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

A newcomer who has paid his dues, Tremaine 'Tree' Johnson considers what age and maturity mean to hip-hop, the voice of young America

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)

Tremaine Johnson, who raps under the name Tree and lives in Englewood, has a boyish face, broadening with age. He has a thick, distinctive growl. And Sunday, when he opens the final day of Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, it will be because he has had two acclaimed mix tapes, "Sunday School" and "Sunday School II." He's blowing up, modestly.

He's also 29, and when we sat to talk about age and rap recently, he said, laughing: "Don't make me look like an old bastard, sitting in a rocking chair, hip screeching. This the beginning of my life. And I ain't old."

He's not.

He turns 30 in October, and 30 is not too old to rap.

Right?

Long after rap replaced rock as the voice of young America, its biggest acts are now entering their late 30s and 40s. Jay-Z, the biggest act in rap (appearing Monday at Soldier Field with Justin Timberlake) is 43. He's only two years younger than Mick Jagger was during the Rolling Stones' 1989 Steel Wheels tour. What does it mean that Harvard University just established a fellowship in the name of Nas, who is 39? Or that Kanye West, at 36, is still culturally viable enough to draw polarizing reactions to his new album, "Yeezus"?

Young Jeezy is 35.

Though hip-hop started in the 1970s as a youth-centric culture, "it's surprisingly remained young," said Andrew Barber, founder of the influential Chicago rap blog Fake Shore Drive. Like anything that gathers history, generational splits have sprung up: Last year, on a track for 26-year-old rapper Meek Mill, Drake, who is also 26, rapped that "talkin' bout these other rappers getting old is even getting old." Just as, a year before that, Tyler the Creator, 22, complained in a song about "40-year-old rappers talking about Gucci."

At 29, Tree is a decade older than many of the hottest rappers from Chicago, a number of whom have established themselves as popular national acts: Chance the Rapper (20), Lil Durk (20), Chief Keef (17).

But here's the thing.

Where a less experienced voice might reach for bravado and cliche — say, "What doesn't kill me/ makes me stronger" — Tree gives it the poignancy of tough lessons, rapping "What doesn't kill me, hurts …" He didn't just pick up a microphone as a high school student then start releasing music. He went to work; indeed, until two years ago he was working on commission at Nordstrom on Michigan Avenue selling women's shoes.

Adam Bradley, who edited the encyclopedic "Anthology of Rap" and co-authored Chicago rapper Common's 2011 memoir, said: "KRS-One (of Boogie Down Productions) once told me that it can be a good thing for a rapper to have a day job. Overnight celebrity doesn't necessarily make great art. That comes from the crucible of everyday life. Even the mundaneness of everyday life. And he's right: A rapper needs a day job."

I met up with Tree last week at the Logan Square house where he was rehearsing for Pitchfork. As I pulled up he stepped out onto the porch wearing long denim shorts, a white T-shirt and a baseball cap. Around him swirled guys with tattoos and cans of PBR, filmmakers and rappers and friends. He was smoking a crumbling, yellowing joint, and was friendly, beaming. "You don't mind weed, do you?" he asked me.

Then added, "I am, after all, a rapper."

Don't want to disappoint.

And yet, his music is poised so solidly between Chicago drill — a moody nihilistic rap — and an older, soulful, underground sophistication, there was something discordant to this: Even if "rap still revels in being young and at the party," as Bradley put it, the guys in this house were leaving their youth. On the other hand, perhaps it was a reminder that rap is just becoming more like rock, a lifestyle no longer committed to youth, "a fairly new development," said Shawn Setaro, editor of the blog Rap Genius, "where rappers are allowed to remain contemporary into their 30s and 40s and not seem like an oldies act. Because rap has a history now."

Tree moved through the apartment, which had the chaotic, unkempt appearance of an off-campus apartment, only post-apocalyptic. We found a pair of chairs in the basement amid drums and microphones.

Thought about age, I asked.

"Nah," he said.

Really, I said.

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