Na-kel Smith Is Grinding for His Family, Past and Future Generations

The young skater talks sneaker collabs, Jason Dill’s tutelage, Dylan Rieder’s style, pursuing music and so much more.

By //Sports

These days, Na-kel Smith is a very busy man. Whether it’s acting in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut film Mid-90s, pursuing a music career, designing shoes and clothing collections, or skating, of course, Na-kel refuses to limit himself or his potential. If that doesn’t convince you that Nak’s found the formula for success, he also recently put on an immersive “3 Rooms” event in Los Angeles with adidas Skateboarding, celebrating the release of his head-to-toe soccer-inspired collection, a 3-piece suit with Brooks Brothers, the “Nak-apulco” (a skate-dress shoe hybrid to match the suit), and a collaborative shoe with adidas and Fucking Awesome. Not only was he hands-on with designing the aforementioned collections, but he also helped design and create the exhibition space. Like we said, the guy is busy…

Upon meeting Na-kel, it doesn’t take long to see that he’s figured out who he is and how he wants to be perceived; aware that if he doesn’t control his own image then others will do it for him. Na-kel speaks with a certain self-assurance, unapologetic about being himself and knowing what he wants. Whether strategic or not, he’s also managed to align himself with successful brands who have crossover appeal beyond skating, like Supreme, and he’s now leveraging his outreach to explore any and everything. Nak’s showing no signs of slowing down either, as he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s doing this for his whole family and the future generations to come.

We met up with Na-kel at the Fucking Awesome warehouse in LA, ahead of his “3 Rooms” event, for an in-depth discussion on topics like the current state of skating, his first ever visit to Supreme and the possibility of making more music with his friends Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. We also gave Nak a disposable camera to shoot the “3 Rooms” exhibit; check out a few exclusive shots from his point of view below, including a Jonah Hill cameo.

Can you talk a little bit about your come up in skateboarding and some of your most memorable milestone moments?

Well, shit… I’m still coming up in skateboarding. I started off doing my thing; nobody was paying attention. I just kept going. Throughout all the doubt, throughout all the hardships of being not where I wanted to be yet, whatever year it was, I kept pushing through it and that’s how I got to where I am now. I don’t think that this is even anywhere yet, really.

What about turning pro and moments like that, do you get to stop and enjoy that or are you always thinking about the next thing?

I keep going. I never quit and I care about the details of how things come out. That is why I’m some sort of successful.

How did you initially get involved with Supreme and did you know a lot about the company at that time?

I used to go to this skateshop right there on the stars of Hollywood, but it closed down when I was in like sixth grade. In seventh grade, beginning of eighth grade, I started going to Fairfax because I started meeting kids that skated and I’d see what skateshops they went to. I’d asked my mom all the time if we could go to Supreme. They’d think I’m just trying to fuck off and go do some bullshit after school with my friends. The very first time I went up there to Supreme it was on a weekend, my mom and dad took me up there. Javier Nunez was working in there and he used to skate for City Stars and Kareem [Campbell] is my uncle, my family, so seeing him, my mom and dad got more comfortable like, “Oh what? Jav work here!”

So after that, I was sometimes able to go there after school. I remember before, I was like “Oh I want to skate for Supreme, can y’all sponsor me?” I just started learning about sponsors and this is when I was really just beginning to get alright at skating. I’m watching skate videos and seeing what teams do and they go on trips and everything, but they told me that there would never be a Supreme skate team. They were like, “Nah we don’t sponsor skaters.” They would help me out with stuff, but at the time I was young and I wanted that stamp of approval to say I’m a sponsored skateboarder. I don’t give a fuck about it now.

Getting sponsored was the first big step.

Yeah, exactly, ‘cause when you’re a kid and you’re looking up, it just all looks crazy. Baby steps.

In recent years, there’s been no shortage of signs illustrating skateboarding’s growing popularity and mainstream acceptance. Do you feel like this progression has been better for the sport?

There’s pros and cons to everything, you know? To me, in my eyes, I don’t give a fuck whether people like skating or not. I’m gonna skate no matter what. I was skating before I was trying to make music and get in movies. In fact, skateboarding is what fuels me to do anything outside of the box. I had to step outside of a box to even skateboard.

Growing up, it wasn’t something like, “Oh cool, you’re a skater.” It became that for me around high school; people started wanting to skate. Younger than that really. Terry Kennedy and Antwuan Dixon were like the first black skaters to really — I mean Kareem and Stevie Williams too, but for my generation it was Terry and Antwuan. Then you saw skaters with jewelry, skaters with money, traveling the world, living their life and for a lot of kids like me you could see these people too because they’d be in Hawthorne or Compton, where we be at. Now, I look at skating as a piece of art. There’s a lot of artists that do other things, like fuck around with music; there’s photographers that become DPs for movies. It’s all about your eye and your taste.

You’ve been around a lot of skaters who have become entrepreneurs with their own companies/investments. Is this something that you’re thinking about coming up around those guys?

It just depends on the type of person you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, if you give a fuck about that type of shit and you want to be rich, you’re gonna have to have the monkey bar effect. You’re going to have to take one thing and keep swinging to the next bar. And you’re going to have to figure out how to make your money last because no matter what you do and how rich you get, your money can run dry if you don’t take care of it properly. That’s important for all people, but that’s if you give a fuck.

If you were born set the fuck up and your parents were like “just make sure you’re good, we’re going to be fine, just worry about yourself,” then maybe you can not give a fuck. Or maybe, if you have other things to fall back on, like, “If this doesn’t work out it’s ok.” But I don’t know, that’s not the case for me. I give a fuck about all this type of shit because I need to make that money last. Not just for me, for my parents. So I’m working for my past and for my future because I gotta make sure my kids are straight and I would love to make sure that their kids are straight. It’s just life, it just depends on what your life’s like.

What’s it like getting to work with a legend in the industry like Jason Dill? Anything you’ve learned from him that you can share?

Man I love Dill. He helps me understand how to play the game of skateboarding, ‘cause it is a game. Just as much as every skater is going to be like, “we’re hardcore skaters, bla bla bla,” people be doing bitch shit, in my eyes. I come from a different place and there’s a lot of shit that’s not really acceptable.

In skateboarding, a lot of people try to throw being grateful in your face to get you to not speak up against what you think is wrong. A lot of people tell you it can always be worse. I understand all that and I think about all that stuff, but after all the cheers and thinking “Wow this is great, I really have a shoe,” now let’s make sure this mothafucka right.” If we’re filming a video, let’s make sure everything’s right. Just moving off of pure, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” then you’re never going to have control of how things come out and how they look, and that’s what’s more important than all of it. These are all things that me and Dill talk about. We go back and forth because he’s kind of the same way and he’s got strong opinions.

I’m never going to limit myself. I’m going to follow my heart. So I’m not going to say, “nah I’m good,” but I’m not going to say what I’m going to do next because I don’t know. I’m doing everything as I go.

So he can bring that opposite perspective that you might not have had?

He’s definitely an inspiration because of how much he cares about the quality and the outcome of a product. A lot of people don’t care about the names that they connect shit with and they don’t care because they know, “oh we’re this company, it’s gonna sell no matter what.” I appreciate Dill’s eye and how devoted he is to making the product before what you’re going to get paid on the back end and all of that. He cares about the product and that’s what I appreciate.

Are there any other skaters that have inspired you?

Dylan Rieder. That’s my boy. I love him to death. R.I.P.

Was he a style inspiration for you as well?

Yeah that’s one of the most stylish skaters there ever was. Period. Stylish from a different standpoint too. He had great style on the board, he had that, but then he could dress sharp, too, you feel me? In skating, nobody was giving a shit about your clothes because you fuck all your shit up when you skate. My auntie was a fashion stylist so that’s how I learned about name brands and high-fashion type shit, ‘cause she was also just fly as fuck. So just seeing somebody like [Dylan], I’d see him in some Prada loafers just chillin’ and I’m like, “I know what those are. Those are fresh bro, I see what you’re doing.” Then when Dylan’s shoes came out it fucked up the game pretty much because it didn’t look like any other shoe that was on the market in skating.

With that said, what does it mean to you to be a part of the adidas Skateboarding team?

I’m just really happy to be on the team with Tyshawn Jones. That’s a huge inspiration to me. Not only does he inspire me to skate because he’s insanely good at skating, he reminds me that we have bigger goals as far as shit that we gotta do for our families, because we come from a similar place.

You motivate each other?

Exactly, and he reminds me never to put a cap on myself. I’m also happy to be on the team with Jake Donnelly because we were both on REAL together. When we first got on REAL we kinda clicked right away and I’m happy to be on a team with them.

na-kel nakel smith adidas skate skateboarding supreme fucking awesome jason dill tyshawn jones mikey alfred mid 90s jonah hill brooks brothers 3 rooms three art music Nak-apulco sneakers Matchcourt RX3  3ST.001 3ST.002 los angeles Hardies Hardware

Aaron Miller/HYPEBEAST

You and Jake had the Away Days part together right?

Yeah we shared a part in Away Days, which was really cool. I maybe would’ve done the video a little different, but everyone worked really hard on it.

Was that your call to start your guys’s part off with you as a kid singing James Brown?

Well that’s just a part of my life, it wasn’t really my call necessarily, but once I spoke about it they didn’t let me forget it. I didn’t even say this should be the beginning of the part because I really nitpick, I’m horrible. I’m horrible on myself. I give too much of a fuck. I really want to get in there and tell them things like, “No you don’t understand, this will translate better if you do this…” It’s not my job though, I get paid to skate and now I get paid to make shoes, so… I really appreciate adidas because I know people that skate for every company and deal with every company and out of all of them, they’re the most open to ideas and the process of creating, which is good for me because I’m creative and I want to go out further and create. It’s not just like, “Hey Na-kel we got this colorway for you, do you like it?” No, I want to build it from the ground up. I want to be a part of the process, I want to know everything.

To any kid out there that’s reading this, think about what you want because if you don’t know how you want to be branded – you’re going to get branded either way, so at least have a hand in how you get branded. If you’re going to deal with these companies, they’re going to put you in a box, just make sure you can decorate the box how you want to.

So you’re fully hands on with all aspects of design?

I’m painting the globe [for my event] right now! I don’t have to be doing this. They gave me the option and they told me they could get the globe made but I’m sitting here painting and talking to you right now.

Can you discuss the choice to have a soccer-influenced collection with your own artwork?

It’s adidas. adidas is huge in soccer. I know that my idea from the jump was to have basically three different collections and collaborations, it sounds crazy, especially where I was at before this. This goes back to them being open to me being creative. If I went somewhere else with this idea, 9 times out of 10 they would’ve been like, “Uhhhh, let’s spread it out.” I appreciate that adidas worked with me on this, because I got three shoes coming out, two clothing collections, and a toy. It’s going to be a party, it’s a big deal. There’s a lot of shit to be made and it costs a lot of money. I apologize because I know we’re going over the budget for some shit, but we gotta make it good, so it’s worth it.

How did your collaborative suit with Brooks Brothers come about?

I got style, you know? I wanted to make a suit. In business, if you can’t make something by yourself, link with somebody who can so that you can help each other and that’s what we did.

You’re also releasing a dress-skate hybrid shoe?

That’s the Nak-apulco shoe that goes with the suit.

Can you actually skate in that shoe?

Yeah, I haven’t skated it yet, but I see people skating it.

Since it’s a dress shoe, is that in some way inspired by Dylan?

No. Well, in a sense, Dylan made me not afraid to show my personal style. All of this shit comes from me and my close friends. Mikey Alfred might be a reason I wanted to make a three-piece suit.

Any stories about your connection to adidas growing up?

My dad used to rob people for adidas. Now he don’t gotta rob nobody for nothing, even though he still be out in the world trippin’ (laughs).

You’ve mentioned before you have a musical family and you’ve been interested in rapping since you were young. If you didn’t become a pro skateboarder do you think you would have pursued music earlier?

No, because I was going to become a pro skateboarder. I had that mindset. You can ask all my friends. I had the opportunity to start making music very early just by fucking with Tyler and Thebe and people like that. I was in the studio with them and they would be making some of these songs that took them to the next level in music, but I just work at my own pace. I started making music because I got the bug for it and now I’m passionate about it. Just like when I started skating, I never do nothing because someone else wants to do it or someone else wants me to do it. My parents wanted me to be a rapper too. I kept telling them, “No, I’m skating.”

Are you getting any guidance or feedback on music from Tyler or Thebe and the OF guys?

Nah.

You want it to be your own thing?

It’s just everybody’s busy. I know what a busy life is like. I’m not about to go burden some of my friends like, “What’s up bro, help me, let me get some beats.” In my eyes, I want to make my music good enough so they reach out to me and are like, “Damn, I heard this song, I fuck wit’ it.” I want to create my own sound so it’s like, “Whoa, I got a song, the only person I could hear on this is Na-kel.” We’ve all made songs together before and it’s fun. “DNA” and “Trashwang” — “Trashwang” was my first time in a booth recording a song, and then “DNA” was like my second. I’m not scared to be myself so I think that’s one thing that you have to do. If you want to pursue music, you can’t be scared to be yourself. You can’t be scared to get up there in front of 5 people or 500 people and be yourself.

Who have you been listening to lately? Any specific songs getting you hyped to skate?

Well, first, I haven’t been skating in a while because I’ve been doing all of this shit. It gets stressful. Really, the only thing I want to do is skate, but it’s good because when the only thing I had to do was skate, I would be lazy. I would be bored. “Oh that spot’s going to be there tomorrow.” Now, I don’t care about none of that. I know that every move that I make is important. Like now, when I go skate to get a trick, I don’t know when the next time I’m going to have time to go out and get a trick is going to be. So I’m like, “we’re about to get something today.” That’s how you get productive, that’s how parts are made.

Oh wait – music… I’ve been listening to Valee, he just signed to G.O.O.D. Music. I’ve been listening to Gunna, one of Young Thug’s artists. I been listening to my own shit most of the time. I like The Cure’s Disintegration album. I’ve been listening to that a lot, that’s my driving music. Now that I got a car, music sounds totally different.

And you’re in LA so you’re in that car a lot.

Exactly. But I be driving my shit to SF. It’s fun, I like driving fast. That’s the only time you can really do it. You gotta get away from here. You can’t drive fast in the city, it’s all stop-start.

Any other creative endeavors you’d like to do in the future?

I’m never going to limit myself. I’m going to follow my heart. So I’m not going to say, “nah I’m good,” but I’m not going to say what I’m going to do next because I don’t know. I’m doing everything as I go.

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SkateboardingSupremeadidasFucking AwesomeInterviewsJason DillAdidas SkateboardingJonah HillExhibitionsTyshawn JonesNa-Kel Smithadidas SkateMikey AlfredHardies HardwareMid '90s

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