Hanni is a name you may not have heard before, but there is a 99.99% chance you are familiar with some of his work. He’s the guy behind the infamous HUF weed sock, he’s a successful musician who has collaborated with huge artists like GZA and The Black Keys, and to this day, he continues to play a role at HUF as the brand director.
He’s a rare breed because even though most skaters have a hobby or two outside of skating, very few of them reach the levels of success Hanni has through his multiple endeavors.
We worked with Hanni while we developed our recent HUF x Jenkem capsule, but at the time, we had very little idea just how much he had achieved over his career. As a company that likes to cross outside of skating every now and then and have a hand in the music, art, and culture spaces, we felt like there was a lot we could all learn by picking his brain.
You’re a successful designer, musician, brand director, and more. Does it bother you when people box you into being one thing?
It’s funny. I have 20 years of experience in skateboarding and streetwear, but some of my closest homies in skating barely know I make music. I’m still writing and recording music, and now I’m fully back at HUF serving as brand director.
But to answer your question, I don’t know anymore. It goes in waves, sometimes it bugs me and sometimes I don’t care [laughs].
Do you think there are more douchebags in skating, music, or fashion?
If you asked me this a few years ago I would’ve had a clear answer, but for me, I feel like douchebags exist in every industry. You just have to know how to navigate around it.
You came up with the HUF weed sock, right?
How did that come about?
Weed-related merch was always funny to me. I used to live in the Haight and I’ve always smoked a lot of weed. In the early days, I also got a kick out of designing stuff that would make Keith [Hufnagel] laugh or think was stupid. I really liked when he was like, “That’s pretty dumb. Funny, but dumb.”
We had to use all this fabric we ordered for an upcoming line and I drew the pot leaf and threw it on some socks, a duffle bag, and a hat. I showed it to Keith and he was like, “Dude, this is dumb. I don’t even smoke weed.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s the funny part. The funny part is that you’re not a pothead.” He said he was down. He thought it was on some SF stoner shit.
So we put it out and seriously, it did nothing. It didn’t sell at all. We didn’t think anything of it, we were already designing the next thing.
Flash forward to opening up the LA HUF store and having all that gear just sitting in the back of the shop. At that time the Odd Future crew was bubbling and they were all lingering around and hanging on the block. They would come into the shop and they would ask for shit, or they would be talking with the employees and they were like, “You guys want free shit? Here are some socks, take them.” Then they started wearing them and you see the socks in their early music videos.
When Tyler The Creator popped off it spread to Lil Wayne and from there it snowballed into what it was. But it wasn’t until like a year and a half after the weed sock was actually made that you saw anybody wearing it. The next thing you know it’s in every high school in America.
Do you regret not trying to get a royalty on it or something?
Dude, I wasn’t even there when it blew up [laughs]. I already dipped from HUF at that time. I will say that people who were selling that shit were doing pretty well for themselves, and I know that HUF benefited from it, which I’m happy about.
You originally dipped from designing at HUF in 2011. Why did you leave and what did you end up doing?
I had always grown up making music, and while I was working at HUF, my music got passed to Jamie Strong, who was at Stones Throw Records, at the time. Which is funny because my music was primarily garage rock, and they are mostly hip hop. Jamie was like, “Have you ever thought about, you know, doing music full time? I’m starting a new label called Innovative Leisure.”
I got signed and my music eventually got passed to Florence and the Machine who needed an opening act on tour. So I went from playing venues in front of like, 30 people, to playing the Greek Theater a month later. Meanwhile, HUF is growing, we’re developing footwear and I’m trying to do both at the same time.
I would be on tour, about to play the biggest show of my life and I’m backstage on the phone with production and development at HUF. I’d have my computer out and be sending files when I should be enjoying the fact that I’m about to perform in front of 3,000 people.
I came home from that tour knowing I had to take the leap. I couldn’t do both and it was pretty obvious which one I should do. I told Keith, “Hey, man, I have to go for this. Otherwise, if I missed out on this opportunity, I probably will regret it for the rest of my life.” And he was like, “Yeah, well, you always have a home at HUF, so don’t trip on that. Just go do your thing.” And so, I felt good about leaving. Then I carried on with the pursuit of music for the next 10 years.
How did your music career take off from there?
I’ve had a really good run. I recorded five full-length records and projects and production. It was a trip early on. I think I started popping off a little because movies, tv, and commercials started using my music. Then, my second record was produced by Dan Arbauch from The Black Keys, which took me to a new level. I played on David Letterman that year, I played Coachella and headlined my own tours and all that kind of stuff started happening for me. I always thought that this music shit would end any minute so from there it was just a matter of keeping my head down and grinding it out on tour and recording.
And then, when my third record came around, I slowly started trying to push my musical style because I was getting too deep in the rock shit. At the time I wasn’t really listening to that much indie rock anymore and I started having an identity issue. I mean, to be honest, I never really listened to much rock growing up. I was more into De La Soul, E-40, Souls of Mischief, Wu-Tang, and making beats. I also loved playing guitar and The Cramps so I based my first record on that and it stuck.
On stage I was wearing black with slicked-back hair and I’m playing a Les Paul, ripping solos and stuff, and then after the show, I’m changing into baggy pants and Adidas Shell Toes and trying to skate a curb, you know? It felt weird.
More and more as the years went by it became more apparent that it felt unnatural. I started missing my connection to skateboarding. I think all of us, as skateboarders, we always want to go left. Like if people are doing one thing, I just want to always go the opposite way.
Then, around 2018, I had a total mental breakdown from touring. I was on a super self-destructive path. You know how it goes, right?
“They called some rock doctor and they stuck me in the butt with a steroid and intense Vitamin B shot and my voice came back.”
So touring and partying just caught up to you?
I mean, I was essentially a high-level functioning alcoholic. I’ve always been a busy person and I always take on too much work. And to couple that with partying and drinking and playing late shows, it started to really wear on me. Mixed with my own musical identity of like, I didn’t feel like my musical career lined up with who I was as a person, you know? So I told my label and my booking agent and everybody that I wasn’t gonna play any more shows so I could focus on myself. I quit drinking and partying altogether and flipped the switch completely. It’s been four years with no alcohol and I’m so happy I made that decision.
What’s the secret to partying all the time and not getting sick on tour? Vitamins?
I would take vitamins for sure, and I always made this tea of apple cider vinegar, honey, lemon, and a bunch of other things.
One time I actually lost my voice and had to do this TV appearance so they called some rock doctor and they stuck me in the butt with a steroid and intense Vitamin B shot and my voice came back. That was pretty dope that it worked like that.
What did you learn or takeaway from 10 years of touring? What was some crazy shit you saw?
You see tons of crazy shit on the road touring. Everything from the typical car flipped upside down on fire on the freeway to coming back to your cockroach-infested motel room after a show. At a certain point, all of it becomes regular.
All I know is the main shit I learned over the years is to trust your gut and instinct. So long as you do that, it’ll all work out the way it’s supposed to.
How did you come back to HUF?
I started skating a little bit more on tour and started talking to Keith [Hufnagel] again. He asked if I could help him out with a few projects here and there. Then I eventually went fully back to HUF once Keith became really ill.
Keith had a heart-to-heart with me. He was like, “Yo, I hope I beat this shit, but I don’t know what’s going on. I’m starting to think about the future and stuff… Would you ever consider coming back to HUF?” And I was like, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought of that as an option, really.” Like after a decade of music, it seems weird, you know? But I knew it would satisfy me creatively and I wanted to do him proper. I wanted to help carry on his legacy in the best way that I know how to.
Was there anything Keith Hufnagel asked of you before he passed you could share? What was it like visiting in the hospital?
Well, that’s the thing, Keith never really asked for things. He was the one doing most of the giving, he was always so generous and cool to everyone.
Towards the end there he expressed a lot of love and didn’t wanna dwell on anything too dark or sad. He always kept it pretty light, and still had his dry sense of humor and his passion for skating. My most memorable moments towards the end was him asking me to put on his favorite episodes of South Park and watching any skate video with Gonz, Scott Johnston, Gino or Chris Keeffe in it. Especially those early 90s tapes. I know that he held those times with his friends in the highest regards. We’d come over and visit and keep him company and he was still cracking jokes and talking shit to us like he always did. Love him for that.
When you came back to HUF was there anything you were upset about that you saw?
Upset? No, nothing upset me [laughs]. But looking at the broader picture of where HUF was in the context of the world, it didn’t remind me of the feeling of when HUF started. Obviously, brands evolve and grow but I wanted to break the formula. That was it.
When I came back, I wanted to reevaluate everything. I just asked, “Why? Why did we choose this? Why did we go with that?” I wanted to get to the root of why we were doing things the way we were. Then I could help redirect it because there are two different thoughts: one was about expansion and one was about expression. I wanted to bring back the expression. Let’s bring back the old feel.
Now with everything that we do, I’m always like, “Would Keith think this is dope?” Not what Keith in 2015 would think would be dope for HUF. No, it’s like when I first met Keith, the early up-and-coming streetwear Keith—would that Keith think this is dope?
At one point HUF was doing so many collaborations that it almost became comical. In your opinion, how many is too many, and is there a way to know?
Dude, I feel that still. The aspect of collab has now become the norm for all brands and that is a formula that needs to be broken itself.
I want it to get back to the truest sense of the word collaboration. When we did something with you guys it felt like a version of what a true collaboration should feel like.
When I think of collaboration, I think, “What are the connection points like? Do we know someone at the brand personally? Is their phone number in my phone?” Obviously, it’s a huge company and you can’t always have that every single time, but I want everything to have a bit of meaning.
What advice do you have for young people today who want to get involved in the creative world?
This is what I tell everyone, and this was passed on to me by an old creative director: When you find yourself working at a company that you’re actually passionate about, do the job that you’re there to do, but also carve a lane for you within that space and make yourself invaluable to the company. People will see the extra effort. If you’re just cruising and doing the bare minimum, that won’t get you to whatever your goal is.
I think the thing for longevity is to be humble, work fucking hard, and trust your own instinct. If you trust in yourself and you truly believe in what it is that you’re doing, people will recognize that. That will shine through.
We all know that half the game is putting yourself out there and not being afraid to fail. I think that’s the important thing. Failure will lead you in the right direction because you already knocked that shit out. So it’s like fail, re-pivot, don’t get discouraged.
Do you know how many times I’ve made wack shit? All the time. I probably still do but it doesn’t matter to me. My missteps help guide me to the good shit.
“I think the thing for longevity is to be humble, work fucking hard, and trust your own instinct.”
As a creative director and brand director, what did you think of Virgil Abloh?
He’s a pioneer and someone who set the blueprint. Sure, there are a lot of people who have done the same stuff as him in our generation, but Virgil brought it to the foreground of popular culture. He set the tone for the younger generation for what you could become. I feel like that’s really important.
Don’t be afraid. If you want to be a rapper one day and a designer the next, build JDM cars the next day, and make beats on the fourth day, you can do that, and that was what Virgil showed the world. You can create a successful path for yourself and you do whatever you want.
Here’s a small example- this is kind of stupid but very indicative of his influence. Before he started designing all the Nike shoes and stuff, Nike didn’t really allow you to touch their brand marks, and you couldn’t touch the silhouette. When you did a collaboration with Nike, you were super limited in what you could do, just mostly change the color of the shoe or whatever.
He was able to convince them to deconstruct all of their designs and in the post-Virgil world, all of those rules are gone.
Do you sometimes wish you would have just stayed with one career instead of spreading yourself thin trying all these different roles?
I used to really think that in order to fully commit to a new creative endeavor you had to drop everything and focus on the one thing, but I don’t look at it like that anymore.
For a guy like me, it’s impossible to live that way. I have way too many interests, passions, and hobbies. Even when I “moved on” from design, I was still art director for my record label designing merch and packaging for other bands while occasionally freelance designing for other bands when I found time between tours and making records. I just couldn’t fully get away from it. I just like making shit way too much. And now I realize that I should have never limited myself to a singular identity.
Would you say you have commitment issues?
[Laughs] I’m interested in so much, that it’s like my commitment is to creativity, whatever form that comes in. Doesn’t matter if it’s music, a brand, design, art, or whatever. If you have the passion, you can do it all.
May 18, 2022 7:40 pm
Lotta good quotes in this one. Keith section was heartbreaking. Thanks for sharing and good work all.
May 18, 2022 9:55 pm
I love it, but if hes the reason huf stopped making shoes im gonna be so mad.
May 19, 2022 12:18 pm
he wasn’t lol, he came back to HUF after they already stopped shoes.
May 19, 2022 2:33 pm
Shoes are an expensive endeavor and Huf couldn’t compete well enough with the industry. I’m still bummed the shoes side folded. I was a fan too. Still got a couple pairs for the future…
May 19, 2022 2:37 pm
Good interview, good guy, good company. Keith was a little quieter over the years and I wasn’t around for the height of his skate career, but I really miss his presence in skateboarding and streetwear at large. I see his influence in some skaters and I really appreciate the skaters he supported on the shoe program – Joey Pepper, Dick Rizzo, Austyn and Dylan, Cromer.
Seriously, some smooth operators; respected but semi overlooked guys and their videos were frequent and top notch.
Rest In All the Peace, Keith.
May 19, 2022 9:45 pm
Inspiring read… Rip In Peace Huf 🙏 Huf Forever!