The first fruits of this mission can be heard on the crew's latest release, Treehouse Rock. Like an urban Schoolhouse Rock, the new record is a syntactical primer on the essential elements of hip-hop. Featuring stellar production by two of the Windy City's nicest acts, Molemen and Mad Crates, the album has already received praise in publications such as Vibe, XLR8R, Elemental and the Chicago Tribune. Each track affords the individual MCs -- Marad, Capital D, Mr. Greenweedz, Rita J, and Spotlite and his twin brother, the Mighty Allstar -- an outlet to establish an identity of his or her own. There's the straight boom-bap hip-hop ("Spit It") alongside battle hymns ("I Am") and political songs that sample noted foreign-policy critic Noam Chomsky ("Move"), as well as a smooth yin-yang male-female joint ("Virgo"). While maintaining a progressive B-boy/B-girl stance, Treehouse Rock also makes you want to party like it's 1989.
"I think we were really trying to be creative and just have a good time and have fun with it. It's kind of playful -- the artwork is playful, the lyrics are playful," says Rita J, who, as the lone female in the group, keeps the guys in check. "I think we just had a good time doing it."
The Family Tree fits together like Voltron and operates like rap's version of the X-Men. The indie supergroup, made up of various cliques (All Natural, Daily Plannet, Unison) from Chi-town, wants to revise the blueprint of hip-hop for 2003 by toppling what it sees as the evil forces out to destroy it. Like the comic-book supergroup's Wolverine, this Family believes in the art of healing. "We're reviving her," says Marad of the genre. "We're bringing her back to the feel-good days, when hip-hop was strong and the heartbeat was steady."
Though each member has individual powers, each also has an identity that works in concert with everyone else. Iomos (an acronym for "I'm on my own shit") breaks it down further: "What Rita brings to the table, in a mad crew of fellas -- she brings the feminine aspect; she got mad flava. Daily Plannet [Spotlite and Allstar], they in their own world; they like sports fanatics. They like the lyrical flame-throwers; they be heating it up from the three-point line, down low, crossing you over with lyrics. Greenweedz -- the knotty vegetarian brother -- he can go from folklore to hardcore; he's, like, mad creative. And Cap D from All Natural, he's like the intellect, book reader, philosopher; he's like the teacher who's into spiritual strength."
Greenweedz is quick to deliver the goods on Iomos, who raps and plays drums. "IO is straight-up Mos Def with Buddy Miles mixed in. Imagine if Buddy Miles was rhyming like Mos Def: That's who IO is like."
Much like the Mighty Mos, the Family Tree favors message-oriented rap that comes across loud and proud on tracks such as "Push, Move, Build" and "Move." Both songs deal with community empowerment and touch on social and political issues. The group is intent on flipping the script on the materialistic, misogynistic messages that dominate rap today. While latchkey kids gaze at their MTV and BET and watch their idols flaunt often-borrowed jewelry and mansions, members of the Family Tree ponder whether a disease has taken root in the organic life-form called hip-hop.
"You got cats talking about cars and a fast way of living. Hip-hop is dead; it's gone. It's like a business; it's not a culture no more," explains Marad. "Cats just want to roll with cats with all of the dough," adds Allstar.
This current state differs from the days when hip-hop served as an instructional manual on living a more productive life. "I was raised by a single-parent mother, so my moms wasn't always around to see what I was watching. I had cats like KRS-One, Rakim and Poor Righteous Teachers coming on the screen, telling me, 'You ain't a thug; you've built nations and civilizations,'" says Marad. "I had them raising me along with my mother."
For the Family Tree, hip-hop culture in its purest state nourishes the mind as well as the body and soul. It has also influenced members to make healthier lifestyle choices.
"Hip-hop is the reason I'm a vegetarian," says Mr. Greenweedz. "I stopped eating pork because Chuck D and them stopped eating pork. I stopped eating meat because Kris [KRS-One] made a song called 'Beef.' I was eating chicken and dairy. I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to quit eating beef, then.'"
This natural-foods aesthetic also influences the way the Family Tree handles its business. Its label, All Natural Inc., run by DJ Tone B. Nimble, operates like a health-food store staffed by the Wu-Tang Clan. Everything is done in-house, from marketing to distribution.
"It's a communal thing; we're like a socialist kind of thing," offers Mr. Greenweedz. "We're all working together. We all hand out fliers, we all call up people and contact kids on the Internet."
The label is probably best known for putting out the 1998 underground classic No Additives, No Preservatives, by All Natural, a project helmed by Tone and Capital D, and its followup, Second Nature. But right now the focus is on getting the word out about the Family Tree. One way its members hope to achieve this is by expanding to other markets -- like Denver, a town they consider a sister city. They're preparing to embark on a mini-tour of four Colorado cities that will reunite them with group affiliate G-Riot (aka Marvin Gladney), who has produced several of their tracks. G-Riot, who lives in Denver, attends graduate school at the University of Denver and is majoring in creative writing.
"We're just trying to build our name out there," says Mr. Greenweedz. "To be honest with you, Colorado actually is hip on us. I've been out there a lot of times, and I see kids coming up to me and saying, 'What's up with the Fam Tree?' and I'm like, 'We should be out there.' So I know we're going to build off being in that environment."
Experience in creating a label from the ground up is something the Family Tree hopes to share with up-and-coming like-minded acts in Colorado. The members have worked with a major label and put in work on the grassroots level. Tone and Cap D, as part of All Natural, were signed in the mid-'90s to major imprint Wild Pitch, but after it folded, they decided to go independent. Along the way, they've learned a lot about the music business and how to make an independent label successful.
"You want to keep your expenses as low as possible, but you also want your record's presentation to be as good as the next," muses Tone, speaking to artists contemplating taking a similar route to the one taken by the Family Tree. "A lot of people judge things off of sight: If your stuff doesn't look up to par, it may never even get heard. So you want a strong presentation, and you also want quality music. But if you want to take it to the next level, you definitely have to have good production."
The Family Tree is intent on presenting the hip-hop consumer with a healthy alternative. The average listener's diet is lacking in nutrition; people are fed a steady diet of nothing from radio, which embraces only a handful of artists.
Once Treehouse Rock infiltrates the mainstream, All Natural also plans to put out releases by each member of the group. "This is just like a seed being planted of each individual artist of the Family Tree, because each of us are doing our own thing," says Tone.
"We think there are a lot of people who like what we do but just don't know that this kind of hip-hop still exists. That's what we hope," says an optimistic Tone regarding the group's chances of reaching a larger audience.
The Family Tree and All Natural Inc. might not single-handedly save hip-hop, but they'll surely give it some much-needed sustenance.