There are some varieties of skinhead that we prefer to others – but overall, we enjoy the culture’s different facets. We like that aspects of skinhead change over time and vary from country to country, reflecting their environment while still retaining that basic essence that is hard to pin down. We like the fact that such a broad range of different music styles has somehow become associated with skinhead over the years.
And we like that the skinhead world can be as surprising and contradictory as life itself. You wouldn’t expect a bunch of skins, for instance, to head to the Nation of Islam headquarters to watch Public Enemy (the hip-hop one) – especially if some of them were white and Jewish. But that’s just one of the things that Corky’s mates got up to back in the 80s.
Corky is bit of a legendary character from the Chicago scene. Back in the day, he ran with SHOC (Skinheads of Chicago), a multi-ethnic crew that stood on the opposite side of Christian Picciolini’s nazi skins, CASH (Chicago Area Skinheads – we interviewed Christian about them here). Our own Girth first came across Corky on Instagram under @BoxcutterBrigade, where he documents his memories of characters with photos and interesting stories – and he decided to interview the bloke.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers? I know you’ve been a fan of the blog for a while.
In the streets, I was known as Corky or, alternately as Cork$krew. I was heavily involved in the 80s Chicago skinhead scene and, more recently, have been posting my memories and crazy stories on Instagram under the alias @BoxcutterBrigade. I’m African-American and had a rep back then for heading up Skinheads of Chicago (SHOC) which was a culture-defining crew in its time.
The US skinhead scene, particularly Chicago in the eighties, seems like absolute gang warfare. How did you become involved in it all?
Whereas the UK had legendary football rivalries, our tension was informed by street families. Chicago, in general, is gang-oriented. We all know the legends of organized crime in Chicago so I won’t retread that history, but with the migration of blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, etc. to Chicago, new organized crime cultures emerged which provided new points of influence and inspiration. It’s also worth noting the long history of Irish and Jewish street gangs in our town. These front line defenders are fundamental. Those elements influenced the dynamics of Chicago skinheads, and while we congregated on neutral ground many of us came from embattled enclaves.
To be sure, many of us were trying to escape those dynamics, and being a skinhead at that time it was clear to pretty much everybody that you absolutely weren’t involved in crime life and therefore could pass through battle zones without being mistaken for an enemy. That pretty much describes how I moved around.
How did you get into it all?
I got introduced to it all by a young rudeboy from Brixton who started at my high school. He was a thoughtful kid who provided a lot of cultural insights and introduced me to all kinds of new music that simply wasn’t on my radar up to that point. I started to spend more time with his crew and thereby got introduced to a whole new range of expressions. He, for example, explained to me the nuances within Eddy Grant’s ‘Electric Avenue’ which up to that time was, for me, just a catchy pop tune. He also introduced me to Linton Kwesi Johnson, Matumbi and Misty in Roots. His influence made me curious about London in general, and I was easily drawn into reading everything about it – which, of course, led me to football rivalries.
I liked the hard style of the youth. It was functional, intentional and serious. I respected that. I already wore my hair in a manner that was consistent. In Chicago, we already had ways of styling our jeans with invisible hemlines, and while Fred Perrys were hard to find, polo style shirts from other brands were widely available. But it wasn’t until I met youth from the north side of Chicago that I began to truly grasp the nuances of the lifestyle. People like Jay Yuenger – later guitarist for White Zombie, another high school classmate – Martin B and Dave S opened my eyes to a whole new world.
Who were your crew back in the day?
Chicago has had a few notable crews. There was CASH, which was the early catchall for all Chicago skins regardless of politics – but that got turned into a white power thing, causing irreparable fractures. Then in the mid-80s, the Bomber Boys rose to prominence. That was a dynamic crew that loved mayhem. I ran tight with this mob daily, though I never pledged allegiance. There were some troubling elements in that crew that made me reluctant.
Around 1986-87 the Bomber Boys suffered some internal strife, which inspired one of their war chiefs, a top skin named Vince K, to break away and attempt to start a new crew that he called The Newtown Boot Boys. That crew didn’t last. While there was still a presence of Bomber Boys loyalists, Chicago was without an organized crew until Skinheads of Chicago (SHOC) came along in late 86, early 87. That was my crew. We started with a core group of established skins, but we experienced some dramatic growth following some key victories over our rivals. By 1987 we were the dominant crew. We moved other crews off the streets and pushed some older skins into retirement.
All the other crews aligned with us. The Northside Crew, the South Side Crew, the Mickey Skins (hard Irish crew from Canaryville), the Straight Edge Skins, the Evanston Team, NISH (Northwest Indiana Skinheads) all formed a tight alliance with SHOC, which expanded our reach in ways we never imagined. The lone outliers were the a highly respected team called Medusa Skins, the Bomber Boys and everyone’s common enemy, CASH.
What was the dress code?
If you look at photos of Chicago skins from the early-to-mid 80s you mainly see green mil-spec MA1 flight jackets. We wanted to be very different so we claimed the black MA1 flight jacket as our casual wear and the Chicago city flag as our symbol. We had harsh winters, so wool ski caps and argyle scarves were common features. We kept utility knives (“box cutters”) in our jackets for defence and offense. If the police found them, we could credibly claim they were work tools and not weapons.
Martens were, of course, the standard footwear but some of us branched out to Redwing work shoes, and the more stylish among us also had brogues that we’d break out when it was time to dress up. Loafers were absolutely off the table for us, as that was more a preppy/house style and not within our code.
In Chicago, the rumoured lace code was a non-factor. Anyone could wear any lace colour, and no sensible person would ascribe any meaning to the selection. You might be the butt of mild jokes and be given some style demerits if your laces didn’t match your braces, but that’s about it.
On the other hand, a green flight jacket coming into our midst would raise our suspicions and we’d interrogate the interloper. When we first met the Minneapolis Baldies, we mistook them for the enemy for this very reason, but they quickly earned our trust and loyalty.
What music were you listening to – I know a lot of you liked old hip hop?
Our usual gathering spots were hardcore shows because that’s what was easily accessible to us and we were the target audience. Unfortunately, Oi was on life support, so we didn’t get many chances to experience those bands in real life. We also frequented a juice bar named Medusa’s. We didn’t like the music, but we did like the new wave girls. That said, many of us – especially the black skins – kept up with rap. Some of us kept up with house.
One summer night me and Marty took three younger white skins, one of whom was Jewish, to see Public Enemy perform at the Nation of Islam headquarters. These were the only white people for miles around, and to their eternal credit, they carried themselves with grit and grace.
I really enjoy your Instagram page. Some great photos and stories.
Thanks! I started Boxcutter Brigade mainly as a way to dump a bunch of thoughts out of my head. I didn’t really have any grand goals in mind. I figured I’d find a few people who remembered old zines and such, but I’ve actually found a huge number of people who are drawn to the stories about the dumb shit Chicago skins did to pass the time. I love the engagement, and I’ve managed to reconnect with people I hadn’t spoken to for 30 years. Old friends and old enemies. Like the Boots ‘n’ Booze crew. I used to keep in touch with them in the 80s, and now we’re all cosy again.
Do you feel the eighties was the golden era for skinhead?
That’s hard to say. Late 70s, early 80s London is the setting I wish I’d experienced. They were my inspiration. We’d sit around and listen to the Oi! comps and stare at the photos and fantasize about visiting the birthplace.
American skins certainly had our moment in the mid-to-late 80s, but I’d argue that the prevalence of hardcore punk within our DNA largely stunted our cultural growth. It wasn’t until we created our own generation of good ska and great skinhead bands (e.g., Lionspride, Headstrong and The Press) that the culture started to break away and redefine itself in a way that didn’t have hardcore as its locus.
The 90s era was remarkably productive. The music. The styles. The crews. If not for the toxic politics I’d say that was the golden era but, unfortunately, politics and tragedies pollute those memories. I was travelling the world and chasing women by that time so I started to drift away and didn’t often slow down to keep up with skinheads.
Did you have much exposure to the UK skinheads initially?
I had a classmate who was from Brixton and he’d tell great stories of the cultures and the climate but for the most part, UK skins existed as remote spectres.
Based on that, though, how did you perceive UK and US skins as being different?
As I mentioned earlier, the football thing is a huge disconnect for us. We don’t have that degree of fanaticism. In my experience, our tribalism expressed itself through the gang warfare. I read all about the football rivalries but I don’t think I’d ever truly understand without having grown up inside it. That said, I imagine I would have been a particularly eager West Ham combatant had I been given the opportunity.
The UK skinhead culture seems very well-baked into the fabric of UK style. In the US, I don’t think we enjoy that degree of integration. When I finally visited London in 2005, I’d approach people who looked like skins but they’d tell me “nah mate. I’m just a regular bloke.” The chav thing was really happening at that time, so I actually didn’t meet any skinhead types. I went to visit the old site of the Last Resort shop and found only disappointment, haha!
I understand from your Instagram page that you were close to many of the anti-racist skinheads on that infamous Geraldo episode. Did this whole situation amplify the situation on each side or was this fight all building up to this point?
While I later got to know some of the folks who were on the infamous Geraldo episode, I really knew the people – mainly Bomber Boys and Medusa Skins – who were in the audience on the Oprah Winfrey episode. The only SHOC member there was Don M. He’s in the back row in the black polo. The red-headed rockabilly looking guy in the green shirt is Dave S. He was a top skin and one of my key mentors into the culture.
I was actually invited to be in that audience. Somehow, someone connected to the show got my phone number and told me what and when, but this was wartime and trust was scarce. I was suspicious that the invitation might be a setup by the enemy so I declined.
As a funny aside, my crew had been in an altercation with some of the enemies who later showed up on Oprah. We didn’t know why they were in town but they weren’t welcome. One of them alludes to it on the show. He says “I was downtown the other night and about 50 of you jumped me and my friends…” Yeah. That was us.
That episode only increased our visibility around town. We were already on the radar of gang task force units, and that very public showing put markers on a lot of people’s heads.
I read Christian Picciolini’s first book and really enjoyed. I also interviewed him for this very blog. Do you remember him, and have you spoken to him since those days?
Yeah! I read that interview. Nice work.
In early 2020, Picciolini and I accidentally crossed paths when I mentioned to a mutual acquaintance that I had some unseen photos of the CASH crew. Picciolini reached out to me with interest. Initially I was wary, but I decided to let my guard down and since then have built a surprisingly good relationship with him. We are in frequent contact and I’d guess that he’d provide a similar assessment.
I have found that the former enemies I meet now are easier to relate to and reminisce with than the people who were on my team. They had a warrior mentality that matched how the best of my team carried ourselves. These old enemies are able to add perspectives and details that were hidden to me before.
Speaking of that interview can you tell me about Sonny? He’s mentioned in the Christian Picciolini book.
Sonny and I had crossed paths a few times in life – not that he’d remember – but didn’t solidify our friendship until late 1985.
My first time seeing Sonny was on Rush Street on Chicago’s so-called Gold Coast in about 1983. He presented a striking figure. Dark skin. A little white mohawk. Spikes. Leather. Stumbling down drunk and hanging out in the gutters and shadows of that yuppie haven.
We linked up as skinheads in 1985. He was already known on the North Side scene and was well along the way to being an alcoholic. He was also well along the way to building a reputation as a headcase. One night I managed to save his girlfriend from a sexual assault. Some men had drugged her and were trying to lure her into an alley. I intervened and, instead, took her to a safe place where she could sleep off whatever they had given her. The next day she was clear minded enough to remember his phone number, so I arranged a meeting spot and handed her off. He was grateful and we agreed that together we’d pick apart the group of men who drugged her. From that point forward we were the best of friends. We were complete opposites, but it didn’t matter.
He was drawn to the power of people like Mussolini and Adolf. He didn’t care about their beliefs, just their strength. He loved the exploits of Joe Hawkins. And, moreover, he loved any reason to fight. He was a wild, unpredictable fighter who punched way above his weight class. He’d get his opponents off balance and use their lack of composure against them. He would often finish opponents with a humiliating body slam onto the street. He loved to embarrass his opponents, especially if they were much bigger than his 5’ 9″ 140 lb frame.
To dial up the provocation, he started to wear emblems that would inspire people to question him, which would give him a reason to bash. Before long, patches and t-shirts weren’t enough. He committed fully to his mission to aggravate outsiders with visible tattoos of skinhead slogans and, eventually, Wehrmacht symbols. To me, every part was unconscionable, but I couldn’t stop my crewmate from enjoying his legend. He was on a path to self-destruction, and that’s how he wanted it. He’s notorious and too far gone to turn back.
Another question is do you have any memories of record shops of Chicago? Chaos Records?
I heard about it but never visited. It was on the far south-west side of town and I didn’t have any reason to check it out. In Picciolini’s book, he says that “Sammy” (Sonny in real life) visited and bought some Skrewdriver or Bound for Glory. It’s a funny story because Sonny rarely left the north side (or the northwest side where he grew up). He must have been really motivated to go check that place out…
Did you notice an increase in opposition once Skrewdriver and the White Noise thing kicked off?
As with everywhere, that was the splintering factor. There were no white power skins in Chicago before Skrewdriver made their political case. Some Chicago types were inspired by the message, and when they took their political position they forced the rest of us to also take a position. Dave S, who I referred to before was one of the first people to take the battle to them. He had to pull back when the war fighting came to his home and imperilled his wife and son.
Chicago has always had large numbers of black, Asian, Latino and Native American skinheads, and many of us expressed zero tolerance for bands with those philosophies. I spoke before about the green flight jacket raising our suspicions. Well, wearing a Skrewdriver t-shirt was even worse. That was an unforgivable sin and the boot party would commence. Bands with those messages never came to Chicago. It was known that Chicago would bring a guaranteed melee to the venue.
What do think of the skinhead scene today? Labels like Randale and Rebellion, for example, are pretty darn big.
I love the current scene. It’s spread so far and wide, and the faithful homage to the originators is genuinely beautiful. The love that skinheads have for skinhead history is a key strength of the culture. The quality and availability of good gear has never been better. Brands like Britac, Real Hoxton, and Trojan clothing make it easy to rep the style.
Musically I don’t have a lot of patience for new Oi. I’m much more likely to listen to some dancehall, roots or dub. Still, those small empires that people have built are impressive and inspirational.
Were there any bands or musicians you ran with or had a particular friendship with?
I spent a lot of time with the underground music makers, even if their music wasn’t necessarily to my taste. I just believed in supporting my people. Mainly Chicago bands like The Stitches, Zoetrope. Znowhite, No Empathy, Life Sentence, Lost Cause. Jay from White Zombie, who I mentioned before, was first in Rights of the Accused, who I ran hard with for a long time.
John Kezdy of The Effigies was a bit of an unintentional mentor. I’d see him on the train in the mornings on his way to DePaul University Law School and we’d talk about his early days and why he wanted to be a prosecutor, and I’d give him overviews of what was happening with the then-current generation of skins. He had a reputation for being very grumpy, but he always gave time to me and expressed a genuine interest in whatever I had to say.
I had a good friendship with Roddy from The Oppressed, but that was all through phone and correspondence. Other than that my tightest connections would be in rap and soul circles but I can’t imagine your readers would care much about that.
I am actually very much into hip hop! Are you the chap that met Jeru? Who did you meet?
Nope. I don’t think I’ve ever met Jeru. I knew west coast folks like Boots (the coup), Paris, Mystic, Sunspot Jonz. And in Chicago I knew folks like R. Kelly (a classmate), Ramsey Lewis (his sons were classmates), and Oscar Brown (his son dated my cousin), and a few other folks. But as a photographer, I shot many of the greats, such as Schoolly D, ODB, G Rap, MC Eiht.
Do you know much about Fear City, the south side crew?
Fear City is the crew that moved SHOC off the streets. When they came along, all the other crews had to deal with their size and ferocity. By that time I had dropped my flag, and SHOC was in disarray. No real leadership remained, and the legacy was being misused. SHOC was at war with the 77 Crew but didn’t have war chiefs, so they were picked apart.
Fear City came along with their power and their music and served as a magnet for aggressive skins. No other crew stood a chance. They continued the gangland traditions, and I have nothing but love and respect for those soldiers. Those are my kind of people.
What are you up these days? Hung up your boots? Family man?
I’m actually working on a book about my skinhead days. I plan to go into much more detail about dynamics of Chicago skinheads as I experienced it. I hope the end product will be insightful and funny. I’ll try to avoid dredging up 30 year old conflicts, but someone is bound to disagree with how I memorialise our time in the streets.
I’ve got kids and they get all my best time and attention. Aside from them, my interests are Harleys, Jeeps, archery and firearms. Stylistically, minus the braces, I still dress like a skinhead every day. It’s a visual treat that’s lost on most of these heathens.
Is Chicago pizza the best pizza you can get? [American pizza is barbaric – Editor]
This is probably the most controversial answer I’ll give, haha! I love Chicago stuffed pizza. I also love our ‘tavern style’ square cut pizza. Growing up there made me a bit of a pizza snob, and I’ll send some shit back if it’s not done well. I’m a bit of a nut about anything to do with Chicago – except the Cubs, I hate everything related to that – and if it’s a genuine hometown product, I’m going to rep it to the fullest. Except the Cubs [a baseball team – Editor]. Fuck them. Oh, and Malört [a brand of bäsk liquor – Editor]. That’s some nasty shit.
Do you feel Trump, Proud Boys and QAnon are link to a resurgence in racists rising to the surface and becoming braver?
Trump definitely took the lid off sentiments that were kept out of public conversations. He gave legitimacy to the dumbest Americans. The worst part is that I don’t think Trump has any beliefs other than conning a mark. The Proud Boys remind me of 80s skinheads in our prime. I respect their willingness to get busy in the streets – but their dumb politics and collaborations with police make them untrustworthy. If they weren’t aligned philosophically with the status quo, I’d be down to rock with them.
Have you ever seen any of Derek Diablo’s videos? I know he’s a Florida native but wondered if you had any thoughts on him. Seems like a character.
I’d never heard of him before you mentioned him. I just watched a couple of videos and he seems like my kinda people! Good clean fun. Maybe he’ll help me understand those confounding football rivalries. Haha.
What do you think about this multi-cultural RAC?
I don’t think much of RAC to begin with. It started as a shallow reaction to Rock Against Racism and, based on my very limited exposure to the genre, hasn’t produced any music that I can’t live without. I’m not the target audience, sonically or ideologically.
If these multi-racial anti-communists have arrived at their points of view based on genuine intellectual investigation, more power to them. I’d honestly like to hear their thoughts on how we can address societal frailties without a more equitable distribution of resources and ownership. But if they are simply adopting the language of the repressor then I have little energy for them. Socially, I always side with the poor, with the have-nots, and never with the exploiters or their cheerleaders.
Finally… any final words?
I’ll close with something I tell my kids. “Learn to take a punch. Learn to dodge a punch. Learn to throw a punch. After that, everything else is easy.”