University students may know “Tree City” as an apt nickname for their college town. But for Jacoby Simmons, Kyle Hunter and LSA junior Evan Haywood, it’s a testament to their musical beginnings in Ann Arbor.
In fact, according to Haywood, the hip-hop group’s name also evokes its approach to crafting their music.
“It’s like the mechanical and organic put together,” Haywood said. “We try to make something that sounds like it came up from the swamps of hip hop. It’s still raw and hard, but at the same time, it’s based in a technical understanding.”
Simmons, Hunter and Haywood — otherwise known as DJ Cataclysmic, General P. and Clavius Crates — are three of four members of the Ann Arbor rap group Tree City.
The group met in 2005 at the Neutral Zone, a downtown center for teens in Ann Arbor. Originally called The Fifth Element, the group then consisted of Simmons, Mike Hyter, who went by Man in Charge, and Justin Nunn, who went by DJ Verse-a-Tile. Simmons is the only original member who still performs with the group.
It wasn’t until 2006, when Haywood and Hunter were added to the group, that The Fifth Element officially changed its name to Tree City, a profession of love for their hometown.
Haywood said he joined the group after meeting Hyter and Nunn in his health class at Huron High School in Ann Arbor. A fellow student had heard he liked to rap and challenged him to do so while they were waiting for the bell.
“I was this weird pale dude with long hair and a Russian army jacket,” Haywood said. “I didn’t look like I rapped at all.”
“So I showed this kid my bars and the whole class was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ Mike took me aside and said, ‘Do you want to join? Do you want to join The Fifth Element?’”
Haywood described how the group would rap during lunch hour at Huron, in a stairwell they fondly dubbed “the rap cave.”
“We would freestyle over beats every day for a long, long time,” he said.
In June 2007, the band released its first EP, The TreE.P. Shortly thereafter, Nunn left and Charles Cheek — “Cheeks” — joined the band. Following Cheeks’s entrance, the new line-up released a mix tape, Black Trees, that incorporated production from Detroit producer Black Milk.
The new release helped put Tree City on the map. “That got us a lot of positive attention and notoriety in the local rap world,” Hunter said.
Tree City’s influences are varied. The members call themselves “collectors” of music: Both Haywood and Hunter work at Encore Records on East Liberty Street, and they said their biggest influences are jazz musicians like Miles Davis, not other rappers.
Thus Far, the group’s first full album, was released in 2010. After the album’s release, Hyter left the band, creating Tree City’s most recent line-up. Today, when the band performs, the lineup typically consists of Simmons, Hunter and Haywood. Cheeks currently resides in Seattle.
“Cheeks will come back periodically and perform with us,” Haywood said. “We also went out to Seattle last year and did some shows with him.”
Tree City likes to show Ann Arbor a lot of love. When they release new material or do a big show, they try to do so locally. After seven years, though, the band is ready to expand its influence beyond Washtenaw County more often.
“That’s where the Internet comes into play and going on tour comes into play and getting distribution,” Haywood said.
Hunter said Tree City thinks about their musicianship on a global level.
“Our competition isn’t other local acts. Our competition is the best that ever did it, because that’s who we listen to the most,” Hunter said. “That’s whom we draw a lot of inspiration from. You’re trying to make the best shit you could ever make … if you try to make music that is as good as the stuff coming out of your scene that might be a backhanded way of limiting yourself.”
But even with their global perspective, the band hasn’t snubbed its Ann Arbor roots.
“Ann Arbor is full of love,” Simmons said. “People are always down to hear different music that makes them think and that’s what I really like about this area.”
Recently, Tree City got together with some other Ann Arbor acts to form Branch Out Collective, which consists of hip-hop and electronic music artists. It was created to bring together artists who share similar views about how to make and distribute music from Ann Arbor.
The band has also started making a new album, currently unnamed, being produced by Michael Dykehouse, a musician and producer known for his work in electronic music. The new album will have a more mature sound and will be recorded in the Lance, a recording studio Haywood built in his basement.
“This project is a lot more consciously constructed,” Haywood said. “We’re being very diligent to make themes and ideas and motifs to flow through the whole thing.”
The band wants to graduate from lyrics about their prowess at rapping to more thought-provoking, accessible music, shunning the commonly-held belief that underground rap can’t be relatable.
“A lot of people think you have to sacrifice artistic integrity for (accessibility) and that’s bullshit,” Hunter said.
Though the members of Tree City are older and wiser than when they began, they still have plenty to learn and many new challenges to face. Working collaboratively is a difficult, but rewarding process, they explained.
“Sharing is tough sometimes, sharing ideas and spotlight. Everyone wants to be a star, including myself,” Simmons said. “But I think it says a lot if you can harness all that and be comfortable with being in the background for a while.”
A key trait of the band is resilience. After performing for seven years with several different line-ups, group members are still honing their craft and working together.
“There are various cats who’ve been closely associated with us over the years who have fallen off the map musically,” Haywood said. “You’ve got to be really solid in yourself to go down this path.”