For those of us who started during the late '80s, the period of time between '89-'92 was simply an incredible run of progression the likes of which may never be seen again. In all of two years and change, skateboarding shifted from a boneless and a launch ramp to switch flips and noseblunt slides on benches. At breakneck speeds, and without equivalent in any other modern "sport", skateboarding was almost entirely reinvented--sometimes by the month, sometimes by the week.
As it pertains to Ali Mills, an entire reboot of what was deemed possible arrived via one trick-- a single nollie flip in 1990--casually tossed into one of his only video parts. While I can't state with any certainty that it was the first time anybody did the trick (I'm waiting to hear back from Rodney Mullen as to his understanding of the first nollie flips*), I can state with certainty that it was the first time myself or any of my friends saw one. In that single pixilated second--couched in New Deal's Useless Wooden Toys (90), and sharing the latter half of an Odd Numbers song with Chris Hall--the nollie flip became a reality. Having stepped away from skateboarding (at least in the public sense) not long thereafter, I have wanted to ask Ali about that single trick for some 27 years.
In addition to the nollie flip, almost every other clip in the Useless Wooden part is highly progressive for the time. It contained the first frontside flip on flatground and first front 360 pop shove that I know of in a video. And while I shouldn't really have to mention it, Ali also rifled off a variety pack of 1990 NBD's with flowing style. He made the tricks look good; probably the greatest feet of all from that "anything goes" era. Nearly three decades removed, here was Ali's take on that part, the nollie flip, leaving amateur skateboarding and what he has been up to since.**
* Rodney did get back to me. Read his take on Ali and the nollie flip at the end of the article.
** This was the extended interview from the Skate Nerd page in our July/Aug. issue.
Hey Ali, first off where was that wooden roller-skating rink/skatepark in Useless Wooden Toys?
The Useless Wooden Toys roller rink was up in Massachusetts. The rink was hosting a skate camp that summer, and Andy Howell, who was the reason Chris Hall and I were on New Deal, asked us to come up to the camp and film.
I have to admit, the Odd Numbers song plays a huge part in my love for this whole segment, including Chris Hall right before. Were you feeling the song then? Now?
Absolutely! The song, "It Makes No Difference", is amazing! Andy gets all of the credit for the production of that part. He picked the song and took care of all of the editing.
Then almost everything in the part was groundbreaking. I'll start with the nollie flip since that one gets the most attention. When did you make your first one? Had you seen anyone else doing it? Was it a big deal then?
Ha! Thanks. The first nollie flip I ever tried was at a contest in southern Maryland. I don't remember the exact date, but, obviously, it had to have been sometime in the late 80s. Chris (Hall) and I were off to the side of the contest skating flatland by ourselves and decided to try nollieing into flip tricks. Chris started trying nollie heels, and I tried nollie flips. We were both pretty driven to be innovative and learn new tricks, and by the end of the contest we'd learned them. Chris could do nollie heels, and I could do nollie flips.
Even though neither of us had ever seen someone else trying to nollie into flip tricks before, it didn't seem like a very big deal that we just had. We used to do a lot of tricks that we hadn't seen people do before. And, honestly, that's how skateboarding was in the '80/'90s. Making up tricks was part of the game. Chris had nollie heels down, but he didn't do them very often. I, on the other had, loved nollie flips and did them all of the time. They joined my standard trick rotation.
Ali’s full Useless Wooden Toys part. Song: The Odd Numbers, “It Makes No Difference”.
I love the cut coming out from the boardslide. Was that intended? Like you had just landed the boardslide and were now about to nollie flip?
Yessir. The plan was to get a line that started with the rail. The boardslide followed by a nollie flip and then an impossible was the plan.
Even that boardslide is one of the first boardslides through a knob/seam that I can think of. What was the thinking on that one?
I'd never seen anyone boardslide over an imperfection in a rail before, so I thought, why not? I'll give it a shot. That'd be rad to do. Sal Barbier was at the camp and gave it a go with me. We took turns hitting the rail and eventually I got it. Sal was robbed. It was the '80s, and he had rails on his board that kept getting hung up on the knobs.
The wheel slide on the slider bar between the two pipes was pretty creative too? Ever do that one before or after? Inspiration?
I started skateboarding in College Station, Texas when I was eleven years old. When I was thirteen, I moved to Richmond, Virginia and quickly became friends with the Virginia Beach crew. By the time the VB guys started turning fifteen, many of them discovered girls and skating stopped being the top priority. That's when I started skating DC regularly and hanging with Chris (Hall) and the rest of the gang. The Virginia Beach crew were masters of the powerslide. While I'll never do them as loudly or stylishly as the VB guys, I definitely developed an appreciation for a good slide. I love getting some speed and whipping out a no-comply slide, nose wheelie slide, back wheel slide, or just standard four-wheel barker. The wheel slide on the slider bar was an effort to do a tech powerslide. Looking back, I'm not so sure that it worked.
Then of course, the shopping cart divider thing with the noseslide tailslide (straight and to fakie) seemed like nobody had really done that yet either. I remember Simon Woodstock did one for his Check Out around '90 but he admitted it was a bail. Was this just a random trick that you thought up? Any story?
I remember being excited about skating the middle bar of those shopping cart racks. You had to stay off to the side while grinding because of the top bar. During one of those sessions, we realized that you could move the rack to adjust its spacing and narrow it down to a width where a board would fit perfectly for a nose/tail slide. I'm pretty sure we'd heard rumors of Gonz doing a nose/tail slide, which is what made us think to try the trick after we realized the cart rack was adjustable.
The front 360 shove for myself was certainly the first time seeing anyone do it. I believe Steve Rocco and Rodney did front three shoves on freestyle boards. Had you seen anyone else do this? Inspirations?
Nope. I hadn't seen anyone doing those. I don't really remember when I started doing them, either. I really liked Impossibles, but I wasn't a huge fan of front-foot Impossibles because I couldn't really see applying them to anything. 360 front shoves were like a sort of symmetry to Impossibles for me I suppose.
Same story for the frontside flip. I had seen Natas and Hensley do them on quarter pipes and miniramps (Speed Freaks , Hokus Pokus ) but this was the first one I saw period on flatground--landing rolling backwards. Did you call this a frontside flip at the time? Had you seen anyone do a frontside flip on street or on a ramp?
Back in the day, guys were doing backside flips on flat but no one was trying frontside flips. Why? I thought that I'd just try to figure the trick out. Natas was doing sick ones on transition, and I thought it'd be cool to do on flat. A big part of what motivated me in skating back then was doing new tricks. An easy way to do a new trick was to just go the other way. Guys were doing the trick backside. Why not try frontside?
Last one, the darkslide stall thing over the block. There was always a rumor that Gonz was messing with Darkslides, especially after his Poweredge photo of one on a rail (June, 1990). But this was the first closest thing to a make I can think of. Did you ever try to slide it?
That Poweredge photo of Gonz darksliding on a rail was so confusing and mind blowing! I wanted nothing to do with darksliding a rail, but I was pretty curious to try the trick. I definitely tried darkslides on benches, but they were really hard and trying them destroyed my grip. The "Darkstall" was a result of being excited about nose bonks and trying to think of different ways to get over a bench. It occurred to me that that maybe it'd be possible to do a darkslide thing to get over. I tried, and it worked!
You came out with a bang, had a bit more footage in Dave Schlossbach’s Quiet Storm (1991) then that was pretty much it. What made you step back? What path did you choose instead?
Back in the day, even during the New Deal years, I'd tell people that I skateboarded but that I wasn't a skateboarder. It feels weird admitting it, but it's the truth. It had to do with the fact that I wasn't excited to be a part of the 'get wasted, get rowdy, and fuck shit up' image that some skateboarders seemed so attached to. I remember feeling that some guys were just using skateboards as fashion accessories to be part of the scene. I wasn't into that. I loved skateboarding. I loved the activity. It's all I wanted to do, and I wasn't interested in anything that wasn't in line with that goal. I almost went down the pro skateboard path with Planet Earth, but a college opportunity came up that I couldn't turn down. That's when sponsored skateboarding ended for me.
What have you been up to over the last 26 years?
In the years since '91, I've lived in Boulder, CO; Missoula, MT; Haleiwa, HI; and San Francisco. After a few years of college in Virginia and a short break in Boulder, I studied Computer Science at the University of Montana in Missoula. Today, I’m an engineer at YouTube. If you’ve watched YouTube on a TV, Chromecast, game console, or Apple TV, you’ve used apps that I helped build and work on daily.
You have probably been asked about the nollie flip repeatedly for years. Do you get annoyed with it, like people rehashing the past over and over again--or do you see it as sort of an honor?
Thinking about where I've been, what I've done, and what's shaped me along the way, I can say with absolute clarity that I don't just skateboard. I'm a skateboarder. My values and the people who I get along with the best--they're all rooted in skateboarding. Being a part of skateboarding's documented history is probably my greatest honor. I'm fucking proud of it.
* Rodney Mullen responds regarding Ali and the Nollie Flip
As with all things flatground--like the Origins of the Front Pop Shove article a while back--the best hopes of determining when any flatground/ollie-based trick originated is to hit up the Maestro himself. Enter Rodney. I asked him specifically when he remembers doing his own first nollie flip. He didn't really have a timeframe for them as to him, at that time, they were all just variations of the kickflip.
Here's Rod, "Heelflips were done with hardly a nod, merely as putting a minus sign on a kickflip, on one axis. I don't remember when, but it was clearly shortly after KF's were first done (Ed Note: circa 1983). Fakie KF's were not even considered a variation then--same with Fakie HF's. Minus signs, directionally. Could make the same argument for double flips. Point being, I'm not sure if it's worth bothering--certainly it isn't for me."
Basically, Rodney learned every trick every which way. This certainly included what would today be called a nollie flip. But at the time, calling those variations anything different than a kickflip hadn't even occurred to anybody. Rodney did remember learning nollie back heels and switch front heels on his SMA/World Industries board (That would be circa '87/'88), but only as precursors to the Helepop heelflip (nollie back 360 heel). Still, he was willing to give Ali credit with some caveats, if only for officially making it a street trick.
Rodney Mullen: "By all means, give Ali credit for nollie flips as a street trick if that's in your heart to do, but also realize by that time, clearly other forms were done, and could be as hard to designate as a bs shuv, concomitantly potentially taking credit from other street dudes and stirring up strife, as these things sometimes do."
Stay tuned for more Origins.
– Origins of the Front Pop Shove with Steve Rocco, Rodney Mullen, and Alan Gelfand
– Origins of the Japan Air with Tony Hawk
– Interview with Philippe Mentone; The Originator of the Japan Air
– Origins of the Noseblunt with Gonz, Guy, and Julien Stranger
– Gonz and Hawk: The Origins of the Stalefish
– The Photo that Named the Sadplant
– Origins of the Stalefish Follow Up
– Skatenerdstarmaps: Kenter Canyon with Eric Dressen
– Skatenerdstarmaps: School Q
– COCI: Ron Chatman
– COCI: Simon Woodstock
– COCI: Tony Cox
– COCO: Gino Perez