Tremaine “Tree” Johnson is irritated. And excited. And maybe a little stoned.
“To answer your question…” the Chicago rapper/producer tells me, purpose and confidence in his voice, both of which are quickly dissolving. “Uh, which, you know…”
On his songs, Tree has a voice that’s a gravelly and chewed-up. It’s slurred and imposing. It is a bizarre and wonderful thing – equally Gucci Mane, Tom Waits, and Louis Armstrong. But on the phone, he sounds like a completely ordinary guy, his words and thoughts clearly articulated.
He drifts off for a moment, then snaps back: “Remind me again – what was the question? I’m smoking a joint right now.”
He lets out a belly’s worth of laughter, and assures me that it’s him – and not me – to blame. “Sometimes I forget. I really want to hear it though!”
Tree and I are about halfway through a cordial thirty-minute conversation on a Friday night. He’s in his home studio on the west side of Chicago, I’m outside of a train station in Charlottesville. Earlier in the day he had come across a discussion of his single “Probably Nu It” on this website – a discussion that, on the whole, he did not agree with. So he did what people do in 2014 and left a comment.
“This song is one of the most significant and unique offerings in recent hip-hop history,” he wrote. “Hopefully you’ll live to regret your uncanny sarcasm and blatantly rude remarks, but most of all, the doubt you have in the potential of an ever-growing genre that has been in and around [the] Chicago music that you’ve learned to love… and accept certain parts of, but continually sleep on one of the most integral and promising components of said music.”
He made some good points. I e-mailed him and asked him if he’d like to talk some more. He did.
The thirty year-old has been making a name for himself Chicago for years, but it was with last year’s Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out mixtape that he and his “soul trap” sound started gathering attention on a national scale. He’ll look to expand that following with the @MCTREEG EP, an album released for free in partnership with Scion AV this week.
“I want you to get a handle on who you’re dealing with,” he says up front. “I’m not some 19 year-old kid.”
I would like to credit it to my constant work ethic. The little bit of exposure that I do get – the little bit of spotlight – is usually in the most precise and unique places than they probably need to be. I don’t have a major fanbase. I’m not an individual who has been blessed with opportunity after opportunity. I usually eat what I kill.
“Why not?” would be the better question. Scion wants to cash in on the interest in Chicago’s music. They’re trying to brand with the urban population, as all companies have been since 2005. That’s pretty much been the move – it was even before 2005, with Nike and Jordan. It’s about getting their brand to the people. I think that my music speaks volumes to that – it goes across the different landscapes of genres in Chicago. I’m heavily involved. I influence culture. I’m as important as they say I am.
That being said, I also make pretty good music. [Laughs] I make pretty good music. Someone on [Scion’s] team saw that, they approached me, we talked, and we made it happen. Partnering with Scion, I just wanted to give them something that they could really represent and still feel as good about it and have as much faith in it as I did. I didn’t want to give them a bunch a music where I’m talking about shooting people with 30m clips and smoking all types of weed and busting bitches down and buying bottles, because, let’s be honest, I’m trying to partner with a corporation. You have to show some respect in what you give them. I tried to deliver, and I did give them a universal song that some people won’t get, but with the right amount of exposure and/or radio play, it’s a hit. [Rec-Room] made the comment that it’s not a “cult classic” and it’s not this and it’s not that, but let me hit you up with some game: There is not right or wrong way to make music. I am an innovator of music. I create.
I’m a student of music. I grew up with the greats. But I don’t necessarily love everything that I hear. I’m the worst critic. I’m the best critic. I know what good music sounds like. More importantly, I know what my lane is. I know that there are certain lanes for me. I want to be that artistic who isn’t boxed in. I can make music with Scion and in my next video you’ll see me in the projects of Chicago, in particular areas where murders have happened, and I’m respected and loved by the population.
That’s what I am. I think if people dove deep into me as a person, I wouldn’t have to explain that. Any music like this, where I’m trying to cross over and bring the college world and the clubbers into a more reality-based form of music, should be greeted with love.
There are a few songs that made history that didn’t fit the status quo. I put “Probably Nu It” in line with those songs – songs like Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy”. That song changed history in the late eighties. Another one is “Mambo No. 5”. It wasn’t, per se, the shit to play at the time, but it came and made history. It left a mark. You may have never heard from those guys since then, but they left an indelible mark on the history of music. I plan to do that. It’s not just with this song – I have a plethora of music that I’m just dying to put out. The partnerships where I can explore the spotlight and the networks are few and far between.
You make it sound as if you made “Lollipop”.
But I haven’t cursed or said most of the ignorant shit that people want to hear me to say. I just rap for you. I really know how to rap. It’s not just my voice. The song “Like Whoa” was a lyrical exercise. But when you go back and listen to it, it’s making sense, and it’s uplifting, and I’m actually rapping.
Do you think that given the notoriety of Chief Keef, Fredo Santana and the broadly defined drill scene, people have come to expect rap coming out of Chicago to be hard-nosed?
I think that was the case last year. But since the uprising of Chance and a few other artists – myself included – constantly blanketing the blogosphere with an alternative to trap and drill, the tides are changing.
Like I said, I am a creator and an innovator, but it’s not just all about me and my success – it’s about the well-being of my region. I am one of the leaders, one of the forefathers of Chicago, at least for the last two years. If you go back two years ago and read some of my first interviews for Sunday School, I’m sitting here and telling people left and right, anyone that will listen: “There’s a few people out of Chicago that I’m working with that you should really be listening to. One of them is Chance the Rapper and the SaveMoney crew.” This was before Chance was popular. This is when I went and found him and did work with him. I said, “This guy is cold.” There are a few other people that I said were going to be huge, and should be huge, and should be given some spotlight – they’re huge now. They’re making money. They’re feeding their families. And I predicted it years ago. So, I’m more of a futurist.
You coined the term “soul trap” for your music. What does that term mean to you?
In the beginning, I defined soul trap as soulful samples chopped up in the trap format. But over the last year, as I’ve been growing artistically and producing music for other people, I’ve noticed that I’m not necessarily always rapping over beats with a soul sample. I rap over originals too. So now I have to reconsider and reevaluate the term. This is the first time I’ve said this publicly: Soul trap is soul music infused with trap music, and that can be about more than the just structure or the production of the beat. It’s about the movement that’s portrayed and expressions given within the song.
For example, with “Probably Nu It,” I say [sings], “She was creeping on the low / Had another that I know about.” You know what I mean? That’s soul. That’s feeling. That’s singing. And I would love to hear that one day in the club around the world and hear people singing along with it and knowing every word, and it being the shit to listen to. I want it to be one of the top songs out, if not the number one song out. That’s the glory that I live in and that I want. That’s what I’m pressing with soul trap. I don’t want to rap about cool shit. I don’t want to make a half million dollar Bentley cooler than it already is.
I don’t even see the outside. I don’t pay attention to trends and opinions. I make music for me. I make music that I like. It just so happens to be music that people don’t mind hearing.
In my neighborhood, in my culture, we all grow up in church. The ones who grow up to be gang bangers and killers aren’t grown and groomed like that. It’s the outside that does that to them. We all come from good families. Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort came from good families. It’s the decision we make in our teenage and preteen years that determine how our life is going to go. I just happen to choose the road that was the only option – there aren’t many rapper these days who excelled in the real world, who have made $100,000 legally, and then leave it all alone to make music, because that’s really what you want to do. There aren’t too many stories of that.
I grew up in church as most African American people around world do. Most of us believe in a God because we’re poor and that’s the best thing we can look towards in most days of the year. That’s just being honest. That’s how we were raised. It’s what our grandmothers imparted in us. We’re religious people.
The only reason that this comes up – and why you don’t ask a rapper like Jeezy if he went to church, is because my mixtape is called Sunday School. When I named it Sunday School, it wasn’t to give it a church theme. None of the music on there is church driven. It isn’t gospel at all. I’m cursing in the songs! [Laughs] I regret to this day the blasphemous title of Sunday School. I’ve had a few things befall me and my family that I attribute to me and my blasphemous titles… I don’t want to be the antichrist. I’m old and wise and smart enough to know that now.
If I had named my album The Night of the Living Dead, my whole background in church wouldn’t have mattered, and it probably wouldn’t have cause much attention as it did. I didn’t expect Sunday School to get as much attention as it did. I put out a lot of great music before Sunday School. It’s all Google-able. You can find it and listen to it and see that I’m not lying. Sunday School caught everybody’s eye because every time someone wrote about it, they linked church to it.
You said that were a student of the classics – of Tupac and Biggie and Scarface. But No I.D. and Kanye West are the two figures that you’re most often linked, in terms of production and sampling techniques and, obviously, the Chicago roots. Do you consider those guys to be influences?
Kanye and No I.D. are the captains of my region. They are the people whose names ring bells. They are the forefathers. They made our region popular – a gold coast, at least in the beginning years. I’ll attribute them with the title “legendary” or whatever. I give them all of that respect. But I rarely listen to music outside of my own. I hear new music when I strep out of the studio and go to the club. Or I may hear a friend or two of mine is on a record with somebody else and I’ll check it out. That’s about it.
I’m not eager to hear any other music than my own. I work too much. I produce for too many people. I’m continually trying to put out a better product. Am I influenced by anyone other than the people I listened to growing up? Not really. Have I taken anything from those individuals that you just named? Maybe self-consciously. The popularity of sampling came through Kanye West, and everybody knows that. He made sampling a billion dollar entity – a billion dollar add-on to the music field. Or, at least he brought it to my mind – that there was this new way of music and it can be dope! You can chop it up! You can lay a whole two bar sample.
I give Kanye and No I.D. the praise that they deserve, but I make music in my room and sometimes I don’t go outside for days at time, unless I have a show, unless I have to go do something. I’m pretty much under a rock.
You have a distinct delivery – your voice is gravelly, almost wounded. Have you always sang and rapped that way, or is it something that you had to work to develop?
It’s something that over the last thirteen or fourteen years I’ve grown to control. I have hundreds of unreleased songs. For years, music wasn’t a job for me. It’s a hobby that turned into a love, and a love that turned into a passion. I remember recording by myself at home, when I was moving from city to city, for years. I never put it out. I made music for me. I gave it to my friends, who made copies in the projects and gave it to their friends. I became someone in the projects way before the blogs were listening.
Over the years, I’ve evolved. I’ve learned how to control my voice, because, let’s be honest, I can’t sing. [Laughs] I’m not a singer. Critics compare me to Tom Waits and Janis Joplin and people like that – there’s a lane for a tough-voiced individual to come and clean up when there’s an absence of it. Right now, you can do anything with music, and with the right push, you can be successful – if not commercially, then on YouTube. You can travel state to state and feed your family. But with me, it’s not about the money. It’s about the feeling. It’s about creating music. And over time, I’ve learned to be a better emcee as well as harmony-driven hook writer. I just do what I want do at this point.
Given the degree to which certain Chicago rappers and producers have taken off recently, do you think your work has been overlooked?
No, definitely not. My work speaks volumes for itself. But I will say that being an older artist, I’ve experienced things. I just turned thirty, so I’m a little older than anyone you know from my region other than King Louie, who I think is maybe 27 or 28. When I came out, labels were trying to sign me and everybody was trying to manage me, but I wasn’t eager to jump in bed with anyone, and I think that put a shift between me and few influential people in Chicago. People were running around, signing rappers – some got deals, some didn’t. But I was more relaxed. I was like, “I’m gonna wait this out. I know I’m gonna put out better music.” As a result, I got alienated from certain circles.
That’s not to say that my decision was a bad one, but a lot of people shined up on the rappers that they were in business with – the ones that they had a personal stakes in. I could have been in that same circle. But what I did have was great write-ups from great writers who knew the difference between music and what was just being pushed. Every article that other rappers paid for, I got for free. Four years later, I’m still one of the top names in Chicago unsigned – unowned – and still debating and negotiating moneys.
What I do think I missed out on was that initial push that everyone in Chicago who was relevant got – with the Chief Keef’s and the King Louie’s. People were coming to Chicago and throwing money around to get you to sign. They were going to make you a world star and all of that stuff. A lot of people took advantage of that. Some of them are bigger than me right now. In my mature state, I realize that a lot of these cats have never seem 50 grand. A lot of these kids have never seen a check for five grand. That was somewhat unusual for me. I wasn’t eager to run into this world unknowingly and fuck myself. I’ve read books about the worst record deals and stories of being owned – having the best record out and being broke. You know, the TLC story. So, I was apprehensive. But my music is here to stay and I’m proving that,
I have a universal reach – most of my fans are overseas – so I’m trying to get my music out there the best way that I know how, and at the same time, make business from it. But as far as what I got coming up? I’m gonna drop this Scion EP, the @MCTREEG EP. There’s a video dropping on the 28th. I’m gonna work that. This is for the fans or whatever – the people who really appreciate my music. I think it’s going to be a treat. Fifteen, eighteen songs can be a lot to digest – so I’m gonna give you a portion, you know? I’m gonna give you seven songs. Drool over that for a moment.
I’m not sure what’s gonna happen after that. I have a distribution deal with Sony. I have an album called Soul Trap that Frank Dukes – a producer from Toronto – handled most of the production for. I did a few drums on it. I think it’s a classic rap album, full of instruments and stuff. There aren’t many samples, but it’s soulful. I got a lot of great producers on there. There’s S1, who did a couple of joints with Jay Z and Beyonce. I have a Hit-Boy joint on there. This all through Frank Dukes and his connections. We got together one week in New York and I recorded an album. It’ll be an album that will actually be for sale. That may come next.
What is definitely happening is that I recently became a so-called “protege” of Sha Money XL. He did most of 50 Cent’s hits. We’re working on a project right now. I want to say that will be my next offering or mix tape. It’ll be a full-fledged effort. It’s sounding real good. I got a bunch of bangers. I got one of the best producers. We’re gonna Soul Trap the world.
Also, be on the lookout – I’m doing a few different projects and EPs in my city. A couple of the SaveMoney cats. Vic Spencer. Chris Crack. There are a few artists that I think are dope and I’m gonna lend my production to them and let them shine – let them make a bolder name for Soul Trap and my city.