Josh Kalis – The JK1 ’til Infinity

“Shiny VVs glowin’ in your ear; New (shoe), new jewels, new album new year”

The single baddest I have ever felt on a skateboard occurred sometime around 2000, alone in a suburban car park, rolling away from my first and only legitimate fakie backside nose grind and looking down at the DC Kalis 1’s (JK1) on my feet (blue and grey with orange detail, natch).  For a moment those sneakers conjured an illusion powerful enough to counteract the reality of a lonely, middle class kid in Beeston, Nottingham, repetitively honing sub-mediocre skateboard skills.  And what they signified was of course something of the essence of Josh Kalis himself, the once and future king of the downtown plaza spot, the doyen of hip hop street skaters, and owner of at least one of, if not the, best flatland flip games on the planet.

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Kalis’ first proper shoe on long time sponsors DC Shoes (with some debate over whether the Lynx was to be his first) appeared around the same time as Alien Workshop’s Photosynthesis, and was the shoe to be owned by those with East Coast tech predilections.  They built on the basketball influence trail-blazed by Koston at a time when most skate sneakers looked like big puffy spaceships.  But the Kalis 1 differed from the friendly, cartoon UFOs elsewhere on the market, instead resembling mean, utilitarian military craft designed to deliver grim-faced space marines to hostile worlds.  Perfect for street soldiers in camo cargo pants.  The wedge shaped runner’s toe gave a sharp, quick flick – kidding the wearer they could emulate the steez of the man himself.  And the colourways – bold all red or white & yellow through to understated black & gum or blue & grey – enabled one to select the desired level of pugnacious swag.  They remain my all-time favourite skate shoe, so the release of the updated Kalis Lite as a chilling shoe prompted a covetousness normally reserved for biblical neighbours’ oxen.

As fresh as those sneakers did and do look, this explains a tiny proportion of the appeal.  The lion’s share draws from the name on the box and the direction of his career so far.  Into the second half of the twenty-teens, three archetypes of decades deep pro career have emerged.  The first is the standard sports or music trope of youthful rise and middle-aged decline: the protégé who explodes onto the scene, puts out two or three incredible video parts, peaking in their mid-20s, before resting on their laurels for a decade – perhaps becoming the ‘cool guy’ in the team who’s wardrobe you envy but who’s tricks you can live without; or maybe clearly still having that magic, but showcasing it less productively than we the public would like.  Then you have a variation on that: the redemption story.  Dude explodes even younger, releasing that video part before succumbing to the temptations of party life and subsequent addiction issues.  Ten years pass barely leaving the games console, appearing in occasional team montages to hint at what might have been, before that come-back, drug- and booze-free and full of renewed focus, hungry for lost time.  Finally there’s the shapeshifter.  Injury or perhaps boredom forces an abrupt style change up.  The ambidextrous ledge technician becomes the rugged transition or unexpected combo king.  Kalis is perhaps the only 90s pro of high stature to have entirely avoided all three routes – without relying on a private warehouse training facility.   Year after year, video part after video part, he delivers the same raw technical mastery, the same explosive pop and truculent roll away.  Reliable and consistent could read as dull or conservative if he wasn’t so damn dope, or if his appeal wasn’t as timeless and inter-generational.  Whether you’re 18 or 38, if you like your skateboarding mixed with rap and your obstacles angular, Josh Kalis is one of your favourite skateboarders. 

For a technical skater whose execution is the epitome of textbook, there’s a gangly physicality in his skating.  His approach to the 360 flip illustrates this better than anything.  For many, the trick’s a mid-line chiller, lazily shuffled out to demonstrate disinterested mastery before the end-line money shot. Kalis’ are a spectacle unto themselves – popped and whipped.  The front foot flies out, Bruce Lee-like, whilst the back foot hooks round to catch the board – making stills of the mid-air catch look like a tweaked ollie.  Where his imitators hold their arms down in over-dope forced steez, his are held up like the wings of a bird of prey – together making the Kalis tres flip silhouette as iconic to us as the Michael Jordan ‘jump man’ logo.  Those other tricks to which he can claim ‘best in the game’ – the switch heel, the straight nollie flip – are equally explosive, even when performed mid-line.  If you imagined any of his classic sections, from Time Code through to Parental Advisory, rendered in comic book form, each trick would be captioned with triple exclamation marked onomatopoeia: “Badoom”; “Bratatat” etc.  Perhaps the heart poured into every trick, when compared to the fashion today of minimised movements (as if the trick happens on its own, the skater huffily bored by its existence), is a product of different generations’ formative circumstances. 

Kalis perfected his craft in the thick of the great skate cities of the world, from SF, to Philly, to Barca and currently LA.  Although there’s plenty of evidence of his mastery of skatepark set-ups, perfect parks are not the defining context for his skill set.  The uncertainty of the street, the risk that authority, bad weather or self-appointed citizen sheriffs stop play at any moment, mean that practising a trick ‘til you can do it like you’re bored by it doesn’t come into the picture.  Kalis’ skating captures both the stubborn commitment and the spontaneity of the true street skater – which is why, after more than 20 years of consistently brilliant sections, anchored to a broadly similar aesthetic, each one (including the more chilled section gifted to recent indie video Sabotage 4) is never boring.

The attitude as well as the level of skill provide the quality guarantee.   Kalis is more pragmatic than rigid skate-moralists like Puleo and Ricky Oyola, but has still refined a strong code of honour and practice.  Loyalty to those who share your values and earn your respect, both contemporaries and up-and-comers, and dogged refusal to drift towards the easy life of warehouse parks and fashion-forwardness.   His patronage of younger skaters has heft because of co-ownership of Hellaclips but, more importantly, as an authentic street rat.  When Jordan Trahan’s incredible 360 flip at J Kwon blazed across the internet, it was helped on its way by the Instagram account from which it originated.    Not only was the king of 360 flips anointing a worthy peer, he was doing so from the same place and time – part of the session:  the king who honours a knight on the battlefield, not from the quiet of the throne room.   That’s why the young’uns don’t need to be reminded to respect him, it’s earned and re-earned.   This is an important lesson for older street skaters across the board.  To keep keeping on, and doing what it takes to do so (whether that’s some stretch and cardio regime, chilling on the midweek booze and takeaway, sticking to some quid-pro-quo childcare timetable, or simply never stopping skating), it’s equally important to remember that you have every right to be in the thick of it.  Exclusively skating the local park is one step towards fading away – and life is both too long and too short for that.  As our boy nears 40, no one wanting to keep their lip un-split would call him a mid-life shredder – agelessness through determination: the veterans’ division can wait.  And that can apply to the rest of us mere mortals.

I engaged my buddies in a post skate debate on the sections they’d include in a ‘Kalis Top 5’, which is where we’ll end this piece. This strategy proved foolhardy, resulting as it did in increasingly angry shouts of “you’ve got to have the DC video”; “no way fool, Mindfield”; “shut up, you can’t miss out Peep This.”  There are perfectly good websites providing chronological back catalogues – skately being an obvious choice – so this list is purely personal.

Starting with Timecode, his first section for Alien Workshop (after a brief period on Toy Machine), in which he was forerunner of the new breed who combined tech with power and swaggering hip hop sensibilities.  Before Muska and Smolik, it was this section that prompted an army of skinny kids to rock XXL t-shirts and hats crooked backwards at 110°, hitching our cargo pants mid-line as we pushed.

Peep This was a Zoo York video affiliated NYC scene video, and an example of one of many appearances gifted to projects unrelated to his main sponsors.  With filming less pervasive at the time, this was something few pros would risk – preferring to horde footage for the next large production.  Kalis’ productivity meant that he could comfortably give up footy to homies in full confidence that pay day targets would be met.  And as this section contains one of the best kick flips ever performed as well as beast of a switch heel flip over the wall at the top of Brooklyn Banks, Kalis’ clips in Peep This are the opposite of B-reel.

The quintessential Kalis section is obviously Photosynthesis, on which reams have been written.  Suffice to say, in my early 20s skate house, this was a key fixture in our pre-session inventory.  That flatland fakie flip in the seaport line, venerated by Quartersnacks as one of the best committed to video, even made it onto a Ride Channel best-of (a site normally reserved for ridiculous headings referencing energy drink sponsors, dork tricks and handrail heroics).

A less obvious choice, certainly compared to Sixth Sense, the DC Video, Mindfield, or In Mono, is his section in Chicago’s Finest, a scene vid filmed in 2005 (that didn’t emerge on the internet until 2012).  However, this is worthy of inclusion for what it represents – rather than scouring the world for pristine plazas in Business Class, Kalis chooses a scene with potential, relocates and hunkers down to immerse himself like an obsessive method actor.  In the end Chicago didn’t work out as the next Philly after Love Park was done, but this move doubtless gave the scene a shot in the arm and us an unexpectedly dope section.

Ending on a relatively recent section, the surprise release of DGK’s Parental Advisory at the end of 2012 (surprising as it dropped with almost no fanfare amidst the Pretty Sweet blockbuster campaign) included eye popping parts from OGs Marcus and Kalis, somewhat making up for the lack of legends in the aforementioned Girl Video.  This section is dope – with a switch big spin heel flip across a long road gap and the signature tres flip thrown into a signature nose blunt slide, foreshadowing many more years of turbocharge in the pop n’ snap as well as the muscle car.

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