It's late at night in Denver, and Atlanta-based rapper Big Boi, of Outkast fame, is about to take the stage at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom to a packed house comprised almost entirely of local snowboarders and skateboarders. Big Boi must've gotten the memo from other touring hip-hop artists such as Deltron 3030's Del The Funky Homosapien that if you want to round up a posse for a proper party in Colorado, it helps to have pro snowboarder Pat Milbery and his So-Gnar crew on speed dial.
From the stage, Big Boi looks out at a venue festooned with banners featuring So-Gnar's cartoonish signature graffiti monster-critter characters and a sea of bobbing heads fitted with So-Gnar snapback hats. He wonders what kind of alternate universe he has landed in. Milbery stands in the back, grinning the ear-to-ear grin that turns out to be almost permanently plastered across his face.
"Big Boi was one of the nicest dudes I've talked to in a while, and he was hyped on the whole thing," he says after the show. "He loves Denver, it turns out, and we talked about snowboarding. He said he's never tried it, but he loves it when his music is in snowboarding videos. We made a special 'So-Gnar x Big Boi' T-shirt for the show and by the end of the night his whole crew was rocking them."
Hip-hop's traditional cultural touchstones are DJ'ing, MC'ing, breakdancing, beatboxing and graffiti, and as far as Milbery is concerned you might as well add snowboarding and skateboarding to that list. In fact, music and art and freedom of expression in all its forms are so intertwined in Milbery's worldview that he bristles at being identified merely as a "pro snowboarder." These days he's as likely to be booking hip-hop events for So-Gnar's Shredded Beats concert series, working on a new So-Gnar mix tape or taking his mobile art gallery rig, "A Truck Named Art," on the road as he is to be out on urban jib photo missions or traveling the country with his So-Gnar Snowboard Camp Tour and Circuit snowboard contest series.
"There's this need in our culture to always put a title or a label on everything, and I always find myself resisting that tendency," Milbery explains as the list of everything he's been getting up to starts piling up. "Snowboarding is probably the thing I love most, but what I love most about it is that it's this subculture of people creating together and building together. Being creative and doing what I love makes me really happy. I like to have music in my headphones all the time, and when I'm not snowboarding I'm the kind of guy who can't put down a marker or a can of spray paint. The lines between all the things I love are so blurred they're indistinguishable in my mind."
Milbery's mind, it turns out, is an explosion of ideas -- no, seriously, don't even get him started -- and art collective So-Gnar is his attempt to make something out of all the fragments. He and his friend Andrew "Captain Safety" Heard grew up snowboarding, breaking out the spray-paint cans, thinking big and generally rocking out together back in Minnesota before moving to Colorado to chase the dream. After their friend and frequent collaborator, Josh Malay, died in a snowboarding accident in Spain in 2004, the duo decided life was too short to be unhappy working for someone else's dream and founded So-Gnar together with the crazy idea that it just might let them do whatever the heck they wanted to do.
So far it's working out pretty well for them.
"People ask me, 'What is So-Gnar?' and I'm like, 'Pull up a chair. Have you got some time?'" Heard says. "There is no thesis statement. So-Gnar is everything we love and want to share with everybody else. The best metaphor I can think of is that So-Gnar is like a DJ booth where we cut up all our passions and pump the mix out to whoever is out there listening."
Milbery's definition of So-Gnar starts out straightforwardly enough -- "If it's fun, we want it to be part of what we're doing with So-Gnar" -- before getting Milbery-mystical: "We extend ourselves in a lot of different realms because of all the possibilities that exist."
Current projects on the snowboarding front include the seventh-annual 13-stop So-Gnar Snowboard Camp Tour (formerly the Mighty Midwest Camp Tour, before it got too big for its regional britches with events on both coasts and in Japan) and the 14-stop Shred Circuit contest series, now in its second year. Fun is the focus in both the camps and the contests, in which camaraderie trumps competition.
"I grew up loving hockey, like any good boy from Minnesota, until I had a coach I absolutely hated who just ruined it for me," Milbery says. "When I discovered snowboarding I found that joy again. I look at snowboarding nowadays as it's getting more and more mainstream, with coaches and teams and jock dads getting involved, and it makes me want to do everything I can to protect the sport I love and try to steer it all in a better direction. I look at the kids in our camps getting their first real dose of stoke on the slopes and feel like we're doing something important."
Milbery's camp tour for kids of all ages and ability levels rolled into Winter Park, Colo., earlier this month, coinciding with a Shredded Beats event in Denver on Feb. 2 featuring Minneapolis hip-hop artists Brother Ali, Prof and DJ Abilities, as well as Detroit's Danny Brown, Los Angeles rapper Evidence and Denver acts MTHDS and Cysko Rockwell. Next, the camp tour will skip over to Japan before concluding with spring stops at Mountain High, Calif., Summit at Snoqualmie, Wash., and Lookout Pass, Idaho -- each of which double as Shred Circuit events. Thanks to more than a dozen sponsors -- including biggies such as Zumiez and Snowboard Magazine -- So-Gnar is flying the winners from each of the Shred Circuit stops back to Winter Park (Milbery is sponsored by the resort) for the Shred Circuit finals on April 13.
"It's a contest series, but it's pretty much the least competitive competition there is," Milbery says. "It's more about just riding and representing a positive vibe."
That positive vibe and Milbery's fanatic pursuit of fun in all its forms has proven to be infectious, winning So-Gnar fans, sponsors and high-profile collaborators.
"I get asked by a lot of people to sit and hear ideas that they have, and I always enjoy doing that," says Rick Alden, founder of Skullcandy. (The company produces Milbery's signature headphones and the audio system in Milbery's signature Capix x Skullcandy helmet.) "Usually I tell them 'Good luck' and send them on their way, but after hearing Pat out, my first thought was, 'Wow, I'd really like to be a part of that. How can I help?'
"He's the kind of guy who makes everyone around him want to be a better rider, be a better artist and just be better all around. Kids love him. Parents love him. He's fun to ride with and he rips. But he's also got a really unique set of personality skills and a really fresh perspective. You hang out with him for a few minutes and you want to be a part of whatever he's getting up to next."
Alden has been mentoring Milbery and Heard ever since that initial chat and has helped them make some big connections. As the support has come in, Milbery has been adjusting his dreams accordingly. "We come from a snowboarding background, so there's always that drive to go bigger, to progress and to push our own expectations a little bit," Milbery says. "We've been lucky to make some good relationships with people who want to help us out."
Speaking of going big, in 2011 So-Gnar filled Colorado's iconic Red Rocks Amphitheater with nearly 6,000 people for a Snowboard On The Rocks event to mark the world premiere of "TB:20," the 20th anniversary of the Totally Board series from Standard Films, bringing in a lineup of musical acts including Minnesota-based hip-hop collective Doomtree to get the party rocking. "People thought we were crazy to try to fill such a big venue for a snowboard video premiere, but that's underestimating how many snowboarders there are around here," Milbery says, downplaying the achievement. "I mean, why shouldn't there be 60,000 or 600,000 people for a premiere like that? So really, we're just getting started."
Bigger brands looking to get in with the action-sports crowd have taken notice, and for the past three years the Ford Motor Company, a major sponsor of X Games Los Angeles, has contracted with So-Gnar for its on-site activation at the event. In 2012, Milbery's crew constructed and spray-painted a skatepark course for Ford's booth in the X Games Village as a playground for skateboarders and BMX riders and brought in world-renowned turntablists such as DJ Qbert and the Neptunes' Chad Hugo for good measure.
"Believe it or not, some of these big brands get it," Heard says of the Ford project. "They want to engage with the cool kids but know that it has to be authentic. We're really honored that when these folks go looking for the real deal, they're finding us."
With 2013 marking a global expansion of the X Games that will take the event to Brazil, Spain and Germany in addition to its usual stops in Colorado, France and Los Angeles, Ford recognized the potential of also growing their partnership with So-Gnar through Street Factory Media. "I'm super excited that myself and So-Gnar will be partnering up with Street Factory Media's creative team to handle Ford's Interactive Brand Activation [at the summer-sports 2013 X Games]," shares Milbery. "After three years of successful partnership at Summer X Games in Los Angeles, the brand interaction on a global stage should be a blast!"
Other recent collaborations have included limited-edition Allian snowboards, Von Zipper goggles, POW gloves and Steez Magazine flasks, all featuring Heard and Milbery's So-Gnar designs. But Heard says it's the hip-hop collaborations, like the shirts and posters he made for the Deltron 3030 Shredded Beats show, that have been closest to his heart.
"Pat and I were college roommates when the Deltron 3030 album first came out back in 2000, and that record just rewrote everything for us -- literally rewrote our brains," Heard says. "If you would have told us then that 12 years on we'd be booking their reunion show, it probably would have ruptured the space-time continuum."
The space-time continuum being what it is, Milbery says he's not intimidated at all by approaching heroes such as Del and Dan The Automator, or even big-time brands such as Ford, thanks to lessons he learned from snowboarding. "If you want to go big, you just have to go for it," he says. "You might fall a million times, but you pick yourself up and dust yourself off, and when you finally get it you're on to the next thing.
"That mindset has helped us as we've been getting our business and the So-Gnar brand off the ground, and it all comes full circle. We figure if you can snowboard and create with your friends and your heroes, and build and grow with rad people and cool companies, that's living. There's not a better feeling in the world."