This past fall, Baltimore-born Aaron LaCrate debuted an exhibit called “Just a Kid from Highlandtown” at the Creative Alliance. The show was a love letter to—or rather, a lovingly-made mixtape of—Highlandtown’s rich cultural history in the ‘80s, highlighting its underground music, fashion, graffiti and skate-kid scenes. LaCrate, 42, was a part of all four from a very young age, DJing all night parties at about 10 or 11 years old and starting his own indie clothing brand by tracing album covers onto t-shirts.
Everything and nothing has changed since those days. Highlandtown, of course, has transformed into a thriving arts district, and the internet has caused a seismic shift in art, music and more. LaCrate, however, is in many ways that same curious kid. His multifaceted interests have manifested into major career moves in art (check out his Highlandtown mural on (X) street, co-created by (NAME), music (he has collaborated with everyone from Lana del Rey and Lilly Allen to Soulja Boy and Young MC), fashion (his label, Milkcrate Athletics, was commissioned to create the official clothing line of The Wire and has fostered collaborations with Jay-Z, Beats By Dre, and others) and more.
But for LaCrate, it all comes back to his youth in Baltimore.
“I lived in Highlandtown until I was 18 and I’ve been a lot of places since then, but it [Baltimore] has always been part of the brand whether I was there or not,” he says. “That’s why what I do doesn’t fit into a real solid place—I was a part of so many things so young.”
Now, he’s making a concentrated effort to bring that same experience to new generations—though, he says, it will never be quite the same. Ten years ago, he released “B-More Gutter Music,” which he calls “the project that put Baltimore club music on a global level,” and now he’s hoping to further elevate local artists with a project called “Lil Crizzle.”
“Baltimore hasn’t traditionally been included in the DMV scene,” he says. “It’s crazy, because who has more culture than we do? We’re the most famous for everything urban-related, so this project is meant to be one of the first releases that brings all these guys together. We’re breaking down barriers. This new generation isn’t as territorial—we want to create a mid-Atlantic movement.”
The mixtape debuted about six months ago, and LaCrate continues to promote it, distributing it for free at all Zumiez stores that carry Milkcrate, creating videos and pushing it out on social media and to blogs, radio stations and other media. Surprisingly, he says that the mixtape, as was the case with other projects he’s worked on, is not receiving the level of support that he expects from local crowds. Some critics accuse him of appropriating the primarily black Baltimore club scene for his own benefit, though LaCrate insists that his musical upbringing and love for Baltimore are his sole motivations.
“When you’re the only one that’s making money from it, everyone’s critical,” he laments. “But it’s more for the city than me. I think this shit is super important.”
He doesn’t dwell on the lack of support, though.
“I’m going to keep investing in local culture because that’s what I’ve always done,” he says. “I’m continuing to take everything further, further, further. The code of graffiti crews, the code of the streets, needing to be authentic to be taken seriously and have people respect your creations—it’s the only life I know. It’s a constant game. All you can do is keep playing.”