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)

"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."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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