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Stevie Williams: Using NFTs to Control the Narrative

The iconic street skateboarder sees NFTs as proof that imagination is our truest currency — a lesson he learned from the late Virgil Abloh.

Stevie Williams is used to brushing off haters.

As a boy, he spent his days skateboarding around West Philadelphia. People scoffed. He grew up and established himself as a pop-culture legend, revolutionizing skate culture in inner cities, then making the movement tangible by founding Dirty Ghetto Kids. He was told it would never last.

So, when he was in the early wave of people exploring the NFT space, he didn’t flinch at the skepticism.

“It reminds me of when I first started DGK,” Williams told Boardroom, drawing parallels between his NFT collections and past entrepreneurial ventures. “[The reaction] allows me to keep pushing to make sure there is something there, and then create something that can be believable for the non-believers.”

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Last week, Williams added another chapter to his legacy as a pioneer when he and three other partners launched the Vault3D NFT marketplace. The platform, on the Binance Smart Chain, is debuting with its own token as well as the JKwon Animation Collection created by Williams and graphic designer Billy Brown.

There are seven different animated NFTs that digitize popular DGK skateboard decks. Each edition also nets a real-life DGK board signed by Williams for holders.

Williams was inspired to offer his fans digital assets alongside physical collectibles because of how he used to feel when he got a pack of gum for buying baseball or basketball trading cards. He’s reviving his 2008 Topps card on Vault3D as an NFT paired with a signed physical card.

“I need to help my community — which is the skate community and the content creators — understand that this is a new platform to create brands and live in your imaginary truth,” Williams said. “When I realized that being on a different chain from Ethereum allowed me to get what I wanted to do to my fans at an affordable price, it just all came together.”

It didn’t happen overnight.

‘Ain’t Nobody Buying that Stuff’

The tables were turned three years ago.

Williams was kicking it on a boat with “one of [his] billionaire homies” in Miami — as one does — when the friend urged him to take DGK into the metaverse. This time, Williams was the one looking at someone like he was crazy.

“Ain’t nobody buying that stuff,” Williams said.

The friend explained Ethereum, which at the time was only $130, and Williams wasn’t buying that a virtual coin was worth a dime.

“But I listened,” he recalled. “I went home to L.A., got on my computer and studied.”

Williams began telling his friends about tokenomics.

“They felt the same way I’d felt and started laughing at me,” he said.

A year passed, and Williams was back in Miami with another group of friends. Ethereum and the metaverse came up in conversation, and they looked to him.

“Yeah, I know about that,” Williams told them, shrugging it off. “The coin that’s $130.”

“Nah,” someone in the room interrupted. “The coin is actually $1,700.”

Williams couldn’t believe the skyrocketing value.

“That’s when it caught my full passion because I felt like I was right, but I let a lot of people discourage me,” he said. “After that conversation, I did not stop studying the space. I believe from what I’ve studied, and I believe from what I’ve seen come to life, that this space is something different and allows you to take advantage of opportunities if you know how to.”

Once he launched his first NFT collection last May — SKATE with Stevie Williams x Strawberry — he realized he had more to learn.

He hadn’t completed a Roadmap for the project. He had a major issue with the gas fees. With Vault3D, Williams is finally able to create from a place of total freedom and intentionally step into Web3.

“I want to share it with everybody else in a quality way so people can understand how to follow their destiny and also have creative control over their destiny,” he said. “It’s not even about the money; it is more so about the purpose, and if it can help you fulfill your destiny or not.”

It’s the same purpose that has been driving Williams since his adolescence in Philadelphia.

Philly Forever

Where would Stevie Williams be now if his mother had never decided to move him away from North Philly to West Philly, where he saw a Black man — Roger Brown — skateboarding for the first time?

“I think about that all the time,” he said before falling into a weighted silence.

The good news is that you didn’t have to find out.

“That’s the best part about it. It ain’t no fairytale, what I went through.”

As a child, Williams’ mother, Susan, took him to his aunt’s house in North Philly. She asked her only child if he liked it there, and he told her it was fine. All he remembers about what came next is his mom breaking the news that he “was gonna be staying there for a while” and having to “grow up in that moment.”

Williams knows now that his mother wasn’t abandoning him at all, but as young as he was, that was the only way he knew how to interpret it. His aunt and cousins, and their neighbors, took him in.

“North Philly really raised me,” he said.

But he eventually needed to be saved from its looming dangers.

Susan was gearing up for a move to West Oak Lane in North Philly but shied away from the apartment she was eyeing because little Stevie’s bedroom was too far from hers. So, she went to look at a different apartment in West Philly — where she and Stevie had recently left after her divorce from his father — and chose that one because it was closer to his elementary school.

After the move, he was still struggling with feelings of abandonment and rejection. He got into a lot of fights. He wandered aimlessly around his new neighborhood. And then, he saw Roger Brown riding.

“Skateboarding kept me occupied — from selling crack, from getting in trouble, finding my identity in life,” he said. “Skateboarding saved my life. It came and showed me that I had really manifested my imagination to something that I could live [off of], and I figured out how to do it.”

As a teen, Williams — and his Dirty Ghetto Kids skate crew that set up shop at LOVE Park in the mid-’90s — became the buzz of Philly. Williams was never a contest skater, so his legacy has not been measured in medals or titles but rather skateboarding’s increasing presence in pop culture.

He and his crew met resistance early on, of course. (“Me and my homies, we always get overlooked; we might get looked at, but nine times out of 10, we get overlooked.”) Skateboarding was seen as a punk-rock hobby reserved for suburban white kids who could afford it.

“For me to influence a lot of inner-city kids to just stay in their truth is something that was never done before,” he said. “I kept it a thousand and put it on display. Never changed, but also when DGK started making money and I started making a lot of money, I spent a lot of that money on showing people that this is a real thing. I spent millions of dollars trying to push the narrative of inner-city skateboarders as skateboarders, too.”

“That’s what DGK represents — it’s a part of the history of hip-hop, of the inner-city struggle,” he continued. “Coming from nothing, making something out of nothing. I wanted to [do it as a] Dirty Ghetto Kid. That’s what I was called. That’s what me and my homies was called. Being able to monetize off of that narrative is what I learned from Virgil.”

Virgil Was Here

Virgil Abloh was a generational artist and designer — the founder of Off-White and the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear.

Before all of that, he was a skater in Rockford, Illinois.

And after his unexpected Nov. 28, 2021 death at 41 from a roughly two-year private battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, an overwhelming number of people mourned their dear friend.

One of them was Williams.

Williams was not aware that Abloh had cancer when he was asked to walk in his Louis Vuitton menswear Spring/Summer 2022 runway show in Miami.

“I was actually waiting to go to the barbershop,” Williams said, recalling learning of Abloh’s passing. “I was just chillin’, drinking a smoothie, and my phone started going crazy. I was just looking at the text messages all saying, ‘Is it true? What happened?’ I’m thinking something crazy happened in my family, and then one of my homies texted me the Instagram post from his page saying that he passed away. I was like, “Damn!” This was while getting a haircut to go to the rehearsal for the show. I had just spoken to him two days before that.”

The show went on, doubling as a celebration of Abloh’s life, and was punctuated by “VIRGIL WAS HERE” in the sky.

Abloh had been in Williams’ life before he was a star.

Williams met Abloh in Chicago years before the innovator was the world-renowned boundary-buster who elevated streetwear and put everything in quotation marks. They were running in the same circle — “a bunch of young and upcoming designers that I was attached to” — that included John Monopoly and Kanye “Ye” West.

Back then, Abloh told Williams that he skated. Williams “never really tripped on it,” but skateboarding ultimately bonded them.

In late 2019, Abloh reached out to Williams ahead of the release of his then-forthcoming (and astronomically highly anticipated) Off-White x Nike Dunk Low sneakers.

“Could you do me this solid favor?” Abloh asked Williams, wondering if he would help promote the shoes by skating in them. “If you do it, I’ll post you on my page.”

Williams did it, of course, and thanked Abloh profusely for the opportunity.

Abloh promised to always be there for him.

“He just started explaining to me about narratives and brands and how much I meant to the culture,” Williams said. “That no matter my failures or the brands that I created, who I am and what I stood for is never gonna change. I was like, ‘Damn. He really, like, cared.’”

At the time they reconnected, Williams wasn’t skating much. He was a bit jaded and discouraged, “drowned in making money.” He had lost touch with why he first hopped on a skateboard. Abloh grounded him in something he was known for saying: “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself.”

“All you gotta do is keep skating and control the narrative,” Abloh assured Williams, and he began to frequently send photos for inspiration and clothes for Williams to wear.

Williams tried to repay the favor — though he knew he never truly could do for Abloh what Abloh did for him— by trying to convince Abloh to bring his era-defining art into the metaverse.

“He wasn’t into the NFT space,” Williams said, “but he was gearing up to get into it.”

Last June, Abloh signed off on a one-of-one NFT collectible drop in collaboration with Williams and DGK. It is the only NFT related to Abloh’s creations in existence and will forever be the one NFT ever released while Abloh was still alive.

“I’m gonna drop another one, too, pretty soon,” Williams teased. “I’m trying to figure out how to do it collectively. At the end of the day, it all goes back to just being authentic and controlling the narrative.”

Lord Williams

Williams will always be a skater, first and foremost, but the NFT space has granted him a chance to evolve his identity.

“I got a new identity,” he said. “His name is Lord Williams. I can make myself into a character. What kind of character will I be? Like a Game of Thrones character that is coming to take over the NFT land.”

Williams exudes a childlike giddiness when forecasting his future in NFTs and the metaverse, which makes sense because this hobby (and investment) reminds him of his childhood pastime — other than skating.

“The kids today, they don’t understand how cool it was to have trading cards,” he said. “Like, they used to be valuable back in the day. But when social media hit, that shit got played out. Nobody was talking about it. It popped up again digitally with these NFTs because instead of paying for baseball or basketball cards, you can use your imagination and create your own collectible cards. Create your own community. Everybody can play their own game today. You can create your own game, you can play your own game.”

Lord Williams is playing the long game.

“Before, I thought it was about the money. I thought it was about the fame. I thought it was about the impressions,” he said. “If I can move along at a snail’s pace and just be as true as I need to be, and control the narrative for as long as I need to control it, then I still control my destiny.”

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