Aged 26, Korahn Gayle has spent more than half his life on a skateboard, having first jumped on one when he was 12. Since then, the Bristolian has picked up big-name sponsors, honed a fearless, devil-may-care skating style in national and European competitions, such as Simpel Sessions, and travelled worldwide with his wheels. But, on this grey, overcast Monday, he’s just 10 minutes from his house, in the city that’s also home to one of the UK’s biggest skate scenes, sitting in a café drinking a latté and waiting for the weather to clear up, something a British rider has to get used to.
He’s wearing a very-new-looking hoodie the same colour as the sky, made by Skateboard Café, a board company and sponsor of Gayle’s whose logo may or may not resemble that of a well-known coffee company, and has to mute his phone to stop the relentless beep of new messages. His trademark Afro hairstyle has recently shrunk, but otherwise he’s just as his online persona, built from skateboard mag articles, Twitter comments and countless YouTube videos: affable, quick to laugh, and keen to talk. He only pauses his stories to illustrate a point with an Instagram video or to knock on the window to wave at the many friends who pass by. His motto, ‘don’t worry, be happy’, seems to be working out for him.
THE RED BULLETIN: Korahn’s an interesting name. Where is it from?
KORAHN GAYLE: My name’s pronounced like the Muslim holy book, but it’s not related to that. My dad went to Morocco before I was born and liked the name. I have an interesting middle name too –Alexandra. I don’t even know why I was given a girl’s name, which kind of sucks. My mum was laughing about it. I was like, ‘Hang on, you gave me the name!’ She’d always told me it’s a Jamaican thing, that it’s not a girl’s name over there, but I’m starting to doubt it.
Are you getting used to all the attention that comes with being a top skater?
It’s fun, man; lots of new opportunities. But it’s strange, too. I recently did an advert for a French snack company. That was random as hell. I ended up flying through the air eating a sandwich.
Did you ever imagine you’d be doing that when you started skating?
No! But I always wanted to get sponsored, I dreamed of it aged 12. My friend Louis Gane is a really good filmmaker, so we’d always be out together with a crappy little camcorder at the start. Then it progressed and we made skate video Bristol in Bloom when I was 14. That got me my first sponsorship deal. Then I was on Nike and from there it just snowballed: I got my first magazine cover, Sidewalk, when I was 15. It was me doing a frontside bluntside on a ledge at a Bristol spot. It felt great.
What made you stand out from other skaters?
I jumped down stuff all the time. I could do hard tricks off big things, down stairs, off ledges. My idea of a fun skate would be to try a trick for a few hours, and land it at least once. I’d just keep going until I got there. From playing football, and just generally being hyper, I was able to keep jumping. I could go three or four hours off something head-height and still be fine the next day. But as I’ve got older, my style’s changed a bit. There’s a lot more to skating than jumping down stairs.
What keeps you skating?
It’s the challenge. The feeling of landing something is amazing, feeling the progression. It’s a real rush. It still excites me as much as it did when I was 12. And one of the best things about skating is that you never win, you can always do more. There are so many tricks, so many variations that there’s always something to learn, there must be over a million possible tricks. I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Did it help that you grew up in Bristol, a city with a strong skate scene?
Bristol’s always been known as a creative city. You’ve got Massive Attack from here, Portishead from down the road, then skate legends like Danny Wainwright, who held the title for the highest ollie in the world for 11 years, and world-famous artists like Banksy. There’s just so much stuff going on here, and because the city’s not too big, it’s got a good united scene. When some of these people meet each other amazing things can happen. Everyone knows everyone, which of course means I know Banksy’s identity, but if I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
So you weren’t short of people to inspire you when you started skating?
When I started at 12, a video called Format had just come out, and it was one of the best UK videos of the time. All the skaters were from Bristol. I’d see them all and just think ‘I want to be like them’.I used to sit in a skate shop called Fifty Fifty, where they all hung out, for hours as a little grommet. When I did eventually want to leave, I was too scared to say goodbye, so I’d sit there for another hour.
Do you see yourself in the young kids skating today?
I always try and help the young kids out. It’s funny: there are loads of kids getting into it at the moment, as it’s fashionable again. I started skating in the year 2000, when the new Tony Hawk game was out and every kid wanted a board, but it changed as I got older. People used to shout [adopts thick West Country accent] ‘jitter boy’ at me. It means dirty, scummy skateboarder, essentially. The kids today boast that they’re a skater to impress the girls.
Is the skate scene welcoming to new recruits?
It’s weird; a lot of skaters are against new people starting to skate. That sort of cliqueyness does my head in. For instance, [US rapper] Lil Wayne skates a lot, and people moan that
he’s just jumping on the bandwagon, but you can see he loves it. Justin Beiber skates. Actually I almost draw the line at Beiber… No, he might be a very silly boy, but I still say fair play to him. The best thing about skating is that anybody can join in, that’s what I like about it. You can all get on because you have skating in common.
You work as a fitness instructor in a gym part-time. Does that help with your skating?
I don’t train to skate. Skating’s a separate thing for me. But it helps that I’m fit, no doubt. A lot of skaters smoke weed and drink loads, so they’ll be puffing and panting. But the best way to get better at skating is still by skating.
If you had to recommend one exercise for someone trying to get fit, what would it be?
If you’re only going to do one thing to get in shape fast, I’d say do the clean and press. You lift a barbell into a deadlift, then carry on up and lift it over your head. It’s not nice, but if you do it over and over you’ll be fine, as it works almost every muscle group in your body.
Before you became a trainer you experimented with some more unusual ways to make money didn’t you?
Are you talking about online poker? I hope you are! In theory, you can make good money; there is method to the madness. But I was never great at it. I did make a lot sometimes – £1,000 here, £600 there – but I also lost a lot! And if you want to be a professional gambler you have to have no life outside it, as a lot of the big tournaments go through the night. I used to start at 11pm and still be up at 7am, braindead, and have to go to work at 10am. It wasn’t a great long-term plan.
Skating has allowed you to travel the world, what’s skating outside Bristol taught you?
I’ve just got back from the US, next week I’m off to Panama and last year I was in China and South Korea. It’s been amazing. I learned that 99 per cent of skaters are nice people, we all have the same aim: to skate, film and have fun. No matter how different or strange a place seemed, that stayed the same. In China we were in this ‘ghost city’, a US$585 billion modern construction called Ordos out in the Mongolian desert, built to house over a million people, but there are only 300,000 inhabitants. We had free rein at first as we were a novelty, but the security started to realise our wheels were leaving marks, and by the time we left it was as strict as England.
You’ve just returned from New York where you were part of a top-secret project for Red Bull. How did the Big Apple treat you?
I lost a shoe. I woke up after a crazy night out without it, which is the first time that’s happened, honest. There were a couple of other firsts too: I’ve never skated in snow before. It was -14°C, but we got it all finished. It was also the first time I’ve had to ollie over a pizza… I managed to just lift the toppings with my wheels.
Why have you done away with your trademark Afro?
I was at a wedding in Sweden with my girlfriend, Lucy, and we were really drunk. I had to take her back to the hotel where she passed out, leaving me wide-awake and super-hyper at 1am. So I got my razor and started chopping bits off my hair. It felt good. I woke up with half a head of hair, so I cut the other half off to match.
You live with Lucy, Blossom the cat and Bambi, a Chihuahua. How do you like being the only man of the house?
I didn’t want a dog, but Lucy did, so we compromised and got a dog. I have no choice but to like Bambi as she’s there. She runs beside me when I’m on the bike, so I’ve just bought her a hi-vis vest because it gets dark early. It’s not a cool look for either of us. I’ve heard comments from guys on the street like, ‘Yeah that’s well manly mate.’ It’s so embarrassing, but it’s got to be done. I’m doing it for Lucy.
You’re getting married next year. Will it be a skater wedding?
It will be big and pretty traditional – white dress, suits – but we’re hoping to get DJ BBQ, a cool guy called Christian Stevenson. He does amazing food, all the music, and is legally able to perform the marriage itself, all while wearing a tight, American-flag-patterned onesie. I think it will bring an certain je ne sais quoi to proceedings.
Check out Korahn Gayle on tour in South Korea below