Filed under: Interviews, Words of the Week, XCLUS!VES | Tags: A Tribe Called Quest, Aaron LaCrate, De La Soul, Gorillaz, Interviews, Jay-Z, Lily Allen, Mark Ronson, Milkcrate, MNDR, Mr. Vegas, Syracuse University, The Cool Kids, The Wire, Wyclef Jean
Each Monday, 20 Watts is poised to feature a new exclusive artist interview! Here we present our WORDS OF THE WEEK!
LISTEN TO HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE INTERVIEW:
From the age of 10, Aaron LaCrate has been a prolific music talent from the streets of Baltimore and went onto launching his record label and clothing line, while also collaborating with Jay-Z, Lily Allen, The Cool Kids, Gorillaz and Mark Ronson–oh, and I did mention he went to Syracuse University? He’s been a secret famous alum until now, and the stories of his DJ days at SU are eerily familiar and fascinating. After rising to the top of the underground DJ/hip-hop scene, the fellow orange wanted to reach out to share his story.
20 Watts: Talk a little bit about being a young DJ in Baltimore when you were a kid…
Aaron LaCrate: It was great. It was nothing like it is now. There were no DJs back then, there were these electronic stores that sold records, stereo equipment and car stereos, so for me I had to assemble a mobile sound system. I had to go to the Goodwills and the flea markets, whichever way, I had the two different turn tables. It was really exciting back then because it was uncharted territory. There was no way to learn how to mix, no way to learn how to do anything, but to go on your own journey and find people that would like you enough to share that information with you. It was almost a very subculture thing. It was a testament to your personality and your character to how far you would get, in a lot of ways.
20W: You’re a ‘Cuse alum. What major were you, which year did you graduate and what kind of impact did Syracuse have on you? Also, what was the SU music scene like back then?
AL: I graduated in ’97 and I was a speech-com major and a music industry minor. It had a huge effect on me because I was able to spread my wings there. It came at the perfect time because I got started with DJing when I was 9 years-old, so by the time I was 18 years-old, I had already moved into DJing in D.C. When I got up there [at SU], it started all over again. In Baltimore there’s nothing, I was DJing house parties, a few clubs, but there was still very little of a music scene in Baltimore. Growing up in Baltimore, being a hip-hop/graffiti kid, I was obsessed with New York. To be upstate with a bunch of kids from Manhattan in 1993, it was a great time to be up there. It was a great time for hip-hop.
20W: So back then, SU was really hip-hop heavy?
AL: Hip-hop was still very much an underground thing. It was a lot less mainstream than it is now. It was a little underworld of people on South Campus. I don’t know how it is now. There were the Schine parties and of course house parties.
20W: Where was your favorite place to perform?
AL: I had two radio shows. I had a show on WAER called “The Milkcrate Show.” That eventually grew into a whole bunch of other things. I used to really doing the south campus parties. They would have a garbage can with a trash bag filled with jungle juice. I don’t know what it was, pure grain alcohol and something else. I’d come in with my turntables and set it up on the kitchen counter. I liked that a lot. I also did a few fraternity/sorority parties. I was all over the place; I was usually opening up for whatever band came into town, like De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest or Wyclef, I’d be the opening DJ. There was a big club called “The Spot”, which was one of the big night clubs on Gennessee St. There was always a Thursday night party where all the athletes went to, and I was in a lot of classes with those guys. [Donovan] McNabb would come and host some of the parties, so as a DJ, you got to meet all the coolest people on the campus.
20W: You have a record label and a clothing line. Did you foresee yourself being this kind if entrepreneur?
AL: Kinda, yeah. I was making t-shirts when I first started Djing, and my parents opened up a skateboard shop in our basement around 1988. We just basically sold skateboards out of the basement of our house. It was just the environment I grew up in–Djing, skateboarding and graffiti. It wasn’t all separate. A lot of kids go through it separately, but I stayed in all of it for quite some time. Eventually I started making my own mix CDs and selling t-shirts at shows I was DJing when I was 19 years-old. I had three or four lines before I graduated. I had to reinvent myself three or four times before I graduated college. If you look back on music careers and what its like to be in the entertainment business, you’re constantly reinventing, you’re constantly entertaining, so it was something I was destined to do since I was kid.
20W: It’s odd that SU has so many famous alumni, and yet I had never even heard of you until a couple days ago. It seems odd, doesn’t it?
AL: I’m just always going and going. I never even established contact. I never even let anyone at Syracuse to know what I was doing. I just ran into a girl in New York who works for Dr. Jay’s online retail, and she was like “you should make contact and tell them what you’re up to,” because she had just read my bio at the time. I’ve been doing a lot of big mainstream kind of things, but I’m still underground. I do it for the right reasons, I’m not doing it for the glory. I hope people are paying attention but you never really know.
20W: We just covered a show recently where MNDR performed with YACHT at Hamilton College. I know you’ve collaborated with her recently. What do you like about her?
AL: She comes from the underground music world–that’s her background. She built all of her own synths and all of her own drum machines, and I think she’s just a super original girl. She’s very similar to myself. She’s been out there, and she’s been doing it for the fun for a very long time. The momentum has built naturally and now she’s at this point where she’s confident and comfortable with who she is creatively. I’ve worked with her in the studio and I’ve been supporting her ever since she came to New York. I don’t know how much help she’s going to need very soon.
20W: What do you have coming up? Any new exciting projects?
AL: I just released the first HBO: The Wire clothing line, which is pretty exciting. There’s also a girl from Baltimore I just signed called Mz Streamz, a real strong-willed female emcee. I just finished up her mix CD, which I’m really proud of. It’s going to up the floodgates for more of my production style, her as an artist, and the city of Baltimore–putting it on a creative level with a lot of other famous cities. Then I have my album coming out this year called Ignorant Art. That’s going to feature MNDR, The Cool Kids, Mr. Vegas, and a number of new artists.