Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
I met JM Duran very shortly after moving to Oakland—just a few days in fact. A post about my move on skateslate.com mentioned that I was about to arrive in his fair city and he wanted to get in touch and welcome me. He didn’t know anything about me, and already he wanted to meet up and grab a beer.
As it turned out, he was living just around the corner from my new pad, so we skated to a local cafe for a few beers on a sunny Saturday afternoon to rap about skateboarding and life in Oakland. Our conversation was interrupted almost every time someone new walked in, as JM chatted them up about the latest news in their lives and the goings-on of the neighborhood. After initially assuming that he knew literally everybody in the area, I realized that it didn’t matter if he knew somebody or not. Over the time it took to sip a few pints of beer in the golden afternoon sun I met a gravity bike builder, a teacher on her way to Thailand, local downhill legend Noah Sakamoto, and a couple of ladies who run a cupcake bakery.
I was feeling pretty happy with this introduction to the neighborhood, but JM was just getting started. The afternoon beers were followed by another drink in the company of the chickens in his backyard. Then a friend of his picked us up and suddenly we were in the clubhouse of a local biker gang. Turns out they like to host open-entry boxing nights a few times a year. Spectators crammed around the ring in the tiny courtyard and hung off the adjacent rooftops while cheering and jeering the hapless party-goers who were bold enough to climb into the ring and don gloves. JM made the rounds to say hi to his friends, which included pretty much everyone in attendance. Eventually our chauffeur friend decided it was time to get into the ring. If he was Deniro in “Raging Bull,” then his punky opponent was Deniro from “Taxi Driver,” replete with mohawk and terrifying deadness in his eyes. They traded blows for a good few rounds, the last round turning into a sickening one-way street of heavy punches arriving squarely on Taxi Driver’s chin. Having come out victorious, our hero friend spent the next 15 minutes dry heaving in the bushes from adrenaline overload.
Having caught his breath, was it time to go home? Of course not! A girl that JM had recently been on a date with wanted to meet at a bar, so we piled into the car and travelled on to the next spot. After a quick round of introductions with the woman—a journalist—and her friends, we ordered celebratory libations in honor of our recent victor. Small talk ensued, as did the by-now familiar pattern of JM talking to everyone who passed him by in the bar. As the night grew hazier still, someone convinced us to go dancing at yet another bar, this one in downtown Oakland. At this point there is no more story to tell. I walked into the bar and woke up in my bed the next morning, all in one fluid and surreal moment.
To further illuminate the wild character of JM Duran requires talking to those who know him best, as well as the man himself.
The first day I did runs I was with John Randall, John Hutson, and John Schroeder. They would all roll with Cliff Coleman and my brother and we would just do bus runs in Berkeley. You catch the bus at the top, skate through the neighborhood, and catch the bus by the time he came around again. I was eight years old and they brought me in and showed me how they skated.
Then I moved out to Montclair with my mom and one of my sisters. I was going to school in Berkeley on Bancroft, right next to the Cal campus and I used to take the bus super early in the morning to the top of the hill, and skate from Skyline and Broadway Terrace, down Old Tunnel, rain or shine, warm or cold, down through campus to my school, about seven miles every morning before class at 8:00am, so I’d catch the bus at 6:30am. Slowly but surely I was able to catch the 6:45 bus, and then the 7:15 bus, onward and onward. I did that for two and a half or three years, every day to get to school. Then I’d burn a bit after class, get a ride up to Grizzly from friends who had cars, skate along Grizzly, then drop back down into the canyon, the little district where I lived. After I was done with school I went to horticulture school and did the landscaping that I’ve always done, with several different landscapers, and always had an eye for fun locations to roll a plank on. I started working for a landscaper when I was sixteen and haven’t stopped. Fourteen years now.
I took breaks and stopped [skating]; I got into the restaurant industry. Met everyone from the Dalai Lama to Bill Clinton, then got sick of the business and decided to go visit my old friend Darryl Freeman out in Hawaii.
Darryl lived in Berkeley for awhile and would pick me and Rizzo up from school to go skate. He took us to our first race, introduced us to the whole scene.
Rizzo and I were basically blood brothers. It was me and Rizzo for the longest time. Then we met this guy, Seth Sakamoto and we’d skate with him a little bit and one day he was like, “Let me get my brother to come and skate with us.” And we met the little brother, who was Noah Sakamoto, and after one run we were like, “We need this dude.” So we just harassed him and conspired to get him on our crew and ever since then, the three of us would just go skate everything all the time.
Rizzo and I met this company that was just starting out, called Comet Skateboards, and they were outta Oakland at the time. We were with them for like six years, scraping pennies together, making things happen, going to events. Rizzo travelled Europe, I was always traveling California, local stuff. After making a few videos, we got a bit burnt on the scene and took a break. Then we decided to come back and start working with Comet again, and at that time Noah was getting conscripted by Sector 9, and the next year he got us pulled on to Sector 9 and it was the start of the whole Downhill Division. We rode that out for awhile and did the film Second Nature, the brain gift of Rizzo and all his time in the mountains, after another video that he had done with Noah, Colin Blackshear, and Ari Marcopolous: “Bombing Claremont.” Then they got burnt out again and backed out, I stayed on for another year or so and then also backed off.
Later down the line, George Powell approached Jim Kluggish about some wheels, Rizzo caught wind of it, and kinda got in there and talked the talk and got us all set up where we’re at now with These Wheels.
“The border ran through my house growing up, so we paid Oakland taxes and went to Berkeley schools. My love affair with Oakland started back then. However, I’ve seen Oakland change a substantial amount, from neighborhoods that I would never set foot in, to just a few years later living in those neighborhoods. Like in our neighborhood, the Gaskill Gang was deep, and now you can say ‘What’s up?’ to everyone and they just want to talk.
There’s definitely a wild west, outlaw kind of vibe. I love Oakland, I don’t see myself leaving. With regards to skateboarding, the East Bay has some of the best spots in the world, outside of the parks. Plus my family is here and my roots are here.”
“He fully is Oakland, always has his Oakland A’s hat on. He knows all the good bars, and the good places to drink beer with a nice view, or the place with dancing, or the good burrito spot, or whatever it is. He’s just got Oakland dialed, almost like a map on the back of his hand.”
“It’s hard to put in words, but anytime you go out in Oakland and mention his name, whether it be a restaurant or bar, park or whatever, everyone knows JM. I can’t go a week without seeing him riding his bike or pushing his board around town, driving to the next job or skating the hills. The guy is just everywhere at once and everyone loves him.”
“I was fourteen when JM took me under his wing. I was riding an Evo, some Rayne boards, dropthroughs and drop downs and he taught me about the California style and he was like, ‘Don’t be seen riding that shit, you should be riding a top mount, standup style.’ I started riding a double kick for awhile, fully emulating his style. Shortly after that we started going on road trips in Mercado’s van together and I was fifteen and I was just thrown into the scene. We were in Portland I remember, and they were going to different strip clubs and would have little grommet Liam hold down the van while they went in and proceeded to get wasted, then come out and kick the van and punch shit.”
“I didn’t know if [his style] was dated or super progressive. All I had seen at races was people with drop boards and leathers, CNC’d trucks. And I thought that was cool ‘cause I didn’t know any better, but he was just like, ‘No, these are our roots, in this area, this is who we are and how we grew up skating,’ this double kick or top mount sort of style, standup.”
“JM pretty much epitomizes the East Bay style: short board, double kick, kinda hard-soft wheel, and standup style for sure. Lots of ollies, a street-downhill fusion. As soon as I saw him skate, I wanted to skate exactly like that.”
“I told my parents that I was going to stay at Blake Smith’s house in Oakland when he was living with Justin Bryant. I told them that I was staying there because we had to get up early to go shoot some skate stuff for Comet or whatever, which was true, I wasn’t really lying to them, but I knew I was probably going to drink some beers or whatever. Then JM shows up at Blake’s house and is like, ‘So you’ve got the little man for the night? You mind if I take him out for a few? I’ll bring him back safe.’
So we skated and got forties, skated down to Lake Merritt, met up with a bunch of other funny skater hipster people drinking PBRs. I smoked, got super fucked up, and then he’s like, “Oh, we’re going to a party in West Oakland, we’re getting towed by these fixed gears down there.” So I got towed from Lake Merritt down to West Oakland. And when I get there it’s just a few people chilling, drinking beers. And he’s like, ‘Have you ever smoked a spliff before?’ and I was already drunk at this point, nervous, smoked it and got the most haggard spins of my life.
He was like, ‘I’m going to put you outside. If you have to puke, do it over the railing,’ and I said OK. And I looked down at my feet and saw four of them spinning in a circle and puked everywhere.
JM just closed me off, carried me out to someone’s car and we got a ride home. I woke up in the morning with no idea what the fuck happened.”
“Right when I first started skating with him, he had a broken wrist but that didn’t stop him from skating. He went to Tech Plastics and got this piece of plastic that was probably four inches tall and angled it so that when he put his glove on, with the way his cast was angled, it would sit flat on the ground. He had this two-inch puck dangling off his glove so he could put his hand down. The dude just doesn’t stop.”
Anecdotes and Quotes
How is it that you know so many people?
“Many beers and conversations and smiles and handshakes, talking with people. You walk down the street, you never know what you’re going to get. The cover of the book is not necessarily the content. Especially in Oakland. You might talk to somebody and the next thing you know you’re back at their house and they have an empty Koi pond that’s the sickest shit you’ve skated in five years. You might be talking all sorts of bullshit, saying that you’re the best and then someone comes out and schools you so hard that you end up becoming their friend and learning from them. It’s a never-ending spider web of learning and knowledge. That stems from beer drinking with many people, that’s when I’m most loose and forgotten stories come out.”
Do you have any party stories?
“Uhhh, I can’t really say in this interview…”
“It’s a bit of a whirlwind hanging out with JM, sometimes your memory starts to slip.”