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Big Mood Music: From Tree City to Silas Green with rapper and producer Kyle Hunter
Kyle Hunter knows the power of music and songwriting in his life. He’s a rapper, DJ, and creative who likes to write in some form every day. To him, “not writing would be equal to not drinking water. If you don’t drink water, bad things are just gonna happen.” His creativity feeds his existence and adds balance in his life.
In 2005, a teenage Hunter began developing his musical skills as an MC under the name G.eneral P.opulation, or GenPop, and he became a notable member of Tree City, which was also formed at the Neutral Zone. The group has been absent for a decade but is now planning to release an album later this year entitled PURE LEVELS. During Tree City’s hiatus, Hunter and the other members of the music collective performed and released solo projects, and more solo recordings are in the works for this year. He also worked with the Branch Out Collective, which consisted of Tree City and the group Celsius Electronics.
Some may even know him under the alias DJ Silas Green, spinning or creating music that touches on hip-hop, funk, ambient, and noise. He has a biweekly residency, Big Mood Mondaze, at 734 Brewing Company in Ypsilanti, and he's spun at Ziggy's, Elks Lounge, and at Circ Bar as part of Shigeto's ongoing Ann Arbor Trax Authority night.
I spoke with Hunter about Ann Arbor as a hip-hop hub, the impact of the Neutral Zone, his musical influences outside of hip-hop, and Tree City’s plans for the future.
Q: For those that don't know much about your musical background, how did you get started?
A: I started out ... between 2004 and 2005 at the Neutral Zone when it was located on South Main Street. I was going to Ypsilanti High School but was friends with people at Huron High so I started hanging out there. They started to make music and experiment with recording and performing, so I followed suit and discovered that I had a real passion for it. We continue to perform all the way up until now; continue to record and write and make a bunch of videos and songs and do short tours. I think a lot of that had to do with being in an environment where we were able to have that creativity nourished and encouraged by a lot of brilliant musicians. Some of the musicians that were directly involved at the time were Ingrid Racine, who is an amazing trumpet player and bandleader. One Be Lo or Binary Star would just hang out and perform for the teens who were there and just be a presence. All of that played a role in how the group got started.
Q: Why has Tree City been absent in the music scene for so long?
A: Tree City has been absent from the music scene because pretty much all of our members pursued either solo or collaborative projects away from the group. ... DJ Cataclysmic released his project Forever Under Construction, Clavius Crates and Evan Haywood released two albums, and I released an album with Big Walt called Drapetomania in 2013 and a video, "25 Percent" [as Silas Green featuring Clavius Crates]. Then I went to Texas and collaborated with Chris Norman on a few songs. Throughout that period all of us appeared on other artists’ tracks for guest verses. I stayed active working with artists like Shigeto and Dabrye and I think that’s all engineered how Tree City has remained an entity even while we weren’t performing or coming out with any official music. I think that’s what’s been able to keep people’s interest in us going all this time. And we do perform at least once a year. That makes a difference because we still bring it on stage. It’s what people really want to see, hear, and feel.
Q: You have some Ann Arbor origins. How do you think the city contributes to the hip-hop landscape? What experiences do you think Ann Arbor has given you to be able to effectively be a part of the genre and what stereotypes would you like to remove from people's consciousness when it comes to the city?
A: First off, I think what makes Ann Arbor what it is and what gives it personality musically and within hip-hop is its international influences by proxy of it being a university town. It's a hub for a lot of different cultural elements that make it unique and it stands out. It attracts a lot of musicians who are pushing themselves to stand apart in their genres. That goes for jazz, noise music, electronic, and it definitely influences how people approach making hip-hop with freestyling and making beats.
Also, in that field, there's an inherent drive to set yourself apart and make something that's really coming from an original source. I know that's the case in Detroit and other cities in the Midwest, but I think Ann Arbor has been able to establish its sound both lyrically and musically. You got producers who are on the international level who still retain that connection to Ann Arbor like Dabrye, Samiyam, or even 14KT who reps both Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. All of those names represent originality and just the truth.
I think it comes and goes in waves because the university has a population that is so transient and there are a lot of people who are not going to be here permanently. So even though there is that original flavor, there are a lot of movements that kind of come and go that leave traces and influences on their way. I've seen a lot of people come through Ann Arbor because it was a major stop when they were touring colleges. Later on, they would blow up but they were able to establish themselves here first. You had people come through like Macklemore, Wiz Khalifa, and A$AP Rocky. You'd even have people like Trinidad James that would come through and pack the place out. They were able to capitalize on their zeitgeist by coming through Ann Arbor specifically. It's always had that underground appeal and that respect because of places like The Blind Pig. Nirvana preferred them over a lot of venues that they played so it's always retained that reputation.
Q: You’ve touched on the musical landscape here but how do you feel it has influenced you directly besides Neutral Zone? What do you feel are some of the other experiences that you’ve gotten here?
A: The reason why I consider Neutral Zone to be such a big cornerstone on how I am influenced as a human being and musically is because it established an environment that I felt comfortable in and was able to express myself truthfully. Also, to be around other people who were doing the same thing in a way that I might not have been able to be exposed to outside of that environment at that time. There were people who were LGBTQ and beyond, in between, and who were just living life as regular teenagers, going thru the same issues we all go through of trying to find your identity and trying to fit in or stand out but they also were expressing the truth of their situations. They were expressing that musically in a way that really expanded the boundaries of what I thought was normal or acceptable.
It wasn’t something that I felt was out of the ordinary to have someone who was a masculine-identifying lesbian rapping with a crew of people, talking shit; or a trans producer who still makes dope beats but who’s still not afraid to identify that way in a certain context. There’s still a long way to go with that movement, but I think that’s influenced me to this day.
Also, I think having a lot of femme artists around. Shoutout to Invincible, Nickie P, Angel Nafis, poets, MCs, musicians, writers, visual artists, all of that in the Neutral Zone and in the greater Ann Arbor area. Those influences remain and are strong. All of those influences still exist and all those artists still create on a regular basis and that inspires me to do the same.
Q: You’ve previously said that you’re a collector of music, jazz influences you even more than other rappers, and that you love Miles Davis. Can you explain more of how jazz influences you in a larger way?
A: I started off listening to jazz as a child. My mom and dad both listened to jazz more than they listened to hip-hop. Growing up in a household where that was the music that I was introduced to along with R&B, I kind of always appreciated it on a very fundamental level ‘cause it’s kind of formed my musical vocabulary.
Certain songs and artists, like Miles Davis, I’ve been listening to them since I was in grade school. To me, there’s a nostalgic value there but it’s also educational because I learned to appreciate melody, mood, spacing of notes, because Miles Davis didn’t really overplay. He was very particular about the phrasing he would use on certain songs and the energy he was trying to conjure up with certain bands.
Someone I know -- shoutout to Donald -- he said that jazz parallels life in a lot of ways because it’s all about change and improvisation. The great musicians who are able to truly be in the moment and express themselves are the ones who are able to ride out any changes and are able to execute that improvisation. You see that in jazz soloing and freestyling so I don’t really see too much of a difference in that it’s just manipulating sounds in a way that elicits a response in people.
Q: Lately, have you been working as a solo artist and do you have any projects coming out?
A: At this point, I have not been performing songs as a solo artist; most of my performances have been of the DJ sort under DJ Silas Green but not performing hip-hop songs under that name. I have a slew of original productions that I produced when I was in Austin, Texas from 2014-2016 and I’ve been encouraged to release those officially so I have an idea of releasing instrumentals as a project and then releasing an EP over some of those instrumentals; kind of as an instrumental/song-based EP. That way I can showcase what I’ve been doing musically and what I’ve been trying to present lyrically. As far as solo performing goes, at this point I’m still putting together a set, still trying to figure out what I want to do solo. Who knows the time but when it feels right, I’ll put something out.
Q: Do you think your messages or focus in your solo music might be different than Tree City and what people are used to hearing, or do you think it aligns with the group? Can you define that at this point?
A: I’m not gonna define it at this point because it’s still coming together. There are a lot of moods that I’m trying to cultivate and then if it’s musically solid then I’ll be able to say what needs to be said lyrically. The group is about to drop a project that we’ve been working on for about a decade. Musically, it’s something that we’ve been very deliberate about with the sounds that we wanted to bring to the table. I think that process, for better more than worse, has kind of influenced how I approach solo work; where it’s more sound-based before lyrical. We kind of already went through that phase where we’ve been able to get the validation where we feel like we can rap and put subject matter and songs together. But can we create moods, sounds, and messages that no one’s necessarily heard before or in the way that we’ve expressed it before. There’s some beats that I’ve made a few years ago in Texas that I’ve had to be patient with because I’ll be able to collaborate with others and it turns into something else or a sample that evolves but it’s still telling a story that I wanted to express in words. There’s a story there and my job is just to say it as efficiently and economically as possible.
Q: What do you think is one of the biggest differences in performing solo and in a collective?
A: Just how you respond to the crowd. I’m still learning how to do that actually. I’m not going to say that I’m an expert on performing solo yet. I’m still working my way up to saying that I have a full 15-20 minute set of songs that I’m able to go out on stage and hit with regardless. I don’t think there’s a huge difference because when you’re in a group of only three people and one is on both sides of you, you still know how to make use of space. I tend to move around when I’m performing so that helps but songs are different so the energy is different. You do the crowd and response movements and it comes automatically but solo wise, I don’t have all of those movements memorized so you gotta improvise physically as much as musically at times. That can be fun or stressful depending on the crowd.
Q: As teens, it was previously said that you guys couldn’t rap about things you didn’t have like cars, women, etc. How do you think your subject matter will change with this project now that you’re all adults? What are some of the topics that you’re looking to touch on specifically?
A: So, the last album that the group officially came out with is 10 years old and a lot of the topics on there dealt with riding the bus, trying to be the best rapper in the world, being broke, not being the best rapper in the world but then feeling like you are. Just very like, let me show you what I can do as far as painting a picture lyrically. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of those songs are very solid as far as how they were made and the production and lyrics, but I don’t think they revealed much about who we were as people or insecurities that we dealt with. So, it took some time to get comfortable enough within ourselves and within how we were gonna approach those topics in our own voice. That’s why you were able to see maybe side projects that we’d done as solo projects. All of those kinds of point to this effort to be more truthful about what we wanted to speak on and how we wanted to speak about it.
So, in this album that we got coming out, there are songs that expand from how would this feel or what do you think about such and such in terms of relationships, marriage, death, your friends or not knowing who your friends are. And those have all really come from life experiences that we’ve gone through over time. So if we’d tried to even approach these songs when we first wanted to, I don’t think they would’ve been as lived in, there wouldn’t be as much character in them. It would be more like trying to write a story that you think sounds good instead of looking back on experiences and pulling from that. It’s just way more comfortable when you know that you’re not trying to lie to yourself or work too hard to capture something. So there’s songs that even the names themselves reveal like "Community Service," "We’ll Figure It Out," "Hurry Up and Die," "Space Movies." It’s all relevant.
Q: Do you have any concerns that your fan base will adapt to all of you being adults now versus teens during this time span?
A: I think it’s something that I look forward to presenting to people because that’s been pretty much what’s motivated us to remain a group this whole time. We’ve been excited to showcase what we’ve been experiencing throughout young adulthood up to now and our perspective. Life is fascinating so putting that into song form over some dope beats is really fun and I think our fans pick up on the passion that we’ve been able to carry with us from high school up until now, be it through Tree City, solo projects, DJ work, or just seeing us on the street and talking to us, the energy comes through.
Q: Who are you listening to? Two from hip-hop and two or three from other genres.
A: Well I would say in other genres, [on the way here] I was listening to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s album Sex and Food, which I think is one of the best albums of the year. The sound and moods that that album captures are really kind of in line with a lot of things going on this year. So, any album that’s able to capture something that’s in time, as it’s happening, hat’s off. Also, I just got Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V and Lupe Fiasco’s Drogas Wave. Both of those albums are really fuckin’ good so I recommend those. Those are my two rap picks you know. Also, outside of rap, I listen to a lot of The Dirtbombs. They’re a great Detroit band who performed a lot in Ann Arbor back in the day. Their albums are the shit so I always listen to that when I need some inspiration, a shot of energy, or something to listen to. They got a lot of good music.
Q: What do you think aids your creative process?
A: Discipline. Me, as I am speaking, I need discipline and patience and to never take myself too seriously. That’s always crucial when I’m creating by myself or with other people. I need to stay in the moment and not take it too seriously. Also, good food. If I have that or know it’s coming, the bars will definitely improve no matter what.
Q: What do you think the group’s goal is for the next five years for the music?
A: The goal right now is to put out PURE LEVELS. PURE LEVELS needs to come out because the people need to hear this project and we need to give it to the people because there’s a lot of blood, sweat, tears, bodily fluids, gasses that went into this album over the years. Heartbreak, disappointment, triumph, wins and Ls, weed, and a few beers went into this project. Mike Dykehouse who produced all the beats has been very patient. ... He’s never once pressured us and he’s never been anything but supportive. It feels good even now listening back to the songs that we’ve put together. Musically they’re solid. People still want to hear them so I think we still need to put the project out.
Q: If you weren’t a rapper or musician, what would you be doing?
A: I’d probably be a filmmaker. If there was a way to be creative, I would find my way to it ‘cause I think that’s just the essence of who I am. So if it wasn’t musical or visual, it would be in some way. If not, I don’t know; I’d probably work at a building somewhere.
Sean Copeland is a recording artist, music producer, writer, and AADL staff member.
➥ "Tree City: Hip hop group founded at the Neutral Zone comes of age" [Ann Arbor News, June 17, 2010]
➥ "Hip-hop group Tree City grows from its Ann Arbor roots" [Michigan Daily, October 4, 2012]