Baltimore’s mini hip-hop museum has big potential

“4 Your Eyez Only” may have been the title of an album and tour by popular rapper J. Cole, but the project has had much bigger meaning for Milly Vanderwood.

The 36-year-old entrepreneur was thrown into the culture of hip-hop by his father and uncle, who constantly played artists like Tupac, N.W.A., Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Public Enemy.

“At 12, I started rapping and Master P was like my idol,” Vanderwood said. “I wanted to be just like him.” More than just a thriving rap artist, Master P was also a successful businessman and investor — something Vanderwood took note of.

In 2015, Vanderwood and his two business partners at the time opened The Gallery About Nothing, a space for minority artists to showcase their work, as opposed to a traditional art museum filled with older or more popular pieces. Two years later, while standing outside of J. Cole’s tour stop in Baltimore, Vanderwood envisioned opening another place that could highlight the culture that brought joy to him and so many others.

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In My Lifetime: Mini Hip-Hop Museum is located on the third floor of 805 E. Baltimore St. and can be visited by appointment only. The museum, made up of two rooms on the second floor of Vanderwood’s art gallery, was founded with the intention of providing a hip-hop experience in physical form.

“To my knowledge, there was no hip-hop museum that existed right here in Baltimore,” Vanderwood said. “I wanted to emphasize how important hip-hop is, not just to Black people, but everybody.”

Tables in the space are primarily occupied by cassette tapes such as Raekwon’s second studio album “Immobilarity,” vinyls of Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter II” album and copies of The Source and XXL magazines. The walls are covered in memorabilia: CDs such as the mixtape “Diplomats Vol. 5″ hang among a painting of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s “WAP” and posters of DMX and Bow Wow.

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A section of magazine clippings in the mini museum. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Vanderwood acknowledges that while the museum isn’t large — the word “mini” is in the name, after all — the ideas he has for it will contribute to its growth.

“I want to do more workshops and things like that, but I really want to gear more stuff towards the kids,” he said. “They can come and learn how to make beats, learn about songwriting and DJing and really just learn the history of this culture.”

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Vanderwood’s passion for helping others and putting them in positions to succeed includes the people who work for him — which is where Sotiria Samples comes in.

Samples, the art gallery and hip-hop museum’s social media marketer — or “like Milly’s cousin/personal assistant,” as she referred to herself — immediately wanted to take part in what Vanderwood was building after meeting him in October. “I was looking to jump face-first into social media marketing and Milly not only gave me that chance, but encouraged me to not worry about the outcome and just be happy that I’ve actually tried to make my thoughts a reality,” she said. “He blessed me with the opportunity to get started in my dream career.”

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Milly Vanderwood looks around the space that would soon house Such A Vibe Museum. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Expansion is also on Vanderwood’s mind. He plans to eventually open hip-hop museums in other states like Georgia and Florida, where he has held pop-up events. Most notably, the Mini Hip-Hop Museum was on-site as a pop-up in Raleigh, North Carolina, for J. Cole’s debut Dreamville Festival in 2019 — a full-circle moment for Vanderwood, who had been inspired by the rapper to create the space.

“It was kind of surreal to be at Dreamville Festival, for sure,” he said. “We got to interact with thousands of people who probably will never be able to come to our location in Baltimore, but they got to experience what we’re all about.”

Vanderwood also continues to grow his physical footprint in Baltimore. Earlier this month, he opened another creative space called Such A Vibe Museum right next door to his other two ventures.

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Though billed as a museum, Such A Vibe’s mission is less specific, functioning more as a place where people can just relax and enjoy space for all genres of music, workshops, and sip and paint events. This Wednesday alone, Such A Vibe will host three of those paint parties for CIAA’s basketball tournament week.

“I just want people to come out and have these experiences of learning and being creative,” Vanderwood said.More importantly than all of that, they just can feel something positive.”

Taji Burris has covered the Baltimore music scene since 2015 for outlets such as The Working Title and The 4th Quarter, and now at the Baltimore Banner. 

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