Though known to most as B.O.B.’s right hand, ATLien Playboy Tre (born Clarence Montgomery) has carved out his own niche in the rap game as a thoughtful storyteller and skillful shit-talker with a trio of excellent, cohesive mixtapes. He first made an impact as a solo artist with the excellent “Goodbye America” tape in ’08, and followed it up with the even-better “Liquor Store Mascot” in ’09. In between, Tre keeps busy writing choruses for rappers like T.I. and touring with B.O.B. His most recent tape is last year’s “The Last Call, “a more meditative release which sees Tre reflecting more on his family and his childhood in Atlanta. I spoke with Tre about building a fanbase, his favourite beer and his unique sense of humor. —Aaron Matthews
When did you first decide to take rap seriously?
It was going out with my friend Aday, who was a real big influence on me. He was very very dope, just a monster. He made me want to start in that world, turn poems into rap. And that got me to where I just wanted to rap. To be around my friends and rap, whatever. But then also when I was a teenager, I came to the decision that I wanted to rap. Might sound crazy but I had a moment of clarity. I’m not a person who likes to lose…never been a sore loser but I don’t like to lose. I like accomplishing whatever it is I set out to do. That gave me some focus in life to just put certain things down that I didn’t need, that I was taking through life with me. It gave me a vehicle to express things how I wanted to.
What did you sound like when you started? The earliest stuff I’ve heard is the YBM shit.
To be honest, some of my earliest stuff, I had some female oriented rhymes! [laughs] To go along with the whole Playboy Tre thing. That’s what I thought I wanted to be as far as lyrics and my subject matter. But I’ve always enjoyed listening to songs that had meaning and concepts, that hit home, that were honest. I was attracted to listening to that, so I was attracted to making those types of songs, where I’ve been really really honest in my rhymes. People who appreciate who I am appreciated those songs. So I put Playboy Tre as a “[ladies man] rapper” down and took up Playboy Tre as Clarence Montgomery the 3rd.
How did you transition from the So So Def song to taking a solo career seriously?
I wasn’t signed to So So Def, I was just on the compilation which Lil Jon [compiled called So So Def Bass All Stars Vol.3]. I was proud to be so young and representing my city, that showed me that I could do this, make some money and showed that I was worth it, there were people who thought I was worth it. I was still part of [Atlanta rap collective ] the Attic Crew so I just started noticing that I really had a voice. When I was touring just as a solo artist, I was getting a response from them. So I realized I need to go ahead and pursue putting my stuff out as a solo artist. I think that’s how people got hip to what I was doing later because I was always part of a crew in a supporting role.
It got to the point where I was thinking, “you want to ride in the back seat the whole time?”. I’m a person who has the capacity to be behind the wheel. When I started really doing shows and letting people see who I was as an individual, I got a response. And I’ve made nothing but positive moves since then.
One thing that struck me about all your solo tapes is there’s always a clear concept or theme.
The funny thing about it, people always call them mixtapes but these are works, these are projects that I put together from scratch. There are songs with samples but there are always new beats. Only on Goodbye America did I jack two songs from other artists. It’s very important to me that they have a common theme. A lot of albums I love as a fan have one common theme. It’s something that once you hear, it captures that person, that time and where they were at then perfectly, emotionally, spiritually, whatever. The Last Call, to me, wasn’t as much complete as I wanted because there were so many things I didn’t get to put into The Last Call that people will hear on the next go-round. To give people a totally look on where I was and what was going on at that time. I wish I gave people more. When I speak about them I always call them projects. It’s more than a mixtape.
Goodbye America, the concept came after I started working on it. Liquor Store Mascot, the concept came before. When I did “Goodbye America” the song, it came to me. For Liquor Store Mascot, I did a song that never left the studio, but in one of the verses I said “I do it for the have-nots/and keep an ice-cold beer like I’m a liquor store mascot”. I sampled that line and from there I crafted the whole project. The Last Call was put together as a group of songs.
How do you approach writing a song like “Earline’s Son” versus a song like “Bet I Bust”?
When you hear the hook on “Bet I”, it’s pretty much, “I bet I bust” means “I bet I’m the shit”. You give non-fans some dope punch lines. Everybody who’s an emcee feels like they can’t be touched. If they didn’t, I don’t think they would truly be in this rapping concept. “Earline’s Son” pretty much wrote itself. I turn on the track and I knew immediately that I was something I wanted to write to. The first line was “Who am I really? I’m Earline’s son/second one cuz the first one came still born”. And it went from there. When I wrote the first verse, I decided to keep it as a common theme, so that people knew who I am. On “Bet I”, that’s Playboy Tre, Tre Boy Play, that’s him. But “Earline’s Son” that’s exactly who you see and who you listen to.
There’s a sense of honesty to “Earline’s Son” and earlier records like “He Likes Da Pain”.
There are a couple things I don’t let out to the world. Some because of how people involved felt about it. My mom said to me, “Once you get to the level you want to get to, I’m going to walk out and everybody’s going to know my business!” [laughs] She says I put her business out there all the time. It’s not really putting our business out there, I just have to write about what’s on my mind at the time. The song “He Likes Da Pain”, that’s an issue that we’ve been dealing with for years that I’m still dealing with, a very painful situation. I didn’t speak on the situation for a long time because I was afraid how that family member would feel about it. I heard the track and the track pretty much dictated where I should go, and so I did it. And it’s good that person heard the song, but I wish it had the impact I wanted, that it would have ended. All those things that were harmful to that person would have ended. But I still think it’s something that needed to be said.
What’s your writing process?
There used to be a time where I wrote with no music at all. Now I turn on the track and just start writing. Sometimes the track dictates the concept, like the song “Moving Dem Keys”. We were in the studio and the producer [Ishereal] is a very accomplished keyboard player and we were working on one track. We were taking a break, having drinks and he was just in the studio playing keyboard. I heard it and said, you know what, man? It’d be really dope if we did a song that was nothing but keys. And call it “Moving Dem Keys”. And we started cutting the track, I envisioned a certain sound for the beat and he made it. Then I sat down and wrote to it.
You have a really unique sense of humor that comes through in your records. Where does it come from?
Man, I’ve always been just a silly, joke-cracking person since I was a kid. I’ve always had what some may describe as a sick sense of humour, finding humor in the most serious or drastic situations. I don’t know if it was a defence mechanism to protect me at an early age or if it’s just how I’m built. I love laughing, I love talking shit. So a lot of stuff we do, even the skits, we’ll be sitting having a conversation. And I’ll say something and be like, “Man, that was funny. Let’s go in and make a skit”. We’ll go in and just start going back and here we are with a funny skit that leads us to a funny place in a song. I think it gives the project balance. People don’t want to hear a bunch of serious stuff all the time, I don’t care how well you do it. So you give people a chance to laugh and be light-hearted. I’m looking forward in the future to showing more people my sense of humour, even doing voiceovers or things of that nature.
I think the first time I saw your name was on B.O.B.’s mixtape with the “Locked Up” skit.
[laughs] That’s one of my favourites, man. That skit, I came up with that because [a friend] of mine was always getting arrested. And I saw him not long after he got out and I was like, “You out here grown as hell getting locked up!” And I kept saying it and thought, what if there was a dude who only wants to get locked up? I went into the studio trying to record a song and the words weren’t coming, so I’m like, let me do something to let the creativity out. I did [“Locked Up”] and everybody started laughing and I went back to doing music.
The video for that was huge too. How do viral videos keep your name out there?
Doing the videos was important. We’re in the internet age now, you may as well call it the microwave age. We’re in a time where people want to see visuals, they want to see the whole story laid out for them. I had “Earline’s Son” when I put out the project and I thought that a lot of people had heard it. But once you have the video you realize. It’s a lot easier for people to click a link, they’ll watch a video before they download a project. People who are not really your fans or who aren’t interested in finding all the new music. We put out videos and people call me like, “Man, that’s a dope song, when did you do that?” And I’m like, “that song was released on a project a few months back and thought you heard it”. And these are people I see all the time! “Aw naw man, I just heard it on the video!” The one thing I do regret is, I wish I had videos during Goodbye America and Liquor Store Mascot. I think that would have helped and made the situation bigger in certain peoples’ eyes. I think videos do make you seem more serious, more official [puts on a voice] “Oh, he’s serious, he got a quality video. He actually do his rap!” But that’s where we at now. I want to a project where I do a video for every song, that hasn’t been done in a while.
How else has building a fanbase changed with the internet? I know you tour like crazy with B.O.B. and solo.
You can build a fanbase online by posting songs, projects and videos and people will know who you are. But it’s still nothing like getting out and being physically able to touch the people. To get in front of people’s faces and have them see the way you dress, the way you talk, your mannerisms. I hate to use the word, but to see your swagger. To see what kind of person you are. To see if all the stuff you say in your music is matching up. You might think, you can read 100 blogs about yourself, it might be 50-60 pages in Google on a certain project and you might think the whole world knows who you are. And you going to do a show and nobody knows who the hell you are . And you like, “what the hell? I thought the whole world knows me!” There’s still a whole world out there. You need to get in front of them and let them know who you are. That’s still to me is the most solid way to gain a fanbase. Every time I get out and do a show by myself [versus] going out during B.O.B., I see an instant change in the amount of people that hit me up online. You’re definitely able to touch more people that way.
Do you have a favourite beer?
I used to, man! Icehouse was my favourite beer back in the day, we used to call it Plack Road because it was made at Plack Road. Nowadays I’m more of a liq-or man. The Remy, that’s my favourite all day long. And Hennessy, they fighting for that top spot in my life!
I’m finishing up a full fledged album called Earline’s Son. I have another project coming before that, new songs and a collection of older songs that people who heard me on “Bet I” or newer stuff might not know. To bring them up to speed. Continuing to do shows and building my brand. I will be touring this summer, coming to a city near you. Come see me, you’ll come away a Playboy Tre fan, I guarantee that.