As the father of SoulTrap – a genre that blends, as the title suggests, soul and trap – Tremaine Johnson a.k.a. MC Tree G describes his upbringing in a surprisingly modest way, not nearly as dramatic as one would think considering he grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green. His matter-of-fact disposition suggests indifference, as if growing up in the Wild End (one of Cabrini’s toughest areas) was business as usual. It’s a bit of a curveball, but one that can easily be understood through the lens of his music. On “Die” for example, a single off 2012’s breakout mixtape Sunday School, he illustrates precisely how he was able to avoid the wayward path: [LISTEN]
That’s not to say Johnson’s past was adorned with rose pedals either. Being surrounded by the likes of the Gangster Disciples and King Cobras made selling drugs commonplace, something he admits to doing before. But talk to him now, and he’ll be quick to dispel those negative elements in favor of the more positive aspects of his life – his ability to persevere and squash the stereotypes associated with growing up in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.
Chicago and its rough edges are certainly a part of Tremaine, but it’s not ingrained into his DNA as it is with Chief Keef. It’s also not a point of contrast as it would be with a guy like Lupe Fiasco who defines his style by criticizing whatever goes against his moral fiber. No, Tremaine is a self-made man who loves his city but refuses to let it define him. His most successful mix tapes, the aforementioned Sunday School and its sequel, Sunday School II, are a reflection of that. They chronicle his evolution from a young man without a purpose to the figurehead of a new faction of rap.
Tremaine has been working feverishly to spread his gospel, and it’s led to a number of high profile collaborations (both as a rapper and producer) including ones with Danny Brown (“No Faces“), Roc Marciano (“Trynawin“), and Chance the Rapper (“Hey Ma“) to name a few. As he prepares for yet another slew of releases he took time to sit down with SONGLYRICS to talk about everything from his writing process and inspirations to how the Discovery Channel can offer some great metaphors for life.
What’s your process like when it’s time to sit down and write a song. And how has it changed from one project to the next if at all?
My process has always been make a couple beats one day and write to a bunch of ’em throughout the week. I’m a producer as well you know, so I work like a trainer of some sorts. You know how they do legs one day, arms the next? Some days I produce, others I write or focus mainly on hooks etc. It never changes other than my condition at the time, what influence I’m under, how tipsy am I. I sing a lot when I’m drunk.
What sort of inspiration do you get from Chicago? I know that’s sort of a loaded question, but in terms of where you’re at now – a bit older than most MCs, a bit wiser, but also still relatively new to the game. How does the city inspire your lyrics in that sense?
As of today like right now, right now I’m inspired by new things, seeing new places reaching new heights. The city is home, always will be. I’m inspired to get out of this motherfucker and live where I choose. At least through the winter. I hate Chicago winters. But to sum it up I write reality music so a lot of it is reflective of Chicago, nothing more.
Ultimately it’s your perspective as a man and a human being that shines through lyrically, is there anyone who helped inspire you to write? A father figure, an artist, an author, another lyricist?
Life and everything that happens in life inspire me lyrically. My kids, being a dad, having friends, going places, watching the news, all of that inspires an author. And I’m an author. I write passages, small essays – everyday experiences fuel my creativity. But everybody know I love 2pac, so if I give credit to any one MC it’ll be Pac.
Your lyrics are very personal. And yet they’re aligned against trap beats, which is not common. How do you make these personal lyrics shine on stage when you’re performing?
It was hard at first. I was a writer. I wasn’t necessarily the entertainer of the year, but as time went on I became more and more comfortable with myself in public and on stage. People don’t tell you enough about how fame in any form has its rewards and discredits. I remember putting out Sunday School and I was getting paid to do shows like a week or two later. That was great, except for the fact that I hadn’t ever done a show before.
I did horrible in hindsight. I began to hear things. I began to doubt me. Then over time I found my niche. I found my confidence, and now you can’t tell me much. This is SoulTrap, ain’t no right or wrong. I make the rules in this lane [laughs]. I be in my mode on stage. That’s where I control the world from. I had to put it in my mind that these people were here to see me. I had to be great. My music speaks volumes of greatness. I got it together with a strong emphasis on emceeing the entire process throughout the performance. Hey the fans love it, I love them, it’s all good.
How personal is too personal when it comes to lyrics? As you’re growing in notoriety people are going to want to get closer, and sometimes not with the best intentions. Is there a filter when you write?
Nah, I don’t care ’bout that. I put myself out there on a platter for all my haters and all my naysayers. In fact that’s my selling point! My vulnerability in letting you know how I feel. One of the keys to the art of war applied to any situation or event is to hide your feelings and or weaknesses and I dive headfirst in it almost in a Ghandi’ish kind of mentality so to speak. Remarkably I haven’t had too many hecklers of the art or the man that I am. I got a fuckin’ birthmark. I sound crazy when you first hear my voice. I tell you my most intimate and embarrassing experiences. And you respect me for it, undoubtedly! Plus I can rap. My shit sound good, great at times.
Do you ever feel that there’s a social responsibility to your lyrics. I’m not trying to suggest a strictly conscious lyrical approach – there are many sides to an artist – but now that you have kids and youngsters looking up to you do you feel the need to give back through your words – to enlighten?
I feel like that’s all I do. Hey look, I’m in the neutral zone as far as rappers go. I don’t kill nobody in my music. I don’t sell no drugs…I smoke weed. The shit finna be legal everywhere anyway. May even get America out of debt. I’m a realest. I watch the Discovery Channel with my son. When the lion catches Bambi, he eats that motherfucker, I don’t change the channel as his mother would suggest, nah I turn it up, make him pay more attention. I be rewinding the shit. “Look! Look,” I’ll say. “Don’t be no Bambi boy.” Getting ate up, with no fire, no sauce. Shit is raw shit. Is real in any jungle. He seven [laughs].
You have your own sound, and your own style. It bridges a lot of styles that Chicago is known for whether it be Chance or Keef and everything in between. How do you feel you stand up to other higher profile artists when it comes to your lyrics?
I feel like I’m a one of a kind, so it fits in any scenario. Most importantly I’m something new. This hasn’t happened before. I didn’t do what somebody did a long time ago and got recognized. I can write me some raps. If I can’t do nothing else. I’m good at writing these raps. I can hold my own with any and every rapper alive. I say that with the utmost respect, but at the same time an even higher feeling of confidence. I’ve been doing music for half of my life, 14 or 15 years. I’ve rapped every way possible. I hear shit on the radio now, that I was doing in 2004. I would have to say that the only style or cadence I may have not ever used is the Big Sean flow, that shit cold. He cold. I respect him for that. That’s uniqueness.
I live in Chicago and have worked in Englewood. It certainly has its issues, but there’s also a great side to the neighborhood that some people have a tendency to overlook. How does living in a polarizing neighborhood like Englewood influence your perspective?
Ya know I don’t think it effects me at all. I made some of my best music on Sunday School while living in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, Georgia – just a suburban town where I never met my neighbors. For me solitude in a desolate place is probably the best climate for me and my writing. I’d hate to say it, but jail is a better writing tool for me than courtside seats ever could be. But that’s the Yin and Yang of this music shit. Nobody wants to see a movie where shit just goes well for 60 minutes. Nah, somebody gotta die. The house gotta catch on fire, niggas gotta fight, ya know? But hey I don’t know nothing.
Of your work, what song are you most proud of or the one that holds an extra special place in your mind? And why?
I don’t have a favorite, but so I cooperate with your write up I’ll say “Safe to Say.” It’s special to me ’cause it’s all true like most of my music is. It takes me personally back to a place and time where I had moved to a new city. I was doing the same thing (retail) that I left Chicago for – to pursue my music in Atlanta. I felt trapped, me and my girl was breaking bad, I had so called homies I hung with, but they weren’t 20 year niggas, they were party niggas, and I found out the hard way. I relied on relationships with people to fill the void of being homesick and away from family. I was let down realizing people didn’t have the same loyalty to me, as I had to them. And maybe it was their lack of need for strong relationships, being in their hometowns and all and having so many friends and relationships already, that mine was over-dramatized and enlarged to fit my mood at the time. But anyway it described my feelings perfectly at that time, and it’s a dope ass song:
What do you have on deck right now?
I have SoulTrappin the album coming out through Sony or whoever at the top of the year. I’m ’bout to drop this EP in the next couple weeks, some of my best production and lyricism ever is on this next EP. It’s all original and new Tree music that’s gonna further let people know why I even matter to music as a whole. Why I’m so dearly needed every couple months – just to reestablish a level of sanity in music that we all loose sight of, with all things considered. Molly and fine ass women that we follow after to this type of bullshit. But look for SoulTrap the brand, the music, get you a couple t-shirts from Soultraptree.net follow me on Instagram and Twitter @mctreeg. Chuch.