Rap has always been a young man’s game. With the Internet leveling the playing field in recent years, that sentiment has never been more true. The Masked Gorilla is the definitive youth voice in hip-hop, covering emerging rappers and producing exclusive interviews since 2009. With that being said, we fittingly teamed up with Green Label for a bimonthly interview series focusing on young rappers who are on the brink of grabbing mainstream attention.
In 1997, Zoo York released “The Zoo York Mixtape,” an hour-long skate video that not only exposed New York City skating to the masses, but completely blurred the cultural lines between skateboarding and hip-hop. 16 years later, NYC skateboarder/rapper Dave Willis is carrying the Zoo York torch for a whole new generation.
We caught up with the 21-year-old double-threat to talk about how he got his start, his thoughts on the Zoo York influence, and how he’s preparing for his first rap tour this fall.
When did you start skating?
I started skating when I was 10. I am 21 now, so it's been 11 years of starting and never stopping.
What was it like growing up in the Bronx as a skateboarder?
Growing up in the Bronx, there was no one skateboarding around anywhere uptown at that time. So I stuck out, and not in a good way. A lot of haters! Skateboarding has done a complete 180 since then and it is so mainstream now. The hood dudes that were hating on me back then now know the names to all the tricks and even dress like skaters. It's crazy.
That’s wild—it obviously paid off though. Who are your sponsors now?
Zoo York, Supreme, Nike, and Venture Trucks. Much love to Zoo York, too. Man, they really showed me so much love from the start! It's a blessing to be a part of that culture.
Right, you’re an Am on Zoo York. How does it feel to hold the torch for the new True East generation?
Honestly, it's a blessing! I feel I'm a part of history. Knowing that Zoo York sponsored so many influential New York City and East Coast skateboarders who made a huge mark in skateboarding and knowing that I'm on that roster is a great feeling. Since I've been an Am, we've been filming and traveling nonstop. This year, Zoo York released a commercial with Brandon Westgate, Chaz Ortiz and myself skateboarding and wiling out in Yankee Stadium. Then we got the chance to tour through Chile and Argentina for a Zoo York Tour with a few of the riders—those were both some life changing experiences. Shouts to Ben Oleynik, R.B Umali, and Sean Cronan at Zoo for all that!
Besides the late great Harold Hunter, Ricky Oyola has to be our favorite old Zoo pro. Have you had a chance to meet any of the old guard?
I've skated with a bunch of them. Most of them still rip. Peter Bici was in my most recent video and he's one of the most stylish people to step on a skateboard. I show respect to all the OGs because they paved the way for me. My job is to keep their legacy alive forever.
Exactly, in the early ‘90s Zoo was really one of the first skate companies to fully embrace hip-hop culture. It must be rad to keep that authenticity going.
For real, Zoo York Mixtape One had all the OGs in it! We recently did an ODB collab board. They're always coming correct with NYC culture, whether it's graffiti artists, a photo series, or rappers, it's all original. Nothing manufactured.
Are they cool with you taking time away from skating to pursue rap?
They support me no matter what. I don't take too much time away from skating though. I just released a new ad with Zoo York and still skate everyday. I'm currently filming for a new video part. I got to put in that work.
Along with Zoo York, you mentioned you’re sponsored by Supreme. How exactly did that come about?
Those dudes are family, I grew up skating with all of those dudes at Tompkins Square Park, a popular East Village skate/hangout spot. RB Umali, who is the original videographer for Zoo York and who filmed people like Harold Hunter, Peter Bici, Justin Pierce and so many more NYC OGs asked pro skater and store manager Charles Lamb if I could skate for them.
That’s crazy. You work at the New York Supreme store, too, right?
Yeah, so I skated for them for two years. Then Charles asked if I wanted to try working at the shop too. I've been there for two years now.
Alright, so let’s get into your rap career. The music video for your song “Black Donald Trump,” where you’re rapping and skating in a business suit, was the first glimpse most fans got into your life as a rapper. How exactly did that song and music video come about?
(Laughs) Wow! That song was actually the first "song" I've ever recorded. I didn't refer to myself as a rapper at that point and didn't see myself making more music. I did it to show my comedic side, but also my directorial side, single-handedly creating a video I liked and wanted to exist … with me freestyling, talking about being broke, skateboarding, and girls. After that a lot of people questioned whether I taking it serious or just joking, I saw how many people were effected by this fun video I made and saw an opportunity to get my voice out to the youth in the right way. I began that with my first mixtape, Stay Black.
As a skater and a rapper, what's the process when it comes to picking out a song for a video part?
It has to flow with the skateboarding and the person whose part it is. It must be good listening music; nothing too abrasive, usually some chill hip-hop or soul, something with a little culture behind it.
Are you planning on skating to your own songs in the future?
Never have and never will. That's lame, unless it was something someone else edited of me, which I have no control over.
In October you’re headed out on your first ever rap tour with Joey Bada$$ and Ab Soul. That must be pretty exciting.
I'm excited to go turn it up in some different cities and get my music out to more people. I’m also excited to be rolling with some good people from NYC—the Pro Era dudes and The Underachievers are the homies. I won't be on every stop of the tour, just hitting some of the big cities and all of the Northeast, but I'm excited to go turn it up in some other states!
How many decks are you bringing on the trip?
At least four—I need to skate everywhere I go.