The Chicago rapper opens up about everything from the Midwest to selling shoes for a living.
Most artists set out with the goal of staking out a claim to a style that's uniquely theirs, but few do so quite as adamantly as Tree, the Chicago rapper who's been gathering accolades over the past two years with the signature musical blend he calls “soul trap.” It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Production that offers the steady comfort of old classics, chopping up familiar soul samples or incorporating orchestral stabs, and warm, sympathetic lyrical takes on the struggles and successes that characterize life in his home city. Tree's voice is uniquely gravelly, and he raps, sings, croaks and growls his way through tracks in a way that's immediately recognizable. His approach is the rare case of someone making hip-hop that fits a classic boom-bap sonic mold but also feels like it's pushing the genre forward.
That distinctiveness has helped him become one of the most closely watched and critically acclaimed rappers to emerge in the midst of Chicago's recent hip-hop boom. He had been releasing great music steadily since teaming up with local group Project Mayhem in 2009—he met one of the group's members, Marco Dane, and traded demo CDs when the two used to work at Nordstrom—but he vaulted onto a national stage with his 2012 mixtape SundaySchool. A gritty, alternately heartbreaking and jubilant release, it earned high praise from publications around the country and positioned Tree as the thoughtful conscience of a city whose hip-hop scene was otherwise making headlines for its violent lyrics.
The past year has seen Tree capitalize upon that success and further hone his craft. He had a minor local hit, “Nino,” with fellow Chicagoan Young Giftz. He released the equally acclaimed sequel to Sunday School, a more well-mastered, conceptually thorough project than the original that included guest turns from Danny Brown and Roc Marciano. At one of his first live shows, in February, he was uncertain onstage, rapping over recorded tracks. The next time I saw him perform, at Pitchfork Music Festival in July, he was expertly polished, playing with a live drummer and enthusiastic backup singers.
He's teamed up with Scion AV for his latest project, @MCTREEG EP, which Noisey is premiering below. The EP sees even more refinement of the soul trap sound and a warmer, happier tone, particularly on standouts “I Believe” and the beautiful, celebratory “Like Whoa.” We caught up with Tree during the rapper's December trip to New York. In a long, wide-ranging conversation at Converse Rubber Tracks studio in Williamsburg, we talked about ditching Nordstrom for rap, carving out a place for soul trap and dealing with teenagers.
Do you feel like it's difficult translating Internet buzz to real life buzz?
Most of the writers for all of these interesting blogs and newspapers and online sites, they're students of hip-hop. They came up and they know what hip-hop sounds like. And I'm a symbol of that. Even in today's market. Even in today's culture with all this booty music and club music, you've got people who relate to my music. Like, “man, this is what we're missing!” But at the same time, the Internet is primarily used by the teens and the kids who surf the Web and look at videos all day and this and that.
So you have a void, where the actual consumers aren't our age. They're living. They've got bills to pay. They've got kids. You know what I mean? They don't want to hear this new shit. You've got this population of people who don't even participate in music. People who like the B.I.G.s and the 2pacs and the Redmans and the Method Mans and that good rap type stuff – that I consider good rap – and they see that this is what the industry is serving up to them, so they don't even participate. They play their old music. They talk about what good music was with their friends that feel the same way. So I'm that. I'm that person that's going to fill that void and bring people back.
Tell me about working at Nordstrom. When did you decide to pursue music instead?
So I was working in Nordstrom, and I had been talking myself out of quitting for years. [laughs]. I was there 10 years, but two and a half of them years I went to school at DeVry. I was supposed to be an electronic and computer technician. But yeah, I just ended up asking for an opportunity to sell on the sales floor. I used to do stock, when I went to school. And I just wasn't making enough money. Just always struggling. I was like “I need to get on the sales floor.” People would tell me like “man, you can talk, you can look people in the eye, you might as well try.” So they gave me an opportunity, and from that day it was like meant to be. I was one of the best from the start.
I used to make pretty good money. But over the years I was always doing my music. And people like Marco Dane and Project Mayhem, they were the only ones – they were the first ones – to say like “man, you've got a gift. You've got something. You just need to do this.” I knew it wasn't just me that thought I was good at that point. I was convinced. I was living pretty good, but I was willing to give it all up and do this music. I told myself if I could make what I made working doing music, then I could do this forever.
Which is smart because a lot of people come at it like “I'm going to be—
—filthy rich, yeah. That takes time. But it's definitely attainable as well. So one day at work, about the 20th time I was thinking of quitting, this one particular day it set in on me. I was at lunch, and I told myself I wasn't going back. Instead of just leaving, I went to the HR and told them I was going to quit. They were like “are you sure? You sure you don't want to take a couple days off?” I was like “yeah, whatever.” They called me a couple days later, and I was like “yeah, I still quit.” And I've been doing music ever since then.
What was the most shocking thing when you switched to music full time?
The most shocking thing was when that 401(k) money ran out. [laughs]. I just knew I was going to get signed before that money ran out! But it did, and – I was in Atlanta at that time – I had to go back to work for a little bit. And then I put out Sunday School and then I started getting buzz, for real, for real, like never before, with SundaySchool 1. And at that point I was able to do a few shows here and there and get by. And so forth with the SundaySchool 2, I was able to start making money, like money money, and it's starting to get better. So that's good.
Where do you live?
Right now, I live on the West Side. I just moved from Englewood. So I'm out there on the West Side, which is a lot smoother. Kids ride their bikes at night and stuff on the West Side, I've noticed. And the South Side [that] don't happen. I ain't heard no gunshots. There's still gangs and stuff, but it's just less volatile on the West Side. Totally noticing a difference.
What was that like growing up in Cabrini Green [a housing project on Chicago's near north side]?
It was home. It was just home. The projects aren't bad to you if you live there. It's the people who ride past on the buses, or the kids might throw a brick in your window or something. You may have a bad experience with the projects, but the projects, it's not as bad as people think it is.
It was controversial when Cabrini Green was torn down. What was your experience with that?
There were kind of rallies, and they were protesting it. But slowly but surely everybody got the fuck up out of there. I remember in my building, like the last month the building was standing, you would just see families moving out every day all day. Every day all day. People would pop up in school like “my new apartment over here on such-and-such and such-and-such.
We all lived in the project building across the street from the school. And midway through the school year we were all getting bused to the school from different places, and people were sharing their experiences about their new neighborhoods. “How is this?” and “How is that?” So that's how I remember that. But I remember going to school, coming home from school, there'd be moving trucks out in front. Families moving out. For a whole month straight. Getting people out.
And that breaks people up eventually.
Here's the funny thing. All of this, that project, that's just one project. Cabrini Green. There were ten plus projects around Chicago, and they all went through the same systematic move-out process. Most of those people, from all of these different neighborhoods across Chicago, moved into Englewood. Chicago is a real gang segregated city, as well as race. So not only were there not many places for them to go, but they were put into this one area, and they didn't necessarily get along.
So that's why we're on the news. Chicago, or the Daleys, they made it like it was a big thing, like they needed troops and they needed the National Guard. But they had planned this shit 20 years ago. This was the plan. It's a blueprint. It's not like it's something they didn't expect. It was something that they created, the volatile situation on the South Side of Chicago. And the way to “solve” it is to put more police and lock up the youth and continue this whole cycle. Chicago isn't terrible. Chicago isn't bad. It's what happens when you throw 15 pitbulls in a cage. This is what happens.
Soul Trap has become kind of a brand for you. Do people come to you and ask for that sound?
What we're going to do this year is we're going to make it plain and simple. In Chicago, it's either drill or soul trap. Either/or. It's the sound of the Midwest.
So you think you can stand for the whole other side of it?
I mean, I am. Who's relevant in the city of Chicago that don't fuck with my style, that don't fuck with my music? If you want to bring up the Chief Keefs, that's drill. The alternative's soul trap. And I've got enough individuals in Chicago that fuck with it, that's doing projects with me, including the Save Money camp, including Project Mayhem, a few other individuals in Chicago that's making a run at it. And we all ride under the soul trap banner. Why? Because I am trying to be that leader of the new school. I was the first Chicago rapper with national attention and notoriety that put other people on from the city.
I'm more of a Midwest A&R than anything. That's part of the reason I'm out here. I want my own label. I want soul trap – I need that to be a Cash Money. Let's do it like that. Obviously the industry is looking for one person to push or one person here that they could probably sign and make money immediately. But movements have to be built, started and supported. And soul trap is that. If I tell you that somebody's putting out a project, and then in the subtitle, the subject, it says “drill” or “trap,” you know what you're getting. With soul trap, you know what you're getting.
It's a sound wave that I started, I championed. It fits with everyone well. Everyone doesn't do exotic drills, everyone doesn't drive a Bentley, everyone doesn't spend $10,000 at the club. Everyone feels a certain way at a certain time, though. Everyone hates shit. Everyone likes girls – or boys, whatever. And that's where we're taking the music, man, back to where you can just be you, you can make some good music without being worth a million dollars. I'm not going to say and talk this shit about this stuff that I don't own, and then I've got to shoot a video for it and I've got to go buy all this shit to where it's not even necessarily fitting me. I worked in design for years. I would not spend $400 on a belt. I made great money. I would not spend $1200 on a coat. My bitches can't get $600 pumps. It's that. And that relates in my music. People like me for that.
You go down a list of 'best rappers' and 'best producers' and this and that, a lot of these guys that y'all champion for right now won't make it. None of them will, actually. Because it's not historic music. You won't remember it. It won't be labeled as the greats. It's fad music. And there's more to come. That's not the last of that. Somebody will do it next week, and it'll carry on with whatever actually made this song popular over here. Somebody'll do something, a variation of it, and it'll be the thing for next year. So what was done for last year won't be remembered.
When I think about memorable songs, I think about Geto Boys' “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” Stuff like that. 2Pac “Dear Mama.” That shit you can't replicate. And then there's club music. All of it sounds the same pretty much.
A lot of that stuff you mention, and a lot of your music, has a real emotional core to it.
That's what I mean: real heartfelt, soulful music. Not rap. It's not rap. We're rhyming, but it's not rap. We're not killing nobody. We're not selling no drugs. It has an undertone of reality. And it is respectable music. It's music that the greats could appreciate. The people who know music say “man, it's good music.” They don't listen to it and say “that's a nice club song.” You know how you hear those songs like “oh, okay, this might sound good in the club?” Turn up music. And it has its place. But what I'm saying is right now the space for this music is a vacancy. It's a vacancy and I'm pushing it to the masses.
It feels like also you have an interest in carving out that more independent lane, of not necessarily seeking a record deal to do what you want to do.
Yeah, I think that's the furthest from my mind. Unless it's really good or worth it. A good publicity push, a great single nowadays, can really turn you up, turn you into a star. Which you don't need a label. If you can do 50 shows at 10 grand a pop, you don't need a label. What can't you do? In 10, 20 years, it won't be no record labels. It definitely won't. There'll be industries like Scion that'll back you if you need backing. They're definitely going to be the next phase of a music career. You'll be a star off a car commercial.
When you're thinking of a song, what's your method?
I usually make beats for a day, then I'll come back. Another day, I just feel like writing. Some days I don't feel like writing at all, so I just continue producing. Or I might not feel like producing, so I'm going through the beats I made and laying hooks down. Saving them, putting them to the side. “Okay I'm going to send this to so-and-so, I'm going to put this over here, I'm going to let Mayhem check out this.” So that's pretty much the method.
Nowadays I rarely finish one song in one day. Usually I'll write a hook or a verse, and I'll come back to it a week later. And I've got tens and twenties of these projects just laying around on a hard drive. I get tired of seeing it. In the case one of my buddies comes over and they want to hear some new music, they want to see something, I pull that up. And within seconds they've got a Tree beat with a hook and a Tree beat with a verse. And we put it out, and then once again I'm proven right. I do make good music. I've got the young kids, like Save Money, love working with me. I'm not crazy. I'm not delusional, and it feels good to know you're not delusional.
Because you were making music for so long without showing it to anybody.
Yeah, and that was because I didn't know the platform, and I came to the Internet game late. Two years ago? Late! You had Kids in the Hall and Cool Kids and all those cats from Chicago that was doing it? You had Curren$ys, you had Wiz Khalifa. They were stars on the Internet. They were getting money. So I came in the game late. Imagine where I'd be if I came in the game two years before that and I didn't have to compete with Chief Keef.
Because I'll tell you this: I'm 30. The two most popular people in my city are 17 and 18. Last year I put out SundaySchool 1, and all year they talked about me and Chief Keef. All year. Then, this year I put Sunday School 2. They talk about me and Chance all day. These kids are 18. There's tens of thousands of people in Chicago that rap. There's a new one born every 20 minutes. Every year, I come second to some 17-year-old, 18-year-old. Is it because their project is better than mine? I want to say no. I want to say that the popularity contest bleeds over into other sectors. But what I will say that is statement and fact, what I will state emphatically, is next year I will put out another project, [and] it'll be number two to the new 17-year-old. So what I've done is I've taken the approach where, okay, I'm going to develop this next 17-year-old, and I'm going to make them make a dope-ass project, and then we'll put it out. They'll be number one, and I'll be number two, and I'll say “I produced that whole project.” It is what it is.
Kyle Kramer is probably listening to Tree right now. He's on Twitter — @kylekramer