Tree gave me a deep look into his drive as an artist for this interview. I first heard about him a while ago, but stupidly ignored his work. I was on one for sure. Then I heard “God Listens” from the Chicago native and Deniro Farrar (who I interviewed a bit ago), and was instantly hooked. The creator of #soultrap spoke from the diaphragm, pushed through a weathered voice that held no punches. Tree’s appeal, as I discovered, is the emotional response that he navigates around his audience.
We mostly talked about what he thinks of his city, and the state of rap. Since TREE is aiming at hitting people in their hearts, he doesn’t get the chance to completely verbalize his specific interests. What struck me, instantly, was how closely he resembles his on-track personality. He speaks the way he raps. He never hesitates to take a stand and have a clear point of view. Sure, he deviated from the specifics of some of my questions, but Tree was listening to the roots my questions at all times. He has a knack for understanding the deep basis for a question, which is what allows him to tap into the reality he represents. Tree is an investigator trying to understand (and by extension expose) the range of authentic responses people have to the world. He’s in tune with his listeners’ heart strings.
He plucks those strings with self-tailored production that allows him to unpack and revisit concepts at any point in his creative process. As you’ll read, Tree starts many projects at once, and discovers the force behind them while he builds them. His self-feeding process exposes his own emotional investments into his work. You need to know about the things that Tree respects to know what he sounds like.
“If the sun touches everything, then why you wanna be a star?” – TREE on “BE A STAR” (ft.Rashid Hadee , Tone Skeeta)
CG: Hey man, just get us started off with a few words, I know you have a lot to say.
TR: I’m TREE, I’ve built this all up on my own, I do 99% of the beats, I do all of the recording, mixing, all of the process. But uh, you know I got some buzz this year because people are interested, they wanna hear something new. They want an alternative, and we have a strong alternative right here. You know, we do this without the big funding, without the big audience. You know when my twitter page grows, I take that with a grain of salt, because every single one of those followers, I earned. Not one paid follower. A year ago, no one knew who I was, even in Chicago. I came full circle, there’s individuals in my city that’ve gotten signed, that’ve gotten these good situations, and they’ve grown with their big backing, but when you look at the credibility and the accountability of my music… I think I’m winning.
GCG: Let’s get started with some of the basics: where does the name “TREE” come from?
TR: “TREE” is a nickname I was given as a child. My real name is “Tremaine”. My real name is “TREEMAN” [laughs]. My grandparents would call me “TREE” though, and it kind of just stuck with me.
CG: And how long have you been making music?
TR: Since I was a teenager, for the past 10-12 years. I’ve actually only been serious about it since last August or September. I put out mixtapes with the intention of getting some buzz on it. That’s when I got the confidence to put out my music, knowing that I was as good as, or even better than, some of the people that’s already out. But I would say that the biggest step would be on March 11th, the date of the release of Sunday School, maybe even a little before that. January of 2012 is when I started making all the lists. Complex wrote an article about me, they put me up as one of the top 12 producers to watch for in 2012. On that list was Mike Will, Harry Fraud, uh, Young Chop, and me. That was when it was clear that this was worth me going for.
CG: I didn’t know that you’d been making music for that long. Was it always beat production and rapping, or were you making other kinds of music as well?
TR: I was always, well, when I started making music, I knew that I could rap. I was a consumer, I knew what sounded good, and I knew that I could write, and rhyme. I started producing maybe a week after I started rapping seriously. Then, with the combination of the two, and some time, I honed in on my skill and started utilizing my skill, which mainly is my voice, you know? I was just meshing everything well, and I found a place, I found a ground that I could use. I found my style that was all me. I was comfortable with doing me, harmonizing, stressing certain syllables and words. I was lyrical as well, as you know, I obviously rap, it’s not just my voice…I hope I answered that.
CG: They went hand in hand?
CG: I was gonna ask about your voice down the line, but I’ll just ask now. To me, a lot of your music is about the response, like how people are gonna feel your words, and I think that comes from the stresses in your voice (to a large extent). So this might be hard to answer, but my question is really: how do you know what aspect of your vocals to stress?
TR: Oh man, that is hard to answer. I generally write to the beat, uh, I rap to the beat as I’m writing it. And certain drops and certain changes in the beat… I just know what sounds good with what. When the hook drops, I know if I need to make a big tempo change up, or just, I don’t know, it really does just come natural. What I will say is this: when you’re writing a rap song, I can give you a piece of paper, and you can rap it as I’m writing it, but you’ll do it with such and such stall, or such and such rhyme, but with me, I’ll write a rap, put it down, and pick it up a few months later and know, just by reading it, I know how to sync it. I just know what word(s) I should stress. It starts coming back to me, it’s all part of the process. My point is that I don’t write my words where I pin-point on the paper where to stress a part, it just comes back as I’m going through it again. I find out how it feels as I’m rapping it. That’s how I write in the first place. It’s important I write specifically to the beat, bar for bar. 4-6 bars, I start the beat over, I rap 6 bars to the beat, and after those bars are up, I got nothing but beat, so I know what I have to hit on. I know if I have to change up the tempo, I might change up the voice, I might harmonize or go fast, so yeah, I’ll just feel it out.
CG: Do you see yourself as carrying any kind of tradition, in any sense?
TR: No, I try to be…And no disrespect to other artists, but I do music that I like. And, I’m, so, in favor, of not being like anybody else that I don’t have to be (in the same tradition as someone else). You know, you can go to an open mic, and you can have 20 people that all sound like Gucci, or they all sound like 2 Chainz, or they all tried to be Jay-Z a couple years ago. So you know, with me, it’s pure delivery, feeling the music. I have my own tail to ride. I don’t feel like I have to jockey or ride the backs of anybody before me. I have the better hand because of that compared to any up and coming artist or established. They have windows in which they sit that tell them how to start, or how to end up and what people expect from them. With me, personally, I’ve done 3 genres of music that I’ve put out publicly in the last year. The feedback has been really good. Some projects are more alike than others. You know “SOULTRAP” is my own sound, and people flock to it, people love that about me. When I did “Trillin” with 110% Pure, I was doing the whole drill thing, but it wasn’t what people came to hear and love from me. My point is this: I don’t have a certain type. I can do what I wanna do. I’m not locked into a certain style that people wanna hear. I think that I don’t have to carry a flame for anybody who’s been coached or whatever. I think I’m good on my own. I think that as time goes on, I’ll only get even more comfortable with myself. I got a certain talent that comes out depending on the beat.
CG: You said that you had 3 genres, other than SOULTRAP and Drill, what was the third?
TR: I did “The Lit” that I did with Tony Baines, who’s a legendary Chicago producer. He’s been a producer for 20 years. So what I did on that was the third genre.
CG: “3Bs” is my favorite track off that tape.
TR: Yes. That was Chicago style sampling. It’s what he’s been doing on the underground for years. I think that TREE ft. the city showcased my overall talent. I’m not just a rapper. I’m not just a producer. I’m not just a writer. I’m all of those. More than anything I’m the leader of a new genre. I invited 24-25 individuals from my city that the world doesn’t know about. In my city, you’re either signed or you’re not. That’s kinda how they play it. It’s funny. You would think that there would be some kind of a camaraderie or that we would work together, but that’s not so much the situation in Chicago. If you’re signed you work together, if you aren’t signed, you aren’t looked at as important. So what I did on that tape was incorporate a bunch of artists who’ve been in Chicago, working for years, ah, and I put them on a project that the world can see. I took all these strangers, and I put them in and made something that’s listenable. I guess that’s a genre itself. It shows what I can bring to the industry. If I can make an 18 song tape, with, for lack of better words “a bunch of nobodies”, what could I do in Def Jam, or Atlantic, or Universal? Sky’s the limit, I feel. And I think that that project shows it.
CG: Back to the more personal side, have you ever used a personal experience that directly fed the content of a song?
TR: [Laughs] Yeah, well, generally, look at Sunday School, it was pretty much that. The “Letter to Mason”, that was a personal experience. But you know, even more than me rhyming words, clockin rocks, it was the intent that I delivered in the music. It was the feeling and the story. When you feel it, when you’re angry, when you’re in a situation that everyone can relate to. It’s about missing the bus by a second and getting to work late. If I can express that in a bar or two, you know, then I can relate to people, now we have a common denominator, we all have the same problems and the same feelings. I just wrote it down in a rap. And the way I stressed it, in my vocals, you can feel it. But like we were saying, take “3Bs”, you know, when I say “I got a son I gave a fuck about my cur-few”, it makes a lot of sense, you know? When I was young, I didn’t give a fuck. But now, I got a son. So how’s that gonna look knowing that he’s blossoming, and he’s trying to become wild and be a free spirit, but then that’s the guy he’s looking up to? How am I gonna deal with this now, as a parent? I felt strong enough to speak on that because it meant something to me.
CG: What’s you’r hometown support like? How does Chicago respond to your stories?
TR: For me, you know, this is what it is. I’m more of a producer. Not just the beats. I’m into the production of music, you know? Whole songs, mixtapes. My situation is different. I haven’t had the right people in my corner giving me advice. You know, it only dawned on me a few months ago “Hey, why don’t you try to sell some beats to make money, huh?” So I was just moving up off the hype. But as far as me and Chicago, I rarely do shows. It’s not like Atlanta, or in New York. You know, in Atlanta (and I only know this because I lived there for about 9 months), you have these underground artists that walk into the club, and everybody’s like “ooh that’s so-and-so!”, or whatever. And me, being a Northerner, they really cherish their underground artists in the South. They walk around with big gold chains with diamonds in them, and they’ve been able to see that their audience has them living good. And that’s how that scene carries them. In Chicago, that scene was only recently relevant. There isn’t a big scene, only little pockets here and there. I was with Project Mayhem for two years. That’s my parent group. I toured with them for about two years (all over the world). My experience in Chicago is that it was pretty much the same audience night after night. So it wasn’t like you were exposing yourself to a new audience. You’d go to show after show, and see the same faces. It was redundant, so I stopped doing shows. I didn’t perform any of the songs for “Sunday School” until July/August, when I came back to Chicago. And I released that in March. So to answer your question, I don’t really like playing shows. Some artists might be able to open for big artists that come through Chicago, and that’s sad. That’s the biggest thing you can look forward to as a Chicago artist. You probably didn’t know that but now you know. There’s no real scene in Chicago. Our scene is the internet. Chicago latched onto me through the internet, mostly through fakeshoredrive, for me. My fan base was spread out Nationally. I feel like I’m a cornerstone in Chicago hiphop. Everyone that knows me, or knows of me, whether you’re a manger, producer, or a rapper, they all know me. And when you look at the top lists, I’m above all of them, so they all know me. But as far as my shows go, I’m not gonna stunt like I get 100,000 people to come out. When I do a show, I’m brought out as just, this guy “TREE”. So I’m still trying to put my buzz up in Chicago. My fans, they’re in Canada, New Zealand, LA, NY, Mexcio, you know? That’s my fan base.
CG: Who’s “Chicago story” do you tell? Who’s story are you able to tell over another artist?
TR: A lot, but mostly these 20 year olds. A lot of these younger kids, they like my music like “Nino”, the poppier songs. But then you have the “3Gs”, and that’s for the 20+ crowd that know of real music, real rap. Most people that grew up with Tupac don’t give Chief Keef a chance. Most people that grew up with Nas, don’t give King Louie a chance. Me, I speak to the voice of reason. My base ranges. I touch many demographics. My music is universal. Some is a little preachy. Half of the people that know about me know about me through someone else.
CG: I found out about you through Deniro Farrar.
TR: There you go! Aside from being featured with someone. Take you for example. You like the music, you listen to it, you love it, I guarantee you’ll tell someone about it. Just the other day, I had someone get at me on twitter talkin about how Danny Brown was putting him on to me! And I don’t know him at all, and Danny Brown wants to do a song with me! I don’t have a publicist or a PR person or whatever. All I have is good music, and that’s working for me. Thats a fan base that you can’t buy. Just, that, yeah.
CG: This one’s a little more personal, so we can skate over this if you want, but in your music, you make references to past gang affiliations, so really my broad question is: How important has gang life been either in your art or growing up?
TR: I did what was necessary. It was more necessary for neighborhood recognition. And not to make it sound so dumb, it was important for people to be able to express where you’re from, but also, some of the references I make aren’t even MY affiliation. Sometimes I throw respect at those other sets, I respect them. They are to be respected. ME, being a standup guy, I don’t kill nobody in my music, I don’t try to get no kids to join the affiliation I was a part of. It’s more like just what I saw in my neighborhood, what ran the city for 50 years. No other mob was higher than the one I was around. It’s understandable when you’re from Chicago, it’s changed a ton since I was a kid. Gangs were protectors in the neighborhoods that needed them. I don’t know one gang member, even the dirtiest lowdownsome muthafuckah that has ever tried to shoot and kill a child. I remember that when my mother and I would walk miles to go do groceries, gang members would help us with our bags. You helped people from your building. I speak on it from a true level. I don’t have people claiming flags and bangers, because it was a beautiful thing. But what’s happened is that the Federal police came in and locked up all the leaders. Which left tens of thousands of unguided youths. So now you have random pockets of people that once stood together going against each other. They fucked up the original order of things.
CG: Headless chicken type of deal?
TR: Yes, and now it’s renegade city. I speak from the point of view of somebody who has seen the beauty and the ugliness. There isn’t anything good about no gang out here. You know what I mean? I don’t want my son to be in no gang. But when you have to control thousands of niggas (and excuse me for using that, since I’m not talking about black people), but you need a supreme authority to rule over the reckless people. We had our rules and regulations. We had responsibilities that came with it. To sum it all up: if you’re in a gang you’re stupid.
CG: “NAVY” is what made we wanna ask that question.
TR: That, well, I’ve gone public before and apologized, especially in the wake of all those children being killed in Chicago with Chief Keef, it’s a real problem. This isn’t that rap shit, and they praise him. But the real reason is… the real root is that he was 16 when he got famous. His videos got millions of views all over the place. And Chicago is a well known gang-populated city. They’re for real. Not other place is like this. You don’t need a color to get shot. My point is that he’s on the internet getting views, and in those views, he’s throwing down gang signs. Throwing shit up that created a subdivision of the GDs, along with their favorite opposition, the Vice Laws. People were getting killed for real while he was doing all that. Before Chief Keef, I’ll be honest with you, before he was blasting 300, I was one of the only artists making gang references. It was a scary situation. It was no joke, nobody rapped about that over here. Before he came out, I was one of the few that made references in good taste. When he calls people “The opposition” or “ops”, it’s gonna create some vinegar. It’s sad, and I’ve apologized for references that don’t line up with who I am, I’m more mindful.
CG: Your music sounds like a response socially, like we just talked about, but what is your music a response to musically?
TR: [No hesitation] Everything customary. Everything that’s standard. I speak through the wire. A lot of time I even talk to the record labels. I talk to them. I know they hear how I talk about them. I speak from somebody that knows music without any big backing. I can make a great song with anybody. Signed or not. Popular or not. Millionaire or broke. I’m a competitor. I won’t be pushed aside for no one. No genre, city, state, or label. I speak from a point from where Chicago is. I made “Sunday School” before there even was a Chicago scene. You had Kanye, Common, Lupe. And they didn’t do it for the city, at least not what they could’ve done. It took a 16 year old boy. I speak from a Chicago that had no chance, and no representative. That’s how my music is a response. When you look at NY artists (Nas, Jay Z), LA artists (Snoop, Dre), or down South (with Jeezy making drug rap, real drug rap). And then, Chicago, we got skipped over. I feel like we got oppressed. I think we deserve a chance. I got the claims and accolades to match. I’m sorry, I’m goin off.
CG: Walk us through your different processes, like when you’re totally solo (like on Pluto and Johnson and Johnson) and also when you do a collab (like WIZARDTREE or Trillin). What’re the differences, what’s your process?
TR: This is the real. No other way to put it: I don’t take nothing from nobody that I work with. I just work a lot. I do music full time. I roll out of bed, I make a beat. I’m up all night. Every day. This is my routine: I get up, put on a beat, and I come up with a hook, or a 16. I lay it down. I move on. Whatever gets my attention. I go outside and bullshit or whatever. The stuff I get to is what gets me right then and there. So, I might feel like it’s time for me to put out music, or another album. I play back the hooks that I’ve compiled. And when I say “compiled” I mean that I have like 25 hooks, beats that I’ve made, sometimes a 16 that I haven’t put out. I just got ‘em. Sometimes, if I have someone over, that I wanna work with, I’ll play them something and we just figure out what we like and decide what we’re gonna work with. And then we start writing, and move on. Pow pow. It’s rare for me to get in the studio and work with an artist. So when I did “The Lit”, I’d go over to Tony Baines’ house, listen to beats, he emails them to me, I write to ‘em. I’ll call him when I’m done. That’s my work ethic. There are some things that I keep to myself that I don’t play for other people, that I think that I wanna work with on my own. But that’s how it works.
CG:: A few specific questions: You mention the “Third Floor” in a few songs and dedicated a whole album to it, intact. What’s the significance of that to you?
TR: Um that was my first mixtape, actually. That was me representing Cabrini Greens, I was born on 9-11 on Cedric, apartment 304. I moved from there when I was 9 or 10. I moved to a different area of Cabrini Greens after that. Whole different game. And uh, life was a little bit different, you know? But that “third floor” represents my childhood. That’s where I originated from. I was going through my reality. A lot of my music is reality rap. I rarely talk about “poppin bottles” and “buyin out the bar”, all my music is more soulful and true. I’m not selling a product, I’m just talking about how I feel my feelings. As long as I can harmonize and make it sound good, it’ll move people, so it has to stay personal, make people sit back and say “Thats that sheit!!” I put out “The TREE EP” after that to talk about a different stage in my life, which was followed by “Sunday School” which focused on my time going to Church, so they all had some type of giving me a feeling of how I recognized different parts in my life. Through those projects, I tracked my life.
CG: I wanted to ask this because of the concept behind your latest tape (‘TREE ft. the city’), who would you sign and why would you sign them? Regardless of who is or isn’t signed.
TR: I’ll say this, so we don’t cause no problems: Uh, January 2012, I would’ve got everybody from Chicago that was making music or some type of noise. Even the Chief Keefs, the King Louies, the Chance the Rappers, the TREEs, the Mikkey Halsteads, the Project Mayhems, Spit Wiz. I would’ve been that label for Chicago music . Almost like Billy Gordon and that Detroit sound. I would’ve tried to work with everybody. I would’ve delivered our sound to the world. Not just to the 15-16 year olds that watch youtube all day, but to the people that actually honor and respect music. It would’ve been collective. My city would shine and the music would’ve been handled better. The whole Chicago scene would’ve been my label. It you look in, I believe that there is the B.I.G., there is the ‘Pac, Nas, Jay Zs and Snoop Doggs. The new young cats have that same oomf sometimes.
CG: The first of these last few that I’ve got surrounds #soultrap. How would characterize the genre that you created?
TR: Um, basically, it’s a sample of any kind, a sample of original music, combined with the trap/drill kick. Those certain drum sounds that’ve developed over the last ten years. That’s how I’d put it simply. It’s my style of sampling, which creates #soultrap. I wanna say it’s “intricate, miniature samples” that break down to the decimal point of a sample, and it’s like, you know, most people take a four-bar sample and just loop it. That’s how they sample a beat. With me, I break it down and put it back together run my own way, I get my professional sound that way. That right there is my definition of #soultrap.
CG: One of your frequent drops is this repetitive/fading “yeah, yeah…” that sort of has a rotating “trance” feeling. Do you mean to be putting your listeners in a trance or does that only register with me? It feels like audio hypnotism. Do you mean to?
TR: That’s just me feelin the music, feel in the ad-libs. I have no demonic reasons or whatever tryna hypnotize people [laughs], not me man, not at all. It’s just me pluggin my ad-libs, it’s my signature ad-lib. It’s just me yellin in the background. most of the time it’s just the liquor and the drugs comin through! You know.
CG: Last one, again a little more personal, I just wanted to see how you felt that becoming a father changed your work and your life in general.
TR: Uh, I think that my core concept of speaking on how I feel about certain things, whether they’re political, religious, or community-wise, nationality, whatever… It all comes from the heart, my own experiences. So I’d say that no, my music hasn’t changed since I’ve become a parent. I have (changed), as we all do when we have that added responsibility, when you have to step up to the plate and the father that you had, or even better. I will say that I changed in this regards, but I would say that my music is a product of its environment. I’m a lot more mature now. I try to be careful with what I say, and other mites I just don’t give a fuck.
Be on the lookout for SUNDAY SCHOOL 2 slated for March 2013.- CUTT GODD