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"Tree Grows His Own Way: Tremaine Johnson proves there's more to the new generation of Chicago hip-hop than Chief Keef and the drill scene"

The Chicago Salem Missionary Baptist Church, near the corner of 47th and Union in Canaryville, doesn't look like much. Aside from the cross on its roof, it could pass for a disused industrial building, its windows boarded up so tight that only God could get in. But it's still in use by a Baptist congregation—the congregation that 28-year-old rapper and producer Tremaine Johnson, aka Tree, called his own until his mid-teens. And it helped inspire his mixtape Sunday School, which came out in March—one of the most compelling and under­appreciated hip-hop releases of the year.

Johnson, who now lives in Englewood, has been rapping since the late 90s but didn't release any music till 2010. Though he's still a relative unknown, he's already earned the kind of critical acclaim that most aspiring MCs can only dream about. Since Sunday School dropped, tastemaking music sites the Fader and Mishka's Bloglin have written about pretty much every new video, song, or mixtape Tree has released. Two weeks ago Spin named him one of its five best new artists for August, and hip-hop writer Andrew "Noz" Nosnitsky ranked Sunday School number three in a May piece for MTV Hive called "The Five Best Mixtapes of 2012 So Far"—one slot ahead of Rick Ross's Rich Forever.

It's especially odd that so many fans and critics have slept on Tree, considering that Chicago hip-hop is all the rage thanks to teenage phenom Chief Keef and the east-side drill scene. Maybe that's because the drill sound—a moody, apocalyptic spin on the bombastic southern subgenre called "trap"—has so little to do with Johnson's style. Drill is minimalist and almost static in its aggression, but Tree's music is subtle and complex, with more flexibility, more melody, and more flow—you can hear bits of soul and R&B tangled in its DNA.

Johnson built Sunday School largely out of samples, often from classic soul songs, but his technique departs from the usual blueprint. He chops them up, processes them, and pieces them together, using odd edits and slight dissonances, so that they interweave and overlap in a way that can feel slightly "off," though they're never actually out of time with his lean, pulsing drum patterns. The effect is almost the opposite of a head-nodding groove—its strangeness, instability, and tension is a big part of what makes Johnson's music so magnetic. "He broke down the way that you make a sample-­based rap record," Nosnitsky says, "and rebuilt it from scratch."

Johnson's rhymes are thoughtful and impassioned, and he delivers them in a grainy, powerful voice that breaks up into a searing rasp when he reaches for an emotional peak. He's definitely a rapper, not a singer, but he sometimes talk-sings or holds notes, and you can hear evidence of his years at the Chicago Salem church—the grand melodies, the gospel fervor, the stacked vocal parts that sometimes sound like a choir cutting loose. That's part of the reason he named the mixtape Sunday School, he says: "It was almost like some of the songs were just like church." Shortly after the mixtape came out, he gave his sound a name and a Twitter hashtag—soul trap.

The youngest of four boys, Johnson was born and raised at 911 N. Sedgwick, in an infamous part of Cabrini-Green known as the Wild End. The north-side housing project had a bad reputation, but Johnson didn't feel it. "Coming up in Cabrini-Green was fun," he says. "There was always something to do. There was a multitude of friends and enemies, family—everything's all right. We didn't know there was nothing wrong with it."

On Sundays he joined his grandmother, Virgie Lucas, and other relatives from around the city at the Chicago Salem Church. "I learned to fear God and sing songs," Johnson says. He joined the choir so young he can't remember how old he was. "It's where I first started singing and liking music."

Johnson was still going to church faithfully with his family when his mother split briefly from his father after she discovered he'd been cheating; Johnson, who guesses he was in fourth or fifth grade, moved with her and his brothers to 1150 N. Sedgwick, at the other end of Cabrini-Green. "It was two or three blocks down the road, but it was a completely different environment," he says.

The Gangster Disciples ruled the roost in the Wild End, but the family was now in King Cobras turf. This was rough on the older boys, who were affiliated with the GDs—the two gangs were at war. But Johnson's brothers kept him out of trouble, at least at first. "They wouldn't let me hang with them and wouldn't let me be in the popular crowd," he says. This helped him make friends with people he otherwise might've considered enemies.

In the summer of 1997, when he was 13, Johnson did some - Chicago Reader

"Mixtape: Tree "Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out": Comfort Food Raps for the Soul"

Chicago-based MC Tree has one of hip-hop's most eccentric rhyme and production styles. Last year's Sunday School was an acclaimed mixtape, but the rapper has been producing weary basement street rap for years, beginning with 2010's incredible The 3rd Floor. His latest release promises the latest iteration of the rapper's unusual brand of soul sampling. The tape includes higher profile features than previous releases, including both Danny Brown and Roc Marciano. It's Tree's first release on the Closed Sessions label, and promises to, at the very least, be the most high-profile of the rapper's career to date. Download it below. - Complex

"FADER Exclusive Release: Download Tree's Sunday School II Mixtape"

The new tape from Chicago’s odd man out Tree has arrived, starring the grainy-voiced rapper and onetime salesman of fine women’s shoes. A 17-track church service of sorts, Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out is the sequel to last year’s excellent Sunday School, a crazy quilt of soul melodies, drum rumbles and stacked voices inspired by Tree’s childhood in Chicago’s Salem Missionary Baptist Church. As detailed in a conversation with Andrew Noz for FADER’s Beat Construction, Tree builds records from samples, but his methods are self-taught and all his own. This time around there are more collaborators supporting that independence: engineer Michael Kolar helped mix and master everything, Creative Control handled videos and art, Danny Brown, Roc Marciano and Tree’s longtime friends Project Mayhem appear. Pay close attention to “Most Successful,” where Tree sounds most like a distant relative of love-promoting overachiever Chance the Rapper. Pausing to let out gasping yelps, he applauds guys who went to medical school, felons running businesses and himself, for making good grades and avoiding drama.

Read more: - FADER

"15 Unsigned Rappers Who Should Get a Deal After SXSW"

15 Unsigned Rappers Who Should Get a Deal After SXSW
13 OF 16

15 Unsigned Rappers Who Should Get a Deal After SXSW
Affiliations: Gutter City
Previous Releases: The 3rd Floor; Sunday School; Pluto; The Tree EP; Wizardtree with Big Wiz; The Johnson & Johnson EP with Nemesis; The Lit with Tony Baines; Treet feat. the City
X-Factor: One-of-a-kind rapper/producer/songwriter.
At SXSW?: Yes

Tree is a triple-threat. He's a producer, writes invigorating, memorable hooks, and he can rap—that is, if you like his distinctively off-the-beaten-path swagger, at once country and urban, much like his Chicago home.

Unlike Twista, who came up on Chicago's West Side, or the recent drill scene, which originated on the East Side, Tree is from Cabrini Green. Once the second-largest housing project in Chicago, the Greens have largely been torn down, but the rapper's sound is very rooted in the contradictory influences that he experienced in that environment, informed equally by tradition, religion, and hard lessons learned coming up in one of America's more notorious locales.

His sound is completely original, chopping up soul samples at unexpected angles. He's more a 2Pac fan than a Dilla one (and wasn't even familiar with Dilla's output until a year or two ago). But his sound could appeal to this entire spectrum of rap fans, should a wide enough audience become familiar with his work. - Complex


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 movie Cooley 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. - Noisey


It's one o'clock in the afternoon, the third day of Pitchfork Music Festival. The sun pounds down on the day's earliest attendees, those who've admirably managed to shake their two-day hangovers of booze, heat, and whatever drugs they've ingested over the previous indie rock-filled 48 hours. It's warm, maybe the hottest of the three days. A decent-sized crowd has formed before the Green Stage—the same stage upon which R. Kelly would spread his arms and sing his heart out eight hours later. A group of men tower before us, all wearing white, long-sleeved button-down shirts, rolled up cuffs, loose ties, and black pants. The exception to the group's look is the man in the middle, the one sporting skinny khakis, wobbling and waving his hand back and forth. His name is Tree, one of the hardest working rappers of the past two years, and he's performing "Church," a slow-moving, grimy track with an elastic beat from last year's Sunday School mixtape. "If I really wanna go back, then I'll go back," he spits. On this Sunday in Chicago, he's pretty much turned this grassy knoll into, well, a church.

Tree knows exactly how important this performance is, and what it can do for his career. In its short life, Pitchfork Festival has established itself as a breeding ground for tomorrow's conversation. Since 2011, the festival has adjusted the focus from strictly indie rock/pop/etc., and has done an admirable job at booking up-and-coming rappers, often helping them jump from Internet fame into real fame. Back in 2011, the lineup featured Shabazz Palaces, G-Side, and Odd Future; in 2012, we had A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Danny Brown; and this year gave us DJ Rashad, Killer Mike, El-P, Lil B, and, of course, Tree. Obviously, some of these rappers are huge, and most were already part of the buzz-machine on the way to popularity, but Pitchfork Festival provided an exposure to a wider influential audience—and an audience with a higher Klout score average than, say, those wearing sporting facepaint at Coachella.

On stage, the rapper's presence is strong and full of energy. Performing his "soul trap," which he defines as a "fusion of latter-day soul and modern-day rap and drums," he sways back and forth. His raspy voice—a flow that sounds like an aggressive (but awesome) drunk slur—leads the crowd, which is made up of all spectrums of the Pitchfork audience, from bloggers to rap dorks to indie kids to those already camped out for R. Kelly. He orders them to bounce their hands and sing his hooks. His hype man, a shorter, skinnier dude bouncing around like a jackhammer, throws out copies of Sunday School 2: When Church Lets Out, Tree's most recent mixtape. Some of these CD's hit people in the face. No one cares when these CD's hit them in the face.

It's obvious that there has been a lot of thought, time, and energy put into thinking out this performance—and, to be frank, it's refreshing to witness a rapper who actually seems to give a shit. To use a cliché that kept continually getting tossed around among the people I stood with in the crowd, Tree ­fucking brought it. - Noisey

"The Come Up: Tree"

Chicago is in the midst of having their big moment in hip-hop. New rappers like Chief Keef and Chance The Rapper have helped shine a spotlight on the city’s aesthetically diverse scene. One of the older ones out of the bunch is Tree, whose profile has raised ever since the release of his 2012 mixtape Sunday School. The 29-year-old, from Cabrini Green housing projects, is carving his own lane with dusty soul samples coupled with a unique raspy voice. To hip-hop purists, Tree’s appeal comes from music that stimulates listeners with clever lyricism that’ll make you rewind it back. There’s no denying he has put in time and effort to create something special outside of his regional influences.

Today, his much-talked about sequel, Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out, drops today, and we wanted to find out more about the buzzing producer/rapper. Since receiving critical praise from the likes of Fake Shore Drive to SPIN and Complex, Tree has aligned himself with Creative Control to help him get more recognition in 2013. XXL caught up with Tree to find out what life was like growing up in Cabrini Green, the definition of a “Soul Trap”, and his growth found in his new project.—As told to Eric Diep (@E_Diep) - XXL

"Age and rap: Rapper Tree straddles hip-hop's youth, elder statesmen: A newcomer who has paid his dues, Tremaine 'Tree' Johnson considers what age and maturity mean to hip-hop, the voice of young America"

Tremaine Johnson, who raps under the name Tree and lives in Englewood, has a boyish face, broadening with age. He has a thick, distinctive growl. And Sunday, when he opens the final day of Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, it will be because he has had two acclaimed mix tapes, "Sunday School" and "Sunday School II." He's blowing up, modestly.He's also 29, and when we sat to talk about age and rap recently, he said, laughing: "Don't make me look like an old bastard, sitting in a rocking chair, hip screeching. This the beginning of my life. And I ain't old."

He's not.

He turns 30 in October, and 30 is not too old to rap.


Long after rap replaced rock as the voice of young America, its biggest acts are now entering their late 30s and 40s. Jay-Z, the biggest act in rap (appearing Monday at Soldier Field with Justin Timberlake) is 43. He's only two years younger than Mick Jagger was during the Rolling Stones' 1989 Steel Wheels tour. What does it mean that Harvard University just established a fellowship in the name of Nas, who is 39? Or that Kanye West, at 36, is still culturally viable enough to draw polarizing reactions to his new album, "Yeezus"?

Young Jeezy is 35.

Though hip-hop started in the 1970s as a youth-centric culture, "it's surprisingly remained young," said Andrew Barber, founder of the influential Chicago rap blog Fake Shore Drive. Like anything that gathers history, generational splits have sprung up: Last year, on a track for 26-year-old rapper Meek Mill, Drake, who is also 26, rapped that "talkin' bout these other rappers getting old is even getting old." Just as, a year before that, Tyler the Creator, 22, complained in a song about "40-year-old rappers talking about Gucci."

At 29, Tree is a decade older than many of the hottest rappers from Chicago, a number of whom have established themselves as popular national acts: Chance the Rapper (20), Lil Durk (20), Chief Keef (17).

But here's the thing.

Where a less experienced voice might reach for bravado and cliche — say, "What doesn't kill me/ makes me stronger" — Tree gives it the poignancy of tough lessons, rapping "What doesn't kill me, hurts …" He didn't just pick up a microphone as a high school student then start releasing music. He went to work; indeed, until two years ago he was working on commission at Nordstrom on Michigan Avenue selling women's shoes.

Adam Bradley, who edited the encyclopedic "Anthology of Rap" and co-authored Chicago rapper Common's 2011 memoir, said: "KRS-One (of Boogie Down Productions) once told me that it can be a good thing for a rapper to have a day job. Overnight celebrity doesn't necessarily make great art. That comes from the crucible of everyday life. Even the mundaneness of everyday life. And he's right: A rapper needs a day job."

I met up with Tree last week at the Logan Square house where he was rehearsing for Pitchfork. As I pulled up he stepped out onto the porch wearing long denim shorts, a white T-shirt and a baseball cap. Around him swirled guys with tattoos and cans of PBR, filmmakers and rappers and friends. He was smoking a crumbling, yellowing joint, and was friendly, beaming. "You don't mind weed, do you?" he asked me.
Then added, "I am, after all, a rapper."

Don't want to disappoint.

And yet, his music is poised so solidly between Chicago drill — a moody nihilistic rap — and an older, soulful, underground sophistication, there was something discordant to this: Even if "rap still revels in being young and at the party," as Bradley put it, the guys in this house were leaving their youth. On the other hand, perhaps it was a reminder that rap is just becoming more like rock, a lifestyle no longer committed to youth, "a fairly new development," said Shawn Setaro, editor of the blog Rap Genius, "where rappers are allowed to remain contemporary into their 30s and 40s and not seem like an oldies act. Because rap has a history now."

Tree moved through the apartment, which had the chaotic, unkempt appearance of an off-campus apartment, only post-apocalyptic. We found a pair of chairs in the basement amid drums and microphones.

Thought about age, I asked.

"Nah," he said.

Really, I said.

"Age doesn't affect me," he said. "I don't make fad music. I make timeless pieces. I make soul-trap" — which is his name for his mix of soul and trap, a Southern-based genre of rap partly defined by its speedy use of hi-hat cymbals — "and soul has been around since the beginning of time. I am really a soul rapper."

Soul has arguably older-leaning connotations now, I said.

"Yes," he said, "but a music from a point of wisdom. And when other guys are rapping the - Chicago Tribune

"Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out Review"

Chicago hip-hop’s always had something of a split personality, and the recent global attention on the scene has only served to heighten the contrast between Chief Keef and the giddily sociopathic drill scene on one end of the spectrum, and on the other, Chance the Rapper and a new generation of artists looking to reinvigorate a conscious rap scene that was last at its peak back when Kanye was still a backpacker. And almost exactly halfway between the two ends of the spectrum sits an MC named Tremaine “Tree” Johnson.
Last year Tree released a mixtape called Sunday School. It was a rough record released in an unmastered, unpolished state, but it managed to establish him as something like the David Banner of the Midwest: a rapper/producer with a carefully considered aesthetic that’s organic and insightful, but who doesn’t consider himself above writing songs aimed at the street, the club, or the bedroom. Sunday School II improves on its predecessor in almost every aspect. The songs are stronger, his performance is more assured, and the production-- with assistance from Chicago hip-hop recording kingpin Michael Kolar-- is deeper and denser. He doesn’t feel like an artist sitting between two scenes, skimming off ideas, but one strong enough to stack them atop one another and climb on top.
Tree calls his artistic philosophy “soul trap,” and it’s as honest a name as it is catchy. On a basic musical level, it accurately describes Tree’s preferred blend of soul music elements-- warm, churchy organ lines and vocal samples pitched up, Kanye-as-chipmunk style-- with beats built around the kind of booming 808 kicks and snappy, precisely machined hi-hats that have been a feature of Southern rap mixtapes for years, and which have recently taken hold in the Midwest.
Taking a deeper view, “soul trap” can also describe the emotional and intellectual heart of Tree’s music. A native of the city’s notorious (and now demolished) Cabrini-Green projects, his roots are deep in the street-- in his lyrics Chicago gangs like the Black P. Stone Nation are features of the neighborhood just the same way brick high rises are, and he makes multiple references to a brief stint selling crack at age 13. He sees the nihilism that pervades the gangster lifestyle he opted out of, and wants to stay as far away from it as possible. In Tree’s capable hands these two elements, which on the surface seem so contradictory, combine into a raw but subtly layered portrait of life in black Chicago, one that’s miles away from Keef’s in tone but just as bracing and honest.
Tree delivers this portrait with a ragged melodic howl that recalls Chicago bluesmen as frequently as it does other rappers. Despite the sometimes weighty nature of the material he tackles lyrically, he’s a pop artist at heart (on “King” he gives the chipmunk-soul treatment to a snippet of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”), which helps set him apart from many MCs who get tagged as “conscious” and makes Sunday School II a pleasurable repeat listen.
And even when he’s being conscious he’s not a drag about it. On “So Bad” he describes a dream woman who’s independent, intelligent, and self-actualized, but also stacks paper, flashes diamonds, and projects the kind of intensely confident not-giving-a-fuck that’s more common to rappers than the women they write about. The song describes a combination of virtues that also fit Tree’s music: flashy enough to grab your attention and smart enough to know what to do with it, brainy but sensual, and easy to get hooked on. - Pitchfork


Sunday School (2012)
Tree featuring the city (2012)
Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out (2013)

"Devotion (Get It)" (2013)
"No Faces" feat. Danny Brown (2013)
"Trynawin" feat. Roc Marciano (2013)
"The King" (2013)
"White Girls" (2013)



Tree is a producer, artist and musical visionary from Chicago, IL. He is the embodiment of Chicago’s legacy of hustlers – a city established on creating a way when no other way exists. Tree paints a vivid picture of a place where cunning and caution are as quintessential as charisma and class. The future is now for Tree and his sound is as progressive as the new generation. The ability to create a vision through music is what separates the talented from the rest, and in a forest of artists so alike, Tree stands alone.

Having been an avid student of music since a young age, growing up in the Cabrini-Green projects of downtown Chicago, Tree always knew he would be a standout producer and rapper. Emerging from the drill scene, where music is heavily influenced by trap drums and heavy bass, Tree learned the inner workings of creating music and developed his own self-proclaimed sound, “Soul Trap”. Following a very successful 2012 and his celebrated mixtape, Sunday School, Tree has continued to deliver for 2013 with a follow up release, the highly praised Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out.

2013 is shaping up to be a very big year for Tree. With a breakthrough spot on the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, a critically acclaimed mixtape making waves around the nation, feature articles in almost every major US publication and a handful of third and fourth quarter releases, Tree is positioning himself to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.