obtain permission to use Wu-Tang songs when the group consists of nine core members -- Method Man, GZA, RZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, U-God and Masta Killah -- with varied (sometimes hotly contested) degrees of creative control. At one point Miller had hoped to use a Wu-Tang song for his more recent Transworld video part, to no avail. (Presumably, it's best not to infringe upon the intellectual-property rights of someone who goes by the name Ghostface Killah. There's something vaguely ominous about that name. If only you could put your finger on it...)

"I went through a lot of song crises," said Miller.

The Muska, Raekwon Reminisce Over The Wu

But few are better equipped to explain Wu-Tang's unique staying power than Chad Muska. A legendary skateboarder, DJ and painter, he is often credited with popularizing a distinctly hip-hop sensibility. As the 20th century wound to a close, Muska would often burst larger than life from the covers of Thrasher and Transworld -- a trusty, even-larger-than-larger-than-life "ghetto blaster" at his side. Whatever "it" is, he had "it." To paraphrase an old song, no one could hold him down, oh no.

In 2002, the Renaissance man even rented a room in the Soho Grand, a boutique luxury hotel in Manhattan. There he produced an album, "Muska Beatz," with an all-star cast of rappers, including Raekwon and U-God, both of the Wu-Tang Clan. Now, with his periodically long, stylishly unkempt hair and bohemian beard, he looks like he is starting to play a slightly different part. He's lost none of his star power or charm, but now has a bit of the mystic wise man about him. Here is someone who has lived a thousand lifetimes, grasped a golden string and also listened to a damn lot of rap music.

As Max and Coco Chanel (two pugs) loudly made their own opinions known throughout this interview, Mr. Muska, speaking from his Hollywood Hills home, unraveled some of the mysteries of the skating universe.

"From the start, I just remember the first time I heard Wu-Tang I was just instantly infatuated by them," said Muska. "I think I was in Vegas doing graffiti at the time, and my friend, this other graffiti guy, was like, 'There's this new group, Wu-Tang Clan.' And I was like, 'Wu-Tang Clan? What is that?' It just instantly stuck... Coco, go in the house! I got these crazy dogs in here, they're barking."

"I am so bad with time frames," said Muska. "But I was 14 or 15, somewhere around that. From that point on, one of the Wu-Tang tape cassettes was either in my ghetto blaster or my Walkman."

For the rest of the decade, Wu-Tang became his constant companion, a personal soundtrack to a life that closely resembles a movie.

"Oh, and another thing," he continued. "All my friends that have lost their minds, including Sean Sheffey, always start talking about Wu-Tang. I don't know why this is. But all my friends. Tom Penny, when he loses his mind, he starts talking about Wu-Tang. Billy Rohan, when he loses his mind, he starts talking about Wu-Tang. I think they revert back to the first time they heard Wu-Tang, the '36 Chambers' tape. So if I ever start rapping about Wu-Tang, call the authorities, man. Check me in."

"Is it because their music features so much dense symbolism that can be interpreted so many different ways?" a reporter wondered aloud.

"I think," replied Muska, "those people were taking acid and listening to Wu-Tang tapes back in the '90s and it came back to haunt them."

As for his stint at the SoHo Grand, he remembered it well.

"It was the SoHo Grand, room 609. I'll never forget that," laughed Muska. "Raekwon and U-God brought amazing energy. Not many people know this, but U-God is an ill, ill beat-boxer. I remember Raekwon came in like the Tasmanian Devil or something, man. He was bouncing off the wall. He was sweating. He had a white towel around his neck. Homeboy was definitely fired up. I didn't know if the hotel was going to kick me out. It was all very guerrilla style. I never thought any of it was happening at the time. I had to pinch myself throughout the process of it. [Raekwon] knew about skating. Some of his cousins and nephews were skaters and he knew what I was doing. It was coming full circle and we were both psyched on each other. It wasn't just us checking out the hip-hop game, they were checking out skating too."

Reached for comment, Corey Woods, better known as Raekwon, had this to say about his collaboration with Muska.

"I grew up being a skater and I fully understand the lifestyle along with hip-hop. It transcends! Plus they understand my artistry. It's a good feeling to know they rock with me," Raekwon wrote in an e-mail. "Chad is heavy into music. If skating was rap, he'd be next to me! True to the craft!"

Wu-Tang Forever?

It's been said that fashions fade, style is eternal. Trends ebb and flow, rise and fall, come and go. That a single musical group has riveted the wandering attentions of skaters for two decades is no small achievement, given the mercurial nature of their cloistered world.

That's not to say that when tensions in the proverbial tour van start to flare up again, the Wu-Tang offers a failsafe solution. Kremer recalled this anecdote from a recent European tour with 17-year-old contest juggernaut Nyjah Huston.

"Actually, on the last DC trip we were all giving Nyjah grief because he put his iPod on and every single song was just horrible," said Kremer. "It was all, like, 2 Chainz. When he was DJing, he'd play like 30 seconds of the song and then skip to the next one. We'd call them skid marks. It was terrible... But he'll learn."


Wu-Tang around the Web
If you're a Wu-Tang aficionado, you may also want to visit the "Wu-Tang Name Generator." Simple, and yet profound, the website invites you to enter your own name and then, through a mystical, yet rigorously empirical process, renames you. For the record, Wes Kremer's new name is tIntellectual Ninja. Evan Smith from this day forward will also be known as Midnight Swami. You may now address Matt Miller as Mad Madman. The skater formerly known as Shane Heyl is now known as Respected Demon. Chad Muska's new driver's license will be issued as Shrieken' Wanderer. My name is Smilin' Worlock, and it's been a pleasure serving you this evening.

Of course I had to check out the Wu-Tang Name Generator, and subsequently spent hours reading the Wu names of friends and skaters. Here are just a few: Anthony Van Engelen: Irate Wanderer; Erik Ellington: Dynamic Leader; Andrew Reynolds: X-cessive Dreamer; Chris Nieratko: Lazy-assed Specialist; Dustin Dollin: Unlucky Commander; Lance Mountain: Amazing Destroyer; Christain Hosoi: Thunderous Lover; Steve Caballero: Amazing Dreamer; Darren Navarrette: Shriekin' Contender; Neckface: E-ratic Prophet; Sal Barbier: Phantom Observer; Jeff Grosso: Wicked Ambassador; Alex Olson: Foolish Swami; Steve Olson: Shriekin' Killah; Austyn Gillette: X-cessive Bastard; Guy Mariano: Respected Madman; Grant Taylor: Tha Pupil; Paul Rodriguez: Vulgar Wanderer; Kenny Anderson: The Professional; Sean Malto: Mighty Destroyer.