The Crate Gatsby Instagram profile is a crash course on Baltimore’s musical legacy

Published on: August 11, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

A selection of records from Crate Gatsby.

Streaming services reached over 80 million U.S. listeners in the first half of 2021, but the most popular services, such as Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal, are mostly only useful for listening to contemporary music and older material that was released by — at the very least — moderately successful labels.

What these platforms don’t provide is a healthy selection of music that didn’t circulate much outside of its home region, and the majority of valuable music that local artists have released throughout history stands a chance of falling into the abyss.

But there are ways around the dilemma.

There’s a healthy niche community of record collectors in all corners of the world finding ways to share their findings on social media. In the case of 30-year-old Randallstown native Chase Mortenson, it’s his cleverly titled Instagram account, Crate Gatsby. Mortenson, who grew up with both a love of history and music, started the account in 2017 to broadcast the local music he found while crate-digging on the internet and in real-life.

And his collection is more than you could ever imagine. For the past few years, Mortenson has shared at least one record on his page every day, with a little bit of context to pull everything together. The records span from soul to gospel to jazz. In his pursuits, he’s discovered that elements of songs recorded in 1960s Baltimore became benchmarks of early hip-hop production on songs from artists like LL Cool J and Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

During a recent phone call, Mortenson talked about the project’s inception, what he hopes to accomplish by sharing music from the city’s past and what he’s learned during the journey.

What led you to doing this work? Are you a history buff?

I’ve definitely always been a history buff as a kid. At first it was war-related stuff and military, and you know, you get older and it branches off into different things. But always been a lover of music, always been native to the Baltimore area. I would call it a passion project of sorts, in the beginning. It just kind of started out as a guy who had a love for unveiling history and music. And the two kind of came together, and for about seven years now I have been really digging my heels into the local scene and trying to just see what’s out there. And it’s just fascinating to me. It really is. There’s a couple of guys doing what I’m doing.

Who were the people that were inspiring you to hop into this?

There’s a guy named Kevin Coombe. He runs DC Soul Recordings down in D.C. He was really an early guy, really pivotal — if not the first guy — to start in a serious, major way, unveiling history that was in the sense sitting dormant all across the DMV. He was really essential to putting out a compilation through Omnivore Records on the Ru-Jac Records label. It was really the first Black-owned music label in the area, and it started in the early ’60s and ended, I believe, in 1980.

How long have you been doing Crate Gatsby?

I started it in 2017. But everything kind of changed for me when I realized that there was a really burgeoning collector’s community on Instagram — guys that were posting records and some of them going so far as to post music with the record. And I just thought that was really cool, man. I’ve always been a guy who likes to document things. So at the time, I was only a couple years into collecting. This was probably 2015, and I wasn’t posting any local stuff. It was just records that I loved. Now it’s become a thing that I pretty much am putting effort into every day.

What’s your process? Are you collecting and then doing some extra research on records that really speak to you?

So it’s obviously a little easier to at least try to go about finding history with the local scene, because we’re living in it. I think it all, for me, started with building rapport with the local record store owners. A lot of those guys are our parents’ age, if not older. And they existed in the sphere as collectors decades back when the internet didn’t exist.

What are some of your favorite local records you’ve found through collecting?

The local scene is way bigger than I think most people outside the Baltimore-DMV area would assume it is. I think Baltimore in particular is 100% really overlooked in the collector’s community. You think of good funk and soul — canonical funk and soul, American stuff — and you think Chicago, you think New York, obviously you think a lot of California, but Baltimore really has an important output. I would say one of the coolest full-circle moments I had was, there’s a group called The New Apocalypse that recorded an LP in Baltimore in 1968 called “Stainless Soul.”

It’s not too rare, not too expensive. You can get near mint copies under $100. But there’s a particular song on there called “Get Outta’ My Life Woman.” It’s got some bluesy undertones, but it’s funky as hell. And it opens up with some killer drum breaks and I’d say around 2016, when I first heard it, I was like, ‘Man, these drum breaks sounds so familiar,’ and did a little research. It was pivotal in early ’90s hip-hop. Everybody from LL Cool J to Cypress Hill to Chuck D sampled those breaks.

What relationships have you been able to establish outside of Baltimore just off the strength of you posting the things you post?

It’s definitely merited some connections that I’m very proud of. Eothen “Egon” Alapatt — he was J Dilla’s best friend — I’ve sent him some records, he sent me some records. I know a couple that I’ve sent him he’s passed off to the Madlib.

Do you have any aspirations of getting into starting a label and redistributing some of this music that you’re finding?

I have another thing that just started out as a passion project and that’s really blossomed into a passionate interest in putting out a compilation like Egon did with his Now Again Records. He put out compilations of funk from Detroit. Baltimore hasn’t really been put on the map like that. I am working on putting together a compilation and getting that put out.

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