Aaron LaCrate’s New Exhibit at the Creative Alliance Explores Highlandtown as Childhood Muse by Catrell Thomas
Aaron LaCrate is not just another kid from Highlandtown. The artist and DJ is his neighborhood’s biggest fan. He has returned after many years in New York to help shed light on the history and culture that raised him in Baltimore.
In his upcoming mid-career retrospective, Aaron LaCrate: Just a Kid from Highlandtown at Creative Alliance, the Baltimore native takes us on a visual journey through Highlandtown’s history. Revisiting his strong, personal account of DJ culture, graffiti, and skateboarding, he hopes to bring a renewed sense of appreciation to his hometown.
“Highlandtown was kind of a forgotten about place in the early 70s,” he says. “It’s like there was a generation that fled Highlandtown and Baltimore City and a generation that was stuck there. Those are my people and the kids I grew up with. Parents were at work all the time or just didn’t give a fuck what the kids were doing, and we were running the streets writing our names on everything we could. However, there was some level of organization and skill emerging from all that chaos.”
According to Creative Alliance, LaCrate was born and raised around the corner, where he started Highlandtown’s first skate shop in his parents’ basement at age 8. He became a widely respected DJ and producer in Baltimore, and became integral to the development of Baltimore Club music, notably producing the Lily Allen remix of “Smile,” which brought him global attention. His fashion brand and record label Milkcrate NYC has since grown to a New York-based music and fashion conglomerate recognized worldwide.
It is that same organization and skill that gave LaCrate the drive to be successful in business and aligned him on his current path–a road home where he can give back to his community.
“I think it’s that purity and raw creative innocence of the first high that I experiences as a kid here, like skate culture, writing on walls, dj-ing, music. Those each by themselves and the lifestyles of each culture are extremely intoxicating and addicting,” he says. “I experienced them all at the same time, extremely young, in a uniquely Baltimore experience. Baltimore Club music was our hip hop as kids. We dressed our own way, style was extremely important. I lived like ten creative lifetimes by the time I was 18 in Baltimore. It’s also such a raw and honest city and attitude is really important to me.”
To kick off the event, LaCrate and his team painted a giant mural on the building across the street from Creative Alliance, celebrating Highlandtown skateboard culture and his early childhood basement skateshop. His show, which will reflect the Highlandtown street culture of the 80s, is a trip down memory lane.
“There’s going to be a lot of archived photos of the scene back in the 80s, of skaters, graff kids, the lost generation that no one knows existed,” he says. “There will be a recreation of my basement with my first dj set up, vintage t-shirts and flyers depicting Baltimore club scene, and a big party that night with all my favorite local Baltimore musical acts like Joy Postell and Peso Da Mafia.”
Highlandtown will feature an immersive recreation of LaCrate’s initial basement shop, complete with a participatory DJ and mix tape station. Visitors will travel through a historical photo montage documenting Highlandtown’s 1980’s skate, graffiti, and punk scene as seen through LaCrate’s eyes. The exhibit also features rare ephemera, such as vintage flyers, skate decks, grip tape, and clothing from LaCrate’s now famous brand of Milkcrate Athletics, all of which place viewers in the cultural moment of the late 1980’s.
The exhibition also highlights LaCrate’s musical career, the embrace of his efforts by the music and fashion world alike, and importantly focuses on his desire to see Baltimore embraced as a site for creative expression and skate culture through his newest brand, Bodymore, and continuing efforts as a producer in the music industry.
But that’s not all. LaCrate is also hosting a series of workshops geared toward local kids, centered around his passions–music and business. For him, giving back by sharing his knowledge and experiences from life will help today’s youth.
“The same way it helped me, if you can create your own opportunities in life you can avoid a lot of bullshit,” he admits. “The kids need to know that the answers the are looking for are simple not complex and everything is still very possible.”
“The current generation is the first that I’ve seen that are returning to the DIY roots and having great success,” he says. “From music to street wear, I have more in common with these 16 year olds than I do with people my age. It’s that thirty year cycle I guess, but kids like this didn’t exist when I was coming up, and my generation definitely created a mold for today’s youth.”
Master Your Mix and Behind the Brand are both educational programs LaCrate is teaching in a new workshop coming next month after his show. Teaching local kids how to start a brand, and learn to dj on vinyl are all part of his mentoring program he’s set to fulfill.
Aaron LaCrate: Just a Kid from Highlandtown opens this Friday, October 13 at Creative Alliance, followed by PANDEMIC, presented by True Laurels and Milkcrate.