Exclusive Interview: BJ The Chicago Kid – “It’s not an easy process, but it’s enjoyable when you get there.”
BJ The Chicago Kid on crafting timeless music that talks to the now generation...
BJ The Chicago Kid has been through a lot to make it to where he is right now. While many still see him as a newcomer, with his latest record In My Mind being touted as “the major-label debut”, over a decade of behind the scenes work has gone into this breakthrough. It’s a rarity these days, when the paradigm is to throw tracks at SoundCloud until one achieves a level of virality and takes off, to find an artist who has spent quite as long honing their craft, perfecting a mature and timeless sound.
With a background as a church drummer, the Chicago native born Bryan James Sledge has sung backing vocals and written for artists behind the scenes, including everyone from Mary J. Blige to The Killers, and has gone on to collaborate with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Kehlani, Dr. Dre to Jill Scott.
Since 2009 he’s released four mixtapes, and a critically acclaimed independent debut album Pineapple Now-Laters in 2012 which lead to a deal with Motown Records. With the legendary label behind his latest record, In My Mind, he admits his second LP still feels like a debut in many ways. “The stage that we’re premiering the album on is far bigger than I could have ever achieved before being with Motown, so it’s definitely a whole new world,” he says. “This album is smarter, more mature, living life a little bit stronger. I think everything enhances in time if you’re trying to be better every day at what you do. With Motown the release becomes all of our goal not just mine, so it puts us in a higher place when we get together to create again.”
In My Mind blends a timeless soul music sound with the subject matter of the times: but don’t expect to hear about Snapchat, turning up and the latest dance trends. Filled with live instrumentation and lyrics about romance, a hip-hop influence seeps through in its honesty, rawness, a couple of well-placed rap verses and some scratches and cuts. “I feel like if Marvin Gaye had a Jay-Z, a Kanye West, a J Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest, a Dr. Dre – I feel like he would have had the same elements in his music,” says BJ. “It’s as simple as that. I came up in a different time, we have far more resources, we have more encyclopedias musically. That’s why you have BJ The Chicago Kid.”
When he first moved to L.A at the age of 19 to take his music career a step further, he studied under Grammy-Award winning songwriter Harold Lilly, who he describes as “the king of timeless writing.” He would observe Lilly for years, a fly on the wall as he learned how to stay open and vulnerable enough to pen songs that would transcend generations. “I learned how to get myself out of the way in order to pretty much be a vessel,” he reflects. Lilly would get him working with R&B singer Mario on his 2004 album The Turning Point, which would spawn the track ‘Nikes Fresh Out The Box’, an important early placement for BJ. “Harold gave me that opportunity because I understood how to do it in a timeless fashion like him. I felt like that was my test and my graduation diploma, and ever since then I’ve been running and running. I feel like writing timeless music is the easiest thing for me to do, you just have to do it in a way that a young generation will understand what the truth is and how they can digest it so that they can have a lifestyle soundtrack.” Whether you’re listening to In My Mind as a progression of BJ’s existing catalogue, or as an introduction, it’s a record that is going to stick. He’s perfected the difficult balance of timeless and relevant; avoiding getting caught up in disposable trends, without sounding stuffy and stale to young ears.
An old soul in his approach, BJ is often relevant the way he observes what is missing from the world right now and supplies that through his music. One of his main focuses being the lack of romance in the music of our generation, and he’s here to bring the balance. “I just feel like back in the day my mom could have met my dad at a concert, they probably would have fell in love, had kids and then here we are today,” he explains. “But today I don’t think anyone falls in love at a rap show. It’s messing with the value of love and the meaning and understanding of love, to where it’s not appreciated as much as it should be.”
One of the most striking metaphors on In My Mind is on ‘The New Cupid’, which sees BJ assisted by regular collaborator Kendrick Lamar as he croons “Cupid’s too busy in the club, at the bar, rolling up, and if you see him let him know, love is gone…” It’s an image that he conjured up in interviews, where he’d constantly be asked about his own relationships. He’d answer that Cupid was too busy in the club to be making people fall in love these days, and the idea stuck with him, inspiring him to put it into song form. “Honestly sometimes doing interviews helps me explain things about myself that I only think, I never verbalise,” he says. “Sometimes I learn things about myself that I only think, but I really digest it when I say it, and it still freaks me out. In the coolest way though of course.”
While his ultimate goal is simply to contribute more peace and love to the world, he likes the listener to be able to make their own journey through his music based on their interpretations. One of the things that he believes makes music so powerful is the way in which multiple people can listen to the same song, and all leave with something different. His song ‘Woman’s World’, for example, is inspired by James Brown’s classic ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’. “A man can listen to that song and feel powerful,” says BJ. “But a woman can feel even more powerful when he says ‘but it wouldn’t be nothing, without a woman or a girl.’ Everybody gets their own slice of the pie, according to your understanding and your intake, and that’s the special part about music.”
Music has always been a big part of BJ’s life. “My family is so musically inclined it’s kinda crazy,” he admits, before reeling off a list of keyboard playing cousins, bass playing uncles, a brother who was well versed in drums and a mother and father who both directed choirs at different churches. “It’s hard not to fall out of that tree and not hit a branch or two,” he laughs. Still, his family were surprised and elated when he finally shared In My Mind with them. “I didn’t play too much of it before it came out, because I really wanted to discuss what I know and then get an honest opinion, and I’m happy that we did it that way. They got the biggest surprise and it was amazing for them to live and have a moment with it just like me.”
While BJ The Chicago Kid has undoubtedly made his biggest breakthrough thus far on In My Mind, the lengthy journey to the making of the LP is an important one, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. His dedication and stamina in the game have paid off, while many of his competitors have thrown in the towel along the way. “You never know when the time is going to come for you to have your magical moment. And I believe if we knew, life would not be so special,” he considers. “Someone asked me how long it took to get to where I am. I said it took rainy days, a little snow, rain, a little snow, one day of sunshine just to make you feel good and let you know that it exists, and then it rains for three more months, snows for four years.” He pauses before leaving us with a final thought. “It’s not an easy process, that’s why it’s meant to be enjoyable when you get there. It’s not always an easy journey. I’m happy man, and I feel like everything that I’ve gone through has been a very knowledge-filled journey for me to apply right now.”
In My Mind is out now, stream on Spotify below or head to iTunes to purchase…