Age and rap: Rapper Tree straddles hip-hop's youth, elder statesmen

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Underground rapper Tree spoke about his career and the Chicago music scene at P & J Footwear two days before he performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival. (Posted on: July 22, 2013)

"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."

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