Le Bain

The Last Kings of New York

We're in the late 1980's, early 1990's in the streets of New York City. A bunch of "edgy cool outcasts" are about to revolutionize youth culture by making two worlds collide: skateboarding and hip hop. Premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last July, the documentary 'All The Streets Are Silent' tells the story of those heroic times. As Le Bain hosted the after-party, we sat down with the movie's narrator and initiator Eli Gesner.

LE BAIN: The time frame of 'All The Streets Are Silent' is 1987 to 1997. In 1987, you’re 17. You’re a native New Yorker, you've been into graffiti and skateboarding since you’re 10, at a time when both things are still underground. Could you tell us a bit about that year?

ELI GESNER: 1987, for whatever reason, was an utterly insane year for me. I was 16 and I was running wild on the crack cocaine plagued streets of New York City. I skateboarded everywhere, all day long, wrote graffiti, and was always outside getting into trouble with my friends. Good trouble. Fun trouble. The city was all out nuts back then. There were about seven murders every day and the streets were always packed with every type of person you could imagine. There was a real sense of ever-present violence. Violence from everything and everyone being smashed together. There was only ONE hip hop song on the Billboard Hot 100 that year – The Beastie Boys ‘Fight For Your Right To Party’ (#98) And that’s how every kid who skated in NYC felt.

What do you mean?

We had to fight the norms of New York City street culture to skateboard and listen to rap and write graffiti. That was some new shit. The mix of skateboarding and hip hop did not exist except for our tight knit group of around 40 kids. We were the edgy cool outcasts. Everyone referred to us as "The Skaters". We were essentially a gang. The police hated us. I got arrested a couple times for skating and graffiti that year. I also got in a few fights with various thugs. Not that I was a tough guy. I was not. I was just fighting off dudes who thought skaters were soft. On the flip side, one of the weirdest things to happen to me was that I was on MTV for ten seconds. MTV did a news report on skateboard kids in NYC and I got to say two little sentences. When it came out, me, my mom, and my sister watched my little blip on MTV and had a laugh. Now mind you, the only thing anyone under 30 years old did in 1987 was watch MTV. Boom! I went out skateboarding and I was instantly famous. I would skate down the street and everyone would point and scream at me - “Look! It’s the skater kid from MTV!” Totally absurd. I loved 1987.

"In those ten years New York City skaters went from frowned upon rejects running from the cops and street thugs to celebrated heroes of New York City culture." – Eli Gesner

In 1993, you co-founded the NY skate brand Zoo York. The movie 'Kids' was released in 1995. New York Hip hop and skateboard culture became cultural phenomenons. It's 1997, you released the infamous ‘Zoo York MixTape’...  You’re 27. Same question, what do you remember of that year?

1997 was another amazing year. That’s the year that all the struggle we put into Zoo York totally started to work. Pretty much everyone in the movie 'Kids' skated for Zoo York so we suddenly had this notorious celebrity cachet. I built a skateboard ramp inside the Tunnel Nightclub and that suddenly gave all the skaters VIP access into NYC nightlife. In those ten years New York City skaters went from frowned upon rejects running from the cops and street thugs to celebrated heroes of New York City culture. We were touring the world with all our friends. It was beautiful. It was also the tipping point for NYC within the skateboard industry. Before then, NYC was a novelty skate destination, good for an article in Thrasher Magazine every few years. In 1997, because of Zoo York and Supreme and 'Kids', we made NYC into a fixture in the skateboard world. Pro skaters from California moved to New York to live. Not just came to shoot some photos and leave. It’s still that way today.  

Do you consider the release of 'Zoo York MixTape' as one culmination of that era? 

Anyone who sets out to make a culmination of an era is not only an egomaniac but delusional. We were just kids having fun. Not trying to change the world. With ‘The Zoo York MixTape’ we simply set out to represent our lifestyle as authentically as possible. Yes, a lot of the material in the video was, for the time, fresh, avant-garde stuff. Skaters of every ethnicity skating together through the unforgiving and imposing streets of NYC, fast. And a lot of it was recorded at night, when the streets were empty. That was also unusual compared to all the California blue skies and palm tree skate videos. And the clothing. Lots of hoodies and cold weather clothes. And then, of course, the music from the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito show. The idea of using live rap music was unprecedented. And how we mixed it all together was groundbreaking. But the single most important aspect of the ZYMT video was that everyone could tell that everything in it was genuine. This was really who we were. Not some cleverly crafted marketing concept. We just happened to have been raised in NYC and were good at skateboarding and hip hop. 

Eli Gesner skating at nightclub Tunnel in the 1990's
As someone who played a key role during that era, you’re the perfect narrator for the documentary. How did that happen?

That’s an interesting situation. When Jeremy Elkin (the director of 'All the Streets Are Silent') and I were first talking about making this documentary, Jeremy wanted to examine the origins of the ‘Zoo York MixTape’ At that point, I gave Jeremy my video tape archive and told him to have at it. Shortly after, he started to interview people for this documentary project. I was one of the first interviews.

How did you end up being the narrator?

As Jeremy began to amass more and more interviews, everyone began to refer to me as the guy who did this and the guy who did that. And that’s when I think Jeremy began to peel apart the onion. The ZYMT happened because of the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito radio show, and that radio show happened because of the nightclub Mars, and Mars happened because of [New York DJ] Yuki Watanabe, and the single thread that ties it all together is me. It was at that point that Jeremy removed me as an interview and creatively reworked my actual original interview audio into the film’s narration. Except for a few moments here and there, the narration is not something written for me to say. It’s my actual words from that first interview. 

What were your feelings while watching the documentary for the first time?

I personally shot the bulk of the archival footage used in the film so I am intimately aware of every little detail that surrounds all those images. I am aware of all the life events that surround whatever footage was captured. The footage might be of someone rapping or someone skating but to me, this was the day after my grandmother died or I was just falling in love with some girl. I’m way too close to the material to ever hope to make something clinical out of it. I have zero perspective. Fortunately for me, Jeremy not only reveres this time period and material but he has the talent and the wherewithal to sit there and go through hundreds of hours of tape and start to piece things together like an amateur detective. It’s a humbling and bizarre experience to have someone take such a cinematic and critical look at your life. It’s been magical. In the truest sense of the word. A once in a lifetime surreal experience. 

"I just looked at skateboarding and graffiti as the next level of fun."

To understand how a bunch of New York kids created this street culture revolution, you need to go back maybe 10 years earlier in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At that time skateboarding was considered a Californian thing. You said it was a “really rare and exotic activity". Still, there are some NY pioneers, graffiti artists and skateboarders, who called themselves the Soul Artists of Zoo York, and you’re in awe of them. As a ten year old in 1980, could you describe the attraction you had toward that early confidential graffiti and skateboarding scene?

I could talk about the illustrious history of The Soul Artists of Zoo York for days. And I have. Many times. But to specifically address my attraction as a ten year old kid to skateboarding and graffiti, I think I just looked at them as the next level of fun. I was already drawing and was good at that. And I was already a little maniac running around climbing and jumping off everything in Central Park. Graffiti and skateboarding, to me, simply seemed like the next logical step. And to be clear, at this point I had no idea that one had anything to do with the other. I knew the Zoo York guys as the older skateboard kids in my neighborhood because I would watch them skate their little quarter-pipe in Riverside Park but I had no idea that they wrote graffiti.

So how did you start skateboarding?

It was only years later, as I got more and more into graffiti, that skateboarding was forced on me. The graffiti guys who were taking me under their wing came up under the original Zoo York guys and they all had skateboards. They literally made me get a skateboard to hang out with them but they, for the most part, were just skating around. Using the board just for transportation. Once I got my first skateboard however, I was hooked. All my energy and focus started to go more and more into skating. And even though I kept writing, graffiti definitely took a back seat. The funny circular thing of it all is, once I started exploring the city as a skateboarder, a lot of the skaters that I met were also graffiti writers. It was just some sort of organic New York City juvenile delinquent personality type. Skateboarders who write graffiti. Or graffiti writers who skateboarded. I loved it. I love subcultures so much. It’s a shame that they seem to be dying out. 

Harold Hunter by Gunars Elmuts

"Hip hop is a fully realized creative subculture. Perhaps the very last fully realized creative subculture that will ever exist."

We can hear Fucking DMC from Run-DMC says in the documentary that hip hop and skateboarding, “It’s the same expression, but two different presentations.” What’s your own explanation for that definition? 

Skating and hip hop are both defiant acts against an oppressive society. Or at least that’s how they both started. Back in the day, polite society didn’t look at teenagers as having any real monetary value. Now that’s all changed. Now the driving focus of the marketplace is the 13 to 30 year old demographic. When I was a teenager there was very little ‘product’ tailor made for kids outside of pop music. So we had to make our own stuff. We had to make our own teen-age angst expressions. That’s why skateboarding and graffiti were so edgy and appealing. And it’s why I got arrested for doing both activities back then. It was against what was acceptable in our society. Back then, movies, TV, and especially clothing were mostly all focused on a broad, ambiguous and inoffensive "General Marketplace". Now everything wants to be edgy and cool. 

By 1987, the foundations of hip hop were built, what started in the Bronx in the early 1970’s had become a global cultural phenomenon that went beyond rap: graffiti, DJing, dancing… In your opinion, what made hip hop culture still relevant in the early 1990’s?

This is an idea I struggle with and have strong opinions on. To be clear, hip hop is a fully realized creative subculture. Perhaps the very last fully realized creative subculture that will ever exist. Communication has become so sophisticated that it is impossible for a group of rejected, disenfranchised kids to be left alone by the outside world long enough to collectively build a fully independent, never-before-seen art movement. That is where hip hop comes from. Rejected kids in 1970s NYC that no one cared about coming together to invent their own music, language, art, and dance culture. That is hip hop – rapping, DJing, graffiti, and B-Boying (break dancing)... And that perfect storm of rejected kids coming together to create something new may very well never happen again. 

Eli at his desk in the 1990's

"From Soho across to the Lower East Side, all the streets would be filled with the most interesting, bravest, and creative people from all walks of life. It was like a nightclub but during the day and out on every corner."

The documentary is about two worlds (skateboarding and hip hop) colliding, but we could consider it’s actually about three worlds colliding, if we add the Downtown scene. How would you define the “Downtown scene” in the late 80’s? 

By the ‘Downtown scene’ you are referring to the streets of lower Manhattan during the late 1980's. This was a few years before I was going out to nightclubs on the regular. I was still too young. Just a wild teenage kid out on the streets and, for me, it was the apex of everything awesome. Anyone and everyone who was involved in all things creative, cutting edge, and cool would migrate Downtown from all over. From Soho across to the Lower East Side, all the streets would be filled with the most interesting, bravest, and creative people from all walks of life. It was like a nightclub but during the day and out on every corner. Everyone was out, dressed as fresh as possible, and the stores were blasting the coolest new music out of their doors. Ricocheting through all this was us. Our small group of NYC Skater Kids, zipping in and out of traffic, up and down the streets. We had unintentionally carved out a little niche for ourselves. We were some of the youngest people out on the street but still somehow some of the coolest. Skateboarding was so foreign to NYC at that time that we were a novelty. This weird hybrid of NYC graffiti vandals and California neon colored skateboarders. Really a strange mashup of ideas. Best times of my life. 

Of course, it’s not only about Downtown Manhattan. Another location that played a role is club Mars, which was actually located right by The Standard, High Line. Tell us about your own experience of Mars, and how the club became a meeting point for hip hop heads, skateboarders and ravers.

I have always found the role of the venue fascinating. The idea of physical space. At Mars, we had rock and roll night, gay night, and our party ‘Trip’ was the hip hop night. Mars was our creative space. My dear departed brother in all this was Damani Beasley – Beasley 79. We grew up together skateboarding and writing graffiti. He, the extroverted super charming black kid with blond hair, and me, his nerdy white sidekick. We had built up a rep' for ourselves in the skateboard and graffiti world as kids, but once we got the chance to throw the ‘Trip’ parties (with Yuki Watanabe, DJ Duke of Denmark, and Pandora) everything just exploded. We became NYC street celebrities. Except for the Soul Artists of Zoo York crew in the 1970's, hip hop and skateboarding really had nothing overtly to do with each other. Especially outside of NYC. It was our small group of local NYC skater and graffiti kids that mixed that peanut butter with that chocolate over many years and began to share it with the rest of the world. The problem for Beasley and I was that if you went to your friend's house after skating, they would always play hip hop, but when we went out at night, it was all house music. Of course there were places like The Roxy, Danceteria, and Area that played hip hop way before us but those parties were few and far between. Hip hop was hard to find and when someone did throw a jam, they were dangerous, people got hurt, and girls avoided them. Beasley and I set out to make a safe space that played hip hop so that the girls would come. So that our skater friends would come. We wanted to make a melting pot of cultural, racial, and socioeconomic juxtapositions. Like California skateboarding mixed with NYC hip hop. That what we tried to do with our ‘Trip’ parties at Mars. 

What did you learn from the documentary that you didn’t know or didn’t realize at the moment?

Let me explain it this way. My Dad died when I was 10. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. But it was also the best. I sat in my house angry and depressed all winter – Why did this happen? The world is unfair! But when Spring Time came and the other kids in the neighborhood came looking for me to come out and play, what was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to stay inside and stay sad? I figured that if my father was watching me from beyond the grave that he would want me to go out and play. He would want me to enjoy myself every chance I got. He would want me to be the best person I could and try and do great things. That is how I have lived my life ever since. Did I think that one day in the future someone would make a movie about what me and my friends were doing? – Hell no. But I was damn well aware at the time that I was working every day to make my life as special as I could.

That motivated you. 

I actively sought out anything that might end up being magical. I knew half way through shooting Busta Rhymes that I was recording something magical. I knew I was blessed to be in that moment. I knew when I was recording the opening shot of ‘All the Streets Are Silent’, the shot of the two kids kissing in the street as the fireworks were exploding around them, I knew I was recording true magic. The magic of existence. But only I knew that. When my Dad died, all I had left were pictures of him. I suspect that must have affected my thinking growing up. I recorded and saved all these fleeting moments knowing that they would be lost in time without me. The thing that this documentary has taught me is the look on other people’s faces when they see these things I have saved. That these people are experiencing the same magic (at least in some small way) that I did. Thanks to Jeremy Elkin’s diligent work, I have had another great joy. The joy of watching these moments being experienced by other people.

You said "One of the funny things about humans, and our whole culture in general—especially around things like skateboarding and sports— is that there’s always this one upmanship that happens when the new generation comes in and pushes it to a level you’d never have thought possible.” After that golden age of the NY skate scene, and as it became global, who was the next generation after you that pushes things forward?

I am utterly blown away by how far skateboarding has come. Skateboarding, and I’m talking top-level, Thrasher Magazine caliber skateboarding, is superhuman to me. It’s gotten to the point of being horrifying to watch on occasion. I see videos of kids who are clearly going to die by jumping off buildings or bombing hills and they somehow make it out alive. Even non-life-threatening skateboarding is just so solid and impressive now. Tricks we could only imagine of when I was a kid are now commonplace. It’s awesome. Having said that, I do miss the mysterious, secret society aspect of skateboarding. When there were only a few of us. Skateboarding has become so commonplace and pedestrian now that it’s hard for me to relate to. I go to skateparks with dozens of kids zipping around and no one talks to anyone. No one knows each other. Everyone skates. I guess my generation is partly to blame for that. For making skateboarding so mainstream. On the flip-side, skaters aren’t really getting arrested for skating nowadays. It’s become as normal as basketball. And I guess that’s good. I would have killed someone to have had just one skatepark in NYC as a child. Now the city is full of them. 

"This moment we examine in ‘All the Streets Are Silent’ might be the end of this type of location-based cultural revolution."

In 2021, as street culture, hip hop, skateboarding, street wear is probably the leading youth culture in the world, where do you see the avant-garde?

I don’t see an avant-garde. I see lots of creative ideas and occasionally unique views on things from the new generation but no seismic shift. Nothing mind altering. And I think that has to do with communication, travel, and most importantly ease of use. It’s become too easy to go places and share ideas now so there is no monastic, diligent exploration of new ideas with like minded individuals. The Cafe Society of Paris in the late 19th century. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's. The hippies of Haight Ashbury in the 1960's... This moment we examine in ‘All the Streets Are Silent’ might be the end of this type of location-based cultural revolution. Before the internet (or even the telephone) to effectively and earnestly explore ideas like ‘jazz’ you had to physically go to where everyone was doing it. Harlem, let’s say. And that breeds a volatile and exciting breeding ground filled with the best and most passionate people. But you really had to want to go there. To live there. By committing themselves physically to this location, these ‘Jazz’ people effectively quarantined themselves from the outside world. And that’s what creates the avant-garde. That’s what creates true culture.

Do you think everything has become too easy?

New technology has made the creation of art way too easy. There is little sacrifice or discipline needed now. Anyone can do it. Best case scenario: an unknown artist with genuine talent can now make music, write stories, shoot videos, distribute and monetize their work all around the world from the comfort of their own home. But even if that breeds a few exceptional artists it’s still just a few exceptional artists. It does not breed an entire culture of the avant-garde. What used to take the entire community of Harlem to accomplish can now be done in someone’s bedroom. And that does not make a true culture. And don’t even get me into how this technology enables the talentless!

That's a pretty bad outlook. 

The optimist and the wizened old man in me believes that a new avant-garde can still happen, maybe, in the near future. That the interconnected and globalized world can become the next Harlem. A Harlem that I can’t fully fathom. A Harlem that transcends space, borders, and division. A new and never-before-seen avant-garde that unites this planet. This, I think, through technology and possibly some tragedy induced sober enlightenment, is a totally plausible destination.

'All The Streets Are Silent' is available now for digital pre-order

Header photo by Gunars Elmut

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