Aug 31, 2011
Author: Sean Mortimer
28 Years of the Kickflip
Technical street skating was born twenty-eight years ago on a December night, with wandering cows as the only witnesses. Like many radical innovations, it was born from an accident. Seventeen-year-old Rodney Mullen had completed the weekday chores around his isolated Florida farm and finished his homework, so he grabbed his freestyle board and boombox and set up for the standard four-hour skate session. He had around thirty minutes of twilight left before the darkness drove him into the three-car garage.
He plugged in his stereo and played an audio cassette of the famous LA station KROQ, taped directly off the radio, commercials included. Rodney had recorded a stack of them while staying at Tony Hawk’s house during previous contests, and they were part of a collection of totems—receipts from Bones Brigade meals, spent plane tickets, contest flyers, baggage tags, a spoon “borrowed” from Stacy Peralta’s house—that helped him deal with rural remoteness and an abusive father who hated skateboarding. Mr. Mullen had congratulated his son on winning his first world championship in 1980 by saying, “Good, now you can move on to something real,” and made him quit. Mr. Mullen eventually relented, but showcased his dominance and disapproval by repeatedly reminding his son that it was only a matter of time before he would be forced to stop skating forever.
Rodney lived in a state of what he called “controlled desperation,” so overwhelming that he developed anorexic tendencies, cutting down his daily caloric intake to 500 while compulsively exercising. He studied theoretical physics, tensor calculus, particle physics and the Bible on his own, and maintained a GPA above 4.0—incredible considering he averaged three or four hours of sleep per night. Skating had become his sole release, an escape pod he could blast away in.
The Dickies, early Police, The Clash and Oingo Boingo played as Rodney rolled onto the pavement directly outside of the garage. He pushed the buttons on his Casio digital watch, setting the timer to allow himself 20 minutes of warm-up skating before starting the hardcore practising. The Casio wasn’t for show: Rodney timed his sessions to the second, pausing the stopwatch for bathroom breaks.
Rodney had figured out how to Ollie on the flat three years earlier, and often mimicked vert tricks like Airwalks and Nosebones. (After busting his teeth, Rodney’s father outlawed transition skating and forced his son to wear a helmet and full pads while skating flatland.) As Rodney warmed up, he popped an Ollie, miscalculated, and changed skateboarding forever.
“I don’t want to make more out of it than what it was,” Rodney says, backpedaling from claiming, “I was just trying to Ollie with that see-saw motion, and I spazzed out. The board came up between my legs, I kicked it away, and it did a perfect flip and landed on its wheels. I was standing beside my board watching what it did and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh—there it is.’ From that point on, it didn’t take very long at all. I made one by the end of the night.”
But Rodney, a stickler for schedules, had to wait until he worked on his contest run for two hours, counting falls as he drilled repetitions of trick sequences. (He’d be “haunted by a sense of failure” after less consistent sessions.) Obsessed with threes, he had to make tricks and contest runs three times in a row or start over again. The session ended with his favourite part: the designated free time he allowed himself to go wherever his skating took him. That night, he went to work on his ‘spazz out.’
“I kicked it away and it did a perfect flip… I thought, ‘Oh my gosh—there it is.’” —Rodney Mullen
Breaking down Rodney’s ‘end of the night’ time frame amazes skaters to this day. “It’s insane,” says Chris Haslam, one of Rodney’s good friends. “I was going to guess that it took two months to think of and land the first Kickflip—that would be normal. But, around an hour of skating?” Rodney imagined the possibility, reverse-engineered a mistake, and then landed skateboarding’s linchpin technical trick in less than a total hour of skating. That’s impressive. And when you consider that no skater had ever flipped their board mid-air without using their hands, it’s just silly.
“I was pretty excited because I knew that trick would change things,” Rodney says. “People were doing the original Kickflips, where you hook your foot over the side, and the set-up was so rotten. You had to stand parallel [like a skier]. People tried that trick on banks, and rolled in standing like that and fell straight back. I understood that this trick needed no set-up, and it’d be an important move—for me, at least. I knew it gave me a whole new doorway to go through.”
Rodney thoroughly abused that doorway, creating a flurry of tricks on the farm. “Things really started to go after that,” he says. “Heelflips were the most obvious variation, and they came the next week. Shuv-its have always been around, so Varial Kickflips were pretty natural.” One variation caused more problems. “Maybe two weeks?” says Rodney, recalling his invention of the 360 Kickflip. But Rodney brushes these aside: “I wouldn’t call them tricks... they were all variations of Kickflips. A Heelflip is just a variation of a Kickflip—same thing, just flipped the other direction—so it didn’t give me the same satisfaction.”
Matt Berger, Kickflip Bluntslide. Jones photo.
These tricks weren’t shared with skate bros because Rodney didn’t have a skate bro. His farm was so isolated that he often just showed the farmhand, Tank, his new moves—no skate videos, no Internet, barely any skate mags. Rodney had to wait until spring of 1984, when he travelled to California for the start of the contest season, to share his goodies.
Rodney practised so intensely that he rarely had problems dialing tricks, and often skated for over five minutes without falling. Kickflips were different. He didn’t attempt one in his contest run for years because it demanded unprecedented precision, especially considering his freestyle board had a 10-inch wheelbase. But Rodney allowed himself to unleash during warm-ups, exorcising all the contest demons from himself and allowing himself to fall.
“Just skating with everyone before the contest started... that was when I’d let everything rip, even my less consistent tricks,” he says. “It could almost be likened to a jam session today, where you would go after stuff that you’d expect to fall from three or four times before making it. I did a lot of things that I didn’t have the guts to do in my run. It felt so good. Contest runs were about holding back for me, and that goes back to why I have such a bias about contests.” (Rodney placed a controversial second in that spring contest—the only time in his professional career. Over the span of a decade, he won every other contest he entered.)
“I don’t think there’s anything that feels as groundbreaking as your first flip trick. It’s like a heroin addiction…” —Chris Haslam
Rodney introduced so many tricks at contests that fellow flatlanders simply made up their own names for them. “It was me, the cows and the garage,” Rodney says. “There wasn’t really much sense in naming tricks.” The mechanics behind the Kickflip baffled most people, and it was unofficially called the “Magic Flip.” Thrasher renamed it the “Ollieflip” when they ran a sequence in “Rodney’s Corner,” a monthly column featuring his new tricks, in June 1984.
But it wasn’t Rodney’s freestyle peers who picked up on the possibilities of Kickflips, it was a young skate rat named Mark Gonzales who was creating modern street skating with Natas Kaupas. “I’d seen Rodney doing it on a freestyle board,” he says. “I could do some freestyle tricks, and I liked how Kevin Harris skated a lot. I learned Kickflips on a street board first; I was riding for Alva, and it was on a 10 X 30 board.” The standard boards of the era had no concave, maybe three inches of flat nose, and massive wheels. Gonz was the only other skater besides Rodney to realize that “doing the Kickflip on the big board seemed like the wave of the future.”
“I did it off of a bench in front of [pro freestyler] Per Welinder, and it really blew him away,” Gonz says. “He was really shocked. I learned them on flat first, but then did them off benches. The major thing was doing them on banks. It was hard to do them on banks because you had to turn; a lot of times it was a carve Kickflip. I’d ride up and carve the bank, Kickflip, and carve back in.”
Gonz and Rodney shared a mutual friend in Steve Rocco, and they all stayed at his house during the summer of 1985. Two of the most innovative people in skating shredded together while laying the foundation for technical street skating. “Seeing what Mark and Natas were doing [with the Kickflip] validated why I skated so hard in many ways because it provided a connection with guys that I was so stoked on,” Rodney says. “I was amazed by what they did and who they were. And when they incorporated the Kickflip into their skating, it made me feel a part of their world and respected in a way that no contest ever could.”
Chris Haslam, Kickflip to Fakie. Allan photo.
Like Rodney, Gonz immediately understood that Ollieflips opened up a new doorway. “I learned Kickflip to Tail and Kickflip to Axle,” he says. “I did Backside Kickflip Tailslides, but I couldn’t slide very far. Ray Barbee really took it to another level when he Kickflipped to Pivot on a bank... I was blown away when I saw that.”
“They were doing a lot of variations: to Pivot, to Tail,” Rodney says. “And I remember thinking, ‘This makes my freestyle seem so one-dimensional. I want to do what they’re doing.’” That summer was the first time the street bug bit Rodney, but he felt loyal to freestyle for helping him cope with the traumas at home. “As goofy as it sounds, I felt like it would be a betrayal.”
Like Rodney, Gonz was wary of the unpredictability of Kickflips. “Kickflips were hard, you know,” Gonz says. “I didn’t usually do them in contest runs. At the  Oceanside contest, Guy Mariano said he saw me do a Kickflip Backside Tailslide but not make it. He told me that it made an impact on him, but I don’t even remember it. I don’t remember what I do. I do most of my stuff spontaneously, so I don’t remember.”
Few may have witnessed the O.G. Kickflip Back Tail, but everyone skating in the mid-’80s remembers watching Gonz’s transition Kickflip in the Vision video. To throw down a trick that technical in a ditch thunderstruck the skate world. Along with the first handrail—also Gonz—his innovative use of Kickflips signaled that street skating was no longer merely a weak imitation of vert.
Jordan Hoffart, Kickflip Noseslide. Deville Photo.
"My era had it easy, I would give up after five minutes of trying to learn kickflips on a freestyle board." - Jordan Hoffart
Seb Labbe, Frontside Flip. Eirik Dunlop photo.
The Kickflip drew an old-school/new-school demarcation line for street, as well as vert, after Danny Way landed the first Kickflip Indy at the end of the ’80s. For new skaters, the trick became an official graduation to a higher skill set. (Eric Ellington recently wrote about returning to his hometown, and made a point to photograph the parking lot where he landed his first Kickflip.)
The Kickflip remained a difficult trick to tame for half a decade. Physics forced Rodney and Gonz to kick down and off the side to rotate flat, heavy boards—imagine Kickflipping a Cadillac that won’t stay under your feet. The next generation of skaters regarded the Kickflip as a standard, and board technology finally permitted fine-tuning the trick. The 1990s-era street skaters stripped down their boards, shaved inches off their wheels, tweaked concaves, wheelbases and noses, allowing a precision formerly unknown to street skating. Rodney saw a kid skating at Huntington Pier and realized a generational shift had occurred.
“Jason Lee completely revised it,” he says. “It wasn’t until seeing him do them that I saw the board come up completely. It was such a treat. I remember watching how precise and defined it all was—what you think of as ‘proper.’ Daewon, too; they all started to do it with more control and take it to more legit street areas. That started demarcating—you had to do it crisply. In a sense, Jason kind of wrote the textbook on what was proper.”
A generation after Lee, skaters became even crispier, and they used that control to take the iconic trick down handrails and over ankle-breaking gaps with multiple variations. Matt Beach landed a Switch Kickflip in his first pro contest, and it helped cement a win in 1993. Andrew Reynolds, owner of the world’s most admired Frontside Flip, can pinpoint when he realized he really liked the trick. “One that stands out in my head was in a 411 “Pro-file” or something. I Kickflipped over the UCI 10-stair rail and went out of frame,” he says. “I always remember that one Kickflip because I was riding an 8.5 Tony Hawk board that was so fat and stuck on your feet when you caught it. I thought, ‘This is what I love to do!’”
Haslam, one of the most innovative skaters rolling, blames the first hit for starting his flip jones. “Tons of people can almost Ollie, but once you can Kickflip, your skating starts from there,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything that feels as groundbreaking as your first flip trick. It’s like a heroin addiction—you’re always trying to reach that high that you got the first time.”
Jordan Hoffart, who has been known to flip a step or two, got that same feeling Kickflipping off a five-foot ramp as a 12-year-old in 1997. “I had no business trying it, but I was going for it,” he says of his Hail Mary flips. “I remember landing primo, slamming… then one just flopped. I’m pretty sure it bounced off the ground, and I just landed on it. Then I looked around to see if anybody saw it.”
Derrick Timoshenko, Kickflip. Marenette Photo.
Mobbed or Flicked
By this time, a designation applied to Kickflip techniques. Jim Greco tagged old-school side Kickflips “mob,” and crisp ones, when the foot flicks forward, “flick.” “Jim noticed it and brought it out,” Reynolds says. “If you look at what Gonz’s foot does, it cannot flick out like a Mike Carroll Kickflip. For me, it’s the same as being born with blond hair or brown hair—you either have it or you don’t. You can’t beat it.” But a lot of skaters mistook Greco’s mob term as slander. “One is not better than the other,” Reynolds says. “Look at Gonz’s Kickflip over the Gonz Gap. It’s one of the greatest Kickflips ever—it’s just crazy. I can’t believe he Kickflipped that gap with all that mob.”
More than a few pros have voted mob above flick over the years. “I like them all different ways,” Hoffart says. “I prefer to watch ones that aren’t proper instead of the super proper ones; that’s from the era that I admired growing up, where everybody had their own kind of thing. I like watching kids who are a little out of control and barely making their shit—that gets me psyched... ‘Whoa, this dude is just going for it!’”
“I like the mob flick the best,” Gonz says, mashing and totally negating the terms. “I like the tail drag. There’s no proper way of doing anything.” This comes as no surprise to Rodney, one of the cleanest skaters to roll through multiple generations. He laughs when told of Gonz’s affection for tail-scrapers, and recounts watching raw Video Days footage with him. After the tape stopped, Gonz asked him what he thought. The Mutt remained quiet, trying to formulate how to best answer, and finally Gonz said, “Sloppy, huh?”
“Tail scrapes!” Rodney says. “That’s why Mark wasn’t offended when I didn’t comment... he knew that I was so opposite.”
While Reynolds possesses a defining Kickflip, he’s starting to relate to the tail-scrapers. What’s ‘proper’ is again being redefined. “It’s going that way again—to be sliding and just get the slightest little flips out” he says, singling out younger skaters like Shane O’Neil and Paul Rodriguez. “I’m nowhere near some of these guys who can Kickflip into Back Smith, Crooked Grind.... I can just fly off a set with it, but Kickflipping into certain positions? Naw, that doesn’t really work out for me.”
Matt Berger is a skater who makes those pinpoint, slight flicks work. He was born ten years after Rodney invented the trick, learned it in kindergarten, and often makes it appear as effortless as a Kickturn. “It’s the basis of your tricks,” he says. “Once you learn a Kickflip, it opens up a whole new world of tricks you can do on your skateboard. Rodney opened eyes to a whole new world of skateboarding, and people have been contributing since then.”
“I like the mob flick the best… there’s no proper way of doing anything.” —Mark Gonzales
Mark Gonzales, Kickflip. Kanights Photo.
Still Cool a Quarter Century Later
The Kickflip is the rare technical trick that has never fallen from favour. It remains a hallmark for new skaters, while seasoned vets find new ways to incorporate it into their skating. “It’s one of my favorite things to do,” Reynolds says. “I don’t think it’ll ever go away, it’s almost like an Ollie. For a kid nowadays, if they are going to learn to Crooked Grind a ledge, then they’ll probably learn Kickflip to Crooked Grind. Skating is too advanced for it to go away.”
For Rodney, the Kickflip has meaning beyond physically manipulating a skateboard. Haslam recounts a recent signing with Rodney and the reaction people have to the trick. “It tripped me out,” Haslam says. “All these people come up to him and say, ‘You’re the guy who did the first Kickflip ever!’ Dads were bringing their kids up and introducing Rodney as the guy who invented the Kickflip. There wasn’t any talk about 360 Flips or Heelflips or any of the other tricks he made up. I never actually thought about Rodney inventing the Kickflip until that event, then I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ ”
That the Kickflip solders a connection with other people is why Rodney appreciates it. Years ago, Rodney told me about driving past a pack of young skaters waiting at a bus stop. A few of them were trying Kickflips on the sidewalk, and Rodney felt an immediate bond. “Like a lot of skaters, I feel a little bit like an outsider, and that’s definitely the case with my skating because I’m out doing my own thing,” Rodney says. “There’s a sense of connection that you get with other skaters and, for me, the gratification doesn’t come from being the first guy to do something, it’s that sense of skaters doing something that I helped bring into skating.” An unbroken sense of connection originating from a depressed and isolated teenager 28 years ago—that’s a pretty good trick.
“I thought, ‘This is what I love to do!’” —Andrew Reynolds
Lee Yankou, Kickflip. Zaslavsky Photo.
This article was featured in our Summer 2011 Issue.