The return of soul-trap maestro Tree, Chicago’s beating heart

Tremaine Johnson is the Second City distilled.

May 13, 2019
The return of soul-trap maestro Tree, Chicago’s beating heart

If Chicago is the second city, MC Tree is its second son. The data will tell you that he’s a few tiers below the city's global superstars and national celebrities, but Tree — born Tremaine Johnson — is emblematic of Chicago rap in its purest form. Alongside peers like Vic Spencer and Chris Crack, Tree has renovated Chicago’s underground indie-rap scene and helped dictate the sounds that permeate the city, from Wrigley Field to Michigan Ave.

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With his latest releases — the worn, gravelly positive trap of WE Grown NOW. and his collaborative, swaggering, and unimpeachably catchy LP with Vic Spencer, Nothing is Something — Tree's continuing his hot streak after returning from a semi-hiatus with last year’s off-the-cuff EP Goat. Despite the wait, Tree hasn’t changed. As he tells us over the phone from Chicago, “There’s only one Tree.” Approaching 40 with two kids, he's shifted his focus from rap as a job to rap as a supplementary career, and as such, We Grown NOW. features some of the most free and joyful sounding raps he’s penned to date.

We talked about the new album, his hiatus, and the death of Nipsey Hussle.

How's the reception to the new record been so far?

I’m loving how uncoordinated it’s all been. There was label miscommunication with the releases, but it was almost like one of those group chats for Mac problems, where everyone puts their own solution and you follow a link. With my record, people were posting my link and it would get taken down, and then it would be on SoundCloud. People were helping each other find it. That excitement means the world to me — new and old fans going back and forth about my records. For my old ass, it’s really amazing.

Your career has had a bunch of starts and stops. What keeps pulling you back in?

All of the Chicago scene is pretty cool. I’m cool with everybody. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a leader and spoken up well for us. These younger generation kids look at me as a big bruh. It’s real respectful. I’ll go to a show, or Lollapalooza or Pitchfork, and people always invite me to their shows and take pictures. Vic Spencer and Chris Crack are always dropping shit. When we see each other they’re always telling me to drop something.

You released an album with Vic earlier this year and an EP last year, but before that it was a while since you released new music. What’s happened in the past two years?

It was all about timing. One day I just stopped thinking about music. I really didn’t care. I stopped producing and recording for about four years. I was always around it, but I wasn’t doing anything. I just traveled and got drunk at bars, buying every chick at the bar a drink — just living, hanging with my kids. Vic started popping up at my house. He’d come with these vibes and play beats. Some of it sounded great, and he wanted to record something. I don’t write anything down, so while we were at my house I’d email him a beat, he’d write to it, and I’d record four bars at a time. We knocked out three songs the first day we did that. We weren’t thinking about putting anything out, but we kept recording. Before we knew it, we had 10 songs in four days of work. We just put it out. And that brought me back into putting music.

Closer to Christmas, I caught the flu. I was stuck in the house and I started playing with beats again. I recorded Goat and just tossed it online. But working with Vic, he’s one of the best lyrical writers in the world. I wanted to show my gusto being with him. I respect him as a writer and as a lyricist. Doing that with Vic made me get back in the ring. I realized how cold I am with this music. I’m alright without being famous.

Were you still as popular in Chicago during your hiatus as you were when [2012's] Sunday School came out?

I’m still Tree. People don’t really look at me as a rapper. In the streets, I’m just OG Tree. I’m kind, I show respect, I buy everybody drinks. All the people who were fans when I started are still fans, but before they were interns and now they’re editors and A&Rs. I have a relationship with these people because I’d be backstage with the press at these Lollapalooza and Pitchfork functions. I’m a people person. The relationships that I built over the year came from a respect for adults and conversation. The music told the story and certified that I am the guy speaking about these topics. That’s stood the test of time.

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I am and always have been an adult in the music industry. When this new music came out, it was kind of a standing ovation from the people that knew me. I’m not trying to be Chance or Drake. I’m okay being MF Doom. Lemme do it on my accord. But there’s only one Tree, and only one way to treat me. I just happen to be an artist.

Is there anyone in Chicago that’s on your level?

Chance is a great guy — a representative of humanitarianism. Saba is a great individual. But I don’t wanna go down the line and highlight people, because there are a lot of good guys. I’m just looking for leaders that are teaching their circles to be upstanding and responsible members of the community. At that point, he's a Nipsey Hussle. Our community needs those types of leaders.

How have your kids shaped your music?

Having my kids is part of the reason I left music. I turned 32 and I realized I was famous and broke — but not even famous, I'm not ignorant. I'm fully aware of my responsibilities to my children. I’m a taxpayer. I’ve been working jobs since I was 13. I didn’t give my all to music until I found myself in the straits financially. One day it dawned on me that I was 32 years old and I didn’t own shit. I was this great nobody.

As a father, I had to step away, lay a foundation, and get my life straight. I didn’t see it happening with music the way I wanted it to. I used to be selling designer shoes — I made $90,000 a year and I sacrificed it for music. I had meetings with Sha Money at Epic Record — I was supposed to do an album with them, but my mother caught stomach cancer and I stayed with her. The album fell apart, I was overwhelmed, and the label stopped returning my calls. It was easy to let go, so I did.

Would you be in the place you are now as a rapper if you didn’t take that time away?

I always ask myself that. The MTV “Top 5 Mixtapes Without a Label” was me, Future, Gunplay, Rick Ross, and Young Thug. This is what I was competing against at the time. I was on the Westside of Chicago without any fucking money except for when I’d do a show every two weeks. That didn’t add up to gold chains, diamonds, and nice cars compared to what I made legally as a tax-paying citizen. I was going against so many greats.

Sunday School wasn’t even mixed down. I recorded it in my room and just put it out. I just wanted to get my music posted on Fake Shore Drive and have somebody think my shit was good. At my first show, I got on stage and realized I didn’t know any of my fucking words [Laughs]. But they offered me a grand to do a show, so hell yeah I’d be there. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to musically, and without a budget.

Is doing music just bonus points for you now?

I don’t mean to be mistaken — I want my spot back. But I’ve set myself up pretty nice so that all the things you see from Tree are my decisions. I created soul-trap and now I’m creating a genre of music where it’s okay to be an adult in this rap game. It’s okay to talk about responsibility and how things hurt. It’s a language that only adults can relate to. My music is not from any place, person, or reason. It’s just the way I feel.

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Are you still on the Westside of Chicago?

Naw, I’m in Englewood. This is where I’ve created my kingdom. I bought a few cheap buildings, fixed them up, and started charging rent. Now I’m a landlord. Everything I do is mine. I wanna put my music out and sell my T-shirts whenever I want.

That’s the opposite of how most modern music works. Are you at an advantage because you can release stuff at your own pace?

I wouldn’t say it’s advantageous, I’m just doing it my way. I’m not gonna fumble just because I’m on somebody else’s time. Whatever I get is whatever I earn. I’m so humble right now, especially at my age. I couldn’t possibly expect to put out a record every four months. That’s why WE Grown NOW. is so special. I had to live that! It would take five years to do that again. My fanbase embraces me because they knew what it was like without me.

Controlling your own situation and being a positive influence in the community reminds me of the late Nipsey Hussle. Can you reflect on his life and your philosophies?

History repeats itself so often. This isn’t the first time a peasant has killed a king when given the opportunity. When you look at an individual like Nipsey and you throw his ingredients into a random beaker, the result is gonna be the average black male in the average black community. Economically strapped and unable to identify faith. I’m in Chicago. You can understand the way gun violence affects me. I’m passionate about it and passionate about my community. I’m not a person that says, ‘The white man’s on our neck.’ I’m the guy that says, ‘Get your ass up and go to school. Do something.’ I don’t want to give people excuses. I always have arguments with my friends because sometimes I come across as a conservative, a Republican. But reality is reality. We just have to do what’s right.

I want this to be the nucleus to what I stand for. The reason that Nipsey got killed is the Black community’s fault. Why? Let’s go into drill music, let’s talk about the ‘boom boom boom boom.’ We’re making music that encourages us, each other, to be savages. The music teaches us to celebrate the killer. At the point when someone kills two or three people in the neighborhood, aren’t they serial killers? The boy did what he saw his big homies do, what the people who got out of jail told him to do, what the music told him to do if he wanted to be a real savage.

Isn’t some of it more systemic than just telling someone to get off their ass and go to work?

I understand that there are boundaries. Brotha, I’m from Cabrini-Green! I just started getting my life together when I was 32 years old. I always felt that I could do anything I wanted to. I don’t wanna give anyone excuses. Yeah, there are blockades that stop Black people from progressing, but a lot of it has to do with the ignorance of the culture. The guns, the loitering of our properties and neighborhoods, the destruction of our communities, the separation of us based on old gangs and old traditions. I am so done with this street shit. I write songs about police brutality. How many times do we need to be killed for reaching for our cell phones or running down an alley? We have to change that. You can’t put yourself in that situation to be killed because they will kill you and will get away with it. We have to do a lot ourselves. Gangs should be disgusting at this point. They should pay you off to join a gang. You should be running from this shit.

What do you hope someone takes away from listening to WE Grown NOW.?

I want them to get an ah-ha moment, that this is what I’m all about. I want people to feel the soul-trap — the beats and that vibe. I mastered that shit. I also want people to understand how dope I am lyrically. The stories that I tell, it’s all from my life. I have an uncanny ability to tell the truth but rhyme like Nas. I studied the greats. I hope people get that I am who I say I am. I want to be considered one of the best lyricists ever to come out of Chicago. I feel like what I offer the world is precious and different. There isn’t another Tree and I don’t think there ever will be.

The return of soul-trap maestro Tree, Chicago’s beating heart