“In the beginning, it was very difficult for my dad to understand why I was skateboarding and surfing and snowboarding and working odd jobs, living the shred lifestyle,” says Sal Masekela, looking back on the altogether different life path he carved out for himself after ditching any expectations that he’d be taking career cues from his father, South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela. “I remember he’d ask me what I was up to and I’d be like, ‘Yo, I’m still shredding. And you?’ But he was also the one to say, straight up, ‘If you love this stuff as much as you do, you need to be in it.'”
Parental gauntlet thrown, his dad’s words turned out to be precisely the challenge young Sal needed. Over his last two decades in action sports, Masekela has come to be the embodiment of "in it," working his way up from an internship at TransWorld Publications to a 13-year career as the host of the X Games before moving on to his current role as host of the Red Bull Signature series and an Olympic commentator for NBC. He tries to surf, skate, or snowboard daily--sometimes all three in the same day.
After taking powder laps in Sochi, Russia, above the Rosa Khutor Olympic ski and snowboard venue last winter, he even managed to find time to surf the Black Sea in between his broadcasting responsibilities.
"You know, just mind-boggling bucket-list-type stuff," he says. "At some point someone’s going to realize I’ve committed grand larceny all these years, surfing and shredding my way around the world, but no one’s figured it out yet, so I’ll keep keeping on.”
Lately, however, the family legacy has been beckoning as persistently as the waves.
In 2012, Masekela released his debut album, "The Sound of Alekesam," quietly hoping that spelling his name backwards might allow the music to stand on its own, free of comparisons to his father’s extensive discography, before anyone could make the connection.
“I think that the nice thing with the second record is I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore,” Masekela says. “All I wanted out of the first one was to make some music that people could resonate with without knowing it was me. This time around I wasn’t nearly as scared, because there was no pressure. All I wanted to do was make more music. I felt like I had the itch again.”
For the forthcoming follow-up, "Coffee and Gold," he’s finally come full circle, even going so far as to invite his dad into the studio to record with him. Expect some buzz when the new record drops: It will be the first public collaboration between the Grammy and Tony award nominee and his son, and Masekela says his dad didn't just show up for a token appearance.
“He wanted his parts to be the best thing on the record, so he came to bring the heat! But he also wanted me to know that he thought what I was doing was cool, which was crazy. I can’t even tie my father’s shoes, musically. He’s turning 75 and he’s playing what will probably be a sold-out Disney Concert Hall birthday show this month, still very much at the top of his game--so to have him in the studio, and feeling it, was a wild dream come true.”
Masekela’s main partner in the project is Sunny Levine, an established musician and composer in his own right who also happens to be the son of Stewart Levine, Hugh Masekela’s longtime producer and collaborator. There are family pictures of the four of them in a recording studio together when Sal and Sunny were just 3 and 7 years old.
“Sunny and I have never not been in each other’s lives,” Masekela explains. “His father and my father met at the Manhattan School of Music in the early '60s when my dad was fresh off the boat from South Africa as a political exile. Stewart was a Brooklyn Jew--you couldn’t ask for a better partnership in the '60s civil rights era--and they were real rebels. They stayed fast friends and became brothers, and they’ve since recorded probably 40 albums together. Sunny has always been my cousin, my brother.”
When Masekela first moved to Los Angeles in 2002, he moved in with Levine. Before long, they were looking for ways to collaborate on each other's projects.
“He needed a roommate, I needed a place to live, and it just made sense,” Masekela says. “The great thing about it was whatever I was doing, wherever my TV career took me, I came home to music and to bands recording in my house, to Sunny doing his music. I started singing backup on different projects--that was something I did quietly and wasn’t really telling anybody about-- and a lot of those artists were like, ‘When are you going to make your record? When you’re ready I will be the first to come play with you.'”
It took a pivotal moment in his TV career for him to get there. After his X Games contract renegotiation with ESPN fell apart and the E! network dropped his show "The Daily 10," figuring out what kind of music he wanted to make became a way of finding himself.
"When you go into the studio for three months to make a record on your own dime, people think you're nuts," he says. "Friends were having intervention-type conversations with me to make sure I wasn't going crazy. Maybe I was."
“When the X Games thing first ended, I was shattered," Masekela admits. "X Games was this big three-ring circus of action sports, and I loved being able to expose people to the stories of the kids and the passion behind these sports. For 13 years, I got to be that guy. When our negotiations went sour and they were like, ‘Look, you’re not the face of the X Games,’ that hurt. Ultimately they didn’t see me as the quarterback of this thing. They saw me as replaceable.”
"When they called my bluff and replaced me with the hot girl [Ramona Bruland], I was scared. Could I be replaced so easily? We all know how that played out, and I’m not going to lie: That allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief, like, ‘You’re not crazy.’ It allowed me to really throw myself into the Red Bull Signature Series, and in a way it gave me permission and confidence to go make music. And then suddenly here we were, 40 years later, Sunny and I repeating the steps of our fathers by building a studio together in the house and starting to make music together.”
Masekela says he’s not in any hurry to quit his day job--the Red Bull Signature Series has been a dream gig, and he just signed a new two-year deal in time for the second-annual Red Bull Double Pipe event Mar. 12 in Aspen, Colorado--which makes his time in the recording studio even more liberating.
"My whole career has been about telling other people's stories," he says. "When it came time to choose something that was 100 percent about me, music was the obvious choice because that’s where I came from. I have a job that takes care of my life and my family, and music is my hobby, so I’m able to throw myself into it without the pressure of having to survive off it. For me it's been more about mining my soul on a lot of different levels."
All the same, the music is starting to make an impact. A remix of the single “It’s Not You, It’s Here” from "The Sound of Alekesam" was featured in the series finale of "Entourage" on HBO. “All Is Forgiven,” the advance single from Alekesam’s "Coffee and Gold," served as the soundtrack to the closing scene in this season’s premiere of Showtime’s "House of Lies." He's been pleasantly surprised to hear his music on his local radio station and admits to nerding out as his iTunes, Soundcloud, and Spotify numbers stack up.
In addition to his musical partnership with Levine, Masekela has also partnered with filmmaker Jason Bergh to cofound UX Entertainment Group, producing documentary films, commercials, and events. He recently re-upped with Red Bull Media House and NBC through 2017, and will also be reporting for HBO's documentary series "Vice" this season. Stoked Mentoring, the nonprofit Masekela cofounded in 2005 with Steve Larosiliere, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Things are looking up, all around.
“I’m just really stoked at this point in my career that I’m getting to break new trail in the expansion of action-sports culture and still getting to do some new storytelling with Vice, NBC, and Red Bull Media House," he says. "I'm in my 40s now and what can I say? I’m excited for this next chapter of my life. I think growing up as a cool kid in your 20s and 30s, you look at older people like they don’t have a clue. And now I’m that guy and I’ve never been happier. I thought I was cool, but I didn’t know shit. I see my dad at 75 and what I’m most excited about is how much more I have to learn."
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