Following the strongest year of his career, we connected with Tree to talk about his impetus for art, dealings with depression, and the processes behind his grounded work.
The hermitic Chicagoan had quite the year with three glowing releases: Nothing is Something, a collab with Windy City stalwart Vic Spencer; WE Grown NOW, Tree’s first solo album since 2015; and the excellent The Wild End, produced entirely by New Jersey production duo Parallel Thought.
It caps off a productive — but not always prolific — decade for Tree which began with the release of his 2010 debut, The 3rd Floor.
“[The year] 2010 was when I started officially rapping and producing,” Tree said. “But really, I’ve been writing songs and selling CDs to my friends and neighborhood way before that, since I was like 15 or 16.”
What followed The 3rd Floor was Sunday School, an acclaimed release that made MTV’s mid-year Top Mixtapes of the Year in 2012 list. Its followup, Sunday School II, along with strong collaborations with Chris Crack, and 2015’s Trap Genius, kept Tree’s presence in place despite a sporadic release schedule. ( “I travel a lot man,” Tree, who’s been to more than a dozen countries, said. “And I’m always trying different ways to get money.”)
Tree, Tremaine Johnson, calls himself the “King of Soul Trap,” an accurate self-anointment with songs like “Trapper’s Delight” — introspective and catchy tracks, propping together street imagery and inner-dialogue with half-sung rhymes. It’s partly his voice — Tom Waits is referenced quite often — along with an emotive presence that cuts through all the stuttering hi-hats. It’s a delicate balance he does with aplomb on the incredibly bare “There U R,” the lead cut from WE Grown NOW, bound with personal detail and insight. On it, Tree says: “My dad was an addict, I didn’t like needles, I never got tatted, I’m lethal, I’m savage…”
Even after releasing three projects this year, Tree has continued to update his SoundCloud with songs from a newly finished album that is expected to come in 2020. “I’m calling it The Dirtiest Throne,” he said. “Because I’m the still the king even though I’ve been through some shit.”
Following the strongest creative year of his career, we connected with Tree to talk about his impetus for art, dealings with depression, and the processes behind his grounded work.
As told to David Ma
On his early interest in music and how his neighborhood made him get serious.
I was a bedroom producer for a while and I used to rap for years and record myself before I ever put anything out. I would burn CDs for my friends and give them out or sell them out. It wasn’t until I was 24 or 25 that I even put out a mixtape. But I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I’ve always been musically inclined. It was just for fun at first until I noticed I could make some actual money. It was my neighborhood that made me make the switch. They wanted new songs all the time and would actually buy homemade CDs so it became a real conversation right then.
All my music is personal stories. I’m not even that concerned with how things rhyme anymore. I’m not exactly rhyming “clock” with “block” and “tick” with “tock,” you know? I’m telling you about things that are really going on in my life, and incidents I see, and how I feel about them. A lot of it is therapy for me against different anxieties and depression I deal with. I drink and I definitely smoke weed to help with anxiety, maybe a couple pills here and there too. But it’s all real.
On the process of writing (or lack thereof).
I record straight into the mic, I don’t write anything down. I’ve been rhyming bars since I was in high school so it’s nothing new. Once I feel a certain way, I go and record a song. Simple as that. I record two bars, then another two bars, then another two or four. No paper. No writing down words. That’s why I don’t do shows because I’m not attached to the music other than when I’m speaking it. I guess if I wrote it down, I’d remember them more but that’s not the point to me. I could write a song that’s two hours long or two minutes long, it doesn’t matter to me. That’s my process. It’s all from the heart and all from the mind and I don’t overthink it. I’ve never gone back and redid a song. That’s how I write. Sometimes I listen to a song and think I could’ve done this or that better. But to me, that’s how art goes.
Personal favorite recordings of his.
Most of them [laughs]. There’s so much that I make that I don’t even remember, but I’d probably say “Tree Shit” “and “I Believe” stand out to me most.
On growing up in Cabrini-Green.
The projects I grew up in showed me the streets early. The murder, the violence, the black community, the things we come together for, the things we fall out over about. I’ve been through many other environments but that was the very first one. It’s where I landed but where I eventually escaped from, too. I’ve learned so much more in my 20s than I did in the hood and that’s a good thing. I left the hood and was able to see the world. Travel makes you realize a lot of things, man. I’ve been to over 25 countries and it’s taught me so much about life.
On his friendship with Chicago native Vic Spencer.
Man, Vic is just a cool guy with good energy. He reached out to me like 10 years ago and wanted to do a track together and we just ended up doing a lot of things together. We used to see each other all the time in different cities so we’d chill when we ran into each other and we’ve just been locked in ever since. It wasn’t until the last year or two that we’ve hung out a lot. Like, a lot. Before that, we’d smoke a blunt or have a drink, have some laughs then go our separate ways. Vic’s just good people. He’s a positive brother too.
One day recently Vic came over and was like, “Let’s do some music. You down?” And that’s all it took and that was the birth of Nothing Is Something. With Vic, we roll tons of blunts, I pour him a drink, and we just sit and go over a gang of beats. I can send him a beat in an email, and he can shoot it back to me, then I can bounce it over to Logic or whatever. But to me, it’s always better when Vic’s sitting on my couch and I’m at my desk. He’ll sit and write to a beat for a long time, while I sit and slowly stack my bars until they reach sixteen. So the whole time, Vic hears what I’m slowly doing. We have great chemistry and can usually finish a track in like an hour, an hour and a half.
On why he has no Twitter presence.
They took me down, man. I had some clowns fuck with me and I was going after them. I had just gotten back from Thailand and someone teased me and called me a fucking pedophile so I went on a hunt for this motherfucker. I was ready to kill him. I took screenshots and was trying to hunt the motherfucker down so badly that Twitter deaded my account [laughs].
Details on his upcoming project, The Dirtiest Throne.
I put a few tracks up on my SoundCloud recently that are from the new album. It has about 15 songs or so. It’s just another group of really great songs about what I remember, what I’ve seen and my growth as a man and a business and a father. My throne looks tarnished but I’m a king and a voice of today. Soul Trap is spreading in Chicago but I’m still trying to bring it to the rest of the world.
I only do music for the fans. It’s kind of like a cult culture to me. It’s pretty hard to get Tree on a track. I’m not for sale. My music is only for the fans. Like I said, I don’t even perform live. I’ve moved onto many others things in life and music is just one part of it. I was going to drop an album pretty recently, but I was in Cuba and Distrokid held my shit up for some artwork I was using. Since I didn’t have the energy to fix it, it ain’t out yet and that’s OK to me because people who care will get it directly on my Bandcamp or whatever. I don’t put stuff out to be featured in a bunch of press or make any top ten lists. It’s for people who commit to my music and let me be a part of their lives through a work playlist, or workout playlist, or whatever playlist.
David Ma is a veteran music journalist whose work has appeared in The Source, Wax Poetics, The Guardian, Red Bull Music Academy, Passion of the Weiss, Nerdtorious and others. You can follow him at @_davidma.