Words: Shawn Perry Photos: Ian Reid
Any effort to nail down Danny Hampson‘s approach to wakeskating — and life in general — inevitably leads to the Florida Keys. The island life pours through his bloodline as deep and steadfast as the Gulf Stream up the coast of Florida. And while Hampson has seen the world up and over in the course of his decade-long pro career, his love for life on the water as a citizen of the Conch Republic will always define him.
From the first time I met him, I could tell Hampson’s passion levels for life were completely out of his control. That passion has led him to the peak of wakeskating. At times, it’s also threatened to consume him. Hampson’s almost preternatural talent on a wakeskate earned him a spot on the Cassette team during a pivotal era, casting him into the limelight in one of the most compelling movements in wake’s history. Ever since, Hampson has lived a life of controlled chaos, creating some of wakeskating’s high-water moments but also weathering his fair share of setbacks.
With an old soul and a new wave haircut, Hampson, at 23, has the life experience of a much older individual. And while his insatiable passion has sometimes lent him the impression of a guy looking over the edge, it’s also given him a perspective that few of his peers possess. His dreamer’s outlook is tempered by a pragmatic commitment to reinvigorating wakeskating.
Keep an eye on old Hampson — it might get crunchy.
Do you want to do this job-interview-style? Whatever way you think is best for your journalistic integrity, Shawn.
What three words best describe you? Oh, God: fast, hard and strong. Wait, not that. I guess in a perfect world: nice, loving and friendly. Nice, loving and loyal. But I don’t know what other people think of me. I’m sure a lot of people think I’m a jerk, but strong, for sure.
OK, so what is your biggest strength? In wakeskating or in life?
Life. My biggest strength would be my loyalty to my friends and my family.
Weakness? Feeling guilty all the time about not being nice enough. Probably feeling guilty about my loyalty too.
All right, those are all the job interview questions. Tell me about growing up in the Keys. Growing up in the Keys, for me, was the best thing ever. I couldn’t imagine growing up in any other way. Yeah, for some people it’s just a place to go on vacation, and it even feels like a vacation living there. Every day you’re on the water. There are no malls; they’re all small towns. Being on the ocean is just what you do. I loved it. We got to do what we wanted to do: fishing, spear fishing, riding and skateboarding.
That sounds like paradise. Yeah, I mean there’s not calypso music constantly playing, and Jimmy Buffet doesn’t come over all the time, but it’s still really awesome and different and unique.
How do you think constantly being surrounded by the water played a part in your upbringing? Well, both my parents are from the Keys. I was born there, and the water was my life. When I was a little boy, my dad made me kneeboard before I could even swim. My dad and I would always go kneeboarding together. We would ride doubles and I’d jump over to him and stand behind his back and clap. Some real Keys show-skiing shit. We had nothing on the people from the Midwest, but the people around us thought it was cool. My dad was really good. He could do flips, he had a mullet and he would barefoot. He was the best water-sports dude around.
At what point did you start wakeboarding? When I was like 6, my Dad had this Skurfer and he pushed me really hard to ride it. I think I got up on it once and was over it. But later on we went on this trip to North Carolina, and he bought me an issue of WAKEBOARDING magazine with Scott Harwood riding a wave on the cover. The whole time on vacation, I constantly read it. We drove up there, so I never put it down. We got an O’Brien Buzz from Boaters World when we got back.
You were 13? No, I must have been like 11. I sucked when I first started. I was having trouble getting up, all my friends were getting air and much better than me. On the weekends, our dads would pull us but would only let us fall three times and make us get back in the boat.
At what point did you pick up a wakeskate? That’s the funny thing, because we started wakeskating at the same time. Even then we were skateboarding but not skateboarding well. Down there, you have to understand, we had no idea what was going on at all. Kids in Orlando could go to the skate park and see guys killing it or read magazines and watch videos. We didn’t know what was good or bad. We were just trying to figure it out. That was before the Internet, and there were no places to buy skateboarding magazines or videos. One day it was really rough and we put surf wax on a wakeboard and wore athletic sandals because that’s what we thought would be best to get wet. It’s funny we thought that when it was rough it would be better for wakeskating too. Like, you could get “air” or something. I remember it like it was yesterday.
When did you start taking yourself more seriously? I guess when I was like 13. I got a Liquid Force Mini Squirt and we started building rails. We all started ordering videos and getting them for Christmas, like 12 Honkeys and stuff. My friend Topher’s older brother Chuck, by pure coincidence, was really good at wakeboarding. He was like a Masters champion and could do 7s and stuff. So we saw all his videos too and started building these floating rails and ramps. Then the summer of sixth grade, I got my own boat — an old 16-foot Sea Ray with a rotten hull my dad got for nothing. It had this 120 you needed a screwdriver to start. We got really serious after that.
Were you hitting them on a wakeskate? I think somehow I saw Wide Awake and saw Thomas Horrell’s part. Right after that, I took the bindings off my Mini Squirt and put on grip tape.
And athletic sandals? (Laughs) No, I wore shoes. The first time I rode that setup, though, I jumped the wake behind my neighbor’s boat and was like, “Oh my God.” For the next couple years after that I was 50-50 wakeboarding and wakeskating. I got a Cassette 41 — the orange flat deck.
When did you go to The Wakeboard Camp and meet Aaron Reed? Well, prior to that, I went to the World Wakeboard Center at the Hansens’. I met Reed Hansen when he was a little kid, and he was wakeboarding like crazy. He was killing it and Trevor Hansen was killing it. Reed was awesome. He was like 10 and walking around the lake with girls. They had the Letchy Cassette there, and I was jumping the wake behind their boat and they were all really psyched on it. The following year I went to The Wakeboard Camp in Clermont, Florida.
Were you wakeskating a lot in between that? Yeah, a bunch. I was still wakeboarding then too, though, because where I’m from it was cooler if you wakeboard because it’s a little more showy, you know? But I liked wakeskating since I was skateboarding so much. Anyway, I went to The Wakeboard Camp, and I knew who Aaron was. He came on the boat one day when I was wakeskating and he was pumped on it. I ended up wakeskating the rest of my trip there. He told me when I was leaving if I got some stuff together he’d send it to Thomas. So it really all started for me at The Wakeboard Camp, and I have always loved that place since.
You sent Thomas stuff to get on Cassette?Yeah. When I got home, I rode every day, and I put together a video and sent it to Thomas. I was literally videotaping the TV — going VCR to VCR or something.
Really? Yeah, I figured out this crazy way to plug in two VCRs and a camera to edit stuff. We somehow would hit record then press play on a CD player next to us and edit it to music. You had to remember where the song was when you stopped. It was awful.
So Thomas called you? Yeah, he told me to go to Surf Expo. So when I was 14, I went to Expo wearing a Sublime T-shirt because I just got it and I thought it would make me look cool and a pair of shorts from PacSun and some Etnies with the dumb sideways “E”. Kyle Bohannon and I went and walked around the Liquid Force thing for a while and Don Wallace introduced me to Thomas. He was just all: “Oh yeah, cool video, blah, blah, blah. We’ll send you a couple boards.” He ended up sending me a few boards and the first thing I did with them was the trip to Miami for Sfumato.
After your part came out from Sfumato, you really blew up. How did you take that? I was definitely super excited, but wakeskating was always kind of a personal thing for me. I really did it for myself. I wasn’t trying to be the cool guy or anything. People in my high school didn’t know what was going on. I knew in that part I wanted to kickflip over something and kickflip onto something. I didn’t get to kickflip off of something.
What about the frontside flip? To me, that was huge. I saw some guy who rode with Daniel Lovett do a frontside flip online. Back then, it was different than it is now. People weren’t even doing ollie 360s or varial flips in the flats. When I saw that kid do it, I was like “Oh, that’s possible.” I did a few in the Keys, then I did that one on Clear Lake for Sfumato. I think back then Thomas gave me some direction and motivation. He and Aaron have always really guided my riding.
After that part came out, did you feel a lot of pressure? Yeah, I guess I felt a lot of pressure after that one. For that part, I went so hard and felt like even though I was pretty young, the vibe for filming for that movie was pretty monumental. It’s something I’ve never really been a part of since, you know? We didn’t even really know what we were doing. We were just trying different stuff to see what happened. After that, I definitely felt some pressure. Like my Pre Pop part that everyone thought was great. I was kind of almost disappointed in myself. I think I got to a point where I said, “OK, I did that, and now I want to do something else.” I kind of neglected some things at that time to focus on different stuff.
Like what? Well, it was cool to evolve, and I felt my style “got cooler” or whatever, but I just felt like I wasn’t going as hard as I was for Sfumato.
At that point, you were super young, super formidable and hanging with the big boys. How did that affect you? Well, yeah, there were a lot of great things that came from it. I definitely learned a lot of stuff that people my age weren’t learning and got to experience a lot of crazy stuff, you know? And at the same time, there were probably a few negative things that came from it. I mean, I probably could have done better in my riding than I was doing for a little while.
You were living hard and living fast, Dan. I was definitely partying and got used to that pretty young. You know, it’s no one’s fault. I’m not mad about it. It was fun. For better or for worse, I grew up fast with a bunch of people who were the age I am now and I was just a little kid. They just always looked at me as being older, I guess. They were my big brothers, you know? And I love those guys.
Thomas and Aaron are mentors and people I look up to. But I don’t know, in hindsight, I feel like I missed out on some stuff. Not like Danny Hampson_ Behind the Music_-type shit or anything, but I would go on a trip and get crazy and come home to the Keys and it would be just as crazy there. Coming from where I’m from, I think the partying thing was bound to happen, but that kind of ignited it, you know? Looking back, I was a nightmare for my parents, and I feel bad.
Yeah, but at the same time you were shaping a sport. Yeah, it was awesome. The Cassette thing is something that will never happen again. I think wakeskating would be in a totally different place than it is now if Cassette was still around. It sucks it isn’t, but maybe that’s what it was meant to do, you know? A star can’t burn forever. Not to take anything away from what guys like Scott Byerly and Brian Grubb have done, but it’s amazing to sit back and look at what Cassette did for the sport.
Have you slowed things down? Yeah. I mean I was never that horrible, but I think I’ve slowed down, grown up and matured. You can’t party all the time and ride well. I was just ready to start riding well and have a better day, you know?
What was it like when you made the transition from Cassette to Liquid Force? It was really weird, man. It was really hard for me. I think I was like 18, and at that point I was still living at my parents’. I was making a little money off wakeskating, but for me wakeskating was just this thing I cherished and was obsessed with. I was obsessed with the whole Cassette thing and what Thomas was doing with it, and that made it hard. But I never left Thomas — none of us did. It was one of those things that he told us what was going on and what was going to happen. It’s hard to explain. There’s no other way to explain it than say it was a huge bummer and after that I was just sad. It’s nothing against Liquid Force. I love Liquid Force, and they’ve done so much for me and I love those guys. But just after Cassette died down, it took a lot away; it took the wind out of my sails. I really believed in Cassette and I believed wakeskating needed Cassette to survive, you know? It’s gone on without it, but it’s just a bummer. Let’s move on.
How was Obscura formed? Well, Aaron and I always wanted to kind of take control over what we were riding and pushing.
You wanted full creative control? Yeah, within reason. We wanted to have control over graphics, apparel and art. In a perfect world, we wanted what we did with our video — create a little team and try to recreate the Cassette thing. It’s hard to ever get there, but we’re happy with Obscura. We’re happy with what we’ve done. Liquid Force is an incredible wakeboard company, but we needed a wakeskate-specific deal so we could push wakeskating in our own way. How can we all blossom together, man? They’re a rock and we’re a flower coming off that rock.
Is this something you’ve always wanted? Aaron and I want to promote wakeskating in the best way possible, and we want to grow it to where all the top guys are getting paid. I’m not just talking about our guys either — every single dude who is out there killing it. We’ve always wanted that. Maybe to some of the core guys, it seems like Aaron and I don’t have that in mind with some of the things we do, but at the end of the day all we want is to grow the sport.
We’ve been in this for a long time and we know the channels to do that. I think some people see us as not doing things the most “legit” or “cool” way possible. But c’mon, you’re riding a wakeskate on top of the water, and in order for the sport to survive you have to appeal to the people who are on the water. So we’re trying to do everything we can. We came from winching, we’ve done it all, but we know you have to appeal to everyone.
You and Aaron have a little broader outlook on the industry than some people may realize. That’s the thing: We know that in order to get the sport to where we want it you have to take a few side streets to keep the heart beating. We’ve all dreamed of kids like Ben Horan, Andy Pastura, Travis Doran and Grant Roberts to represent wakeskating the way we want. But the reality is not everyone who is buying a wakeskate is doing that kind of stuff. Liquid gives us the perspective to understand that we’re such a small market, even though we think we’re huge and we live in this bubble.
In order to keep this thing alive we have to feed off wakeboarding in different ways to keep momentum. I know that might make some of those core dudes mad, but that’s the honest truth. I love wakeboarding; I’m not against it. I’m a product of wakeboarding and some of the new guys aren’t, so I just don’t think they understand. Yeah, we can all go and just say “screw you” to water sports and try to split wakeskating from it, but where does that leave us in the future? It’s a long-term plan for us, and Liquid helps us along with that plan. I’m trying hard. I’m at every event I can go to no matter what just so it exposes people to the sport. In the long term, regardless of whether you like every person who rides a wakeskate, the more people riding means the core group of dudes doing their thing can support themselves.
It’s not your first rodeo. I’ve got rope burns all over me, Shawn. We’re just a couple old dogs.
You guys put a lot of skin in the game to produce Washed Up (Before We Were Has Beens) too. What made you do it? Well, Aaron and I always wanted to do that. It started as some artsy-fartsy dream with 16 mm film and a Southern theme. Then they went and made that Canon HD camera. It all seemed a little silly after that. It was seriously like for $800 we could make a movie. Filming for video parts has always been my passion, and I’ve always wanted to make my own video.
Yeah, you’ve always put a lot of effort into your video parts. When I’m not filming a video part I feel like I don’t have much focus on anything. I love it. I watched Washed Up the other night with my girlfriend and it was probably the first time since all the premieres. It was so cool man, so many good memories. I called Aaron and told him we should do another one. He said he has to think about it. It was hard, but I loved it. The whole week after the premiere and before More Than Machines premiered was one of the best weeks of my life!
You were on top of the world that week. I haven’t done a video part since that, and it’s been really weird. For the seven-plus years before, I’ve never not been working on a part.
Do you feel a little lost? Yeah. I was just always doing something. Even some video parts people probably never saw, like in Joey Northup’s video.
That is one of my favorites. Yeah, I loved that First Breath part. It was sloppy and whatever, but it was fun working with Joey and everybody. And when I’m working on something, I’m riding all the time, learning new tricks and getting photos too. When I just go out and ride, I feel lost sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it, but I like working for something like I have a purpose.
What keeps you constantly into it? Money (laughs).
Seriously, people always think of you as free spirit soul guy. Yeah, people look at me as free spirit soul guy because I’m a wreck, you know?
Yeah, but it’s how you come across and what you say. I just love to wakeskate. It’s fairly simple. I love wakeskating, skateboarding, my family, my friends, my girlfriend and fishing. I don’t know, I just love wakeskating.
So you’ve never been burnt out before? When Cassette went under, maybe for like a year. Cassette went under, I broke my neck and I never thought I would wakeskate again. All that changed my life, but I came back and boom! Wakeskating was my life. I just wanted to do it, and that’s how I am to this day. I don’t know, man. I spend lots of my own money to go on trips, go to contests or just to wakeskate in my backyard. I don’t really feel good about myself unless I’m wakeskating, skateboarding or fishing. I guess you could say it defines me.
Good God. But honestly, when I riding my wakeskate and I look down at my shoes, the grip tape and the spray, I think to myself: “This is it, man. This is the crunchiest feeling I’ve ever had.” And I’m not even joking. Yeah, it sounds like I’m joking by the way I worded it, but it’s true. As a little kid I would always take my wakeskate and lay on my back and hold it up there on my feet and do shove-its and stuff. Or even wade out in the water and just play with it under my feet. It just blows my mind, and that’s why it never burns me out. I just don’t like pressure or people expecting me to do something.
That’s why I just like to ride with my same friends since forever. Even filming, I don’t feel like I have that much pressure when I’m filming because the majority of the time I’m with my friends. I just don’t like having all these people I don’t know out on the boat expecting something out of me. That’s when it’s not fun anymore. That’s when I’ll make excuses so I don’t have to prove myself to anyone.
How did breaking your neck change you? That is something that is really hard to explain, man. I don’t even think about it much anymore, but you take a lot of things for granted, and I was definitely taking some things for granted before that happened. I was probably being a jerk.
So it humbled you? For sure. Life is precious and you have to live every day like it’s your last. It made me grateful for what I do and realize how lucky I’ve been. I have an awesome family and awesome friends. I should have died, and I didn’t. Honestly, it made me a happier person and a lot nicer. I’m more considerate to other people and I’m not all about pleasing myself anymore. I have a long way to go and I’m way far from perfect, but I thank God for letting me be all right and getting a better perspective.
You’re in school, right? I attend a creative writing program at the University of Central Florida. Black and gold, black and gold, go Knights.
Creative writing is your focus? Yeah, that’s my major. I’m about to finish next semester. I’ve got senioritis big time. I’ve been in school my entire life. I’m super over it, but I’ve always gone part time and just chipped away. I’m a product of the community college system.
Is being a college grad something you’ve always wanted? I’m just doing it for myself. My parents at first really wanted me to be a college grad, but I don’t think they really care anymore. I always wanted to have some sort of college experience like the rest of my friends. A lot of them aren’t involved in the industry. It gave me a whole different side of my life, which is nice. You’ll drown if you’re in the water for too long. In the wake of your identity, you need to find yourself somehow.
That creative writing thing is paying off. I don’t plan to do anything with creative writing except change the world with a novel.
So aside from wakeskating, what do you want to do? I used to think I wanted to do a lot but now I just don’t know. I’m going to ride this pony for a while. I really just like being on the water, so something with fishing. I was serious about the book, though. I really want to write one.
What else are you into? Outside of wakeskating, I love to skateboard, fish and spearfish, get my crunch on, and I love music, reading and trying to play golf. I kind of just like interacting with people. I would say the most important part of my life is my family and friends.
How do you think your creative skills affect your wakeskating? I try to translate certain things. First off, I’m not as creative as I once thought I was. The creativity I do have I try to translate, but honestly, it’s more of a feeling thing. I used to try to really think of my riding a certain way but that didn’t work.
Sure, wakeskating is an artistic sport, but you can’t get away from the fact that it is a sport. It’s not like skateboarding. It’s so much more limited. I’ve really just been trying to do stuff that’s different for me. Even really dumb stuff, but it’s fun for me because it’s different. My big thing is I always want to be learning and evolving. I never want the same video part or the same sequence. That’s what keeps it fun. Honestly, I’m not the one to talk about this with because there are other people doing a lot more original stuff than I am.
Who is that? Ben Horan and Andy Pastura and guys like that. You want to know someone who has done more stuff than anyone? Aaron Reed. Besides Thomas, he has been the most creative person in wakeskating of all time. Think of everything that people do now and who started it and did it first. It has to be Aaron. All the new tricks he learned on rails, behind the PWC, wake-to-wake, everything. Aaron is insane. He’s been the most creative guy in wakeskating for a long time.
Yeah, his career has been so long. He’s incredible. Straight up, Thomas is the most influential and there’s no amount to put on how much Scott Byerly has done, but Aaron is the best. Look at his old video parts: Sfumato__. Volume 4. He did more new stuff in Volume 2 than any other part ever. Then, go into all the locked-in stuff he did on that one Red Bull trip: back tail, front blunt. Every single thing kids do today, Aaron did it, has done it and can still do it. Who do you think brought you front blunts, back big spins, wake-to-wake kickflips and Hampson? Aaron is by far the best wakeskater there ever was.
What kind of effect did you want to have? I have never once thought of having an impact on wakeskating.
Yeah, but you have. I guess I have. I don’t think about it too much — only when I’m upset or I don’t think someone has been nice to me or something.
Where do you see it going? I couldn’t tell you anymore. I worry about wakeskating. The riding is better than ever — the things people are doing are what we dreamed people would do. My vision of wakeskating is exactly what these kids are doing. They’re doing stuff I’ve only imagined and probably will only imagine doing, and it’s awesome. At the same time, I don’t know as a sport if we’re really growing. We think it is based on the tricks, but we’re all in a bubble and don’t see the big picture. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
What do you think the change has been for you recently? Buying a boat.
Yeah, I guess that makes sense. You’re constantly riding now. I’ve been in Orlando for five years, but I’ve only been living on a lake for the past two. For the first year living on the lake, I didn’t have a boat. Then I bought a boat from my dad that broke all the time. So this spring I bought this boat — a ’96 Sport Nautique — and it changed everything. I ride all the time. This is something everyone can do too. It cost less than a new PWC and you have every aspect of riding. No one has ever given me a free boat, and that’s fine. I bought my own boat and I’m happy as I could be. If that doesn’t prove how much I love wakeskating, what does? I’m not going to sit around and wait for someone to sponsor me. I bought my own boat and go out and wakeskate every day no matter what. Everyone else can suck it (laughs).
Anything else to say? Yeah, I kind of feel like I messed this whole interview up. I wasn’t funny and you kept asking really hard questions. Those were good questions, though. I’m glad you didn’t just ask me how my wake is and shit. I want to thank God, my family and friends, Obscura, Oakley, DVS and the Liquid Force family.