Tree City's Charles 'Cheeks' Cheek hopes that move out West unleashes true 'Potential'
No one in the Ann Arbor hip hop scene is content to "just" be an MC anymore.
There's so much good music being released, for free, on a regular basis, that most artists aren't asking any money for their music — just for an honest listen and to import the album into iTunes if you like it. And that's it.
Charles "Cheeks" Cheek, 26, has been an observer and a participant in Ann Arbor's hip hop scene for a decade now. It concerns him that, for all the time he's been following the scene, he hasn't seen any reliable template emerge on how to make it in this market.
So he set out to create the template or, perhaps more accurately to perfect it, by pursuing his rap at the same time he studies business administration at the Milgard School of Business at the University of Washington-Tacoma.
Rappers need a second skill, a Plan B, a — here comes the dreaded f-word — fallback, in case they never catch on beyond their always-supportive peer groups. Even rappers who only draw crowds of 5 to their local shows are usually friends with 3 of the 5, who act as hype men and provide at least some semblance of audience interest. Booking regular and well-attended gigs outside of Ann Arbor, though, is another animal.
Even among his Tree City bandmates and Branchout Collective collaborators, Cheeks wasn't the first to combine rap with a second passion, he's just doing it in an interesting way, moving out West just before the new year to get his papers in order.
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Jacoby "DJ Cataclysmic" Simmons is a rapper and a DJ. Evan "Clavius Crates" Haywood is an artist and a producer and studying at the University of Michigan. Kyle "General Population" Hunter is studying sound engineering at Washtenaw and practicing it regularly at the Blind Pig.
Branchout Collective collaborators like former Tree City bandmate Mike "Mike Man in Charge" Hyter and his partner in Celsius Electronics, Carlos “LO5” Garcia are talented producers — Garcia can rap, sing, dance and produce, and keeps a busy schedule. Independent rapper Chris "London Homicide" Bowerbank is a producer and a Michigan student.
Hip hop is a business. Cheeks knows that better than anyone. And as much as he enjoys the expressiveness of being a rapper, not to mention his bandmates and his hometown, Ann Arbor, he believes that comfort zones can hinder creativity.
"There comes a point when people get tired of seeing you at the Blind Pig," Cheeks explained. "People want to welcome you back after you've had some success, done some shows elsewhere, built your name up."
One way to build a name in another city is moving to another city. His parting gift to Ann Arbor was "The Potential," an 11-track mixtape released on Christmas Day.
Just as MCs can't be safe putting all their time into rapping, band members can't put all their music-making time into the group. Before leaving Tree City last year for Celsius Electronics, Hyter had been working on his solo project, "Pentelligent," for more than a year.
Cheeks did the same and had a few songs ready by the time Tree City released "Thus Far." He recorded several others once that promotional effort ended, and now his energy is going into promoting "The Potential." Tree City also has an album dropping this year, and just released a new single, "Definement." The cycle never ends.
Between the move out West and the demands of fatherhood, school, a girlfriend, a band, and a Christmas release date, "The Potential" might have gotten lost in the confusion.
So Cheeks formed a three-phase plan: release the mixtape for free download, and gauge the response; move to the West Coast, build relationships with artists out there, and record new tracks for "The Potential" for a re-release; then sell the re-released album, with a grand total of 15 or so tracks, for a modest fee.
"A lot of people have that old-school mentality that they're going to drop an album, and it's just going to be hot, and they'll just live happily ever after," Cheeks said. "It's not that way anymore," not when good music is so readily, so freely, available.
Cheeks insists he hasn't left Tree City, he's just expanding his portfolio. Music and business can both be done anywhere — even in Ann Arbor, if a return makes sense down the road. And that's what the move out West is about more than anything. Mobility.
While Cheeks takes comfort in the similarities between Ann Arbor and Seattle-Tacoma — from affluence to the shared focus on education — he is excited to stretch his legs in a bigger music and media market.
"Whatever we have in Ann Arbor, they have it and have more of it" out West, Cheeks said. From venues to diversity to market size, he described his new city as a place where the ceiling is simply higher than in his hometown. In previous trips West Cheeks visited a number of hip hop-friendly venues and saw good-sized crowds. He may have met a few kindred spirits and future collaborators.
"I don't think an artist can really just stay in one surrounding forever," Cheeks said. "If you don't ever try to switch it up, you're basically stifling yourself."
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.