At 29 years old, Chicago’s Tremaine Johnson a.k.a. Tree is like the enlightened elder of the bevy of young rappers rising to stardom from the streets of his city. A clever storyteller with a gravelly voice and keen ear for flipping and chopping up evocative samples, he’s the sole pioneer of a genre known as Soul Trap; last year’s critically acclaimed Sunday School mixtape is a prime example of his unmistakable sound. Fueled by an indomitable work ethic, he’s as dedicated to connecting with fans as he is to crafting his increasingly sought-after beats. In anticipation of the release of Sunday School 2 and what will surely be his biggest year yet, I caught up with Tree between studio sessions to pick his brain for a while.
Noisey: Where did you grow up?
I’m from the North Side of Chicago. A little neighborhood called Cabrini-Green. Some people may know about it, some may not. It was the home place of the Good Times TV show and the centerpiece for the movieCooley High. It was also where they filmed Candyman, the scary movie. It was the only housing project within a mile of downtown Chicago, the Magnificent Mile. I grew up there and it was like most projects; underprivileged individuals, impoverished states and gang life. I’m a product of that.
How would you define “Soul Trap?”
It’s me taking my ear for sampling any song that I loveand pairing it with Southern drums, Southern trap kicks, 808s, hi-hats, all that good stuff. It’s the fusion of latter-day soul and modern-day rap, modern-day drums. I don’t want to make it into a gimmick where anyone who samples and puts an 808 drum with it would consider it Soul Trap. First of all, Soul Trap is a beat that I make and secondly, it’s my voice and the delivery and the stories that I talk about, which are all soul-based—whether it’s the recollections of my childhood, my teenage years, the reality of what young black males think, and putting it into a rhyme.
What are your thoughts on the Drill scene in Chicago?
Sister, I’m totally for it. I’m a fan of music and more importantly I’m a fan of Chicago. Before January 2012, no one in Chicago really thought they could get a deal. No one in Chicago thought the city would land in the big leagues. I love to see my city succeed, especially the artists that are really from the streets. The last individual that we had actually speaking from the streets was Bumpy Johnson, who’s in jail right now for robbing a bank. Before last year, no one thought that we could accomplish the things we’ve accomplished, and it’s great to see it happen. For me, it doesn’t really matter who, it’s more that it’s happening now.
What makes you different from the younger group of rappers coming up?
I don’t really want to put a separation between us. At this juncture in my life I understand that when you’re hot, you’re hot. Hopefully those brothers are in the studio having good times and making great music. I am. I do think that what I bring to the table has a little more depth and it’s a little less trendy than the younger guys. I’m 29, so my music is more from the standpoint of experience. I’ve traveled the world and had all the great adventures that you need in your 20s. My story goes to those that are a little more conscientious about life, compared to a demographic where gang violence and getting high is popular. I speak about coming up in Chicago when there were gang rifts, and having friends from different sides of the fence. I came up in a time when there was a real gang structure in the city. Right now you’ve got small packs of kids running around with guns. I demand a certain level of respect that they can only wish to, and that’s how we’re different.
What were you doing before you started making music full time?
I used to sell drugs in the projects. After years of going untouched and not getting locked up and fucking up my future, I landed a job at Nordstrom’s. I started as a stock guy while I went to school for electronics and computer technology, then I was given an opportunity to sell designer shoes on the floor because I carry myself well and I know how to speak to people. I wasn’t just some ghetto-ass kid who spoke broken English and wore saggy pants. My first check was close to $3000 for two weeks. At that point I never looked at drug dealing the same. You get up, stand on the corner with your friends, laugh, joke, bullshit, you make this nothing-ass money. When I got that check and looked over my shoulder and realized I didn’t have to worry, that transformed my life. I feel like I was blessed and really given a road out.
What can you tell me about Sunday School 2?
You will get the most prolific and unadulterated version of one of the most exciting genres to be created in the last decade. You will get a river of great music hosted by some of the best old-school songs you’ve never heard sampled. I have songs on here you heard a million times in the car growing up, but you’ve never heard it diced and sliced the way Tree does it. You’ll get great stories, great hooks. More than anything, you’ll get a great work of art for free. You can expect a verse from Roc Marciano, you can expect a verse from Danny Brown. If you liked Sunday School 1, then please take this into great consideration: I will not release Sunday School 2 until I feel it’s better than Sunday School 1.
At this point you’ve got total creative control. Do you want a major label deal?
It’s like this—I could get hot enough to where they make an offer and I jump on it, or I could implement myself so far in the game that when negotiation starts, I have the better leverage. If I can live good not signing to someone, then why sign? My dream is to become so big this year that I can begin my own label, produce for other artists and get my own distribution deal. I wanna put out the best music and be undeniably one of the best to come out of Chicago. I wanna be in the top ten of everyone’s lists, undoubtedly. I’d love to be so connected with the fans that I don’t need a big headline outside of a theater for people to show up; if they hear I’m there, they’re coming.