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

Christopher Borrelli

July 19, 2013


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 they drive a Bentley and we all know that (they) don't drive a Bentley, that's not wise, you could say. Coming from the heart is a better way to reach an audience — though you can't label my fan base any more than you can label me."

"The word 'elder' comes up a lot in reviews of your stuff," I said, "'enlightened elder,' 'elder statesman' …"

"And it doesn't make me feel old," he said. "But if I'm considered an elder, as an artist maybe I accept that? I came from difficult neighborhoods, moved from the (now razed) Cabrini-Green projects to Englewood as a teenager, knew what it was like to go out into the world and get a job. I traveled. I am not a 19-year-old."

"You don't say 'like' a lot," I said.

"I spent years in customer service," he said.

"Please say that is going into your next rap," I said.

"Maybe," he said. "But at Nordstrom, I learned there is another world out there — other lifestyles, different lifestyles, and most of the people — some younger rappers — I know will never understand what that means. I know another world than Englewood knows. I lived in Hyde Park. I paid into a time share for years!"

It should be mentioned that, despite his age, everything that Tree says, at least aurally, has a ring of wisdom. This is because he has a rasp more typically heard on someone who has spent several lifetimes in a whiskey bar. You know Tom Waits, I asked, bringing up the gold standard in croaking.

Don't know him, Tree said.

Sounds worse than you, I said.

"Someone with a voice more (expletive) than mine?" he asked, delighted.

Indeed, Tree sounds much older than he is, seems much older than he is. He attended DuSable High School, sold drugs as a teenager, took a summer job at the Shedd Aquarium in customer service, began writing lyrics and producing music in the late '90s, dropped out of school, stopped selling drugs, got his GED, got involved with the West Side producers Project Mayhem, went to work selling shoes at Nordstrom, spent eight years selling shoes at Nordstrom, followed a girlfriend to Atlanta, got homesick, returned to Chicago.

He didn't release any music until he was 27, then he emailed blogs, asking anyone to listen; Barber was one of the first who did, and Tree credits him with turning other tastemakers on to "Sunday School." Tree's since drawn attention from MTV, Fader, Spin. For his part, Barber, who calls Tree one of the best-kept secrets in rap, said, "Once you're in the game, it's OK to get older." He cited Rick Ross (37) and 2Chainz (35) as exceptions (albeit ones who were established within rap circles before breaking big), but added it's mostly impossible to come out of nowhere and develop a career in rap after 30: "Once you're in your late 20s, your network dries up. … It's harder to break through at 30 because most of your peers at 30 have moved on to their lives. They get married, have kids, buy houses. They aren't as concerned with what mix tapes are dropping." He said the rare older act that breaks through does so because "they don't come across as old."

They're still at the party.

But on "Sunday School II," along with typical hip-hop bravado, Tree talks about women who can hold their own, lottery tickets, friends who went on to study at medical school and run successful businesses …

"Do you have a mortgage?" I asked Tree.

"I do," he said. "But I don't want to rap about my mortgage yet. Though when I tell you stuff about loving my son, who is 6, I am showing that I do care about real life. I also have a newborn, who is a month old."

"Nas had a song last year where he rapped about not wanting his 16-year-old daughter to date."

"I don't see myself doing that for a while," he said.

"Rap about what you know, Tree."

"Yeah, OK," he said, chuckling. "So, I just got into it with my baby mama. I did this interview yesterday with The Huffington Post and, as I was finishing up, walking the (reporter) to her car, my baby mama shows up and starts acting a fool in front of this lady. She has never done that. She is from a nice neighborhood, and that is not her. But now she's getting indignant in front of this woman, and we're looking like your average ghetto couple out here! I'm a stereotypical rapper now! I don't want to look like that. There's a good topic!"

If you had started at 17, what would your career have looked like, I asked.

"I was rapping at 17, just not releasing. I was writing about all the things these kids now are writing about: smoking weed, riding in nice cars, women, booty," he said. "The good thing about not going public when I was young was it let me come into my own. Only in the last two years have I found the confidence, because now I know that it's good. Also, back then, there was no representative of rap in Chicago. Maybe Twista. But nobody here thought they'd get signed. It was about not having the confidence, not having the knowledge."

On the new Jay-Z album, "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail," Jay-Z raps about turkey bacon. He references England's Tate Modern museum, Michael Jackson's "Thriller," designer Tom Ford. What he knows. As typical, he protests a bit too much about youth, calling out Harry Belafonte (who criticized Jay-Z and wife Beyonce for not being socially engaged): "Respect these young'uns boy/ It's my time now." He also reminds you frequently that his concerns, often about wealth and fame, are different from your concerns. "But," Setaro said, "on 'Watch the Throne' (from last year, recorded with Kanye West), listen closely and there is a mature guy here, grappling in public with what it means to be a part of the first elite black class in America."

Even less frequently noted is that Jay-Z — along with Kanye, to a lesser extent — is one of the few blockbuster examples of a rapper who has an air of long-term, multigenerational viability, and who continues to release culturally relevant work. If he's not quite Neil Young — releasing a torrent of often challenging material, refusing to become an oldies act — he's the most rocklike of rap acts, one of the first rappers "you would find it hard to imagine not releasing new and engaging popular work into his 50s," Bradley said.

I asked Tree if he'd heard the new Jay-Z.

"Fourth of July, had it in my car all weekend," he said.

"His 'condos have condos,'" I said, referring to the lyrics.

"That's what $500 million buys," Tree said. "(If) I had that money, my dog would have a dog. No, what he's saying is it's cool to be older and successful. That's maturity. At one point, you wore glasses and a backpack, people picked on you. It's cool to be dumb. That's the (attitude) of young rappers. But after Jay rapped about having $500 million while other guys rapped usual nonsense — things changed, I think.

"Frankly, right then, he made you feel dumb," he continued. "He changed the focus. He said, it's OK to know stuff, to learn stuff as you get older. I never been a nerd, and I'm not, but I'd rather be authoritative."

Ideally, age brings wisdom, wisdom brings reassessment and reassessment leads to hard truths. Which can make for great art. There's a song on "Sunday School II" in which Tree describes, as he puts it, "a real project moment": Police were chasing someone up the stairs of his Cabrini-Green building, and "the guys I was with ditched their drugs, though the police grabbed who they could. Anyway, the cop messed up my paperwork and let me go, but I also think he believed what I was able to get across — I got a father who's going to beat my (expletive). You know how you feel truth coming off someone? He saw desperation. So I don't want to pretend in my music like things are owed to me. I want to acknowledge I've had lucky breaks."

Gathering my stuff to leave, I asked: "You really don't think about what it means to be older?"

"I don't, but it probably means," he said, eyes searching the ceiling, "at this age … I won't overdose, shoot up a neighborhood or take on police. My fans get this. They're like, 'Tree, we're glad you're a sensible man!'"

He laughed.

"Man, becoming 30," he said, "you would drop a tear if you thought about it. You look back at the decades, people you lost, magnificent things you been a part of, women you slept with. I knew people who were my age who died at 21. Being 30 means I got nine years on them, and if them dying at 21 is a bad thing and being 30 is a bad thing, I'll take this bad thing. I don't feel pressured by age. Now I think, make enough money, you can buy your neighborhood homes, help foreclosures, not just watch your community go broke. I think that's the thing that you dream about at 30 you don't dream about when you're 19. You know better."


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