In 1986 Sugar Ray Dinke released one of Chicago’s first homegrown hip-hop songs: “Cabrini Green Rap.” The tune’s hard-hitting house-influenced beat is a nice riff on the sound Run-D.M.C. rode to popularity—the electronic drums, big crunchy guitar samples, and all—though it doesn’t quite evoke the grim reality of the housing projects that provided the name and lyrical inspiration for the track. Now, nearly three decades after Dinke dropped his song and just a couple years after the last Cabrini-Green high rise became a pile of rubble, 29-year-old Tremaine “Tree” Johnson is making inroads in the national hip-hop scene by digging up memories from his youth in one of this city’s most infamous projects.
Cabrini-Green isn’t the only thing Tree raps about on the brand-new Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out, but it’s part and parcel of certain details that are hard to forget. The neighborhood has been a constant presence in Tree’s music dating back to his official debut, 2010’s The Third Floor, and he’s a master of finding insightful new ways of discuss growing up “on the third floor / dirt poor.” On Sunday School II he gives a shout-out to a childhood friend who graduated from Georgetown Medical School, talks about a lucky break he got after he was arrested while ditching school, and raps about the loved ones who kept him out of trouble.
Tree told me about how his older siblings and cousins prevented him from getting involved in gang life and selling hard drugs when I interviewed him for a B Side feature that came out in August; although he was essentially barred from joining a gang Tree found a group of his own, and passed through what would otherwise be considered rival gang turf to make friends. Tree approaches hip-hop in a similar fashion—he’s aware of the cliques around him and the way that others craft rap tracks, but he does whatever he wants to do anyway.