The longest autograph line at last weekend's Dew Tour stop in San Francisco stretched nearly the length of a football field and began filling up with fans waving posters, T-shirts and album covers more than an hour before last Saturday's Skate Street finals. But it wasn't Nyjah Huston or Paul Rodriguez's name these kids were chanting. They'd set their alarms to catch a glimpse of the guy providing commentary for NBC and fast becoming the most ubiquitous man in skateboarding: Lil Wayne.
Lil Wayne's love affair with skateboarding has been short, but inspired. While channel surfing one afternoon in the spring of 2011, the Grammy award-winning rapper stopped on an episode of season four of "Camp Woodward" on FUEL. "There was a little kid on there named Alex Midler," he says. "He was a little brat, but man, could he skate. I'd never seen someone that small or that young ride a skateboard."
Growing up in New Orleans, Wayne (born Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.) says skateboarding wasn't on his radar. He became a Green Bay Packers fan after his dad came home from Super Bowl XXXI at the Superdome with towels and cups touting the team as champs. He played "Madden NFL," watched basketball and baseball -- he's a Red Sox fan -- and even has "ESPN" tattooed on his arm. "But skating wasn't relevant in New Orleans even six months ago," Wayne says. So when he saw what was possible by such a young kid, he realized it might not be too late to pick up a board himself. "I found it motivating," Wayne says. "And any time I put my mind to something, I go hard."
A few days later, he called a friend and asked him to build a ramp on the roof of his home in Miami. Within a couple of weeks, he had a mini ramp and a quarterpipe with extensions to skate, overlooking the city skyline. While he was on tour, his manager booked skateparks or private warehouses for him to skate after each show, often in the middle of the night. "Every city has a professional skater, and 9 times out of 10 I'd meet them while I was skating," he says.
Pretty soon, Wayne's phone was filled with the cell numbers of pro skaters; thanks to them, his trick list was growing by the week. So was his injury list: nine stitches in his left eyebrow, a sprained ankle, a sprained shoulder, a bruised elbow. He released videos of his skating and included a skate ramp at every party he hosted. If he wasn't writing, producing or performing music, Lil Wayne was skating. "I'd embarrass myself if I went out and skated [the Dew Tour course] right now, but I'm getting better at street," Wayne says. "I never thought I'd be performing and doing commentary. I thought I'd be watching from the sidelines. But I appreciate the action-sports world inviting me in and accepting me."
He's certainly returning the favor. In June 2012 Wayne launched TRUKFIT, a skate-inspired streetwear brand with the tagline, "Whether you ride a skateboard, make music or create art, TRUKFIT outfits your lifestyle." In October, the company released a "Tommy Burke" T-shirt featuring its TRUKFIT "Tommy" cartoon character wearing skis and five gold medals around his neck in recognition of professional skier Sarah Burke, who died earlier this year. Net proceeds from the sale of the shirt benefit the Sarah Burke Foundation. "I never met Sarah, but I respected her and wanted to honor her," Wayne says. "She deserved it. She deserved a whole lot more, but this is what I could do."
That he's jumped into skateboarding with both feet surprises no one who knows him. But when he announced he was taking a year off from touring in order to spend more time practicing his new passion, more than a few heads were turned. This summer, "Forbes" magazine released a list of the highest-paid celebrities under 30. Wayne made the cut at number eight, earning a reported $27 million last year -- mostly on the back of a 50-show tour that pocketed him upward of $600,000 a night. That's a lot to trade for spending more time on a piece of plywood. "I planned on taking a year off from music entirely, but I'm so busy, really, I just won't be touring," says Wayne, whose 10th solo album, "I Am Not a Human Being II," is set for a December 2012 release. "I'll start touring again at the beginning of next year. Right now I'm skating and spending time with my kids. But the music hasn't stopped."
A few years back, Wayne met skater and Street League Skateboarding (SLS) founder Rob Dyrdek through their dealings with MTV, so he reached out and attended a couple of SLS stops, including the 2012 final in New Jersey in August, where he spent the afternoon meeting fans and signing autographs. On Sept. 26, one day before his 30th birthday and as part of a sponsorship deal with Mountain Dew and their joint DEWeezy Project, Wayne dedicated the DEWeezy Skatepark to the city of New Orleans. The park is located in the Lower Ninth Ward, 15 minutes from where he grew up. "The craziest part was not to see kids skating at the park, but to see kids in New Orleans skating, period," he says. "I really appreciate Mountain Dew helping me build this park to give the kids of New Orleans something positive to do and get off the street."
At the Dew Tour Wayne worked as an "impact analyst," providing sideline commentary during skate street finals. He unveiled his new Mountain Dew commercial, which was written and conceptualized by kids from the action-sports mentoring organization STOKED. And he performed three songs, including, "I Ain't Got No Worries," a track from his upcoming album that includes the line, "Tell her I skate/I ain't got no worries." Skate references, he says, will likely start infiltrating more of his songs. "I don't write anything down. It takes too much time, so I just go for what I'm looking at and doing," he says. "So probably you'll hear more skating in my songs."
As finals are winding down, Wayne checks back in with the contest. Although his favorite skater is Neen Williams and the pros he spends the most time skating with are Paul Rodriguez, Torey Pudwill and Shane O'Neill, today, he's cheering the loudest for David Gonzalez. "He's going big," he says. "But everyone knows I'm here to see Torey and P-Rod. The skaters and me, we have a lot in common. We have no fear. And we live life very freely. Anybody who has fun, I love. And they have fun."