Pioneer: Salman Agah, Full Interview—The Sultan of Switch

Innovation has generally followed a pattern. First, a near freak discovery occurs, like Alan Gelfand doing a no-handed aerial. Second, somebody like Rodney Mullen sees potential in it and makes it an official, all terrain "trick." Then finally, the trick is stylized, made cool, and adapted with power—up tables, over hydrants, onto rails and onwards by people like Natas and Gonz. In the case of switchstance, this process involved a host of the usual suspects—Mark Gonzales, Rodney Mullen, and Natas most definitely combined to put in the initial pieces of the puzzle during the late '80s. But it was Salman Agah—through the haze of tiny wheels and pressure flips of '92 to '93—who truly brought the power, style, and charisma to make switchstance a functioning and bankable facet within the pastime. The following are the broad strokes of his sometimes-reluctant hand in becoming the "Sultan of Switch."

This is the full interview text from Salman’s Pioneer Column in our September 2012 Issue.

Do you remember the first time you heard about the concept of switchstance?
Probably in the late '80s. Like '88 or '89. I saw a video. I can't remember if it was Tommy Guerrero or Mark Gonzales. But one of them does a switch method air.

Was it Gonz at Savannah Slammah?
It might have been that. For some reason I feel like Tommy did something too though. I feel like it was over a railroad tire or something. Anyways, I just kind of have this black and white image of the video in my mind. The first thing that I really remember seeing of it. By '89/'90 I was already experimenting with going backwards.

Were you doing anything switch during the Ban This stuff with Jovontae (Turner)?
Not really. Real shortly after that though. One of the main inspirations for me really was Natas. We were skating at Brown Marble one day right up from EMB and he straight nollied up the bench. That to me was just mindblowing. From that moment forward I was really into the whole concept of nollies. I just started messing around with every variation.

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Some early San Jose curb and flat footage from Jake Rosenberg. Already mastering nollies. Circa 1991.

Brian Lotti was saying you had real good nollie heels early on. Was that kind of a starting point?
Yeah. Nollie heels. Nollie flips. Those were pretty much my bag of tricks then.

Had you seen other people do them? The dudes at EMB or whatever?
Not really. Honestly the first time I think a lot of people saw those tricks was the summer of '91 in Europe. At the time most people were still going straight. I was kind of in my own world doing all this nollie stuff. I remember Colby Carter that summer was also interested in nollie tricks. We kind of connected on that that summer. What was going on at the time was late shove its. People were doing those and pressure flips were coming in. Boards were also changing. It went from '80s vert boards to the tiny popsicle boards. I think a lot of people liked my pro model when it came out too. It had a longer nose and was probably the skinniest board you could get at the time, which was probably like a 9" (Laughs.) The only other board with that shape was the "DW" Danny Way H-Street board, and I kind of imitated that for mine, and just made it thinner.

1992 Real ad showcasing nollie prowess.

I basically wanted to argue that you got into the nollie stuff early, then when you had the ankle injury it was almost this perfect set of circumstances to set you off on the switch stuff.
Yeah. Basically. I had also pushed mongo when I started. So when I decided to go backwards I could naturally push switch. It gave it a really natural feeling.

It also seemed like right when you started getting big, the pressure flip little wheel stuff was dying out and it was going back to basics. So you were kind of the first guy to do big basic stuff switch, rather than do the switch backside double flip over the hip where the board is scraping on the ground you would do like a big switch 180.
Yeah. I think that's fair. I never considered myself a very technical skater.

But it kind of worked. Switch was like the pinnacle of tech. at that point but to have a guy actually do it with power and make it look good changed the way people saw it.
Yeah. A lot of it was just going faster at that point. People had slowed to crawl with the little wheels. Joe Brook actually has a really good story. I think Tobin (Yelland) has the sequences still. They were fresh off the boat from Michigan and came down to EMB in about '90, '91. I was doing full speed switch kickflip backside tailslides across the whole block. Like sliding a good 10-15 feet. I remember Joe told me later he had been talking to Tobin and was like, "What's the big deal. It's a kickflip backside tailslide." He realized I was going backwards and I guess in his own words I blew his mind. All his ambition of becoming a pro skater promptly went out the window. I didn't actually land it. At the time I didn't really put much pressure on myself to land things.

Ad for the Notorious Real Everslick series. 1992.

In terms of other skaters, like maybe Paulo (Diaz), were there any other guys you were feeding off of just for powerful switch skating? Sheffey?
I was kind of on my own. It was more my own ideas about skating. The guys that I was inspired by were obviously the older generation. My peers though, the guys that motivated me at that time at the Embarcadero were Henry (Sanchez) and Mike (Carroll). They were basically at the forefront of modern street skating at that point. Henry and I skated together a bunch when he rode for Real and we traveled together. Henry was just beyond. If he had a better head on his shoulders, he'd still be a super star today. He was just so great to watch. He was a huge inspiration.

Lotti said he watched you learn nollie heel noseslides on curbs in like '90. Do you remember getting those?
Not really. Honestly, right around '90 all the curb stuff was so all over the place. I had a Real ad right after that with sequences of like a nollie backside 180 to switch backside 50-50, a nollie flip, nollie 180 switch manual, and another nollie trick. It was still really curb skating at that point. I think when people started taking those tricks to ledges it became a different story. The nollie thing was all around '90. My favorite trick was like a nollie 180 around to switch frontside 5-0. I loved that trick. I never took it up to ledges though. That was all while I was skating with Henry, Trent Gaines. We would come down to LA and skate with like (Mark) Gonz, and Rudy (Johnson). I skated with Jovontae a lot. And Guy (Mariano).

Switch backside flip sequence and front blunt for a Thunder ad. Circa ’93.

Are there any tricks specifically that people have credited you with?
Maybe late shove its. I was in San Diego for the tradeshow and Henry, Jeff Klindt, and I went out skating. Henry and I were both trying to frontside pop shove it this fire hydrant. Neither of us could do it and finally Jeff Klindt was like, "Why don't you ollie it first then do the shove it after you get over?" So we started both trying it that way. I ended up landing it before Henry. I remember coming home to San Jose to skate with Sean Mandoli and Jason Adams and showing them. That one felt like an invention.

That was a big deal. I remember that trick was like the only thing that mattered for a minute.
Yeah. Honestly somebody else might have done it. Jeff might have been more in tune with what tricks people were doing than we were. But next thing you knew, it became the trick and everybody was doing it.

Salman’s big part in The Real Video. 1993.

Who coined "The Sultan of Switch"? When did you kind of become that guy? Were you into the labels?
I think I'm happy with that label now. But at the time I wasn't really interested in it. Skateboarding is one of those things I'm into for expressing myself. I'm kind of independent and rebellious by nature so the second they wanted to pigeon hole me I was like, "F—k that." I wasn't looking at it like, "Great. Now I can really market myself as the "Switch" guy" I just wanted to skate and continue to learn whatever felt good. But honestly, around that time, I had so many emotional problems from my childhood, as much as I wanted attention, when I got it I really didn't know what to do with it. It affected me negatively.

I liked how you described the whole thing as a "cosmic accident". Like everything added up to you being that guy.
Yeah. It wasn't unconscious. But I didn't have any intentions on doing something revolutionary. I was really I was just basically a fat kid that couldn't grab my board (Laughs.) Any trick I could do that didn't involve me touching my board I was stoked on. That's really what it came down to.

Real ad of the video part ender. 1993.

You've explained that the cast that almost became a signature thing was for a broken scaphoid. What about the no socks trend. I feel like you were known for that one.
That was hanging out with Julien (Stranger). There are some tricks in skateboarding that aren't really tricks. What I mean by that is like riding really loose trucks, or not wearing socks. It's almost like deconstruction. It's not about doing a new trick, but more about can I actually skate without all the best sports equipment. It was basically one of those.


Salman’s Welcome part from Real’s Kicked Out Of Everywhere after a short stint on The Firm. 1999.

What do consider your best skating? Was it captured in a video part, or was it just a time you were skating a bunch with no cameras?
I don't know. It's all relative. I skated yesterday. I'm gonna be 40. It's real easy to be a good skater when you're young and in your prime. There were things I used to do that I now perceive as impossible. I feel like my peak though, I was really at my best right after the turn of the millennium. I wasn't really in the limelight, but between 2000-2004 was probably the best I've ever been at skateboarding. I just felt really good on my board. Then I had a big motorcycle crash and that kind of ended that run.

When was this?
I had a big crash in '04. It took me really long to come back from. I fractured seven ribs, separated my shoulder, punctured my lungs. I was thrashed.

Are you still riding bikes?
I'm actually going to ride tomorrow (Laughs.) But now I surf a bunch. I've been surfing every day for the last few years. I ride motorcycles for fun.

Vans ad for Salman’s shoe. Circa 1994.

What was your peak achievement in your mind?
Honestly, I was really into skating vert for a long time. I used to go to Woodward a bunch in the late '90s and skate with Tom Boyle, Neil Hendrix, and Mike Frazier. I used to skate Max (Schaaf)'s ramp a bunch too. But for me, doing Caballerials on vert, or doing head high backside airs—when I was a kid—all I wanted to do was skate vert. When I finally got to learn that stuff later it was really the biggest accomplishment for me. Just a backside air, in front of the foot, late grab proper backside air overhead on vert is a huge accomplishment.

You never got into switch stuff on vert?
I actually did do a lot of switch stuff on tranny but I never filmed it. Kelly Bird used to give me a lot of shit, like, "Why don't you film this stuff?" I didn't really care at the time. Another random one, I think that was inspired by Guy Mariano, was in one of the Real videos I do a backside 180 to switch frontside crooks and pop out in the middle of the block. That was pretty monumental and fun for me at the time. It was just a personal one.


Salman’s part in Black Label’s Label Kills. 2001.

You still have a board with Black Label right?
Yeah. I usually have about two or three come out a year.

And you said you still get out to skate a little?
Yeah. I skated Paul Schmitt's pool yesterday. I basically street skate around LA.

Pizzanista is going good it seems?
Pizzanista is cranking dude. A lot of it is really thanks to the skateboarding community. I have a lot of patrons and support from the skate industry. We were just in Los Angeles Magazine too. I’m stoked.

Are you happy having your own thing now vs. The Berrics?
I like doing my own thing. My settup with The Berrics was cool because they were actually just clients. In a sense I was already working for myself. But having my own thing is great. I can't complain.