words by Eamon Whalen
photography by Austin Fassino
“You looking for Tree?” Says a raspy voice on the other line. Emcee and producer Tremaine “Tree” Johnson is just weeks past inking a management deal with Creative Control (a sought after video production company that recently added artist management to its repertoire), and would soon hear that he’d be the only Chicago rapper playing at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July. Born and raised in the windy city, Tree and I discuss the best place to meet. I suggest he take us to places that were most significant in his life - where he got his nickname, learned his craft. The places that made him who he is.
The weekend following our interview, he would record a song for Chicago-based indie label Closed Sessions with preeminent New York rapper Roc Marciano. It’s the same label that would release Sunday School 2: When Church Lets Out (May, 2013) the sequel to his breakthrough project Sunday School (March, 2012). In just two short years, Tree has carved out a space as one of the most unique artists in the burgeoning Chicago rap scene.
Until he was in his mid teens, Tree grew up in the infamous Cabrini-Green projects, eight blocks from “The Loop” (Downtown Chicago). Before picking his son up from school, Tree has a few hours to show me where he spent his formative years. I meet him in a gas station parking lot, less than three blocks from Cabrini. He gets out of his white Nissan and endearingly shakes my hand. He’s dressed in a Ralph Lauren navy down winter coat, jeans and Nikes, clean as you’d expect from a former Nordstrom shoe salesman. He has sizeable birthmark on his chin that he’ll tell you is his “only flaw.”
As we start driving, Tree immediately points to where the project buildings used to be- now empty fields covered in a layer of snow from the night before. Adjacent to the lots are row houses- long rectangular tan buildings that are now completely boarded up.
Cabrini-Green has long been etched into national consciousness as a culturally iconic example of impoverished urban public housing. Tree mentions that both Arthur Agee and William Gates, the main characters from the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” were from Cabrini. He then motions to our right to point out the building where they filmed the show Good Times. The real Cooley High from the 1970s movie, where Tree’s parents attended, is just down the road.
In 1999 the Chicago Housing Authority announced a “Plan For Transformation” and subsequently demolished all of the high rises in the nearly seventy-acre complex of Cabrini. In 2011, the last tower was demolished.
“Downtown is no more than eight blocks from here, Cabrini was too much of a continuous threat to Chicago’s money,” Tree says as he parks next to a basketball court that once stood between two of the high rises. “We can actually go over to that court, I had a lot of good times there.”
We walk onto the court as Tree lights a cigarette and starts giving me an idea as to the volume of people that once populated the area. “We’re talking at least a hundred fifty families in each of the buildings, so down here [at the basketball court] was rush hour.” Tree pantomimes a crossover dribble and three-point shot, then imitates a crowd going wild. “That was life in this particular area.”
He then points next to where the row houses stand, barren land that now has “million dollar” condos in development.
“It’s the cycle of Chicago,” Tree remarks with a sigh.
When the families were relocated, many including Tree’s were given some form of voucher for private housing and moved to different neighborhoods in the south and west sides. In his opinion, the mass displacement in combination with the imprisonment of Chicago gang leaders have actually made the violence and poverty worse.
“When you move all of these people out of Cabrini Green into other neighborhoods in Chicago, you got people who are originally from the neighborhoods [on the south and west side] and now you have all these tough guys coming through trying to lay claim. That created friction, and everyone ended up fighting each other. That continues to this day. It’s a gang dominated city, you’re either this or you’re that,” he says.
It’s a reality that Tree doesn’t hesitate to describe. He’s grappled with the violence for nearly thirty years and continues to now, since he lives on the cusp of Englewood, one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods.
As for the music scene, Tree is opinionated. “I’ll tell you something. Up until this year, I don’t care what nobody tells you, no one from Chicago thought they could make it making music,” says Tree.
In response as to why there has been a recent rebirth of interest in Chicago’s hip-hop, Tree gives credit to the success of controversial teenage Englewood rapper Chief Keef. “You can say what you want to say about him, but he brought a lot of attention to Chicago,” he says. “Some of it in a negative light, but more than anything it’s the truth- this is what sixteen-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds do in Chicago. They band with a group of kids, and it’s them against the world.”
He points about two hundred yards across the empty lots to a school. “That was my kindergarten. There were the GDs, The Vice Lords, The Black Stones, The Mickey Cobras, they were all separated, but we all went to school together. As you get older, you’re forced to pick sides.”
Mid-sentence, Tree is interrupted by a man across the street, who is one of the only people we’ve seen walking since we arrived at Cabrini.
The man starts rattling off addresses of buildings and it turns out he has known Tree’s aunt for years. Without missing a beat Tree continues, “that further illustrates the point I was making, we grow up friends and then the gang lines separate us. That brother knows my whole family but I might not have gotten along with his nephews. It’s a crazy structure.”
Tree credits his family for not letting him drift too far into street life. He grew up in a two parent household, the youngest of four boys with an army veteran father. “I was more scared of my father than any gang member or cop and that gave me a sound mind,” says Tree, leaning back on the wrought iron fence surrounding the row houses. A recurring theme on each of the Sunday School projects is the balancing act between the allure of the street, and trying to do right by his family and community, including the congregation at Chicago Salem M.B.H. - Tree’s childhood church.
We head south to where the church is located, in the Bridgeview neighborhood. As we ride, Tree starts opening up about his beginnings in music. When his family moved to the south side, on occasion he would go to his old neighborhood to see his grandmother or hang out with old friends.
In the car rides up north his father would play tapes from his childhood, exposing Tree to much of what would become the foundation of his sound. “A lot of the songs I heard in my father’s car I would look for on Youtube to chop up. That’s what brought me to want to make music was my fondness of the older classics,” he said.
During one of those visits back to Cabrini, Tree stumbled upon one of his childhood friends making beats.
“I kept coming back [to Cabrini] seeing he was making beats with ease, so I started rapping. The next week I got paid, I bought all the equipment and started making beats. I remember not coming out of the house, calling off work, just to stay in and learn this craft.”
It’s a craft that stands on its own in the current rap climate; Tree’s originality is his best attribute. He finds samples from Amy Winehouse to Aretha Franklin and chops them in a non-traditional, fragmented way over a backdrop of drums kits and patterns that reflects an influence far south of Chicago.
“A lot of people sample something that’s purely instrumental. I like to focus on the voice, maybe a statement they’re saying and then loop it and find a breakdown to it,” Tree says explaining how his method differs from the usual soul sampling. The distinct sound led him to dub his music “Soul Trap.”
“The soul trap is not only my beats but it’s my sound, the stories I’m telling, my voice,” says Tree.
Vocally, Tree is as unique as his instrumentals. He has a deep, gravelly voice that can take on the singing of a Chicago bluesman or the intensity of minister delivering a sermon with fervor; his rhythm is unique, taking pauses and yelping ad libs in between couplets. His lyrics are personal and honest, full of stories of his childhood, family members and his own misdeeds, hopes and wonders.
Though he expresses plenty of regrets, his music ultimately exudes a triumphant tone. He lets the texture and idiosyncrasies of his voice convey vulnerability, rather than expanding on the cliché motifs of his more materially focused peers.
“I don’t rap about nice cars, shiny shit, that’s secondary - I have enough experiences to rap about. If you in my lane- where you write reality- unless you’re done living you’ll always have something to write about.”
Tree made music for almost ten years before releasing a full-length project or receiving any sort of national recognition. His job as a salesman at Nordstroms on Michigan Avenue allowed him to earn a healthy salary while he researched the music business, something that motivated him to approach with caution.
He toured with co-worker Marco Dane’s group Project Mayhem for two years, eventually catching the ear of Andrew Barber of the nationally-read Chicago-based rap blog, Fake Shore Drive.
We merge onto the freeway and I ask Tree what the life of an independent artist is like. “Hard, I gave up a lot for this life. I quit my job, I left my woman in Atlanta to be in the spotlight- I lost a relationship through that. Being in Atlanta I didn’t see my son for nine to ten months. The economics of music is a struggle,” he says soberly.
Tree had followed his girlfriend to live in Atlanta, where he ended up making much of what would become Sunday School. He got homesick, but the pain contributed to the deep, emotional tone of much of the project.
Tree decided to return to Chicago to put the finishing touches on Sunday School, and released it on March 11, 2012 - his late grandmother’s birthday. Tastemaking publications like The Fader and Complex immediately praised Tree’s sound. MTV Hive ranked the mixtape one spot ahead of Miami rapper Rick Ross- an accolade that Tree acknowledges is a significant juxtaposition.
“His [Rick Ross] was a million dollar project with all these big name features, mine I made in seclusion in my room in Lawrenceville, Georgia in a miserable state,” he said.
The acclaim came just as the aforementioned Chicago drill scene was taking off, and soon thereafter Tree had major label A&R’s attending his shows and flying him out to New York for label meetings.
Tree maintains that the attention from managers and major labels did not phase him. He chose to remain independent because retaining his integrity and the control of his sound is of utmost importance. “I never wanted to sacrifice what I valued. I’ll never do anything that will fuck me over. I say that because I had a career. I’ve been around the world on my own dollar.”
We pull up to Chicago Salem M.B.H. Church on 47th and Union, where Tree attended every Sunday. It’s small and unassuming, made of brown bricks like most buildings in the city. As we get out of the car we continue to talk about the inspiration for Sunday School. “I used to be here every Sunday, singing in the choir and all that,” Tree says. “I was listening to what I was coming up with. It was more soulful, I knew that I was talking about my past. Some of the songs I mention church,” he explains. Like “Soul Trap”, Sunday School stuck.
As he drops me off at the Red Line train, by the White Sox stadium, he maintains that even with the connections that his new management at Creative Control have, the music will always come first.
“Not to sound conceited, but I don’t worry about sounding like anybody,” he says. “What people have come to tell me is that I have to worry about people sounding like me.”
Through one afternoon with Tree, it’s clear that he is a man that stands on his own, unconcerned with trends or the instant gratification that can come with his new career path. From his childhood in Cabrini to his calculated entry into the industry, Tree was never one to take the easy way out, instead choosing to wait his turn and grow his own way.
Just before I step out of the car he adds, “I don’t make music like anyone else in Chicago,” he pauses, “anyone else in America for that matter.”