Ten years ago, Eric “Shake” James — who owns several Milwaukee-area sneaker stores — was looking for a way to honor his best friend, the late Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell of Run-DMC. For inspiration, the storeowner recalled times on tour with the hip-hop icon.
“Back in the day, we used to get shipped all these boxes with Adidas in them. We would get massive amounts of T-shirts, tracksuits, Superstars. For a while, we would just leave them in the hotel rooms for housekeeping,” James explained. “One day, Jay was like, ‘We’re taking them back to New York.’ And when we would come off tour we’d pull up in Hollis, [Queens], and give it all away.”
With this in mind, James launched the Jam Master Jay Back to School Bash in 2011, an annual event with an aim to help underprivileged kids in his hometown of Milwaukee who were heading back to school.
Over the years, he couldn’t have found more fitting partners.
For starters, Adidas — the brand that became synonymous with Mizell and Run-DMC after the group’s 1986 hit “My Adidas” — has provided the shoes and more since its inception. And the Milwaukee Bucks have helped align James with local nonprofits, also bringing barbers and food vendors to the event, as well as the team’s cheerleaders and the Rim Rockers acrobatic trampoline dunk team for entertainment.
For its 10th year, James will host the event on Sept. 26 in Milwaukee’s famed Deer District, where Bucks fans recently celebrated the team’s 2021 NBA Finals win.
James said with COVID-19 still present, extra precautions are being taken to ensure everyone’s health and safety, such as setting up times for kids and parents to move from station to station to get the full experience. The storeowner also said locals who want to volunteer can do so by contacting him via Instagram.
James recalled that at the first bash, 50 pairs of shoes were given away. Now for the event’s 10th year, the goal is to hand out 1,000 pairs of shoes, as well as socks, bookbags and masks.
“Jay had a unique love affair with Milwaukee — he really liked it out here a lot. If Jay was here, we would probably be doing this anyway,” James said. “This is one of those cities that needs a lot of help. A lot of parents don’t have the resources to send their kids to school the right way. This is about having a fresh pair of kicks, a nice haircut, all of the school supplies you need to give them a better chance in school, to get better grades and help them find their path in life.”
But the Jam Master Jay Back to School Bash isn’t the storeowner’s only recent effort to help Milwaukee youth.
Having owned and operated his first store, Clicks, since 2014 and launched his second, Sneex, in 2017, the entrepreneur opened the doors to Black Market in March. But this latest venture is a bit different than his prior two.
Black Market is located at 1935 West Hampton Ave. in Milwaukee, a neighborhood he said lacks resources and is in need of some help. “When we started doing the buildout, putting the roof on and fixing everything, all of my friends were saying, ‘You’re crazy to put a store right there,'” James said.
The product inside Black Market, according to James, is from brands locals are interested in, such as Mitchell & Ness, Billionaire Boys Club, Pleasures and Adidas, which includes select Yeezy styles.
However, what really makes the new store special is its purpose-driven mission — and its neighbor.
“Black Market was not on my radar,” said James. “I own the building, there was a barbershop, but the barbershop closed down, so the building was just sitting there. And then the George Floyd thing happened, which just touched me different. I started seeing all these brands pledge $200 or $300 [million] on like things in the community, but I was already doing it. I was already doing scholarships and adopting families and turkey drives and giving out free food.”
He continued, “I was like, ‘I need to be in the community more.’ I decided I’m going to put a store in the building — but it’s not only going to be a store. I also wanted to provide resources for the community. I put Black Market on one side of the building, and on the other side is a community center called Study Hall.”
The addition of Study Hall was a direct result of the lack of resources within the community for young people to succeed.
“At the time, kids were at home for school and some didn’t have Wi-Fi. I was like, ‘How can they go to school if they don’t have Wi-Fi in their home?’ And some kids didn’t even have a Chromebook to do the work from home. It’s like the game is rigged,” James said.
To help solve this problem, James filled Study Hall with desks, Chromebooks, a printer, a sofa and access to free Wi-Fi, so kids can schedule time to do their schoolwork. Also, he equipped the space with a refrigerator stocked with water and healthy snacks.
What’s more, James said they provide 100 free haircuts every three weeks in the building, and have done community activations such as barbecues for both Black History Month and Juneteenth.
Although the Black Market store has become popular with locals, the Study Hall portion of the building has taken on a life of its own.
“A couple of teachers started reaching out and said they will volunteer their time to do tutoring, so we started doing tutoring in there,” James said. “One of my friends, he’s got a restaurant, he said he wants to do a culinary class to show kids some quick meals they can come home and whip up, so they don’t have to eat fried chicken and Cheetos and things like that. And my banker was like, ‘I want to come talk to kids about the importance of credit and bank accounts.'”
He continued, “Now, Study Hall is more popular than the store.”
Looking ahead, James said he plans to expand the building onto an unoccupied plot of land behind the store, specifically to grow the Study Hall portion. This expansion will not only allow for more kids to come in at a time, but also offer the space to add a small kitchen to cook and serve meals locally.