By Andy Downing
RedEye special contributor
7:48 AM CDT, July 11, 2013
Tree's profile is growing more rapidly than even his name would suggest.
The 29-year-old Chicago rapper/producer earned a coveted slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival on the strength of his newest mixtape, "Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out," and has been wooed by a number of major labels--though for now he sounds content to remain independent.
"With a record label, maybe they want me to make a King Louie song or a Chief Keef song, and maybe that's not me," said the MC, born Tremaine Johnson. "I choose my own style of music, and that's why you're calling me now. I do my own thing."
By phone, the Englewood resident opened up about the act he's most excited to catch at Pitchfork, why he's not cut out for the ministry and how his latest mixtape stacks up to Kanye West's much-lauded "Yeezus."
Is there anyone you're looking forward to seeing at Pitchfork?
I'm looking forward to seeing R. Kelly. I've seen him in the clubs but never onstage.
Have you ever had any interaction with him?
I mean, I've spoken to him, but, naw, not really. I did try and sample some of his music in the past, but none of it ever came out to my liking. Some samples you can work with, and some you can't.
You grew up attending services at Salem Missionary Baptist Church, and your latest mixtape is called "Sunday School II." Did you ever give any consideration to becoming a minister?
[Laughs] Naw, I'm not that good of a person. Well, it's not that I'm not that good of a person, but I've got some vices. Maybe I can go into the ministry when it's all over and I really have a story to tell. You never know what life will throw your way or the type of person you'll be 30 or 40 years from now, so I wouldn't say never. I do know right from wrong, though, and I do preach it. I do preach it.
Did you learn anything about MCing or stage presence by watching the preacher do his thing every Sunday?
Yeah. Baptist preachers put on a show! They're up there dancing and clapping and screaming.
Obviously, Chicago's rap scene has gotten a lot of attention recently. Do you feel like there is a Chicago sound developing?
Not really. Even my sound isn't a Chicago sound. We're in the middle. It's a jambalaya. It's a combination of everything. Everything but Chicago music has been played in Chicago since the beginning of time. We were raised up on other coasts: New York and L.A. and even the south with Atlanta. We can grow up in the same neighborhood and we'll have three [or] four different styles we rock.
Was there a particular point you really felt like you found your voice as an artist?
I think all those [years] of working and the hundreds of songs I've written and thousands of beats I've made was just me doing what I like. I really don't care for those critics who speak down on my work. I know what good music sounds like. I make good music. For any critic to say there's a better mixtape out there is preposterous. If you go compare my project to whoever else's I have (A) more hits than them, (B) better production than them and (C) I'm telling stories. A lot of people had a lot to say about the Kanye project and how it was art, et cetera, et cetera. I've had a chance to listen to it, and I liked it, but I still say that you won't find a more complete project this year than "Sunday School II."
Clearly, you're supremely confident when it comes to music. Is there anything you really struggle with? Like are you lost in the kitchen?
I'm bad at losing weight, how about that [laughs]? I got a terrible diet and can't seem to shake it.
On "Trynawin" you mention having "different superstitions." What are some of them?
Don't sweep nobody's foot with a broom. When you kick somebody in the back of the shoe you have to tap them on the back three times. Never let a baby look itself in the mirror before it has its teeth. Don't raise an umbrella in the house.
Where did you pick those up?
My grandmother. We'd drop a bowl of cereal and be sweeping it up and she'd be like, "Don't sweep his feet! One of y'all will die!"
You quit a high paying job selling women's shoes at a department store to pursue music full-time. When all is said and done, who will be the most famous ladies' shoe salesmen: Tree or Al Bundy?
[Laughs] It'll probably be Tree. That's saying a lot, though. That show went on for years.
Tree, 1 p.m. July 21 at Pitchfork Music Fest at Union Park. $50 per day (three-day tickets sold out)
Tree personality test
Last album you bought? "Wow, that I physically bought? I haven't bought an album since I was a teenager. I couldn't even tell you the last album I bought."
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? "'Most Successful' off 'Sunday School II.'"
Song you never want to hear again? "I hate to do this, but there's this song I heard recently I think by ASAP Ferg where he's like, 'Put 'em in the dirt!' The whole song he's talking about killing somebody, and I just think in 2013 that's preposterous. It was like, 'What the hell is going on? Don't they know about all the killing going on in Chicago?'"
Best concert you've seen in the last year? "That would definitely have to be Danny Brown at the last Pitchfork. It really inspired me to be a better performer."
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? "Emily and the Woods. I actually sampled one of their songs for 'Most Successful.'"
Favorite movie ever? "The Shawshank Redemption"
Chicago's best music venue? "I would have to say the Metro."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC