FRONTPAGE is Highsnobiety's weekly online cover story exploring the people, moments, and ideas shaping culture today. For the second edition of our series, Highsnobiety's Robbie Russell explores the mind of Na-Kel Smith.
At 25 years old, Smith skates for Supreme and Fucking Awesome, has rapped on tracks with Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, and starred in Jonah Hill's love letter to '90s skate culture, Mid90s. The six-minute mini-documentary showcases a day in the life of what it means to be a renaissance man in 2019.
Na-Kel Smith is a polymath. Spending his youth skateboarding in the sunshine and traffic of LA, he weaved his way between cars and career paths, carried by a lightness that comes from resisting the weight of expectation. Actor, rapper, designer, pro skater: Na-Kel does it all, and he makes it look easy.
Na-Kel Smith skates with an undeniable freedom, his movements flowing, his eyes completely focused. The near-permanent grin he wears off-board turns to stoney determination whenever he pushes off, and even if he falls, he embraces forward momentum and makes it look effortless, almost intentional. He is poised, alert, and present, and skateboarding is the love of his life. At 25 years old, Smith is defined by this, and the multiplicity of his endeavors. He is a multihyphenate who attacks music, acting, modeling, and design with this same fluid approach he maintains when skating: moving freely, constantly forwards, and taking any tributary that leads to open water.
Smith skates for Fucking Awesome and Supreme, has numerous sneaker endorsements with adidas Skateboarding, and worked on launching a skateboard hardgoods brand, Hardies Hardware, with his FA cohorts Tyshawn Jones and Kevin Bradley. He has rapped on tracks with Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt — whom he recently joined for their US tour — and earlier this year released a first EP of solo material, Twothousand Nakteen, on his own label A Dream No Longer Deferred. Finally, he put on a show-stealing performance as Ray in Jonah Hill’s feature debut Mid90s: just one more impressive feat in an astonishing resumé.
We first connect with Smith on an unremarkable day of glorious LA sunshine. After a few times trying, the pixels of our transatlantic FaceTime call get themselves in order, and a silhouette with distinctive two-tone black-and-bleach-blond hair forms beneath an open car sunroof. He’s on his way to the skate park, and just as a boxer wraps his knuckles before putting on gloves, so too does Smith work his way through the first blunt of the day: preparation to loosen the body and center the mind before stepping into the ring.
“The other day I ain’t sleep for 38 hours,” he boasts, briefly peering down to address his phone, “I wanted to record a song by myself, so I stayed up learning to record, went to soundcheck at 10:30 for this festival, played the show, turned that shit up and drove home.” Even from the outset, it's clear that Smith’s divided attention is more than enough to provide a window into his optimistic and philosophical mind. “I’m trying to learn how to engineer and shit, so that if I have an idea, I can just make it happen.”
And he’s been making it happen even before he got his first skate endorsement age 16. When he first appears in adidas Skateboarding’s first feature-length skate video Away Days, a very young Na-Kel Smith takes to the stage in a three-piece suit that’s slightly too big, and a blown-out wig that’s even bigger. He’s singing along to James Brown’s “I Feel Good” at a local talent show. A few rhythmic finger snaps and a nod of the head flows into a perfectly executed “Godfather of Soul” 360-degree turn as he grows in confidence and, in no time, he’s swinging his jacket around his head and flinging it into an adoring crowd. Back then, as now, there was an aura surrounding Smith that draws people to him, and this, he says, is by design.
“It’s not about being creative or anything like that; you exude energy even if you work a 9 to 5. You can work at a steel mill, and when you go in there you either brighten everybody's day up or you could just fly under the radar. I wanted to be that type of person that when people see me they say: ‘Na-Kel, what's up nigga? I love you, man, keep doing your shit.’”
Growing up in Hawthorne in Southwest LA County, Smith was raised in surroundings rich in music and sunshine but short on cash and opportunities. Aware of the pitfalls of his environment, he’s made a conscious decision to be different, be positive, and set his mind to getting what he calls “money that lasts.”
“Being a kid in LA, you see different types of shit from both sides of the spectrum,” he says, brushing dropped ash from his chest. “You see good shit and you see bad shit. People being creative, some getting rich, and some getting into trouble. Really, my inspiration was getting out of the hole.”
Throughout his youth, the path to becoming a musician may have seemed like one that would lead to life-changing opportunities. It also seemed like something that was in his blood. His uncle Al McKibbon — widely considered to have been one of the great American jazz double bassists of the last century — played with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and gave Smith some early tutoring in piano. His mother was a singer whose work was featured on tapes with The Pharcyde and Ice-T. And his father was a rapper that enjoyed some recognition on the LA club circuit before security and comfort won out as primary aspirations for his young family.
The idea seemingly was to provide a safe and nurturing environment, encouraging and inspiring their son and one day, maybe, live their musical dreams vicariously through him. Until recently this particular dream for Mom and Dad might have seemed out of the question, because for Smith, it was the path less traveled that he decided to roll down. And like many skaters, he started young.
“My mom encouraged me to take my skateboard to the school bus, so I could move around faster. She said that if worse comes to worse, I could get myself out of a situation more quickly,” he says. It would end up being something that he would pursue with dogged determination, beyond adolescence and into adulthood.
Smith got his first board from another uncle of his, the legendary skater Kareem Campbell, who was celebrated for flawlessly executing the first nollie-hardflip late-backside 180: a veritably inconceivable trick that came to be known as the “Ghetto Bird.”
“I was damn young and I didn’t really understand how his job was as a skateboarder until I saw him on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater,” he recalls. “When that shit came out, me and his son would play that shit all the time. He gave me my first skateboard ever, set it up, and I would skate on that motherfucker for four or five years.” What started as a skill born out of practicality and familial interest evolved into a passion, and when Smith saw Campbell’s success in skateboarding and business, it became an alternative route to transcending the limitations of his locale.
At 14, Smith got his first taste of sponsorship from Brooklyn Projects on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and continued to obsessively perfect his craft throughout high school, recording clips and skating well enough to go on the road with a number of senior pros. At 17 things were looking up, but still not enough to stop him questioning the viability of his career choice: “I questioned that shit every day of my life, until I got my first check. And even then I was thinking: ‘I got a check, now I need to go harder than everyone else.’”
This first check came in 2015, after a few years rolling with the raucous family of Fucking Awesome. Never ones to formalize the process of a co-sign, or use lame words like “endorsement,” FA put the beaming face of Na-Kel Smith on the underside of his first signature deck. Then, in quick succession, his face found its way from boards to tees, skate tapes, tours, sneakers, and billboards.
While skating for FA, he simultaneously began representing Supreme on the West Coast, as their LA chapter store was in the Fairfax neighborhood where he would skate on a day-to-day basis. It was here that he would meet William Strobeck, and go on to feature in cherry, the brand’s first full-length video and one that served to remind the world that beyond the bogos and counterfeits, Supreme is here for, and because of, skateboarding. “I'm so happy to be a part of something that is shifting culture, because no matter what anyone says, Supreme changed skateboarding,” Smith asserts. “Right now, cherry and [the 2018 sequel] Blessed are, for the next generation of skaters, what Alien Workshop Photosynthesis was for me when I was coming up. I watched niggas change how they skate, how they dress, how they talked, walked, the tricks they do, everything, because of that video. It's nothing but beautiful to be a part of that."
Over the infamous LA traffic, often squinting at the blinding rays of sunlight through his windscreen, Smith speaks on his past with great serenity and truthfulness, stopping only to question the motives of fellow drivers in his vicinity. “I was working to help my parents, and because there are ways that I don't ever want to feel again,” he says, reflecting on tough times in his youth, specifically the heartbreak that followed when his mother was laid off from her office job, shattering the illusion of security that corporate work might offer. "When you have stuff like that in your mind, you're like, ‘Shit, I'm about to go get it every way I can. I need to be doing spectacular. Because we came from the bottom, and we done been through too much for me to just settle.’”
Skateboarding gave Smith his first taste of financial freedom, allowing him to support his family and travel to far-flung places; however, it was before all of this, back home in LA, skating down Fairfax Avenue, where his horizons were broadened for the first time. That same Supreme store that was a hub for skateboarding was also a hub for punk rockers and rappers, and it was there that he was reintroduced to the act of creating music by a group of truly generation-defining talents. They couldn’t skate as good as Na-Kel Smith, but Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, Syd tha Kyd, and the rest of the Odd Future crew all felt his creative energy.
Smith first dipped his toe in the fast-rising waters of OFWGKTA with an opening volley of bars on “Trashwang” from Tyler’s 2013 album Wolf, and then, in 2015, delivered a spontaneous and heartfelt soliloquy on “DNA” with Earl Sweatshirt after receiving the news that one of his childhood friends had just passed away. “That was the first time I experienced music as therapy, and I love Thebe [Earl Sweatshirt] for giving me that lesson.”
Those experiences would inspire Smith to start creating music himself, and to join Sweatshirt on consecutive tours, the most recent of which saw him billed as a solo artist performing original material for the first time. “Every night was turnt. That motherfucker was going crazy. I know a lot of niggas be like, ‘I'm a rockstar. I'm a rockstar,’ but I grew up on Black Sabbath and Slayer and Bad Brains. Real punk and heavy, high energy, high octane music.” Twothousand Nakteen, his debut EP, came out earlier this year as a raucous and brazen statement of intent, underlined in heavy black marker during his first string of performances.
On “Vinny Chase” he raps: “All-terrain, versatile, like a motherfuckin’ Jeep.” And it is this, his preparedness to take things off road and explore new territories, that sets him apart. His Fucking Awesome decks, his spots in Supreme’s videos, the close friendships he has with Earl Sweatshirt and Odd Future, and his signature footwear deals with adidas saw stars align with Na-Kel Smith at the centre of a Venn diagram representing just about everything great within modern youth culture. At least that is how Jonah Hill saw it when the time came to cast his first feature length film, Mid90s, an ode, no less, to Hill’s own memories of skateboarding on the West Coast.
In Mid90s, Smith’s character personifies Hill’s romanticized, adolescent view of the holistic power of skateboarding. As Ray he is ambitious, wise, and brotherly, and throughout the film finds himself at odds with “Fuckshit,” played by Olan Prenatt, a character who is the personification of the wasted talent and recklessness that stems from the conflict between a lack of self-worth and a surplus of parental expectation.
In real life, Smith is everything he embodies as Ray, and so much more: a case study in what happens when a person doesn’t allow age to loosen their grip on their childhood dreams, no matter how numerous and varied. “I didn't think I was going to be acting or making music back then,” he says, thinking back to when skating truly dominated his time and energy, “but then you start kind of growing and you kind of start thinking, ‘Damn, am I limiting myself? Is there something else I can be doing?’ Still to this day, I’m just giving everything a shot.” Smith is single-mindedly determined to achieve greatness, but never at the cost of keeping his options open.
Smith may well go on to sell hundreds of thousands of sneakers, win some Grammys, and turn up in a couple of summer blockbusters, but you can bet that he’ll never lose that que sera mentality that persists as the very essence of skateboarding. To do it all, you just have to have the right energy, and Na-Kel Smith has it in abundance.
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 19. You can buy it here.