There’s a quote that gets thrown around sometimes by Chicagoans, attributed to Michael Douglas: “I'm impressed with the people from Chicago. Hollywood is hype, New York is talk, Chicago is work.”
While the more prideful of us appreciate any swipe at the coasts, the statement isn’t exactly inaccurate—especially in rap music, a place where not telling the truth is literally a marketing strategy. The “talk of New York” is a crown that has been held by a ton of wack ass rappers and hype can make a West Coast act like Tyga go from Travis McCoy’s Scrappy Doo to a trending topic on Twitter who scores big time interviews (who might be hollering at a 17-year-old). Meanwhile in Chicago, the mentality has always been “work hard and maybe you’ll get a look.” That’s equal parts accuracy based on traditional narratives and the fact that there isn’t a solid music rap industry infrastructure here like there is on the coasts and Atlanta.
No rapper currently doing business in the city exemplifies that approach than Tree. Between his work as a member of local group Project Mayhem back in 2011 to working with a cavalcade of Chicago rappers on “Tree feat. The City” to his critically acclaimed projects like Sunday School, Sunday School 2, and The MC Tree EP, he’s built a consistent career by pure sweat equity.
Today, he’s releasing his newest project, Trap Genius, premiering exclusively on Noisey, along with the video for “Don't Een Care.” It finds him embracing more of a Southern trap sound as compared to the dusty old soul-inflected aesthetic that he’s carved out over the past few years. A more lighthearted take on his usual formula that finds Tree dropping words like “bando” and touching on topics like molly (not into it) and weed (into it), it still finds room for samples of newscasters wringing their hands over Chicago violence and highlight’s Tree’s inimitable production style, voice, and all-around solid character.
Why Trap Genius? Are you switching it up?
It’s me with a more modern sound—what the kids are listening to—me being in the game. I need to maintain. When I travel, I listen to what the clubs are playing. I heard some stuff recently, and I realized I wanted to make something that sounds good in the club. My music is for the old soul, but, hey, I go to strip clubs too. Why not make the music I want to hear in that environment? I’m having fun on this tape. I’m still giving you what you come to expect about me. You’re not going to hear Tree popping bottles or taking molly. Trap Genius is music I wish I could walk in the club and hear. I do my own thing. I’m celebrated mostly because I don’t sound like anything else, and I have an unconventional way I listen to music, and my whole mission is to give you something to relate to. Look at it like this: All the kids in Chicago doing it right now, I’m in that circle in some way. I don’t feel any hostility. Hating is stupid. I don’t want any misfortune to come anybody’s way.
Seems like whenever rap is talked about in Chicago, there’s a sense of “addressing the hate.” A lot of times, it’s based in nothing. Or you have to pick a camp. You can’t like Keef or you can’t like Chance or you can’t like Tree. Do you feel like that’s something you keep running into as you get more successful?
At 31, I’ve sat with every record label you can think of at this point. The most common critique that I get is that I need to build my fanbase. Most situations, I get offered to write for their artists. I’m not excited about the concept of a record label anymore or fitting into a box. I can do other sounds because I’m competitive. You have to change with the times, but not lose yourself in the process.
You recently partnered with Ghostface. How was that?
Frank Dukes, a great producer out of Canada— he helped produce Drake’s “0-100” — reached out to me after I put out Sunday School and wanted to collab. He flew me to New York, and we did an album, the “Soul Trap” album. We’re fans of each other. I produced a thing for him, and at the time he was working on the Ghostface and the BADBADNOTGOOD album [Stone Sour, which also drops today]. He sent it to me, I did my thing, and everyone loved it. That was a while ago. I’ve never met Ghostface. I don’t think he’s heard anything else I’ve done, but something about my sound stood out to him.
Photo by Andrew Zeiter, courtesy of Tree
One of my favorite Tree stories is when you snuck backstage in VIP at Pitchfork. You were holding court, cracking jokes and hanging out. Shaking hands and kissing babies. Nobody knew who you were outside of a few folks, and people couldn’t stop saying how cool you were. The next year, you were playing the festival. How important is being personable in music?
I try to be a great person, first. This is who I am. First impressions, presentation, eye contact. I came from customer service. I know how to talk to people. A lot of people that I’ve met in this business, I started by having a simple conversation with. Next thing I know, I find out that’s somebody big in the music industry. My longevity—it’s been four years since the blogs started paying attention to me—is based off of those relationships. A lot of people I started out with aren’t getting talked about anymore. It’s the connections— I mean, I make great music, too—but it’s a lot better to listen to someone going through the same stuff, then meet that person and recognize that it’s not a facade. I work hard and my music shows that.
What’s next after Trap Genius?
I want to drop two or three projects. Something with Dukes, something I worked on with Sha Money XL, I’m obviously doing stuff with Chris Crack, (SaveMoney’s) Brian Fresco. I did a thing with Vic Spencer. I’m sitting on so much music, man. I’m going to spoil my fans this year.
Ernest Wilkins is a writer living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.