BL&D Interview: Pepe
Back in the Spring, Ony got a chance to speak with Pepe Burby, the owner of EightSixty Skate Shop. He opened up about various topics such as his humble beginnings as a b-boy in Connecticut, his vision for EightSixty and the fatal stabbing of Jonathan Douglin, which occurred at the Skate Shop on New Years Day. A wide ranging interview, check it out below.
Pepe: [EightSixty Skate Shop] feels like an arrogation to me. My father was a boxer out of Hartford for 20 years. He boxed first, [but] he came out of the Army as a wrestler. Then, he started boxing. He came out of Hartford. See, I've only met him twice so this is from people around Hartford sending me stuff on Facebook, or me going to his funeral.
Ony: You only met your dad twice?
So it's weird. I got my dad's name but no dad. It's confusing. But he trained out of San Juan Center for 20 years, boxing. And he did it for - I don't even know - genetic reasons; I don't even know what. But it's the DNA through me 'cause I was a wild boy. A real wild boy. I grew up on Burnside Ave: no parental guidance, welfare, ya know. My mom went to jail for selling crack, stuff like that. Like a lot of people I hang out with, ya know? And that's what's weird about Hartford 'cause when there's no stability, I think we grow and make up strong suits, you know what I mean? Like, "I gotta be strong and tough". And I think Hartford is a big strong suit. There's a lot of kids that grow up with no parental guidance. Kids who are - different situations and variations from family to family - but it feels like we gotta be 'tough'. And I even caught myself the other day. Hartford feels like a tough place to do what I'm trying to do, so I was gonna fight. I said, "I'm tougher". Then I caught myself and said, "Wait, I can't be tougher. I gotta find a space where I allow myself to be vulnerable." It's a weird feeling, man. To be vulnerable around a tough energy. It's almost impossible.
So [my dad] trained out of Hartford - boom, boom, boom. I met him a couple times. I used to come to Hartford for the Munnie and the Equinox back in the day and I started breakdancing. I saw that. Did some psychedelics, saw some breakdancing. I was a breakdancer when I was nine years old, [and] my brothers had a crew called BB Breakers. I grew up until age 9 or 12 in a town in East Windsor - just some white trashy shit. And I was in Burnside in some ghetto, ya know? It was a weird difference. But I caught onto breakdancing. That's why I do what I do now, 'cause that pretty much saved my life. B-boying - I b-boyed for a while; a good 10-11 years hard. And this is before VHS's.I learned to breakdance [thanks to] this crew in East Hartford called Shaolin Monk, Wild Style and we battled them for a while. I'd go in the Munnie in Hartford.
Then, we can fast forward to when I got - I did two years in jail for some stupid stuff when I was young. And then I realized I had this little gene that wanted me to do things for people that needed to see stuff to catch onto, besides like selling drugs, fighting, whatever. So I started throwing my own b-boy jams. I had a crew called the Funk Universe, and I threw jams everywhere. I was hustling, coming out the pocket. A kid from no where, you know. That's part of the strong suit - you gotta provide so hustle for a little while, etc. But it's almost like a Robin Hood theory. I got some good things going, made up some excuses [as to] why I did my own things, which I'm realizing now even at 39 like, "Yo, you know you don't have to do certain things [anymore] to prove your point". It's bizarre. So I threw b-boy jams and I realized that that's what I wanted to do. A lot of local artists, a lot of hip hop crews, every DJ, you know what I mean? Every DJ, every artist around, I'd get them to ... I feel like a connector sort of. Like my dad gave me a thing to connect people together. So that's what I want to do.
I feel like people give up fast. People give up real fast in Hartford, ya know? And I'm not going to give up no matter what. I'm just letting people see that there's other things than having to live day by day feeling kinda down. And it's the arts. You guys know with dance, music, etc. There's really nothing better than dance in the whole wide world, ya know? This is my order but there's dance, there's art, the drawing, the music. I did all of them too. I was with ASK crew. I was with the B-boy crew. I can go down the list of people that I interacted with.
So how did B-boy and breaking translate into the first EightSixty in West Hartford?
My boy Jamie Galavich, we're friends from Burnside. He left for California and he got sponsored by - I think - Blind or Black Label and he got to go to California and he'd come back with boards and stuff. And we split apart from Burnside and then we met like 10 years later. He had the mini EightSixty over here in West Hartford. It was small, two closet sized, ya know. He got up with some shady partners so it was headed down, so I had some hustling money and I put in. Tried to put in my b-boy [expertise] you know? We had B-boy spray painted in graffiti.
I went to those. Those were poppin', too.
Those were the ones in West Hartford, yeah.
Yeah, yeah. It was packed.
It was packed. [But] West Hartford cut us. They were like, "You guys can't do this here". We built like a little, real small quarter pipe right in front, and cats were like, "Nah, you guys can't do this" [Laughs]. 'Cause it was too much freedom. We were letting people be free and even West Hartford's like, "Whoa, too much freedom". Suits are weird. So we closed that one, and we wanted to get an indoor. So I got a zoner from Hartford - Dave Lillibridge - I don't know what happened to him cause I had this dude that had this building on the South End of Hartford. It was big - it was like 9,000 square feet [and it was only] $1400. He just wanted me to pay taxes on it. We went through all this zoning, but then he went to the hospital so that guy thought I wasn't serious. Dave Lillibridge - I don't know what happened to him, man. He was a skater too, and he pulled some strings to get us a park but that didn't happen.
Then we found a place on Park that was bigger. Well, I thought it was big to me. So my landlord is Tony from Park Street and he has this cell phone place, and he was like, "Alright, I trust you Pepe." So then we built that big boy half-pipe and then he came over and was like, "Whoa, what!" [Laughs] So yeah, we had the half pipe and then I got to do jams. Jamie got kids and stuff so he had to leave EightSixty and go do mail. He's a mailman now. Father reasons and stuff like that. Then, I had a whole in my ceiling so I thought I was going down, so I closed for three months.
A couple friends told me about this place. This place was an old biker bar or something, and they were like, "Yo, go find the landlord". So I find him, and the landlord is kinda like me. He's a cool ass dude [who was like], "Take care of the spot", ya know. He let me move in and got a bunch of artists together. If it's something new, a bunch of artists will grab onto it. And from Park Street, the energy built so heavy. Local kids rhyming. To build a place where kids can feel good and safe - which of course we'll talk about - is a beautiful thing to me. They can go and just Ahhhhhh, scream, ya know? I'm tryna ruffle some freedom feathers around here, ya know? This place is weird - it don't look like much - but the power it holds is incredible.
And was that your vision for it from the beginning? What were you thinking when you opened the doors?
I'm not a skater, first of all. I'm a biker and b-boy, you know what I mean? But I'm enriched into the culture. I'm born into this. So I know the freedom skating has. It's just like the freedom dancing has. It's just like the freedom that being in the arts and graffiti has, making music, rhyming - all that stuff. It's all a little hodge podge of collective coolness. Being a skater, a dancer, anything. So [as far as] the goal, that's what I mean by 'it's weird'. I unconsciously did something. I wasn't conscious of it, but I had that drive. That's why I bring up my dad a lot 'cause the drive is to help. It's so weird. I don't know where I got it from, but it's built in me. Then I started getting a vision. After EightSixty, I said, "Wow, this is awesome." Then the Francis Ave one, and I got to be like, "Whoa, let's really do stuff". And then New Years happened.
I had a person pass away at my establishment. Killed my soul. It hurt so bad. And I'm not even a religious dude, but that happened and the only thing I could think of was The Story of Job. You know, the powers that be of God. Cause I was doing something for an opposite. I was like, "I want this to be a peace place where people can feel free." And it didn't even happen like that. Obviously, we did things for the whole year - amazing things, too. But I got too loose, probably. I forgot that there's rules. But I didn't carve a skateboard and stab nobody. I didn't do that. And that whole [event], there were some good kids. And one probably - I don't know. I don't know. It's sad. It's hard to get into now, even.
And it's still so new.
Yeah, and that's the last thing I wanted to happen. That's why I thought it was a lesson like Job. I was trying to do this thing, and the total opposite thing that I wanted to do happened. So I have to step back, and evaluate what's real. Like, what's your intentions? And Hartford's hard too, to do parties and stuff. It's hard. These kids are wild. These kids are wild here.
I feel like, especially with Hartford kids, they just want an outlet to be themselves.
What's the only outlet? Even Heavens - it took nine years. And they got half the money upfront. A skate park. East Hartford, Bristol, the crappy towns - I'm not saying crappy towns, but we got more money than some of these towns and we can't even get a skate park put in? And now they're still fighting to take out Heavens.
Wow I didn't know that.
Yeah. cause they want to use it for a park for the baseball field. That's going to be a baseball field so maybe we can utilize that for shows there. I don't even know. But it's hard to get into the politics of things because there's a lot of money involved. [If] there's a lot of money involved, you can't budge cats. I'm on the opposite end of the politics in Hartford, but I feel the energy that it's making more people in Hartford want to step forth and make a movement, and it's beautiful. I see it. I'm like, "Alright, people want to stop talking and really put their foot in". We'll see. We'll see. Yeah, so that happened around New Years.
So tell me more about the intention around the space. After New Years, in 2016, moving forward, what do you want EightSixty's legacy to be moving forward?
I want it to be a place where you can come in and invent your ideas. Feel free. Be a part of what it is, first of all. Cause when you walk in, it's a different place from anywhere around here. I'm not from California - I've never been there - or Portland, Maine. I moved there for three years. And it's greeting. Portland, Maine was greeting. It was like, "Okay, you guys have an idea? Great!" I was teaching breaking classes out there back in the day and all that. It's a weird thing because I like how it looks shabby and then you walk in and feel the power. I just want people to walk in and feel that power. It's like culture and that there's a place like this. I want them to feel free. I want them to be able to express. That's why I try to get, you know, from you guys, Hartford Denim, The Brothers Crisp, Fresh Ink to all these entrepreneurs that are doing things, I want to get involved with them because they're going to be the leaders. They are the leaders.
You already gave so many people an avenue to express their craft. There have been concerts, there have been b-boy competitions, Tang Sauce album release party there. And especially I want to touch on Tang's event because that was early this year and there was so much beautiful energy behind that. You had like Ann Cumberly out there, Tang, and then Arien MC'ing and hosting it. And Brandon Serafino getting up on stage and singing. Everyone was there just vibing. There were like generations of families there. Again, in EightSixty looking shabby, but again the energy is there.
And usually I'm walking around, making sure everything is good. But [for that event], I had to stop upstairs and watch. The band came in and I was like, "Whoa, this is awesome. I needed this." I'm so glad Tang took this, especially after New Years. I needed that little boost of energy like it's supposed to be.
I never fully realized what EightSixty was supposed to be until I saw that event there. That really represented so many people, so many faces, so many organizations in Hartford. That was Hartford. Cause a lot of these people want to be Hartford in a way that they just can't be. So when I saw EightSixty and I saw everybody that was there, I said, "This is what you can't get from other cities in Connecticut - much less the United States."
It's hard to find a space like that.
And you have that space.
Can't believe it - it's overwhelming. I want to cry because I don't understand it sometimes. It's an overwhelming thing, ya know. And I need help.
"I had a person pass away at my establishment. Killed my soul. It hurt so bad ... Obviously, we did things for the whole year - amazing things, too. But I got too loose, probably. I forgot that there's rules. But I didn't carve a skateboard and stab nobody. I didn't do that. And that whole [event], there were some good kids. And one probably - I don't know. I don't know."
I know you and Joey Batts are doing something.
Yeah, Joey Batts. That's my man. We're doing something. He's an artistic politician. [Laughs] He's funny, that's why I call him the artistic politician. Cause coming from nothing, I had to do some things that I didn't necessarily want to on some Robin Hood shit. But I'm out of that right now. I'm not struggling. I'm struggling, but we're all struggling, you know what I mean? And you know, the hunt is better than the kill sometimes. As long as I see some things getting done. Joey Batts is a doer. Linking up with him, he loves the spot and he loves Hartford too. He's not even from Hartford and he puts more energy in than a lot of the Hartford cats.
Even if it starts off how I started off with in-part ego. Maybe I can do something cool, feed my ego a little bit. But Joey Batts and me, I feel like we've gotten to a point where your tested on your ego. Like it aint about ego no more. Or this shit just got real, so you gotta be real and really put in work. Putting it work is what it's really about. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm working for, but I'm doing shit. [Laughs] And those are the better times for me because I'm a worker. I just started a new company and with a new company. And I've been a boss for a while and I'm my own boss, so I'm eating my own humble pie and I'm lifting 300 cinderblocks a day. Got a baby on the way and stuff. 38 years old and I'm thinking to myself, "Man, I got a baby on the way [Laughs]." Transitional periods, you know? And I want Hartford to change so I gotta be the change that I want to see in Hartford.
What does your ideal Hartford look like?
I like Hartford how it is. I feel like if we can awaken the suppressed ghetto. There's ghettos in here that are suppressed. If we can ruffle the feathers somehow by mixing what the West End has. The West End is a nice little end. It has some nice shit popping. If we could spread that out a little bit. For some reason, when I think of artsy stuff, I think of it like it's the West End. But maybe I'm wrong. But we're all here. We got this nice little community thing going on. If we can shoulder into the ghettos - I don't know. It's a powerful thing, and you have to do it the right way.
And we need help. If we had some people that would do some more things in the ghetto that would help them understand that they don't have to be stuck there, you know what I mean? I know it's a cliche thing but I feel the heat. Even when I do shows. Rappers come up to me and say, "Pepe, I got $800. Let me do a show here. I can fill the place [with] 300 people". I'm like, "Nah, I can't do that." It's not about filling 300 people. It's about keeping a cool spot. Like really. And there's laws. There's crazy laws. And that hurts me because not that New Years ruined it but it definitely put a cloud over my heart about letting kids and younger people do their thing.
Let's talk a little bit about the youth in Hartford. I feel like they don't have as many outlets as they would need.
Where are the outlets? What are they?
I don't know, man.
We got sports. We got Heavens, which is one of the places I like. I see 30 kids there [regularly] in the summer at least. And we got EightSixty.
I mean, I feel like EightSixty is a cultural institution. But it's also not enough, though. It's not enough.
Yeah, man. And sometimes I feel like the people that are in position to do things, they don't understand that we all breathe the same wind. We're going to do some expensive ass art shit, which is cool because we gotta have that too, but we gotta get in the dirt. We gotta build sandcastles in the dirt. And that's where it hurts me. It hurts me to not understand, like, "What are we doing?" The fake facade of material shit. It's like, "What the hell? You're going to put that much into a car each month?" There's other shit we gotta deal with. I just want to get it to the point where we have an opportunity to be in that group where we can help out some stuff. I can't even talk for other people because people just talk so much. It's terrible. But we gotta produce it. There's no spots so we gotta produce it. It's so weird.
That's why I can't take credit for EightSixty, but I can, you know what I mean? Without the people that I reach out to, it would be nothing. The artists, the musicians. I'm just glad that I grew up in the time that I did, I know the people I know and they produce. Right now, I have a 20-year worker here - Josh. He's a skater, so I try to let - I'm definitely an overseer over it because they're kids sort of, still - run the shop. Like asking them what's new. I got three of them - DeAndre, Josh, Trevor's there sometimes giving us ideas. I got Little Mikey. It's a cool spot. And they're artists in themselves, so they get to see what's going on and now they're coming up with their own videos. I post all this stuff. They're coming up with their own art, cats are building shit. And that's only four or five kids, you know. If I could do that to 20 or 100 [with a] big boy workshop somehow, I get all my insurance in line and I call the schools. Let them know and say, "Hey, come paint a wall. Come skateboard - I got 30 helmets." Stuff like that, just so we can grab their attention.
Before it's too late.
Yeah. Then you grow up and start seeing rap videos and we're all working towards that now. While working for this big fat car, blah blah blah.
When it's so much more than that.
Aw man, dude. Even if we can get some kids to understand what the values are, 'cause I don't know what's going on this school system but values is what its about right now. Like, what are my values? If I hear a kid say that -
It's a win.
It's a win, because they start understanding. Happy Mother's Day to you, by the way. We're not mothers, but still.
My mother passed. But yeah, you see it. It's an energy, so let's roll with this.
Pepe, we're in a situation right now where we're coming to see a breaking point in Hartford. It's funny because everything becoming what it was - the cultural support and artistic support we had from the city - we had something to lean on in some way. With that gone, we only have ourselves and community that we built ourselves. And that's good because, like you said before, we said, "Alright, if we're all we got, we gotta come together and make it work." And I've seen it happen. I've seen a lot more things happen in Hartford.
That's how I feel, you know what I mean? These people are now like, "We're gonna rally the troops." And I guess that's what we need, right? Yeah, and [sometimes I wonder], "Wow, how is this gonna work out?" Are we gonna fail? I don't wanna fail. So I guess we all gotta do our parts and more, especially the ones who don't have kids and whatnot - like us. I know I got a baby on the way, but I still got some energy left to transform some shit. And we're gonna do that.
I really wanna see the next generation of Hartford. The people who were born and raised here, and if they are gonna go to school here and stay around, and invest in their city. Right now with the young people, their whole goal is to get out of Hartford, get out of Connecticut. But we have to build a Connecticut that they would want to stay in. And EightSixty does that.
We gotta do more [though]. I always feel like I can do more. I'm not done yet. I don't wanna fail.
What does success look like to you at EightSixty?
I would like to involve more teenagers. I'm happy if it starts running itself 'cause I working to pay some of the rent still and stuff like that, and it started doing that until the tragedy on New Years. We're starting to wheelie again, though, and everything is settling to the point it's getting comfortable again. Cause it hurt me, so I shut off for a minute. But I'm opening back up which is cool. Success to it? To provide a space where people feel free. That's it. And then I'll have success.