Aaron LaCrate of Milkcrate Athletics
There was a once a time, in a world before the internet – or even when all your favourite brand owners still posted on the 5th Dimension or Hypebeast forum – you paid your dues in this game, or so I’ve been told. And that was when you could still label it a game, a community or even a subculture. That was before it became a multinational, multi-million pound business. Of course, it’s easy to idealise those halcyon days and forget that there were very few who were actually making decent money from this game. Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but the notion of paying dues is one which sadly doesn’t, but perhaps still should, exist within this industry. It was a rite of passage for guys like Aaron LaCrate, music producer and founder of Milkcrate Athletics, who came up in New York during the mid-90s. With the advent of the Internet paying dues is no longer a necessity, but Milkcrate’s existence has spanned nearly two decades – a feat that many of the current crop of fly-by-night streetwear brands would struggle to replicate – is a result of pure hustle.
I met Aaron LaCrate at the recent Jacket Required tradeshow; weary after a 12 hour delay followed by a transatlantic flight but full of exuberance and exuding genuine humility. It was apparent within a few minutes why he has gained the notoriety he has. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect; if I’d produced tracks for the likes of Bun B and Rakim, I’d most likely carry a bit of an ego, but this wasn’t the case. LaCrate’s Baltimore upbringing, “where there was no faking anything,” has undoubtedly informed many of his sensibilities. It is a city which has massively influenced both LaCrate’s music and fashion output, so obviously I began by asking him if it was really like The Wire. “It (The Wire) was great, that kind of sums up the city – there’s not a whole lot of innovation.” The mixture of depravity and violence is one which still plays on his mind, says LaCrate, “Baltimore’s a rough city. In the 90s it was a very rough town and still is. Crazy story; just the other day I looked on Facebook – I grew up in an area called Highlandtown – ‘Murder in Highlandtown: Two 16 year old kids stabbed a woman to death in her house.’ And I look, and thought, ‘this is going to be in Highlandtown but its not going to be right where I grew up.’ It happened to be very very close to where my parents still live. In the new year Baltimore already has 30-something murders. They hit 300 plus a year. They call it Bodymore Murderland for a reason.”
In spite of his surroundings, a young LaCrate was unperturbed by potentially being labelled an outcast or a pariah for what he chose to pursue. These were the days before skateboarding was cool and, in his words, “there were a lot of people who put in work to make that be an easy path for a kid to be. But there were a lot of fights that were fought along the way to be that kind of kid.” The kind of kid that he’s referring to is the type that is the norm today, or even with the likes of Odd Future, cool to be.
“Growing up there, we had the first skateboard shop in the basement of our house back in the early 80s when I was 8 or 9 years old.”
Aaron effectively owned Baltimore’s first skate shop aged eight. “Growing up there, we had the first skateboard shop in the basement of our house back in the early 80s when I was 8 or 9 years old – putting together skateboards and selling them out of the basement. It wasn’t a shop, as such, we just sold skateboards out of the house.
My father was smart enough – and didn’t want to pay retail – so he found the local dealer; which happened to be in Ocean City, Maryland. He got an account and started buying shit for wholesale. So I’m like 8 years old learning about wholesale, retail, putting them together, doing the grip tape, selling them. That was like the early stages of this (Milkcrate).”
”I think the first t-shirt I ever made was this Suicidal Tendencies album cover and all the kids in the neighbourhood had one. You put a t-shirt on the record cover and would just trace with a sharpie. It was really crude, obviously, but really cool.”
“It was this combination of skate style, surf wear, because there was no ‘streetwear’ back then,” LaCrate reminisces. It’s easy to become jealous, as a 90’s-born kid, to be jealous of that era and consequently glamorise it; it was the foundations of what we know and love today. “There was this whole ‘do it yourself’ vibe. You’re making your own t-shirts. I think the first t-shirt I ever made was this Suicidal Tendencies album cover and all the kids in the neighbourhood had one. You put a t-shirt on the record cover and would just trace with a sharpie. It was really crude, obviously, but really cool because everyone had their own little style of this same thing. Those little things, looking back, are really big on understanding how your brand sort of works.” The same tenets of sampling, flipping and hustling not only informed Aaron’s subsequent Milkcrate brand but also his career as a DJ and music producer. To him, “that’s hip hop. If you can’t hustle don’t even try, you’ll never be known. The best artists and the best hustlers; it’s one in the same.”
LaCrate left Baltimore in the mid 90s for New York, where he battled for the best part of the of a decade to be heard, both in terms of his brand and as a DJ cum music producer. While Milkcrate was part of a mid-nineties boom, “the second wave of streetwear, post-Stussy and Supreme” as he calls it, the enigmatic Baltimore native was not content with simply doing clothes.
For him, music and fashion have always been done in conjunction with one another and there was a time where the music took precedence. It is a luxury that LaCrate is all-too aware – and undoubtedly appreciative of. “Now, Kanye’s biggest dream is to be a designer; he’s done everything amazingly well but all he cares about right now is getting his credit in fashion. It’s interesting because he’s sending a message that its harder to get credit in fashion than music.”
“I was the first streetwear designer to produce a hit record. To me, that is more real than a famous artist starting a clothing brand.”
“So, I’m a guy who came up doing all this shit, I never did one of the other, I did it all at the same time. Which is rare. Usually people are all in one or all in the other. I’m kind of the first guy, I feel, to come from a street wear background to crossover into music. Like, I was the first streetwear designer to produce a hit record. To me, that is more real than a famous artist starting a clothing brand because he already has the popularity; he can do whatever he wants.
This whole streetwear shit used to be about being different – a counter culture; that’s what skate was. We were the freaks, we were the rebels, we were the other guys – we were not the popular ones. So when you’re a famous artist you are popular already, you can launch a fragrance or whatever. So it’s changed the dynamic of what streetwear is.”
“Milkcrate, I truly believe, is a unique brand and situation,” proclaims LaCrate and his reasoning is solid when you look at the current market. “It’s all designed by me, it’s all hustled by me – there’s very few brands that are one person, period. Even my competitors don’t design their own shit anymore.” It is a valid point, streetwear has become so far removed from the one-man band’s which used to dominate. Now, it all seems very calculated. It would be fair to suggest that it is possible for Milkcrate to operate in this way because Aaron bridges the gap between clothing and music; and therefore celebrity. Yet, such celebrity endorsements are not down to some marketing campaign drummed up by an agency, rather a mutual appreciation of cool shit.
”kids worship Nike – it goes to show the level of follow the heard mentality. And that’s why streetwear is more important than ever because now is the time to be different, to think different, to look different.”
Milkcrate, in recent seasons, have been renowned for their loud bucket hats. As has Kendrick Lamar’s labelmate and friend Schoolboy Q, who is set to drop his latest album Oxymoron in the coming weeks. This convergence of styles not only manifested itself in a LaCrate remix of Q’s Hands On The Wheel track, but also the brands most relevant celebrity endorsement in recent times. And Milkcrate has had a few, from Eminem rocking the Illson shirt on his early NYC dates, to Jay Z’s endorsement in the Fade To Black video. Yet, despite its prominence within hip hop, the unforced nature of it all ensures a degree of authenticity, “you can give shit to these guys all day – they only wear what they want,” admits LaCrate. “They know their identity is so important they keep it 100% real, so they only wear what they love.” It was the same with Jay and Em, “those are moments that even the biggest brands like Nike don’t have – he didn’t wear a Nike shirt, he wore Milkcrate in those moments of time when they were making history.”
To the average person, such endorsements in the face of multinational corporations may not seem like a big deal, but to some of us it is the remnants of the counter-culture which once existed. It is an ideal that many of us still hold dear, including LaCrate; “kids worship Nike – it goes to show the level of follow the heard mentality. And that’s why streetwear is more important than ever because now is the time to be different, to think different, to look different, to not follow the heard. Now is the time to set your own trends, because with the internet, you can create your own world – even if you’re not famous. Of course, the famous people are always going to dominate, but I wasn’t famous, I’m from Baltimore” It is a poignant message from the skater turned DJ, who has undoubtedly carved his own path. Dues paid and two decades later, Milkcrate remains relevant to street-culture, whatever it has become today.