Before the internet, sometimes you had to leave your house to learn about cool stuff.
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If you were a suburban teen in the ’90s whose tastes wandered even slightly out of the mainstream, finding new music could be a challenge. You could haunt record stores, scour zines, maybe work in college radio. Or you could trade skate videos: VHS tapes of killer skateboard routines soundtracked by an aggressive, high-energy mash-up of underground punk and rap.
One kid whose life was changed by these videos was Stef Alexander. “You started hearing punk rock -- bands like Quicksand, Sonic Youth, and Black Flag -- next to Nas and Biggie and Wu-Tang,” he says. “In my life at the time, I was riding that same line.”
Later renaming himself P.O.S, he’d refuse to choose between rock and hip-hop, thrashing his way through punk bands such as Building Better Bombs and finding his voice as an MC as part of the Doomtree Collective. You can trace a lot of the risky eclecticism that’s marked his music back to the skate videos he avidly traded as a teen. “Did I get into skateboarding because of punk rock, or did I get into punk rock because of skateboarding?” he wonders rhetorically now.
“There were bands that me and [Doomtree producer] Paper Tiger would go see because we heard one song in our favorite part of some video,” he says. “There’s all kinds of bands that I only knew about ’cause I heard them in a skate video.”
Finding these skate tapes, and finding other kids who shared your tastes, was a social activity, leading skaters to gather in places where they could learn more about music. “You traded with kids,” P.O.S says. “You went to Cal Surf. You went to the Phobia. You went to Extreme Noise.” This is the culture from which Doomtree would emerge. “Me, Cecil Otter, Paper Tiger, Sims -- all of us skated, all of us took that incredibly seriously.”
These tapes not only introduced kids to new music, but also helped them develop their sense of personal style. Originally packaged by skate companies to represent their brand, tapes soon featured music chosen by the skaters themselves to represent their individual tastes, and skate kids latched on to their favorites. “Black Label, the Baker dudes, Deathwish really got into the punk I was into,” P.O.S says. “Just watching these guys skate, with these really fast edits, not doing only technical tricks, but doing raw stuff—I always liked that better than the super-clean tricks.”
And at a time when music fans pledged allegiance to specific genres of music, the ecumenical, boundary-defiant style of these videos was revolutionary. “Being big into every genre wasn’t quite as common then,” P.O.S says. “You don’t hear as much these days, people saying things like, ‘I only listen to New York hip-hop’ or ‘I don’t listen to East Coast punk, I only listen to bands from the Bay Area.’ You just don’t hear that anymore. Everybody has the internet, everybody wants to know what’s going on, everybody has kind of a wider vibe.”
But if even casual music fans have broader tastes than their counterparts a quarter-century ago, P.O.S misses the work that went into learning about new music back then. “You don’t have to send your money off to a random address and then wait for three weeks for a seven-inch to show up, or a skate video to show up, or the wrong size shirt that you’re gonna wear anyway.”
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