(editor’s note: This interview was recorded last Friday afternoon, hours before anyone was shot. If we had talked afterward, you can bet that would have come up in our conversation.)
It’s Friday, and that means throughout Los Angeles, cyclists are gearing up in some way or another for the weekend. Since February of 2004, when the Midnight Ridazz rode for the first time, a part of those weekends has included some sort of large, open group bicycle ride somewhere in the city. Or, as has become the case these days, several large group bicycle rides.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down with three "Originalzz." Since we decided to refer to them by their Ridazz handles, meet Ma Bell, Kelly Green and MuffMaster Flash. For the record, I’m only typing out the word "MuffMaster" one more time, so enjoy it.
I’ve wanted to do this interview since I got out here, because whether the Ridazz themselves realize it or not, Midnight Ridazz is a phenomenon. Back when I was sitting at a desk in New York writing testimonies about widening the New Jersey Turnpike, I knew about the Midnight Ridazz. It’s a legend that’s constantly growing.
Cruising through the pictures section of the current Midnight Ridazz website, a couple of things occurred to me. The shot of the first ride is a great example about how the actions of a few people can snowball and change the world. Of course, it also occurred to me that I had sat down with the only three Ridazz in the world who are somewhat camera shy.
For the first time, I had to cut some of the interview off. Our threesome talked for an hour and a half, setting a record for an interview, and they constantly mentioned the contributions of others to help the Ridazz roll off into the night and repeatedly gave me names of other people I should be talking to. Particularly, Kim Jensen, aka Skull, was a name that came up as often as the three names of Roadblock combined. As soon as we have Skype set up, we’ll do something with her too.
In the meantime, you can read the abridged interview after the jump.
Kelly Green: I guess the precursor was the Critical Mass bike rides, but they never really caught on like they did in San Francisco. We were excited if we got forty of fifty people.
What started happening was a couple of bike focusing groups got started. People were going and hanging out at places like the Bicycle Kitchen or people would do their own rides after Critical Mass. For example,Joshua Moody would organize a "my favorite taco trucks" ride.
And that’s how I ended up doing social rides. I was doing Critical Mass, but was looking for something else then I found a bunch of crazy, enthusiastic and bicycle riders and joined the Bicycle Kitchen.
Ma Bell: I moved here from Boston in 2003, and I didn’t really have an experience with L.A. Bike Scene prior to that. My bike background was that I had briefly been a bike messenger in Boston.
So I was riding my bike around L.A. and a woman at Skylight Books, I think her name was Andrea saw me, saw my bikes, so my license plate and said, "hey, you must be a messenger. You should check out a place called the Bicycle Kitchen at the Eco-Village." That’s how I got into the bike scene.
I knew about Critical Mass, but I could never get there on time from work
MM F– I discovered the bike scene when I did my first Midnight Ridazz. I had been a roadie back in Texas, and had been doing some riding in L.A.; but for the most part had put my bike away after moving here. Basically, I got here and said, ‘Fuck this place, this is not rideable." But I had a mountain bike I had decorated for Burning Man. I heard about Midnight Ridazz from an old schoolmate – she and Kim Chi and I went to Art Center together. I came and brought this burner bike on the Bone Ride in July of 2004. There were about 40 people and by the end of the night I was like, ‘this is it.’ I had found how bike riding worked for me in Los Angeles.
Ma Bell: So I moved from Boston, and hanging out at the Eco Village, it was like that Blind Melon video (editor’s note: that would be No Rain for the curious) where the girl is dressed like a bee and finds the other Bee People. That was me when I found the Bike Kitchen People.
Kelly Green: You even had a bee bike.
MM F: And a Bee Haircut
Ma Bell: So, by happenstance I was working at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and one of my colleagues there invited me to a show at the Knitting Factory. Myself and a friend of mine road our bikes to the Knitting Factory. I can’t remember what the show was, but afterwards my friend, Kim (editor’s note, aka Skull) said, "tomorrow night me and some friends are going for a bike ride, do you want to come with us?" I was like, "I’m there, what time and where?"
So, she gave me her phone number, and her address and told me to meet her at her apartment on Echo Park Boulevard across the street from Magic Gas at nine o’clock and we were going to go on a bike ride. So I come and there were two or three other people on bikes, two more on skateboards. Roadblock was on a skateboard. I know him as "Too Tall Jamal," I always call him "Too Tall."
Anyway, we jus t have a magical night. This was before the Downtown rejuvenation, and the streets were dead. You could hear a pin drop. There were no cars. There was no law enforcement. There was nothing. Closed doors and closed gates. The city was our adult playground. We could go up and down things and over things. Climb on things…and that was in the winter of 2003.
MM F: Actually if it was winter, it was probably 2004.
Kelly Green: The anniversary rides are in February, so February 2004.
Ma Bell: I didn’t know the Downtown then, or really Echo Park, so I felt like I was lost in Wonderland. , You know Kim Jensen was the brains of this. It was modeled after the Bike Club in another city and the idea of riding at midnight came from rides she did while traveling in Cambodia.
A lot of people like to credit me and Kim for getting this started and keeping it going, but there were a lot of people who spent a lot of time and effort to keep it going. It was a real collaboration. A lot of people don’t get fair credit for their contributions.
Kelly Green: One of my favorite early magical bike rides was when a bunch of people rode to see VBC (Very Be Careful, an old favorite LA cumbia band of the cooks at the Bicycle Kitchen) in Manchester. So we had this midnight trip to a disco club and late-night picnic on the sidewalk of the cop shop and when we rolled up on our bicycles the door people were like, ‘what the hell?.’ But we just walked in and danced our asses off.
MM F: As for Ridazz, my first ride was the Bone Ride. I guess by the time I came along it was on its sixth month or so. We were still meeting at Magic Gas. By now there was a clear protocol already in place and a lot of the people that get mentioned such as Joshua and Orlando they were already part of the picture when people thought of the rides. They would take up the rear and keep everyone moving and make sure people are ok or be up front and set the pace. At that ride I was one of the assholes that showed up with a bike that really wasn’t working properly. I think it was Joshua who actually helped me a couple of times that night.
Ma Bell: How romantic
MM F: There were a lot of people who would just automatically take care of the different aspects of the ride and help people out. No Rider Left Behind was already a slogan by the time I arrived — The ethic of occasionally stopping and making sure everyone was with us or making sure someone stayed back who knew the root so they could eventually catch up.
In the beginning it was a real community. How many scenes can someone get involved with where they develop life-long friends? This was my first.
Ma Bell: You found your Bee People.
MM F: Yes. And we see this with so many people in so many ways. We’ve had romances come out of this, I met some of my best friends: Jen Hofer, and these two ladies here.
Jen, along with Kim Jensen, co-founded a group called the WhirlyGirls,(also known as the Los Angeles Ladies’ Bicycling Association) which was partly a reaction to the very masculine energy that was already starting to run through Ridazz.
Kelly Green: There were some early ethics about Ridazz, and MuffMaster mentioned one of them: No Rider Left Behind. But the other one was "no littering." These were essentially the only two rules of Ridazz. And there was also a song.
We can sing it for you if you’d like.
Ma Bell: Uhm
MM F: <laughter>
Streetsblog: That’s ok. When I get a digital recorder back, we’ll meet again and we’ll do a whole story just about the song.
Ma Bell: There are two other things. One of the really cool things about the early rides was that they were at night. It added a key element of excitement because we were out and doing something that nobody else was doing in Los Angeles. Especially Downtown Los Angeles. It added a level of mischievousness and excitement to our trips to Downtown L.A.
I also wanted to add especially in conjunction with the Bike Kitchen we were getting a lot of people to do biking. I could walk around Echo Park and Silver Lake and never see anybody on a bicycle! It wasn’t a lifestyle yet. There was this unique synergy of the Ridazz and the Bike Kitchen that really changed the face of all things bike. People were riding bicycles.
Now, if you look at the Midnight Ridazz website you see a ride everyday.
Streetsblog: Heck, you see a ride in the San Fernando Valley everyday, city-wide you see a lot of rides everyday. And, rides to other rides.
Ma Bell: That didn’t exist before Midnight Ridazz.
MM F: Midnight Ridazz was seen as fun and sexy and that got things started for a lot of people. Then you had the Bicycle Kitchen making it more viable for people to have their own bike, and know how to work on it. That’s a lot of what started the bike boom in 2004. I was doing some biking before, but now I was part of something.
There might be days when something would be getting me down, and I didn’t feel like riding; but I’d keep doing it because I felt like I was part of this movement.
Kelly: And don’t forget, Bike Summer of 2005.
<everyone says some sort of agreement at once>
Ma Bell: And another thing, the founding of Ridazz was very queer. The original Ridazz and rides were just…queer. In every meaning of the word.
A lot of the early leaders of Ridazz, the people that put in a lot of the time were women. It’s funny how it kind of keeps going. It makes me think of all the shwag that goes with Midnight Ridazz…I see people walking around with t-shirts wearing Skull’s skull on it, that are somewhere under 25 years old…but that skull and those shirts were built by everyone that led a ride and put in the time. To lead one you had to plan a route, ride the route ahead of time, make the theme, make the spoke cards.
MM F: Well only a couple people had access to laminating machines.
Streetsblog: I actually here from a couple people that the biggest mistake they made in Los Angeles was letting people know they had a laminating machine.
Kelly: Going back, awhile back I was at Forever 21, that crappy store, in the men’s section there was a t-shirt that said, "Midnight Riders, Los Angeles Chapter" that had a picture of a bicycle on it.
<mixed reactions of bemusement and disgust>
Streetsblog: Well, I guess that’s the price of success. You guys didn’t have a copyright lawyer on staff? So what were some of the favorite rides?
Kelly: The Stairmaster Ride. We had about 80-100 people at that one.
MM F: I like the Heavy Metal Ride. It was amazing to me how many people already had the clothes and outfits to do it. Everyone’s a metal fan inside.
Kelly: At the end of the ride didn’t Too Tall’s band play?
MaBell: Yeah, his AC/DC cover band.
Streetsblog: Uhm, Roadblock had an AC/DC cover band?
MM F: You missed out on that one.
Streetsblog: I totally should have talked to you before having dinner with him last night.
Ma Bell (gesturing at Kelly’s Tron Ride t-shirt): The Tron Ride
Streetsblog: How did you do that, did everyone wear cardboard with blue lights?
Ma Bell: No, we got a bunch of those fluorescent bendy lights and handed them out to people in groups based on the speed people wanted to go. Each group had its own route as we criss-crossed the city.
Streetsblog: That sounds amazing.
Ma Bell: The concept was amazing, but the execution was a little off.
Kelly: I didn’t like that one, even though I’m wearing the t-shirt because (Kelly proceeds to tell a story about a young woman who she took care of after breaking her nose that I’m omitting as to not embarrass the woman if she happens to be reading this).
Streetsblog: So, I don’t see you out there on these rides anymore, when were your last rides.
MM F: My last Midnight Ridazz ride was the Pirate Ride in 2007. There were 1,400 people, and it was just too many. I still do a lot of social rides with my friends. A small group biked down to Manhattan Beach on the 4th, and it was one of the best rides I had done in a long time.
Kelly: Mine was actually more recent. As part of the Bike Summit I organized with Joe Linton the Root Down Ride Around which visited a lot of the old sites from the early days. I invited Joe to design the flyer/spoke card illustration and help me come up with the root.
Ma Bell: The whole thing had just gotten to be too much. Ridazz was becoming my monthly anxiety attack, the police would call me at home….
MM F: Yeah, with such a large group, it was impossible to keep everything together. I heard a story about one guy who bragged to a motorist that he was "1,200 deep" (she does some gangsta style motion with her arms) like that made him invulnerable. We also had more confrontations with the cops and even people pulling knives and guns on the rides.
People don’t know this, but we almost killed Midnight Ridazz…instead a group of the core got together and eventually we turned it over to Too Tall. The thought of killing it made too many people too sad.
Ma Bell: I also want to change the way you phrased the question. We haven’t given up on Ridazz or the cause. Ridazz was a big part of our lives, but we needed to leave it to grow. And it’s become something else now and so have each of us.
MM F: The same with the Bike Kitchen.
Ma Bell: I just got off the Board of that a couple months ago. I still volunteer sometime.
Streetsblog: Hey, I think you helped me build my bike! (Upon a review of my pictures and an old Street Heat story, it was Mike Hammer who helped me build my bike. Ma Bell gave my Mom’s bike its first tune-up in nearly a decade.)
Ma Bell: I thought you looked familiar…But, the point is we haven’t stepped away from the cause. I’m as devoted now as I ever was.