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The Emotional Legacy Of 'Tony Hawk's Pro Skater'

The avatar of professional skateboarder Kareem Campbell, in a still from <em>Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2</em>.
Courtesy of Activision
The avatar of professional skateboarder Kareem Campbell, in a still from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2.

For a lot of people, the light-as-air guitar riff and clear-blue horns that prologue the song "Superman," by Goldfinger, can surface memories of a simpler time, when ska was something you might have been expected to know about.

I never owned a Tony Hawk video game myself, but I do have an older brother. This past weekend, Jorge and everyone else got the chance to revisit this cultural artifact via the remastered Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2, released on Sep. 4. The level maps and game mechanics are mostly the same as they were 20-odd years ago, this time rendered in 4K, with some new features like an online multiplayer mode, new goals and additional tricks from later games. Jack Black is there. Along the original roster of playable characters (aged up to the present), you can play as a younger, more diverse set of skaters including Nyjah Huston, Leo Baker, Leticia Bufoni, Aori Nishimura, Lizzie Armanto, Riley Hawk, Tyshawn Jones and Shane O'Neill.

The soundtrack, one of the game's most enduring legacies, also features 37 new musical artists, in addition to most of the originals, from A Tribe Called Quest to Sublime to Screaming Females to Skepta to CHAII to Machine Gun Kelly and more. Jorge messaged me a photo of his hand outstretched, pointing to a corner of the screen reading "The Ataris - All Souls Day," that he captioned "gasp."

Jorge was 13 when Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was first released on the PlayStation in 1999. And while he discovered the game before I did, his earliest memory of playing it lines up with mine — in a duplex in Miami Lakes that our aunt and grandmother shared. I sat on the floor of my cousin's bedroom and watched him and Jorge play.

This was years before I'd aspire to Not Be Like Other Girls. I was like other girls and, like other girls, I would go on to play GameCube games like Bratz: Rock Angelz and Mary-Kate and Ashley: Sweet 16 - Licensed to Drive, the latter of which licensed real-world songs to give shape to a low-poly beach-pop Mario Party knockoff that provided me my first taste of cool-girlhood. Pro Skater was similarly accessible.

Jorge was my guide to cool music. I'd eventually struggle to balance a laptop as I downloaded Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" on LimeWire, as my mother furiously brushed and blow-dried my hair. For Jorge, those early moments of discovery and connection first came through Pro Skater. He still can't hear "Blitzkrieg Bop" without being transported back to Pro Skater 3, and has a Mandela-effect recollection (supported by Google's autocomplete feature) of loving the Goldfinger cover of "99 Red Balloons," which actually never appeared on a Tony Hawk soundtrack, but on Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec. Lagwagon's "May 16," from the second installment, was another favorite. The soundtracks were his and my first glimpse into punk, whatever that had come to mean, and the spirit of irreverentcounterculture that had become incredibly profitable by the turn of the millennium.

Whether it was the righteous ska of Goldfinger or the political awakening of The Dead Kennedys' "Police Truck," each song burned its influence on a host of musicians, too. "Let's ride, ride, how we ride," Jello Biafra snarled to an entire generation of kids receiving early educations in edge.

In June, months into social distancing and as a summer of anti-racist uprising began, Brooklyn-based artist Elise Okusami re-released her cover of "Police Truck" (originally from a Pro Skater-themedcovers compilation), with all proceeds going to the National Bail Fund Network's Protest & COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. She was looking for ways to help, beyond donating herself — like many, she lost work amid the pandemic — and decided to give the track a wider release. "I felt like it was pretty, unfortunately, relevant," she tells me. "It's an old song, and it's still exactly the same."

Okusami was 14 when a friend first showed her Pro Skater. She skated back then — "about as poorly as I do now," she laughs. She could do an ollie here and there, and was an avid watcher of skate tapes. When her friend gave her his old Playstation 2, she got the game for herself, and subsequently expanded her library to include Pro Skater 1 through 4, Tony Hawk's Underground 1 and 2, and American Wasteland.

"I was really great at Tony Hawk," she says. "It was just fun. And I liked that there were these goals and the stakes were pretty low, really. It wasn't stressful."

She remembers playing the game alone a lot, growing up in the Maryland house she's speaking to me from, holed up in the den and illuminated by the blue light of a screen like the rest of us. She always played as Rodney Mullen. "I do remember being very excited that there was one Black skateboarder in the game, and being like, 'Yes!' And then also excited that there was one girl," she recalls, referring to Kareem Campbell and Elissa Steamer. "And I was like, 'I don't know who to pick!' "

Okusami had grown up on pop-punk, hardcore, grunge and skate tapes long before the soundtrack reached her in Rockville, Md. in 1999. She recounts her CD collection back then: Sublime, the Offspring, Our Lady Peace's Clumsy, the beloved NBA-rap-tape Basketball's Best Kept Secret, and, foremost of all, Green Day's Dookie and Insomniac. I hear her smile as she tells me that Dookie was the first CD she bought with her own money, at Best Buy. "I remember getting my dad to drive me there and seeing it and picking it up and my hands and being like, 'yeah, it's mine.' "

Besides "Police Truck," other standouts from the Pro Skater oeuvre included the Adolescents' "Amoeba," from Pro Skater 3, whose chorus a teenage Okusami misheard as "Tony Haaawk!" ("I remember being like, that's so cool! He's got a whole song about him on here," she laughs) and Primus' "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver," now permanently associated with skating.

The game made her feel seen. "I think that was something that was really cool about it: Maybe they had this target demographic, but it still very much appealed to a lot of people who were outside of that," she says. She just didn't think about it. "I think that's partly because of what skateboarding in general is, and part of the music that they picked, because it's a lot of stuff that the people who are outside the mainstream were listening to also. So it kind of felt like a nice little home."

Okusami started high school just around when the first Pro Skater came out. Though she grew up in the suburbs, she went to high school in Tenleytown in Washington, D.C, spending summer Mondays and Thursdays at shows in Fort Reno Park. She used any hang with friends as an opportunity to suggest playing Pro Skater — with Drew, who gave her the PS2, or with David and Matt, with whom she had formed her first band (the name of which will have to remain a secret) in 4th grade. After band practice, they'd play.

The D.C. punk scene became another home. She loved that at every show, the desire to have a good time always overlapped with people tabling for a just cause. The Pro Skater soundtracks featured the sounds that surrounded her in D.C., without feeling co-opted or forced.

She released her post-apocalyptic debut full-length as Oceanator, Things I Never Said, in August. Things I Never Said explores the fallout from personal and political apocalypse, and the world after the end of the world. The album's nine tracks non-linearly explore anxiety, depression, loss and healing from trauma, each song an elastic reaction and response in real time. Rooted as it is in pop-punk, post-hardcore and grunge, the record has none of the bombast of 1999 but all of the radical desire to be known, and a self-aware earnestness. (If she had to choose her own song to feature on a Tony Hawk game soundtrack, it's a tie between "Heartbeat," "Mistakes" from her 2018 EP Lows, and the power-pop "A Crack In the World.")

Okusami self-released Things I Never Said on Plastic Miracles, the label she started earlier this year, inspired by Lookout! Records, the first label home of Green Day and countless other Bay Area pop-punk bands. She initially saw her label as a vehicle to help friends put their music, photo zines, and other creative projects into the world. She named the label after a Ron Currie Jr. novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. "Vinyl and cassettes and CDs too — which maybe we'll make, I don't know — are actual little plastic miracles in that they contain somebody's whole heart," she says. Each record, tape, and game disc became Okusami's prized possessions as a kid, because they contained entire worlds she could travel to.

In middle school, Daniela Bojorges-Giraldo began producing her first beats – years before she'd assume the alias St. Panther and land features on Issa Rae's Insecure soundtrack and Michelle Obama's playlists. A year earlier, she'd seen Tony Hawk, the real one, shred a halfpipe on the grounds of a giant Beverly Hills estate at the Tony Hawk Foundation's annual kid-centered Stand Up For Skateparks benefit. In the Tony Hawk's Project 8 days, circa 2006, this was the first time she had heard the kind of music she would want to make more than anything else.

"Lupe Fiasco was just casually playing on a lawn with nobody on it, and it was like, the most pivotal moment in hip-hop to me," she remembers with reverence. "I'm a sixth grader, seeing Lupe Fiasco, like, two feet away from me singing 'Kick, Push.' I was like, this is exactly the kind of music I love."

The avatar of pro skateboarder Tyshawn Jones, a new addition to the roster of <em>Pro Skater</em><em></em> <em>1+2</em>.
/ Courtesy of Activision
Courtesy of Activision
The avatar of pro skateboarder Tyshawn Jones, a new addition to the roster of Pro Skater 1+2.

Most other days, Bojorges-Giraldo's life was much quieter. She grew up in a Mexican-Colombian household in Irvine, local to all "the skate beaches" like Newport and Huntington. "[Irvine] was so quiet that I think the most community-connecting thing that was going on when I would go outside my house was seeing other skaters," she remembers. She got her first skateboard in elementary school, and spent afternoons playing and skating outside with her neighbors.

The guys in her community had their own skate crew. She remembers tagging along with them at first, filming their sessions for tapes. She gradually became part of the crew herself. "All these are kids that listened to hip-hop and are avid Wu-Tang Clan fans," she laughs. All of them were also partial to Pro Skater 4.

"Once I heard 'By the Time I Get to Arizona' by Public Enemy, that was such a staple moment," she said. While previous Tony Hawk games (particularly Pro Skater 2) included rap, hip-hop and, lamentably, rap-rock, she considers Pro Skater 4 to be a turning point in how the franchise treated the genre, at a time when she was starting to see it embraced more widely by mainstream skate culture. She fell in love with the way the games married punk, grunge, hardcore, rap and hip-hop. "For me, that was monumental."

She loved the community of musicians and videographers that skating cultivated. "My goal from that moment on was like, OK, if I'm not a pro skater, I got to be able to get some music in these skate videos," she remembers. Throughout high school and after, she gave beats to friends for their skate tapes, creating a "mini-discography" in local footage.

She'd been making music since middle school, but it was in high school, when she started her SoundCloud, gained a better grasp of Logic Pro and Ableton Live in her senior year, and decided on her alias (her dad used to call her "little panther" as a kid) that she fully became St. Panther, the artist. From 2012 through 2014, she remembers recording and making beats for local musicians, "hacking away" at fifty-dollars-an-hour or fifty-dollar-flat sessions, "penny-scraping" just to get producing experience. Now, she's released her debut EP These Days, a brisk and comprehensive introduction to St. Panther's range, not only as a producer, but as a songwriter, singer, and rapper.

For Bojorges-Giraldo, growing up being identified as a woman, both the music world and the skating world involved a lot of knocking on doors. "Women are always put in this position, I think in industry in general, where you have to do five times the workload to prove that you're a part of the community and someone that's dependable for the same types of work," she said. "So it was kind of cool having a group of inclusive men around. I was the girl for the first couple months, but then I started becoming the bro, and it was really nice."

She identifies as non-binary now, using she/her and they/them pronouns. "I started becoming integrated into these communities [that are] obviously masculine-dominant, but there's definitely space for us, if you are brave enough to try to make some," she says.

In the two decades since the first Pro Skater came out, Bojorges-Giraldo is grateful for how conversations about inclusion in skating have evolved. "I think it's so incredible that now we get to reflect this new openness, because there's so many other identities that were in skateboarding all along: The first women of skateboarding, the first non-binary people of skating," she says. "It's going to be really nice to see it, you know, physically playable for the youth now."

"Physically playable" is a big deal for Bojorges-Giraldo, for whom CDs as a kid meant not just music discovery, but the excitement over creating and curating your own music collection. During this recent period of isolation, she's been revisiting these physical ephemera of old records, games and other items. "I actually opened up the box that was from the Project 8 time with Tony, and actually saw all the things that you would get in an event like that back then," she laughs. She takes inventory: A backpack, beanies, stickers, a giant pair of Adio shoes. "These, like, little Hot Wheels cars that were the Tony Hawk SUV that he comes in on. It's like, f*****g sick."

Last year, Bojorges-Giraldo partnered with the Orange, Calif. board shop Contenders to release a Pride board she designed; proceeds from each board sold were donated to the Orange County Chapter LGBTQIA+ Youth Activities Program. Deck collabs are traditionally signifiers of a skater going pro, but Bojorges-Giraldo saw a chance to call her local community to action. "For me, growing up, I never saw another kind of skateboard drop," she explains. She remembers hearing local queer youth say they couldn't skate the same at a skate park, or didn't see themselves in any ads or collectible culture. "So for us, in the O.C., where it's super conservative ... [it's] really important for me to start seeing missing representation become more prominent for the youth now." The board sold out.

Bojorges-Giraldo confesses that these days, she doesn't often skate beyond her mailbox, and that she never did own any of the Tony Hawk games herself while growing up, other than Project 8. She always had the opportunity to play at her friend's house, with the same skate crew that are still her best friends. She doesn't remember having a go-to character other than "the default white guy that kind of looks like Tony Hawk," because "we all like to think we're Tony when we're playing this game. We want to be the pro," she laughs. "But now, with the remaster, I'm gonna pick a woman, I'm gonna be non-binary and slick and dress cool ... That's my vibe for this next one."

I had forgotten that Pro Skater had a (now vastly more sophisticated) character creation option, a favorite element of every video game I cared about growing up, until Jorge reminded me. If I could, I'd have my character ride around on the pink-and-lilac Hello Kitty skateboard from Toys-R-Us I used to roll around our backyard. I felt like I was in a Disney Channel Original Movie, like Rip Girls, Motocrossed,or the sí-se-puede squad of Gotta Kick It Up!.

Jorge remembers skating in front of that same Miami Lakes duplex, rolling down the slightly sloped, curved path with a broken seam in the concrete; the street below our abuela's rose bush. Like me, he never really nailed the tricks either, but there was still something to that kind of learning. "You had to stabilize for that bump," he laughs.

Here's the thing about remastering the irreverent, original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater: It is super-reverent. Games like this sold us a blueprint of cool, of belonging to a community deemed important, that we spent hours trying to mirror in our own small lives. It's hard to replace that earnest, if naive, desire when you grow out of it. I try, all the time, to conjure what it feels like to listen to ska in 2001, with my brother on the tile floor my abuela warned would give us a cold, button-mashing combos programmed against failure. Now, in two time zones, we're back again, unlocking the secret Roswell level.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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