Just want to hear some music? Skip to the bottom for two tracks by Tree.
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 something he calls "foolish"—he started selling crack. But his family was still looking out for him. "I was making good money, and then my cousin found out about it," he says. "The guy I was getting drugs from, he told me, like, 'Man, I cannot work with you no more—your cousin told me don't mess with you no more.'"
Johnson's first legitimate gig, which he landed in summer 1998 through Mayor Daley's Youth Ready Chicago Summer Job Program, was in customer service at the Shedd Aquarium. His family had recently moved to Bronzeville, and that fall he started attending DuSable High School and stopped going to church. Johnson worked a series of odd jobs—washing windows, shining shoes outside the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's—and in fall 2000, a couple weeks into his junior year, he dropped out to find better-paying work, even though he was (by his own account) a straight-A student. He was hired by a printing company, Forslund Grabowski, to hang posters for concerts around the city. He also started selling weed he'd get from his coworkers, though he was never terribly serious about it. "It was totally accepted," he says.
In summer 2001, while still working for Forslund Grabowski, Johnson answered the call of hip-hop. "A couple of my homies I grew up with, they were rapping and producing and all that stuff," he says. "I remember going over there and being like, 'Man, you making music—show me how to do that.'" As soon as he got his next paycheck, he went to Guitar Center and spent about $1,000 on recording equipment. "I remember calling off work two, three days just to learn how to use it," he says. Johnson started collaborating with other aspiring rappers from Cabrini-Green, using a nickname his family had given him when he was little—Tree, short for Tremaine. (He sometimes goes by Tree G or even MC Tree G.)