Out of the dozens of companies that came and went in the last decade of the 20th century, Menace stands apart because they created an aesthetic that still is popular today; Menace is the father of DGK’s whole ghetto-fabulous style, and Palace would be a whole different thing without the streetwear and chillin’ aesthetic featured in early Menace ads.
That’s why when we came across a post by Dom DeLuca of LA’s Brooklyn Projects teasing a revamped Menace design, we knew the public was in for a treat.
As it turns out, Brooklyn Projects has been working with members of the original crew, including the once-elusive “mastermind” of the brand himself, Kareem Campbell, for a special capsule release. This is not quite a reboot, but more of an acknowledgment of the brand’s long-standing influence.
While we wait for a formal announcement about the return of Menace, whatever it may be, it’s worth examining the company’s storied and sometimes controversial past.
You’ve heard it a thousand times, but the skate industry was much different in the ’90s than today. Sponsorships were secured by verbal agreement, paychecks were modest, and the most a pro could hope for was a little bit of gold, a pager, and a Honda Civic.
The industry was also hit hard by the twin crises of the 1990-91 recession and the sudden death of cash-money competitions. Despite the hard times, street skating was progressing at a dizzying pace and sudden line-up changes and the formation of new companies were both common and dramatic.
Needless to say, the skate world was buzzin’ when word got out that Kareem Campbell was starting a new company under Dwindle Distribution with Steve Rocco’s blessing.
The original Menace lineup featured pros Joey Suriel, Fabian Alomar, Eric Pupecki, and Billy Valdes as the sole amateur. Their “classic” lineup would be cemented over the next couple of years with Billy’s promotion to pro status and the addition of Lee Smith, Javier Nunez, and Steven Cales.
Cales arrived with a certain amount of notoriety. He had a 60/40 ad published while he was locked up. Then, upon release, he violated parole to skate the Dwindle demo that secured his spot on Menace. Where skateboarding had flirted with criminality, Menace was the real deal.
“Where skateboarding had flirted with criminality, Menace was the real deal.”
Much ink has been spilled about Menace’s street bonafides. Yes, the members of the “classic” lineup were no strangers to graffiti, fights, or the penal system (at time of writing Fabian Alomar remains incarcerated), but it’s unfortunate that they were consistently being marketed and ID’d as gangstas because they were all hardcore skate rats. Joey Suriel, Billy Valdes, and Fabian Alomar were disciples of Paulo Diaz. EMB was a training ground for native San Franciscan Lee Smith and Rhode Island transplant, Eric Pupecki. Javier Nunez and Steven Cales were among the young lords of a pre-Zoo York Brooklyn Banks.
It’s worth noting that the mid-’90s marked the permanent arrival of hip-hop into the skateboarding world. Up until that point, hip-hop always felt peripheral in skating. Sure, there’d be rap music in videos and certainly, there were folks who wore baggy pants as opposed to the wider raver cut that defined the era. But Menace proved to be the great disruptor: They were a mostly Black and Latino team who were unabashedly hip-hop at a time when skateboarding was still being dismissed in some quarters as, “some White Boy shit.” On top of that, they were under Rocco’s distribution umbrella, which meant access to a significant distribution network.
It was fitting that the first Menace footage made available to the public was mostly shot at Lockwood Elementary school in the Los Angeles neighborhood of East Hollywood. Nowadays, it’s a busy, mostly Latino neighborhood on the fast track to gentrification, but back in the 1990s, Lockwood sat in the middle of disputed gang territory. Because Fabian Alomar had a familial connection with a set who ran the block, only Fabian and his friends were allowed to skate there whenever they wanted. Other skaters who dared to session or film at Lockwood weren’t so lucky, with numerous tales of boards and cameras being jacked. Most notably, vert skater Chuck Wampler got shot while trying to stop a robbery.
“The Menace crew were on the cutting edge of a still-underground streetwear scene: Polo, immaculate Jordans, Adidas shell toes, and Ben Davis workwear”
From a strictly skating perspective, the Menace Section of 1995s 20 Shot Sequence was not the most impressive, but it was still the best section in the video. It felt like a mix between the LA Boys section of Ban This, and an underground rap video that you’d see on The Box. Menace’s whole essence was a breath of fresh air, especially their fashion. It’s worth remembering that the semi-official skater outfit of 1995 was a white tee, light blue jeans, and gum-soled sneakers (either Airwalks or Sal 23s).
The Menace crew were on the cutting edge of a still-underground streetwear scene: Polo, immaculate Jordans, Adidas shell toes, and Ben Davis workwear. When the Menace squad wasn’t skating, they could usually be found posted up at the XLarge store, a hub of sartorial excellence situated just five minutes north of Lockwood. They stood apart from the majority of West Coast skaters and were arguably the best-dressed skaters in the industry until Harold Hunter blew minds with his ‘fits in Zoo York’s Mixtape.
Sadly, much of Menace’s initial momentum was lost. Thanks to lawsuits, they were forced to change their name a handful of times; first to MNC, then All-City, and finally City Stars. According to Joey Suriel’s Chrome Ball Incident interview, the lawsuits undermined progress on the video. Legal troubles and addiction interrupted, and eventually derailed, Steven Cales and Fabian Alomar’s careers.
By the time the City Stars video Street Cinema dropped later that year, much of the novelty and hype had disappeared. The lineup changed drastically as well. While Eric, Joey, Fabian, Javi, and Lee all had serviceable parts, the video was more notable for serving as the introduction to the next generation: Paul Rodriguez, Devine Calloway, and Mikey Taylor.
But Menace wasn’t forgotten; their influence became more evident with the passage of time. In the 2000s, skating became increasingly popular with Black and brown youth. A quick scan of any park or spot in a major American city today reveals that more and more skate crews look like the Menace team. The Great Recession temporarily put the brakes on the rise of the hypebeast movement and sent many folks thrifting for vintage color-blocked jackets, skating in Reebok Classics, and Adidas Shelltoes, just like the Menace crew.
Thanks to social media and the natural cycle of cultural nostalgia, the mid-1990s is enjoying a renaissance in skateboarding. Older skaters are reminiscing on their formative years, while the younger generation shamelessly uses old videos not only as a lookbook but as a source of inspiration for style and trick selection. Board collector accounts have revealed that Menace’s board graphics and ads have aged well. The Menace reissue capsule honors the brand’s legacy and hopefully cements its modern-day relevance, and Kareem’s involvement alone makes this endeavor with the price of admission.