But this town looks different after three summers in Atlanta. That’s where the baby-faced singer currently resides, the hip-hop industry nucleus where he’s been helping D.C. rap star Wale shore up his blooming career. Back home in Washington, fans know Johnson by his stage name, Tre, and as founder of the beloved go-go band UCB.
His perpetual touring doesn’t allow for frequent homecomings, and a drive through the District’s gentrified streets can trigger complicated pangs of nostalgia.
“It’s good that the city changed like it did,” Tre says. “But I feel like a lot of that struggle made us who we are today. It built character.”
He’s en route to a rehearsal in Prince George’s County where he’ll help iron out the set list for Wale’s autumn tour — a coast-to-coast victory lap after the rapper’s third album, “The Gifted,” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart in June.
As Wale’s backing troupe, UCB gave the rapper’s campaign for national stardom a huge boost four years back. But the band unraveled on the way up, splintering for good in early 2011. Today, UCB alums drummer Eric Curry, keyboardist Glenn Cobb and bassist Rashad Young continue to tour with Wale. Tre plays multiple roles: collaborator, songwriter, adviser, hype-man, foil and friend.
“I think he’s one of the most talented people I know, period,” Wale says of Tre. “And I know people from Lady Gaga to Jay Z.”
So where should Tre steer that talent next? The singer says he’s still haunted by how close UCB came to introducing go-go’s hyper-local rhythms to the rest of the planet. But he can also envision a career spent happily penning songs and pulling strings behind the scenes.
Since he learned everything growing up on these streets, maybe he’ll find some answers zooming around town in the silver Chrysler Pacifica he bought his mom a few years back.
So he zips past Howard University Hospital, where he was born on Valentine’s Day 1981 — and where he was treated after being shot outside of a UCB gig in the summer of 2003.
Past his mother’s old duplex where he stored his clothes in a garbage bag.
Past the intersection where he lost his first friend to gun violence at the age of 12.
“Some people have 50 friends in their life,” Tre says. “I lost 50 before I could vote.”
With a bullet
Before music promised him a better life, it was a way to stay alive.
When UCB — originally called Uncalled 4 Band — held its first rehearsal in an Otis Place NW basement in the summer of 1996, Tre knew he wanted to sing. Melody had been coursing through his genetic code.
His father, who died when Tre was 2 years old, had sung in various local R&B groups and his grandmother had performed on the District jazz circuit. His first musical memories: singing in nursery school alongside Christopher Barry, son of then-mayor Marion Barry.
In his adolescence, he earned immaculate report cards from Archbishop Carroll High School, where he’d spend his after-school hours either playing football or playing gigs with UCB.
“I’m going to school with thousands of dollars in my pocket,” he says of the band’s early success. “I was growing up way too fast.”
The band’s popularity was almost instantaneous, but it attracted a rough crowd that personified the violent stereotypes that had dogged go-go music since the ’80s. Fights at UCB shows became all too common. (Concerned for their own safety, some band members performed while armed.) District teens eager to dance would end up getting hurt.
“It used to [upset me] because it was a lot of my friends that were doing the hurting,” Tre says. “It’s your cousins or your friends beating up the people who are paying to see you.”
They tried to escape the violent culture of their respective neighborhoods and quash the brawling at their shows by hiring Douglas Carter, an eductor and former executive director of Mayor Barry’s Youth Initiatives Office, to be the group’s manager.
“They were a group of at-risk kids that were really on the edge,” Carter says today. “I told them all those behaviors had to stop. And they really bought into it. Especially Tre. . . . Any task I gave him, he grabbed it and went running with it.”
But trouble followed the band. In 2003, while he was finishing up his degree in political science at Morgan State University, Tre was shot in the leg after a gig on Bladensburg Road NE. He was out of the hospital quickly, but knew UCB needed to make a drastic change.
“We wanted our music to be a reflection of our audience — college girls, people with jobs, people doing something with their lives,” Tre says.
That shift finally came in 2005 with the release of “Sexy Lady,” a go-go anthem that matched a riff from the System’s 1987 slow-jam, “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” with Tre’s pleading refrain: “Sexyyy ladyyy . . . gimme your number, girl!”
To promote the song, the band pressed up 7,000 CDs and canvassed area nightclubs for more than a year. “Sexy Lady” became the band’s hallmark — a massive hit on the campus of Howard University and then on local airwaves. It also led to a fateful connection at a downtown nightclub.
Tre remembers hanging around the DJ booth at Platinum one night, doling out CDs. “And this kid walks up to me saying, ‘You Tre, right? Man, I grew up on y’all!’”
He introduced himself as Wale.
The national stage
He was a rapper in need of a backing band, and this band had cred. UCB was a band hungry to break go-go music outside D.C., and this guy was headed that way.
“He wasn’t talking about no street [stuff], no gangsta [stuff],” Tre says of Wale. “He was just being him and rapping. And we loved it. It was like, ‘Let’s help somebody like him and maybe we can get our image cleaned up in people’s minds.’ ”
They hit the road with Wale, earned a reputation for their fiery live show and famously served as the house band at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Go-go had never soaked up this much airtime on national television, and the band strolled out of Radio City Music Hall that night prepared for a hail of record contracts. But when that didn’t happen, UCB’s 13-year bond finally started to buckle. Different members wanted different things.
“You got people who are happy to be in the go-go,” says Curry, UCB’s drummer. “And then you got certain people who want it so bad they’re willing to do anything to get there. Literally anything.”
Curry, Cobb and Young say they’re each grateful to be working with Wale today, but the band’s breakup in the spring of 2011 hit everyone hard, especially Tre. He got sick, lost his voice, stopped listening to music and soaked his brain in DVDs, refusing to leave the house. He remembers that Fourth of July as the least memorable of his life.
“I was depressed,” Tre says. “So on July 5, we got in the car.”
That’s where Wale was working on “Ambition,” a sophomore album whose biggest single, “Lotus Flower Bomb,” would soon take shape with the help of Tre’s songwriting muscle. The sugary hip-hop ballad lost best rap song at the 2013 Grammy Awards to Jay Z and Kanye West, but the nod put Tre next to the late Chuck Brown in an exclusive circle of go-go musicians nominated for music’s most valuable trophy.
On tour this fall, it remained the most galvanizing tune in Wale’s arsenal — further proof that eight years after “Sexy Lady,” Tre still knew how to get people to sing along.
‘Opening a door for my city’
Now he’s trying to decide what they should sing next. On the tour bus this fall, he toiled away at a solo EP he plans to call “Shadow Room,” a reference to his life as a sideman.
“I’ve been around these big-big-huge-huge stars for five years,” Tre says. “I’ve been in their light, but really, I’ve been in their shadow.”
That hasn’t been a bad thing. It’s given him space to help run the Board Administration, the record label he helped launch with Wale, as well as write hooks for other artists. And if he gets stuck behind the curtain for good?
“If it came to that, I could do that,” Tre says. “I feel like I accomplished my goal in opening a door for my city. And I don’t feel bad for sacrificing my own personal gain. It worked. But now I gotta do what I gotta do.”
That means dropping the “Shadow Room” EP next spring and seeing if the world takes notice. And if nobody does, no problem.
“I’ve seen everything that artists have to do,” Tre says. “It’s so much money in writing and producing, and you don’t have to deal with the same headache.”
For now, he’s just happy to be home for Thanksgiving, happy that UCB is planning a reunion gig for early January, happy to have options, happy to have an entire holiday weekend to drive around a city he barely recognizes, wondering what happens next.