"There's only been three rappers that have made me cry. It was Tupac, Nas, and this guy." —Marco Dane of Project Mayhem
"There's only been three rappers that have made me cry. It was Tupac, Nas, and this guy." —Marco Dane of Project Mayhem Credit: Alison Green

Just want to hear some music? Skip to the bottom for two tracks by Tree.

The Chicago Salem Missionary Baptist Church, near the corner of 47th and Union in Canaryville, doesn’t look like much. Aside from the cross on its roof, it could pass for a disused industrial building, its windows boarded up so tight that only God could get in. But it’s still in use by a Baptist congregation—the congregation that 28-year-old rapper and producer Tremaine Johnson, aka Tree, called his own until his mid-teens. And it helped inspire his mixtape Sunday School, which came out in March—one of the most compelling and under­appreciated hip-hop releases of the year.

Johnson, who now lives in Englewood, has been rapping since the late 90s but didn’t release any music till 2010. Though he’s still a relative unknown, he’s already earned the kind of critical acclaim that most aspiring MCs can only dream about. Since Sunday School dropped, tastemaking music sites the Fader and Mishka’s Bloglin have written about pretty much every new video, song, or mixtape Tree has released. Two weeks ago Spin named him one of its five best new artists for August, and hip-hop writer Andrew “Noz” Nosnitsky ranked Sunday School number three in a May piece for MTV Hive called “The Five Best Mixtapes of 2012 So Far“—one slot ahead of Rick Ross’s Rich Forever.

It’s especially odd that so many fans and critics have slept on Tree, considering that Chicago hip-hop is all the rage thanks to teenage phenom Chief Keef and the east-side drill scene. Maybe that’s because the drill sound—a moody, apocalyptic spin on the bombastic southern subgenre called “trap”—has so little to do with Johnson’s style. Drill is minimalist and almost static in its aggression, but Tree’s music is subtle and complex, with more flexibility, more melody, and more flow—you can hear bits of soul and R&B tangled in its DNA.

Johnson built Sunday School largely out of samples, often from classic soul songs, but his technique departs from the usual blueprint. He chops them up, processes them, and pieces them together, using odd edits and slight dissonances, so that they interweave and overlap in a way that can feel slightly “off,” though they’re never actually out of time with his lean, pulsing drum patterns. The effect is almost the opposite of a head-nodding groove—its strangeness, instability, and tension is a big part of what makes Johnson’s music so magnetic. “He broke down the way that you make a sample-­based rap record,” Nosnitsky says, “and rebuilt it from scratch.”

Johnson’s rhymes are thoughtful and impassioned, and he delivers them in a grainy, powerful voice that breaks up into a searing rasp when he reaches for an emotional peak. He’s definitely a rapper, not a singer, but he sometimes talk-sings or holds notes, and you can hear evidence of his years at the Chicago Salem church—the grand melodies, the gospel fervor, the stacked vocal parts that sometimes sound like a choir cutting loose. That’s part of the reason he named the mixtape Sunday School, he says: “It was almost like some of the songs were just like church.” Shortly after the mixtape came out, he gave his sound a name and a Twitter hashtag—soul trap.

Tree on his church – Credit: Leor Galil

The youngest of four boys, Johnson was born and raised at 911 N. Sedgwick, in an infamous part of Cabrini-Green known as the Wild End. The north-side housing project had a bad reputation, but Johnson didn’t feel it. “Coming up in Cabrini-Green was fun,” he says. “There was always something to do. There was a multitude of friends and enemies, family—everything’s all right. We didn’t know there was nothing wrong with it.”

On Sundays he joined his grandmother, Virgie Lucas, and other relatives from around the city at the Chicago Salem Church. “I learned to fear God and sing songs,” Johnson says. He joined the choir so young he can’t remember how old he was. “It’s where I first started singing and liking music.”

Johnson was still going to church faithfully with his family when his mother split briefly from his father after she discovered he’d been cheating; Johnson, who guesses he was in fourth or fifth grade, moved with her and his brothers to 1150 N. Sedgwick, at the other end of Cabrini-Green. “It was two or three blocks down the road, but it was a completely different environment,” he says.

The Gangster Disciples ruled the roost in the Wild End, but the family was now in King Cobras turf. This was rough on the older boys, who were affiliated with the GDs—the two gangs were at war. But Johnson’s brothers kept him out of trouble, at least at first. “They wouldn’t let me hang with them and wouldn’t let me be in the popular crowd,” he says. This helped him make friends with people he otherwise might’ve considered enemies.

In the summer of 1997, when he was 13, Johnson did something he calls “foolish”—he started selling crack. But his family was still looking out for him. “I was making good money, and then my cousin found out about it,” he says. “The guy I was getting drugs from, he told me, like, ‘Man, I cannot work with you no more—your cousin told me don’t mess with you no more.'”

Tree on selling crack – Credit: Leor Galil

Johnson’s first legitimate gig, which he landed in summer 1998 through Mayor Daley’s Youth Ready Chicago Summer Job Program, was in customer service at the Shedd Aquarium. His family had recently moved to Bronzeville, and that fall he started attending DuSable High School and stopped going to church. Johnson worked a series of odd jobs—washing windows, shining shoes outside the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s—and in fall 2000, a couple weeks into his junior year, he dropped out to find better-paying work, even though he was (by his own account) a straight-A student. He was hired by a printing company, Forslund Grabowski, to hang posters for concerts around the city. He also started selling weed he’d get from his coworkers, though he was never terribly serious about it. “It was totally accepted,” he says.

In summer 2001, while still working for Forslund Grabowski, Johnson answered the call of hip-hop. “A couple of my homies I grew up with, they were rapping and producing and all that stuff,” he says. “I remember going over there and being like, ‘Man, you making music—show me how to do that.'” As soon as he got his next paycheck, he went to Guitar Center and spent about $1,000 on recording equipment. “I remember calling off work two, three days just to learn how to use it,” he says. Johnson started collaborating with other aspiring rappers from Cabrini-Green, using a nickname his family had given him when he was little—Tree, short for Tremaine. (He sometimes goes by Tree G or even MC Tree G.)

The following winter Johnson lost his job, which set some big changes in motion. In 2002 he got his GED, and that fall he got hired at Nordstrom in River North. He started in the stockroom, but by June 2003 he was selling women’s shoes—a job that would eventually earn him as much as $75,000 a year, including his commissions. Improbably enough, it also helped him expand his network of connections in the hip-hop scene: Marco Dane of west-side group Project Mayhem got a job at the same store, and in the mid-aughts Johnson met him and passed along a couple homemade CDs. “One day I was sitting in the house,” Dane says, “and I just had it playing for some reason, and I was like, ‘Wait, hold on, this guy is kind of good.'” Dane and Project Mayhem embraced Johnson, and he’s been an unofficial fifth member since 2008. “There’s only been three rappers that have made me cry,” Dane says. “It was Tupac, Nas, and this guy.”

In 2009 Lennon from Project Mayhem introduced Tree’s music to Andrew Barber, founder of Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive. “He would always say, ‘Yeah, we’re dope, but you gotta check out this new guy that we’re working with—his name is Tree,” Barber says. “Immediately I was a fan.” Fake Shore Drive became one of the earliest outlets to cover Johnson, beginning with his first official mixtape, 2010’s The Third Floor.

The stage was set for Johnson to make the leap into music full-time. In April 2010 he injured his left big toe in the stockroom at Nordstrom and ended up staying home from work for six months—his doctor, he says, told him “take your time.” Even after Johnson went back, he didn’t work much—instead he started using up his accumulated days off. In March 2011, after eight and a half years at Nordstrom, he quit—in the process sacrificing a chunk of his 401(k) worth more than $100,000. It was during this time that he started working on what would become Sunday School and gigging live under his own name. In October, after he’d finished two tracks, he followed his girlfriend to Atlanta (and finally stopped casually selling weed); at the end of November, they broke up. Johnson moved into a house with a couple friends and wrapped up the remaining 13 tracks on Sunday School, collaborating remotely with musicians in Chicago—some of whom he’d never met in person.

Chicago is at the heart of Sunday School, but Atlanta affected it too. “I don’t know if it was the depression stage I was in, being in Atlanta,” Johnson says. “It wouldn’t have came out that way if I hadn’t moved to Atlanta, so that’s one good thing that I could say about going.” Johnson got a job selling shoes in the northern suburb of Alpharetta, but he was homesick and missed his family. In August 2008 he and a different woman had had a son, Mason, and until Johnson had moved to Atlanta he’d had custody two days a week. “I went back and forth twice to see him from Atlanta, and every time I left it was hard,” he says. “It was killing me—it was just heartbreak. I would come to town for a day or two, take him wherever he wanted to go, and he never wanted to leave my side. I’d leave while he was sleeping.”

Johnson wouldn’t return to Chicago to stay till April 2, a few weeks after he released Sunday School—it came out on March 11, his late grandmother’s birthday. The mixtape doesn’t just address his weekly trips to the Chicago Salem church but also talks about her death in August 2009 and what she (and the rest of his family) continues to mean to him. Johnson decided to ditch Atlanta after a March 2012 trip to Austin for South by Southwest, where he finally met some of the contributors to Sunday School—including Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa Spencer, who both appear on “Good Shit/Roses” (listen to the track below). Back in Georgia, he talked to a friend in Chicago and decided to move back as soon as he could get packed.

“Good Shit/Roses” – Tree ft. Chance the Rapper & VicCredit: Tree

Sunday School has been rapturously received by almost every outlet that’s mentioned it, but those outlets aren’t terribly numerous so far. The consensus about Tree is that he’s a unique artist, which might be his problem—it’s difficult to fit him into a niche. He’s too street for so-called hipster-hop, too much of an everyman for gangsta rap, and too soulful and subtle for the drill scene. “He truly is one of rap’s best-kept secrets,” says Barber.

The secret is starting to get out. Nosnitsky’s mixtape list for MTV Hive has proved to be a great look for Johnson. “That MTV tag was worth my $110,000 401(k) money,” he says. (At the end of May, Johnson released a deluxe version of Sunday School, adding two tracks, the MTV logo, and the words “One of MTV’s top 5 mixtapes of the year.”) Nosnitsky points out that the high ranking Sunday School got is just one writer’s opinion, not evidence that MTV’s bigwigs have decided to back Tree—but they probably should.

Right now Johnson is almost halfway through releasing four EPs made with four different producers: late last month he put out The Lit, produced by Tony Baines, and early next month he’ll drop Trillin, produced by 110% Pure (who’s also worked with Pitbull). Before the year ends, he hopes to release the other two EPS, plus a full-length mixtape called Tree Featuring the City—a project three years in the making that includes drops from local MCs such as GLC, Vic Spencer, and Naledge from Kidz in the Hall.

Johnson is talking with producer Frank Dukes (Ghostface Killah, Danny Brown) about releasing Sunday School on vinyl this fall—and because Dukes is working on the soundtrack to the RZA’s directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists, one of Tree’s songs, “I Was 14,” is likely to be included. Johnson also has a project in the works for which Dukes and a team of other producers are making tracks—he’s flying to New York City in a couple weeks to work on that.

Since Sunday School dropped, several labels—RCA, Atlantic, Talib Kweli’s Blacksmith Music—have expressed interest in working with Johnson, but he hasn’t jumped at any offers. The sudden explosion of Chicago hip-hop has provoked a major-label feeding frenzy, with nearly a dozen acts signing deals, but he’s stayed apart from it all—acclaimed by critics but beloved by only a small cult of fans. “It’s the gift and the curse,” he says. “You know what—I’d rather get it the hard way.”

“Letter to Mason” – Tree prod. by Tony BainesCredit: Tree
“Die” – TreeCredit: Tree