Craig Schweisinger opened the doors to Skateland U.S.A. on Saturday, Nov. 16, 1984. High schoolers mingled with gangbangers and roller skaters who took their choreography seriously. A sign reading NO CAPS — NO COLORS greeted attendees at the door.
Everyone was required to pass through an airport-style metal detector Schweisinger installed as part of his permit arrangement with the Compton Police Department. Schweisinger hated the local cops in the Los Angeles County city, and preferred to use his own security detail composed of neutral enforcers from the neighborhood. His system of order was predicated on mutual respect: He gave it to every street kid who came in, and they returned it to him in kind. Being tough was an occupational necessity; being fair was his choice.
In a city Balkanized by gangs, Skateland became a refuge. Schweisinger thought the skating business could be successful. He didn’t imagine that within few months his rink would become the most important hip-hop venue in the history of South Los Angeles.
When he opened Skateland, all Schweisinger knew of rap was that it was what his clientele wanted to hear. A balding, 38-year-old former surfer, he grew up in nearby Torrance, where he went to dances at the Rollerdrome to listen to the music of the Pendletones, soon to become the Beach Boys. In the four years he operated Skateland, Schweisinger would be the only white face regularly seen in the club that gave birth to a local group called Niggaz With Attitude.
1950 North Central Avenue started its life as the Woodley Lewis Sportsman Bowl. In 1962, Lewis — a Compton native who had been among the first players to break the color barrier in the N.F.L. — took the money he’d earned as a star defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams and invested in a 36-lane bowling alley with an attached restaurant and cocktail lounge. Its opening marked the first wave of black entrepreneurship in Compton. Lewis proudly hung an award plaque sent to him by Chivas Regal. In 1963, his establishment was the brand’s highest-grossing merchant in South Los Angeles.
Next door to the Sportsman Bowl was the Dooto Music Center, an entertainment complex established by Walter Williams, known as Dootsie. Williams amassed a fortune as a record producer — for the Penguins, whose 1954 single “Earth Angel” became a doo-wop standard, and then for a string of local black club comics, including Redd Foxx, George Kirby and Sloppy Daniels, all of whom released their first LPs on the Dooto label. Dootsie’s complex was a combined recording studio, film and television production facility and 1,000-seat auditorium. He envisioned a black-operated entertainment conglomerate: Compton’s own NBC.
The prosperous future that Williams and Lewis intended for southern Central Avenue didn’t survive the 1965 Watts riots. Compton escaped the arson and looting that ravaged neighborhoods to the north, but it couldn’t withstand the psychological fallout. The middle class fled Compton in the late 1960s, decimating business at the bowling alley. Lewis was subsequently arrested for bookmaking in 1970. Shortly thereafter, the inside of his Sportsman Bowl was destroyed in a fire of mysterious origin. Dootsie relocated his investments to Mexico, leaving a young Compton hustler, Lonzo Williams, to operate Dooto’s as a nightclub, while copper thieves gradually stripped the vacant Bowl for every inch of pipe and wire.
The Bowl lay dormant until the late 1970s, when Schweisinger — then a budding commercial real estate agent with an eye for investments — was invited to take his first look inside, armed with a wide-beam flashlight. A series of sunlit cracks spread like white veins across the domed ceiling. When Schweisinger turned his beam onto the floor, he saw a lake of stagnant water covering all 36 lanes, the polished floorboards contorted like the tracks of a roller coaster. From the mud that coated the old cocktail lounge, he excavated Woodley Lewis’s Chivas Regal plaque.
The property offered 40,000 square feet on three acres, and the asking price had dropped to $300,000. Schweisinger calculated that within a few years, he could turn a profit just by renting out the parking lot for truck storage. In the meantime, he fielded plans from prospective operators. The one idea he kept hearing was for a roller rink. Skating was hot, but no one from the neighborhood had the start-up money to make it happen. Conversely, nobody with financial credentials wanted anything to do with Compton.
Though he lived with his family in the Orange County suburb of Westminster, Schweisinger was at ease in the inner city. Growing up in the South Bay, he worked shifts in the grocery store his father owned on Avalon and Imperial, two blocks north of the flash point of the 1965 riots. On the second night of unrest, the Schweisingers were glued to the television. Helicopter coverage showed dozens of looters running from their store with sides of beef, sodas and anything else they could carry out. Schweisinger’s father, Fred, had to turn away from the screen.
V&F Foods burned to the ground that August along with many of the other businesses along Avalon. The Schweisingers’ insurance company classified the riot as an insurrection and refused to cover the damages. The only thing that survived was an unopened barrel of pickles — “Too heavy to loot, I guess,” Schweisinger recalls. He rolled the charred barrel back to Torrance, and the kids on his block ate kosher dills for the rest of the summer.
Fred Schweisinger thought his son was crazy to gamble on commercial property in Compton. To make his case, Schweisinger took his father on a reconnaissance mission to World on Wheels, a former bowling alley on Venice Boulevard that was converted to a roller rink in 1981. Schweisinger hadn’t gone skating since the days of the Torrance Rollerdrome. World on Wheels was another planet. To the local, predominantly black teenagers, it was more than a skating rink: It was a nightclub in orbit. The D.J.s played music unknown to pop radio. On weekends, hundreds paid cash at the door to be part of it.
Word spread that Compton was getting its own rink. A World on Wheels veteran named Jerry Woodard offered to be the floor manager. Kevin Mallett, a promotions manager at the pioneering hip-hop radio station KDAY, offered free on-air advertising. Eventually, even Lonzo Williams came over from Dooto’s to investigate. Knowing how important music was to the skating experience, Williams extended the services of the fledgling D.J. team he managed. In order of age, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru consisted of 16-year-old Antoine Carraby, a.k.a. D.J. Yella; 17-year-old Marquette Hawkins, a.k.a. Cli-N-Tel; and 18-year-old Andre Young, a.k.a. Dr. Dre.
KDAY’s programmer and leading on-air personality, Greg Mack, paid to install a broadcast line so he could host “The Mack Attack” live from the floor of Skateland on Saturday nights. Schweisinger’s older employees warned against bringing in the rap crowd, saying it would ruin the skate business. He had no choice; he needed income from the concerts to stay afloat. Soon Compton’s first fledgling rap acts were rolling through: Mix Master Spade and Toddy Tee, Rodney-O and Joe Cooley, Uncle Jamm’s Army. Those shows were so popular that Mack started bringing out the big rap stars from the East Coast. EPMD, Queen Latifah and the Real Roxanne all played Skateland on early visits to Los Angeles.
The biggest show in Skateland history was Jan. 2, 1987. Eric B. and Rakim had one single to their name — “Eric B. Is President” backed with “My Melody” — but the Long Island duo was already revered on both coasts. Skateland’s official maximum capacity was 1,720. That night, it let in 3,000 and had to turn the rest away. Schweisinger was amazed at the nervousness New York rappers betrayed backstage. “We safe out there?” Schweisinger recalls Rakim asking, referring to what he’d heard about street life in Compton. “Out there, I don’t know,” Schweisinger said. “In here, you’re safe.”
The year Skateland opened, there were 212 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County. By 1988, that number was pushing 500.
One hundred and fifty blocks northwest of Skateland, World on Wheels was imploding. Its midcity location, once an advantage, had become its downfall: It was surrounded by territory claimed by three rival Crip groups, and its immense unfenced parking lot offered quick escapes onto two busy boulevards, Venice and Pico. By 1986, the gangbanging outside the rink overshadowed anything that happened inside it. Drive-by shootings made the venue inhospitable to non-gang members looking only to skate or dance.
Because Skateland was nestled deep in Blood territory, the property wasn’t subject to the turf wars that plagued its competitor. Despite the official “no caps, no colors” policy, the crowd was typically a sea of red. But in four years, Schweisinger experienced only two shootings: once when a member of Mix Master Spade’s crew accidentally discharged his gun in the D.J. booth, and once when a local dealer was jumped at the entrance gate while picking up his kids from a Sunday skate.
On show nights at Skateland, Compton police officers and L.A. County sheriffs patrolled Central Avenue, waiting to shake down carloads of teenagers. Inside, Schweisinger’s security detail carried firearms in case of emergency. Though no gun was ever confiscated, the metal detector did its job; each weekend ended with a shoe box full of carpet cutters, surgical scissors and nail files.
After concerts, Schweisinger and his crew would spend hours cleaning the rink, which was inevitably littered with chewing gum, crushed Pepsi cups and a slick of melted “curl custard” — every kid in Compton wanted a Michael Jackson perm. Schweisinger let his employees and their friends hang around through the long cleanup. One of the regulars was Eric Wright, a young dealer who lived a few blocks from Dr. Dre, near Kelly Park in southeastern Compton.
Wright had designs on owning a record label. While the rink was cleared of debris, he and Dre played records and improvised raps in the D.J. booth. In the wee hours, when work was over, bottles of E&J brandy were mixed with leftover Pepsi, and domino tournaments began. “I’d never seen dominoes played like that,” Schweisinger says. “They slapped them down so hard it nearly broke the [expletive] table. I still like the taste of E&J because of those nights.”
Musical alliances, like gangs, were forged based on geography. Dre’s cousin Sir Jinx had a group called C.I.A. with his Inglewood neighbor, a 17-year-old named O’Shea Jackson who called himself Ice Cube. Soon Cube and Jinx were skipping the lines at Skateland as part of Dre’s entourage. Eric Wright enlisted Cube to write the raps for a New York-based group he was managing called H.B.O., or Home Boys Only. When the East Coasters scoffed at lines about ’64 Impalas and gang signs, Dre convinced Wright to perform the song himself.
Wright wasn’t naturally musical, but he knew Compton. As Schweisinger puts it, “Dre was always Dre, and Cube was always Cube,” but Wright put on a pair of wraparound shades and suddenly became Eazy-E. At Skateland in the fall of 1987, Eazy performed the song H.B.O. had rejected, “The Boyz-N-The Hood.” C.I.A. opened, and Cube stole the night with a rhyme called “My Penis” set to the tune of Run-DMC’s “My Adidas.” The rink roared its approval.
“The Boyz-N-The Hood” was such a hit within the neighborhood that Dre, Eazy and Cube merged their crews to form a super group that specialized in the music beloved by the Skateland crowd. Initially, the collective involved about 20 rappers and D.J.s, but eventually the core was whittled down to Eazy, Dre, Cube, Yella and a teenage associate from Eazy’s block named Lorenzo Patterson, a.k.a. MC Ren.
In March 1988, Schweisinger hosted their first concert together as Niggaz With Attitude. The local papers labeled their music “gangster rap,” but no one in N.W.A. was in a gang. They didn’t wear red, or blue. They wore black.
“The fuse was always lying around,” Schweisinger says. “I was always hoping it wouldn’t get lit.” A single police incident on the premises would endanger the conditional use permit Compton City Council had reluctantly granted him. He understood from working for his dad’s store that burglaries, fights and assorted insurance claims were the cost of operating in a poverty-stricken area. At the outset, he figured that if Skateland lasted a year, he could consider himself lucky. That he made it four years without serious incident was a miracle. Every year he stayed open, he felt he was pushing his luck.
1988, the street scene in Compton had become more vicious than anything
Schweisinger had seen before. The local dealers were making more and
more money, and a few of Schweisinger’s employees had been caught
stealing from the till to support their crack addictions. For
Schweisinger, the last straw came after a local drug kingpin held the
entire staff hostage over a paper bag containing $15,000 in cash; it had
disappeared from his locker during a private skate lesson. Schweisinger
gathered his employees and told them that no one would be held
accountable as long as the bag and its contents were returned. Later
that night, he received an anonymous phone call. The bag had been
dropped in the bushes in front of the rink. He
Skateland closed for good after a concert by Tone-Loc on Christmas Day 1988. The following January, Schweisinger drove down to Mexico to sell 500 pairs of used skates to a rink in Tijuana. That spring, the debut album by a group of his former teenage associates would forever change the meaning of the name Compton.
Schweisinger became a councilman in Westminster, and later in Henderson, Nev., where he lives today. He never saw Eazy or Dre again, though he would occasionally pay Ice Cube a visit if he was playing Anaheim. “If I could get word I was from Skateland,” Schweisinger says, “they always, always let me in.”
At 1950 North Central, the facade that Woodley Lewis built still stands, as does the fence that Schweisinger erected to curtail drive-bys. The rink itself is now used as a storage facility for Kizure Products, a prominent vendor of curling irons, hot combs and other hairstyling tools. Schweisinger’s son, Todd, keeps a number of the old neon-hued Skateland posters on the wall of his office at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he teaches mechanical engineering. His students refuse to believe he ever met Dr. Dre.
In the back of Schweisinger’s closet in Henderson hangs his blue manager’s jacket. At Skateland’s peak, he had satin jackets made up for everyone who worked on the crew or D.J.ed there. On one occasion, they drove to World on Wheels to check out the competition and to skate. Schweisinger entered: a balding blond guy in his 40s, surrounded by a team of black teenagers. While they were lacing up, a gangster leered at them. “Oh, y’all from that Blood rink?”
“No,” Schweisinger said. “We’re from Compton.”
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