Lost & Found: Gabriel Rodriguez Interview

Lost & Found
La Nueve Vidas de Gabriel Rodriguez
Interview & portrait: Seb Carayol

Before becoming a quarter of the LA Boys that spearheaded modern street skating into the early Powell videos—including Paulo Diaz, Guy Mariano and Rudy Johnson—Gabriel Rodriguez, now 38 years old, was so close to becoming a Chicago Boy, as this is the city he was born in before his family moved in 1979 to the same house in mid city LA where he still lives today. A product of a rough area that used to be rougher (as in local gang bangers would threaten to beat you up if you stopped skating and got caught up in their lifestyle), Gabriel’s career, from Powell child prodigy to 101 to Chocolate, was always somewhat elusive before he retired in 2000. Why? Well, there have been a few past and current bumps and struggles on the rocky road of life. To complement his Memory Screened page in the last issue of SKATEBOARDER, here’s the half of Gabriel Rodriguez’s story that’s never been told, in his own words. Aluta continua!

You started skating with Rudy, right?
We met right there off this street. Rudy used to live off Vermont and Pico, and we used to play Little League baseball together. Basically, I started playing baseball and moved to Chicago for a year. When I came back I was about 12, and that’s when I kinda started pushing that little banana board. I remember owing Rudy five bucks for a batting glove I got from him before I left. I’d see him at my friend’s house and I remembered him from owing him that money. We got past that, though, and we connected again.
In the meantime, they all had gotten the good boards. My friend across the street, he had a brand-new Rob Roskopp. I had my banana board and was actually more into the skating, so from then I got a swap meet board because I couldn’t afford a real board. When I skated it over here, people would laugh and shit, so I ended up having the Roskopp guy let me borrow his board. He had seven stairs at his place. We’d put plywood on it and use it as a bank so we learned to kickturn. From then on I used to skate to Rudy’s house all the time. A friend of his named Carlos was ollieing up curbs, so I kinda started hanging out on this side, all the way down. My friend Carlos Suarez, he’s the one that showed me how to ollie. He told me to just hold on to the fence. At this point I think I had an old John Gibson Zorlac with the Pushead graphic.

How did you meet Paulo Diaz and Guy Mariano?
From there I met Paulo after Rudy. He was in Los Feliz, but there was that skate shop, Silver Green, right between us and him, and then—boom!—they just had a jump ramp. I remember Alva did a huge demo there and pretty much all the LA skaters went down there. We’d hear stories about Paulo and they’d hear stories about our little clique, and we met up.

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What kind of stories?
Just, you know, “Have you heard of this guy? He’s pretty bad.” We met from there, and me and Rudy and Carlos got shop sponsored by Renee’s on Melrose. I think Paulo was already on. We used to go to little contests that Per Welinder had in Irvine. And then Guy used to skate for Val Surf and he’d go to those contests too. He was from the valley. That’s how we all congregated at contests. You’d be with your team, but then individuals, and we’d hang out.
We did two to three contests and then we had a mutual friend through Paulo named Mark. He had a car back then. That was the big deal. When we first skated with Guy, he was 11 years old and we took him everywhere. We kinda stole him from Val Surf.

How did the whole Stacy/Powell thing happen?
I had a video. It’s so weird because that was the day Renee was going to send my tape to Santa Cruz. I didn’t think I had a chance on Powell. I got home that day, got the letter all ready, kind of a cover letter, like for a job where I say this is what I do, I’m this old, I skate for Renee, I love your boards, whatever.

Was your tape just raw footage?
Through the whole little skate contest thing, I met that filmer, Peter McKeon. He knew everybody. He liked the way I skated, so we went filming together. He picked us all up. He knew how to edit too, so that’s how my tape came about. It was mostly jump ramps and stairs, handrails and what have you, and the 360 ollie grabbing my nose. I had to do a few in Ban This [laughs]. Stacy really liked it.
It’s so weird how I was gonna send the tape THAT day, and I told Renee that I was on my way to his place so we could send the tape, but he said, “Stacy wants to meet you.” I was, like, “Fuck you, man. That’s not funny.” What happened was that one of Stacy’s secretaries came by the shop while they were watching the tape. She was watching it and said, “I’m Stacy Peralta’’s secretary. He’d love to watch this. Can I take it with me?” She took it. That’s when Renee called.

What happened from there?
We had a Renee’s skate team video too. I brought it the day I went to meet Stacy because I wanted to show him. At the same time we were watching my footage, I was, like, “Stacy, you gotta check Paulo too. He’s unbelievable. And Guy and Rudy. If you like the way I skate, you’ll like the way they skate.” He put me on, then Paulo was next, then Guy was next, and then Rudy got on. A lot of the Renee’s skaters were really good, like Doug Trend and John Orleans. Those guys, man, they used to skate for Gizmos-era World Industries. They were kind of on World and then they went different directions. But we stayed on that mission and tried to have fun and skated.

Was the whole Ban This part shot in one day?
It was a weekend. What was weird about that video is that it took almost two years to come out. That’s how we felt because we were the first ones to film. By the time the video came out, we were, like, “Hey, we progressed that much more. We got more footage. Can we add it since we got it?” They didn’t want to do it. They had their own system.

Rudy said that you guys were so far ahead that you would have made their pros look bad. Is that true?
That’s exactly true. Basically, he told us that and we kind of understood. We complained sometimes to Lance or something and Lance would always listen. They sent us up and down California, and everybody else was going all over the country and Europe. We had complaints about that. Lance told us to relax, that we’d get our turn.

How did 101 happen?
At the time, we were skating good. We were filming and doing good in contests. Paulo was already on his own thing but basically we were skating some finals in Reno and Rudy and Guy quit to skate for Blind. I was mad at them, you know? I was hurt ’cause they didn’t tell me anything. Then Mark snuck in there with Rudy and Guy. Oh, I was pissed. Oh, man, that’s when I got gangster [laughs]. We wouldn’t go skating together. They knew I was pissed. They didn’t want none of me.
Next thing you know, we were at the contest, and I said, “Hi,” or whatever. I was gonna turn pro for Powell anyway. I didn’t give a shit. I was, like, “Fuck it.” That’s when I started hanging out with them again. I was just trying to reconnect with my friends again, and the Powell people kept trying to keep me away from them because they didn’t want me to go too. And at the time Natas was hanging out with Rocco, so that whole weekend people were talking, “Uh-oh, oh shit, Rocco’s got Natas with him. He’s gonna take him away from Santa Cruz.”
So I entered the contest under Powell, on the Saturday, and I qualified 3rd place. That same night, Todd [Hastings, Powell’s TM at the time] got me in the room and kind of scolded me ’cause he saw me hanging out with Guy and Rudy. I started thinking skating wasn’t going in the right direction, so I just straight quit. I didn’t know Natas was starting a company. I just quit. I just thought I’d find another sponsor.
So I got kicked out of the hotel room. Todd took my per diem and shit, so I called Rudy’s room and told them I quit. They got all excited and shit, all giggly. So I went to their hotel room and Rocco was tripping out. He was out there with Natas. I was, like, “Man, they took all my money.” Natas goes—boom!—gives me 100 bucks. That’s how I figured I could skate for him and we could do this, you know? It wasn’t official yet. I qualified 3rd under Powell and ended up with 4th place under World Industries because 101 hadn’t started yet. Natas started it a week or two after the contest. It was just me and him on the team for a long time. I did the Powell video, and then I did two semi-decent 101 parts. At first, I wanted to do a solid part ’cause after Powell I kinda lagged.

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Why were they semi-decent parts? Were you skating less?
I wasn’t skating that much. I didn’t start drinking and what have you until I was about 18 years old. That’s the time I started drinking, and then in the mid-’90s I kinda stopped, so that contributed a lot. Plus it was always me and Natas, and that’s when Natas broke his ankle, so I was just by myself and these guys were filming for the Blind video. I was doing a lot of hanging out.

Were you caught up in the street life thing?
There was a point in the early ’90s where skating was kind of freestyle, a lot of pressure flips and weird tricks that I wasn’t really into, and I didn’t really fuck with them. I was doing my own thing. I started skating a lot with Paulo, and that’s when the juices started flowing and I just dedicated myself to skating. That’s when Paulo was on Stereo—remember that? So we started skating again, and then these guys were on their way out of Blind ’cause Mark quit. They started Girl, and at the time I was still on 101. The 101 board with the grenade was out, one of my last 101 boards. Tobin Yelland said that once he walked into World and Rocco was screaming, “Gabriel Rodriguez got the best-selling board out of everybody!” I mean, I didn’t even have a video part out. Tobin told me that, but I’d get 500-dollar paychecks, you know what I mean?
I wasn’t thinking about quitting, but Chocolate was already in the works, and I knew Guy and Rudy already. They wanted to start with Paulo and Chico. Paulo is the one who told me. I thought that we got the team all back together, and that got me really hyped. I started skating more and more. That’s what motivated me to film a video part, a solid one, and it worked out, just a little bit of motivation. Keep your mind in the right place and things happen.

Weren’t you into graffiti at the time?
Not really into it, because I was not too good at it, you know? Aya was my name. I wasn’t really that serious with it but I would just do it just because me, Guy and Rudy and a bunch of us would do it, but we would just do it in skateparks. That was about it. I would do it just out of being bored. Our graffiti crew was basically all skaters. I wasn’t on that Shiloh board with all the skater’s tags on it, but I was on a Menace one. One of Joey Suriel’s graphics, I remember.

Did you choose the music in your video parts?
Not in the Powell videos, but in the 101 videos. The Powell video was Chuck Treece. For the 101 videos, I used Black Sabbath and the Beetles. I’ve always loved Sabbath. And then your musical tastes start expanding. From hanging out with Paulo, we listened to a lot of soul, a lot of funk, a lot of old-school stuff. If you notice the Chocolate videos, it’s got this old soul. My song in La Nueve Vidas de Paco is called “Cramp Your Style” by All The People. It’s pretty rare. One of Paulo’s friends had this amazing record collection and he’d make us mixtapes. His name is Justin. I’d drive around, and we’d listen to them all the time.

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What caused you to discontinue your boards?
There are a lot of people who are functional alcoholics. They can drink all night and skate the next day. I wasn’t like that. Next day I wouldn’t wake up. It kinda started when I lived with Guy. It was about the time I delved into some serious alcoholism, and that’s around the time I started to get ultimatums and it just extended, you know? But, I mean, I had a good one. I had fun doing what I did.

What did you do after that?
I went to school for a little bit, going to City College. Actually, I dropped out in 12th grade but got my diploma in 2000. I worked on that because I wanted to be a radiologist. I wanted to catch up with school. I also needed all these prerequisites, eight classes. I still need to do physiology right now, and I need high school algebra. I needed those two to start the program. Then I started just lagging on the whole school thing because it was getting pretty expensive. The state is broke so the cost of books and classes jump up every semester. I need to find a job and I’m having such a hard time doing it. It’s ridiculous. I mean, I go everywhere. There are jobs out there, but I’m not trying to work at no fast food restaurant; I’m trying to find a job to take care of my mom. Nowadays you gotta do everything online. I filled at least 300 applications in the past three years. It’s kinda tough right now.

Have you tried in the skate industry?
Yeah. I’ve applied for three jobs at skateparks to show kids how to skate and I even know people there. That didn’t even work out. I’ve tried at Girl, but the guys who already work there are cool. I don’t wanna be, like, “Get rid of him.” A lot of these guys have families and what have you. It’s been pretty rough. You just gotta persevere.

For the four of you “LA Boys,” it seems like there’s been a lot of rough patches.
Oh yeah. For me it’s just that I drink, you know what I mean? I’m an alcoholic. I can admit that. I’m fortunate in a sense because these guys were doing hard drugs. Drinking is dangerous too. I put myself in a lot of dangerous situations because of my drinking. I’ll do about two weeks without drinking, and then I’ll take a drink and drink for 3 to 4 days, boom-boom-boom, binging.
When I broke my ankle in 1997, I had $20,000 in the bank. I was doing OK, but after I broke my ankle my sister, who’s a lawyer and is four years older than me, told me I should pay my medical bill right away and it was $17,000. I had no insurance. I was clueless about the whole situation. The system in this country sucks donkey dick. Another car hits you and if you got no insurance your life is over. They’ll take your family away and you lose your house. It’s a fucked-up system out here, man. But at least I got good credit. I paid it all off [laughs]. After that I started doing a lot of drinking. Me and Guy would be partying and shit, fucking around. It snowballed into a depression, just a lot of things combined.

Do you still skate a lot?
Recently I’ve been skating a lot. I’ve been trying to skate at least once a week. Usually I go to Girl or other parks. I still skate these banks in Los Feliz. I’ve been skating in the streets, but I got two tickets. It’s not like it used to be—$200 each. Fuck that. I don’t really keep in touch with what’s going on in skating. I don’t know if it’s from getting older, ‘cause I feel weird at my age still jumping the fence to go skate a school. It’s kind of interesting.

Is skating keeping your mind off your problems, in a sense?
Oh yeah. To me, any day without drinking is a good day. When I skate it’s an even a better day. My body is not what it used to be, but I still have fun. Plus, now that I don’t have the pressure it’s much more enjoyable.

Thanks to Seb Carayol and Gabriel Rodriguez.