I've been fortunate enough to be a part of inline skating for just four weeks shy of a quarter century now. I have seen personalities come and go. The rise of empires, and the fall of even greater ones. I've seen pros return, and dear friends lost to the sands of time. Through this all, there are a few people who I've always admired as masters of the craft. These select few may not of been the biggest pros, or doing the biggest stunts, but these folks are the heart and soul of the industry. They are the fire starters and magic makers. In 2003 I was introduced to KFC 3 - Straightjacket. At the time, this was the craziest, gnarliest, biggest stunt filled production I had ever seen. Behind the wheel was Adam Johnson. Adam's filming and editing spoke for itself. Over the next 15 years he'd go on to release countless more videos, projects, products, and still be right at the core of the industry. I was lucky enough to carve out a few hours of time to sit down with him and talk about his life, his passions, where he came from, and what the future has in store.
- Travis Stewart | Blader Union
(T-Travis) How you been?
(A-Adam) It’s been weird. I came back to work and my boss had worked like 18 consecutive events, so she took the week off. I’m still trying to catch up on blade stuff I can’t do from the road, plus promote these skates, plus fill in for her, plus do my job; it’s been mentally taxing. But I’m alive, which is great.
(T) What’s your day to day job?
(A) Aside from freelance stuff that I do, I’m contracted out to be a part time employee as an office manager. So I lease offices and I manage offices. I just worked two sorority events this weekend, which were horrible. It’s just nice because I know how to fix everything here and basically run the place.
(T) So does this still give you enough flexibility to still do everything else? Or do you do like a 40 plus at this as well?
(A) I do 25 here, and if I’m not doing anything, I can run the skate stuff or do freelance things, which is nice. Aside from that it gives me the flexibility to tell her I’m gonna leave for a month. As long as it’s not like the dead of wedding season; though I did just leave in the dead of wedding season since it is October. As long as no extenuating situations, they understand that I have things to do, and me being employed by them is advantageous for both parties.
(T) I always wondered if you were just self sustaining on the inline stuff, which would be insane, or if you ended up with the skate stuff on the side as well.
(A) That’d be so sick. Selling enough t-shirts and wheels that I can magically make it work. Haha. Nah
(T) So let’s start with the most basic stuff. Obviously you’re Adam. Tell me a little bit about your background, tell me about where you got into skating, and where it’s put you now.
(A) Wooh. *Loud Exhale*
(T) I know it’s a deep question. Haha
(A) It’s deep, but I like this story a little bit. I was 12 years old, my mom drops me off to this thing our middle school had called Friday Night Club. I get out of her car and I'm approaching the middle school and I just heard this loud clanging noise. So I go towards the noise and they're 3 guys and they're sliding across this bike rack. It’s Brandon Mateer and a couple of his buddies. At this point my friends and I have been rollerblading, we’ve been playing roller hockey in the street like in the cul-de-sac style. We had just started jumping down stairs and jumping over small recycling bins, but I had never seen anybody grind anything. So I start asking how are you doing this? It was mind boggling, because this is the 90’s they looked goofy but they had this flow to them and the sound was infectious. I vividly remember wanting to be able to do that.
They reluctantly told me about the skate shop and they sent me over to it. When I went in, I believe it's Jeff Belzeski working, I'm wearing these skinny Levi's jeans and am totally out of the image of 90’s rollerblading. I explain to them the exact same story I told you, “like how do I grind?”, because they told me it was called grinding. They asked me what skates I had. I had Macroblades and the Macroblades back then had a sculpted frame so you couldn’t have grindplates on the outside. Luckily CDS Detroit made of three quarter inch grindstone. You could have the grindstone in the center and then your grindplate actually went on the interior of your frame.
So they hook me up with these grindstones and before you know it, me and some of my buddies started grinding bike racks like Brandon. We did to the point where not only the Middle School came out and took away their bike rack, moving them into the grass where we can no longer grind the racks, but we actually perturbed Brandon Mateer because he went from being like one of these individuals with his Senate Kool-Aid t-shirts and the Senate Sinner t-shirt, to now there is all these grommets. Technically I guess we were posers trying to fit that same image. I wasn’t really friends with Brandon to start out with.
Me and my crew, we kept skating. We had John Blobaum, Kyle McCormick, Zach Kollar, Mike Daly, Jason Braswell, and Jean Marc Bigler. We started skating and right around that time Gatorade was running a promotion with Rollerblade. They had these tryouts for the Midwest for what they called “Gator Bladers”. If you made it on the team you’d get a pair of RB Tarmac CE’s and you get to go and do these demos. That’s where I first met a lot of the old school guys from Kansas City as well as Alex. Alex (Broskow) was an 8 year old ripper who tried out for Gator Bladers, Jeremy Rockwell, Brett Clark, Brandon Mateer all went out, too. So you start quickly going down this Rabbit Hole of what inline skating is. I showed up around Daily Bread 6 and Mad Beef was my first skate video.
Fast forward, now I’m grinding, were doing handrails, I’m having a better relationship with Brandon Mateer and I’m 15 and were headed into the summer. A buddy of mine pushes me while were skating and I fly backwards and break my elbow. I dislocated and fractured my elbow going into the summer and the thing I was most terrified of was spending my entire summer at home alone in a cast while all my buddies are going off and blading. I'm 15, I don’t have a car, I can’t take myself anywhere. So to make it worth picking me up at my house, I actually grab my parents camcorder. It’s clear my friends are getting good enough at skating that it was worth me filming them and so I started filming all the local guys. At this point Dave Temple had released In the 9’s and One Nation and he's based out of Kansas City and I kind of aspire to be like him. I didn’t see the difference between what my friends were doing and what other professionals were doing.
So I picked up a camera and started making skate videos. Shortly thereafter, the guys from Fayetteville came up to film for the Ally Army video and I asked the guy who is making the video what non linear editing system he was editing with. He says he’s using Final Cut Pro on a Macintosh G3. At this point I was working McDonald’s. So I used my McDonald's money and bought a new Macintosh, I bought Final Cut, and I started learning how to use Final Cut. Shortly thereafter I made Ascension. Rollerblading was so popular that Video Action Sports was just eager to pick up anybody's video because they knew that they could sell it to a skateshop and make $8 a video, give me a dollar, and I'd be happy. I'm some 16 year old kid from the Midwest. They don't care to give me a dollar. “Oh, we’ll pick up your content and you’ll license it to us and we’ll make $8000 and you’ll make $1000. He’ll be happy, and we’ll be happy.”. So I started this relationship with Video Action Sports.
It started off slow, I think we sold like 400 copies of Ascension. The backend benefit to working with VAS (Video Action Sports) was they had connections in places like RealTV, 54321, and all of those horrible clip shows we’re all familiar with at this point. So they would ask me to license footage from the videos. So what we would do is we would take the licensing fee from licensing some of these falls on TV and we’d use that to finance skate videos. So we’d be able to fly up Alex, fly out Steve Jones, go to Atlanta, etc. So the combination of my salary at McDonald’s in high school, plus selling skate videos to VAS, plus these licensing fees from RealTV and whatever actions sports bullshit TV show, enabled us to start growing this video empire. “Empire” used very loosely.
KFC one - Untitled bombed through Rebel Distribution and VAS wouldn’t distribute KFC 2 because of all the profanity and weird Dark Side of The Moon narrative piece. That’s when I decided that rather than to give someone else money to distribute my product, I was just gonna distribute it. How hard is it? Pick up your international distribution list, pick up your shop list, and you just start cold calling people. We had already built up a small reputation through KFC 1.
So KFC 2 was the first self distributed video production that we did, and it went really well. Parlayed the money from KFC 2 into an investment with Vibralux Denim. Dave Temple had approached me and he’d been looking into making a clothing company with just Dustin Latimer. Dustin Latimer was going to be his lone rider, and this was about the time that Dustin started having his existential blade crisis. He didn’t want to be the face of that company. So Dave asked me who I would have be the face of that company. No brainer, it’s going to be Alex. At this point, Alex is maybe 17 or 18. So we approached Alex and talked to him about it and we decided as a group that we should actually have 3 people. So we created the dream team. It was Alex, Chris (Farmer), and Chris (Haffey). We started producing KFC 3 as KFC 2 was selling and I was using the profits of KFC 2 and my other jobs to invest into Vibralux.
At this point, we decided that instead of only distributing our content, we should start bringing other people into the fold. So we started distributing Pat Lennon’s videos, Carl Sturgess’ videos, Brandon Negrete’s videos, Billy Kostka’s videos, and we just became this distribution company. Kinda almost on accident just because we weren’t happy with the job other people were able to do for us.
Fast forward, Vibralux become unprofitable. Dave decides he wants to leave the brand. There’s no money, no product. Alex and I reinvest, produce jeans, things are going well, inline skating is on a steady tick up, and then everything just crashes. Were in the middle of making videos and product, and when everything is going well you never have a problem taking the lion's share of your profits and putting it back into bigger and better productions. At our best at Vibralux we were pushing 4,000 pairs of jeans a year, and that was “a year”. It’s not like it was sustained success. Then you go to make your next batch, you’re always betting on yourself. We go and make another 4,000 pairs of jeans to sell. Unfortunately, those jeans take 2 and a half years to sell. So now you’re selling old jeans, and you’re selling them for a really long time, so you’re just sitting on your money. I don’t have a business degree, and I don’t know any better. What I should of done is cut em, sell them for cost and flip it into new product. New product is always going to do better than old product as long as you don’t lose money you’re better off pushing stock and getting back ahead of yourself instead of just saying “I can’t afford to just break even”. Of course you can afford to break even! You can’t afford to lose money. At a certain point, you just say “fuck it” and you lose money.
Made some mistakes with a couple of the videos that we over invested in. I’ve always had this belief that the course would correct itself. If we put out a product that was good enough or worthy enough of support from the fans that we’ve created over the past 15 years, that people would support that project. Unfortunately sometimes, that’s just not the case. While the budgets grew, the return on investment dwindled and you end up throwing money at a problem that’s not really a problem. It just becomes increasingly harder to break even on an investment because the margins just aren’t there.
The only time I feel we’ve really exceeded expectations recently is with these VOD’s. You can set a structure where your budget is X and once you recoup that budget you can payout, not what someone is truly worth because all these guys are worth WAY more than they are able to make, but a better wage than just making a full length skate video and paying people out of whatever is left once you break even. A single person VOD is a perfect execution of the marketplace. It puts the onus on the skater to accomplish a great section for as inexpensive as they want, or choose to spend whatever money they want to go do something that they would like to do. I would love to go shoot one in Australia with someone, but it’s harder to recoup that cost because it’s more expensive to go to Australia. If the point of making a VOD is the experience of going to Australia and making one, then that’s your benefit as opposed to making $1,000 or $2,000 by skating in your hometown and having me come out to film you. At this point in our careers we’re just looking for a way to soundly invest money that gets a return that the people we work with are interested in. Or at the very least, finances cool trips with your friends to do the thing that we love. If we can not lose a bunch of money to do fun things, it’s a hobby that pays for itself. Who wouldn’t be happy having all their hobbies be self sustaining?
(T) So this brings up another question. Do you see inline skating as a hobby, a lifestyle, or a sport? You just said it was a hobby.
(A) It depends on where you’re at in skating. I feel like for a lot of people, it’s a hobby. For some people it’s a lifestyle and a hobby. I feel like it’s a sport to the least amount of people. I’ll use “Scooter Blader X” as an example. For Scooter Blader X it was part lifestyle, mainly a sport, and not really a hobby. For me a hobbyist is someone who just goes out and does it, and there isn’t a camera, and they enjoy it. They don’t feel a compulsion to do it all the time. “I go out to Thursday night skate”. The people who go out to Thursday night skate who go out to skate with their friends and it’s not about filming or following all the politics or whatever is happening in skating, that’s a hobby. For Scooter Blader X it was almost like a sport because he would physically workout and train to do things. If he had a contest coming up he would go out and skate so he could perform well at that contest. He would go to bed early and not hang with the people in town from around the World. That is a sport mentality, and there is nothing wrong with it.
Then you have people like Alex and skating is definitely a lifestyle. He thinks about skating. When he watches skating he thinks about ways it could be better or ways it could be worse, ways that he would do things differently. I feel like there are a lot of people who think about skating all the time. For them it’s not really a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. They look at things differently, they look at how everything is done within inline skating and it’s always present in their brains. For those people it’s a lifestyle. There are very few people who have it as a career. That used to be one of the options and now it’s just not really a reality where people have skating as a career.
(T) That’s a great way to look at it. It’s one of the things I really appreciate about yourself, the way you see things is very different than a lot of other people I’ve interacted with. Just the way you’ve formed that answer seems to really speak to yourself and the projects you seemed to be involved in.
Back to something else that came up earlier, Vibralux. Where did Vibralux come from? Where was the name created? Was it something you designed? Something Dave designed? Is there a meaning behind it?
(A) It’s something that Dave came up with. KFC 2 happened, at this point Dave had been living in Lawrence. He had moved back to Lawrence after he had successfully started a brand called Temple Effective. Temple Effective was a streetwear company. He had people who were on MTV, DJs, wearing Temple Effective, it was a big deal. He got fucked over by his business partner, so he decided to come back to inline skating. He had been working on this concept brand with Dustin and when KFC 2 came out he saw how talented Alex was. In his head he thought if we can’t make this work with Dustin, Alex was young enough, he was 17-18 at the time, that Alex is the new Dustin Latimer. So Dave saw that, recognized it, asked me to come onboard. When I started asking him about “what am I gonna lend to this project?”, he was like “you’re gonna do video, I gonna teach you about making cut and sew garments, I’m gonna teach you about these parts of the industry...”. To this point I had exclusively done skate videos.
When I asked him what it was he said it was called Vibralux. I snickered. “It’s called Vibralux Denim”. I was like “uh, we don’t make jeans. Why is it called Vibralux?”. He said “It’s just the name of it”. He never told me what the name was. We release the brand online. We had brought Chris and Chris down. We shot all of our ad campaign, finally release online, and people started Googling “Vibralux”. It turns out that there was a band in the town we lived in called “Vibralux” and they cross dressed. So people start referencing images of this band Vibralux and it becomes this whole thing. Not only does Vibralux sound like a brand of vibrating deluxe vacuum cleaners, but now it has visuals paired with it of a cross dressing crazy rock and roll band.
So I asked Dave “where did you come up with this name?”, and he swears up and down that it wasn’t from Vibralux which is this local band and happens to be a total coincidence, but it’s actually from an amp that Fender put out in the late 60’s. That’s where this name came from supposedly from Dave. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I wasn’t there when he was creating the logo. He kinda already had the release package ready, he just didn’t have anybody to help him brand it, and he didn’t have the finances behind it. I came in late enough in the game where I didn’t have say on what the name was, any of the designs, I just helped Dave implement what was Vibralux with talented young skaters. Then we started rolling with KFC 3. So that’s the origin story of Vibralux.
(T) It seems like you been at the helm of a bunch of different companies in inline skating. There was NRD, KFC, Straightjacket Distribution, Vibralux, Street Artist, and now Dead. Did all of these have a logical path, or did you just stumble into all of these along the way? Or like Vibralux, were these just a chance that came up?
(A) The main chance was with NRD. That’s what got me into people’s cars that summer when I was 15. I started making videos and our friends started blowing up, our crew starts blowing up. We then parlayed that into the distribution company because VAS wasn’t going to distribute it and I wasn’t gonna have someone else fail at distributing what we were doing. If I fail, fine. I feel great about me failing. Then it’s on me and I can’t hold a grudge on myself because I will know how hard I tried. If I didn’t try hard, then I suck; if I try really hard and it doesn’t work, then I’m not good or there’s not a market for it. So I was fine with that. Vibralux kinda fell into our laps. When Dave wanted to shutter the doors and get out of it and there was nothing for Alex and I to build on. Luckily Alex had money from skating and I had money from videos and jobs I was working, so we decided to keep it open. How are you really going to have this company called Vibralux Denim, that have a lot of people that really like it, but have never made jeans. So it would have felt like a failure.
So fast forward, I started making the Razors video and skating with different professionals. You can’t just grown Vibralux into this giant 30 person team, so Street Artist was born out of necessity because we were touring with a lot of people that didn’t like how their wheel royalties were being handled, didn’t like like how the industry was going, how they were being perceived. We decided that it would be really fun to work with each other outside of the constraints of Razors and it’d be great to redefine how money is made in skating. There were a lot of people who were smart, like Mike Johnson, who didn’t understand how skate companies were making a lot of money off his image, shops were making a lot of money off his image and skates, and he was making $3 per pair of skates sold. That didn’t make any sense to him.
We’d have these long drawn out conversations with people like Shima before Nimh started, when he was still involved with Razors, and with people who own skate companies, about implementing what we dubbed the “Pro Tax”. What the Pro Tax was was just a set amount of money that you increase the wholesale cost of the skate by and it just gets passed along to the consumer. Retailers aren’t allowed to mark up on it, distributors aren’t allowed to mark up on it. What it does is it creates a living wage for an inline skater. If you add $10 to the wholesale cost of let’s say, the Murda 3’s, maybe they’d jump up from a cost of like $160 to $170, from $300 retail to $310 retail. If you want that skate, you’re not going to not buy it because of that extra $10. But if there’s a 1000 pairs made and Mike can make an extra $10,000 a year, that goes a long way to helping live a better lifestyle.
That fizzled out, but those conversations were a way of looking at how we wanted to do wheel royalties. So frequently, people were getting paid $0.50 a wheel, or $1 a wheel. So we’re like okay, we’d have it be $1.50 an international wheel, and $3 a domestic wheel. The onus is on you to go out and sell those wheels. Sell yourself so people want to go out and buy these wheels. If we’re doing well and we’re selling more wheels, then you’re making more money. We tried to create a relationship where there was a direct impact to all the hard work you’ve been doing. Same way with the VODs. You can choose how you want this to play out. Do you wanna take a bunch of trips and spend money doing that, or do you wanna work your ass off in 1 or 2 trips and see a higher upside on what your potential is to make money. How badly do you wanna promote this on your Instagram, on your Facebook? You wanna really rep for yourself or do you just want to have passive income?
That’s been our goal. It’s why we started a bunch of these companies. We want to empower people to control their own image and hopefully take what they're passionate about and either showcase how well they do what they do, or possibly just make some money, or just create products they can stand behind. Dead is reflective of the last one. We want to create products we stand behind. So rather than cut corners, release a shitty magazine with Champagne, we decided to pay the extra money and get perfect bound books. We decided to release it as a hard copy as well as digitally because we wanted people to have the chance to get a dvd if they wanted. It’s David’s first video, we want him to have a tangible copy of the first feature length video he made. It’s less about making money with Dead as much is it is putting quality things out into the world that people can hold, look at, and feel good about having. So that if this crazy thing ever turns around and people do come back to it, there’s actually something to pick up. No one is ever going to come back to skating and search from some weird VOD that came out 5 years ago. It’s a wonderful way to showcase us, but you can’t just have everything inline skating does be digital or based in actual skates and hardware.
(T) Thats a lot of what we’re trying to do with our website. To give people a voice and give them a platform where they can make something. Something that they are proud of to show the world while making sure the world has a place to see it. For us at least, it’s never about the money, it’s never about anything else. I care about skating. If I didn’t have this, if I didn't have anything else, I’d still go out every single day and put on my skates and go dick around at the skatepark. It’s really rad to see that and see that we aren’t alone in that fight.
The conversation continues over the next 2 weeks as we dive a little deeper into the companies he founded, what the origin of the VXVII skate is, and more of the life of Adam Johnson. In the meantime, help support real companies and real projects in skating. You can purchase the new Vibralux VXVII skates exclusively through Straightjacket Distribution, download a copy of Champagne, purchase some Dead Wheels, or other great products at the link below. Thank you again to Adam for sitting down with us and having this open dialogue together. Part 2 will be available next Wednesday right here at Blader Union.