A Higher Love: BJ The Chicago Kid Shares his Journey to the Top

Featured image via Gotsomethin

When people think of the Music Business, they often remember the various hit singles, overnight sensations, and flashy superstars. However, for many artists and musicians, the road to success is a long and winding path that is discouraging to even the most tenacious individual. Bryan James Sledge, a.k.a BJ the Chicago Kid, is one of these journeyman artists. After years of working in the studio as a songwriter, collaborating with an all star cast of friends, and independently releasing his own records, BJ finally signed to Motown Records to release his first major label backed LP, In My Mind. The LP is influenced by Old School Soul music and features a slew of long time friends and collaborators like Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, and Big K.R.I.T. BJ’s record shot straight into the Top 50 and broke the R&B Top 10 Chart in the US. On top of that, BJ has spent 2016 paying tribute to some of Soul’s greatest acts, releasing a D’Angelo Covers EP and had a posthumous duet with Marvin Gaye on the title track of Soul icon’s classic “What’s Going On?”. Ahead of his headlining show at The Foundry, BJ took the time to talk about his journey through the industry, his tireless work ethic, and the friends that continue to inspire him every day. 

ROP: Your new album, In My Mind, has had a tremendous amount of success. How has the last few months been for you?

BJ: It’s amazing, man! It’s definitely a good time when you’ve been working your tail off for years and actually have people paying attention. It’s just been about the art, which is amazing. When you walk into the studio to create, nothing is planned, and someone still loves the music at the end of the day, that’s an amazing feeling.

ROP: You mentioned that you had nearly spent 30 days straight in the studio!

BJ: That’s how I get best results! Waking up and going to the studio, that part never lets me down. I always come up with music that touches the soul doing that, so that’s my little routine.

ROP: That’s such a marathon effort, though. How do you manage your time in the studio?

BJ: I go a step at a time. When I’m in the studio, sometimes the chorus comes first, sometimes the background vocals come first, and sometimes the verse comes first. I just relax and go with the flow so I don’t interrupt the creative process. My band is my crew, and my crew is my producers, all of this coincides in the studio. Our brotherhood 1.) keeps all of us intact. I don’t want to do anything without them and they don’t want to do too much without me even though we both understand that we move separately and together as crews. I think our brotherhood is always what keeps everything jelled together and keeps the vibe the vibe. If I come downstairs in the hotel for a show with some funny shoes, they laugh *Laughs*. They don’t allow any airheads over here. We’re just all equals.

ROP: You got to be featured on a posthumous duet with Marvin Gaye on “What’s Going On?”. How does it feel to be a part of that song’s legacy, especially following the recent weeks?

BJ: It’s great and it’s hard.. The amazing part is the honor of being a part of a musical legacy that I admire. It was an opportunity that I won’t let the world damper at any time, because the song makes so much sense for right now.. it was very different being a part of something so powerful.

ROP: What part about growing up in Chicago impacted you the most when you left to go to L.A.?

BJ: Growing up in Chicago’s Southside and, even at a young age, I had cousins with big appendages that we always played basketball against. It was a healthy competition, but it was amazing to get into the races a little bit early on to understand what tough love was. That’s something that affects you so much. It sucks when you put your heart into it, they break you down but then they build you back up. There were so many cool things to learn from the city growing up. It was pre-Internet then, too, so we actually lived a little bit. I think that helps having a real city to teach you real things like that.

ROP: You must be pretty proud of all the talent that has been coming out of Chicago, then!

BJ: Well #1: I love that more people from Chicago have a stage to speak their voice and share their stories because we all have different stories even though we are all from the city. The thing is, every block of the city is different, two corners of the same block can be so different. What Little Dirk goes through is different from what Lupe Fiasco is going through. What Jennifer Hudson goes through is different from what Kanye West goes through. It’s a common line in all our connecting stories, you know? I think it’s amazing for us to have a stage to tell stories about a city that people know very little about via either the Internet or the news. I’m happy to turn up the headphones or speakers with stories from people who are from there.

ROP: What made you take that first step out of Chicago and head to L.A.? Was it something you simply felt you needed to do or was it what you had to do for your career?

BJ: I actually did feel like it was something that I needed to do. I felt like I had learned all that Chicago had to teach me. I needed to explore in other places while remembering all those lessons to help me survive in these places. It was like a 50/50 thing, but I had to get out of there to pretty much learn what Chicago couldn’t teach me. I wanted to make music, but, more than anything, I wanted to progress. I couldn’t just sit around sending emails to a guy who will was in the studio with the guy I wrote the song with. I wanted to be in the studio writing the song with them. I wanted to avoid that middleman and be there on the front line, and that’s one thing about that networking idea in concept. It’s the setup for greatness. It’s the setup for genius.

ROP: Once you got to LA, who were some of the first people who reached out and supported you?

BJ: So many people helped me. One person on my team that’s been with me since my very first show in LA is Cornelio Austin. A good friend of mine, GLC, introduced me to Kanye West years ago. Because of that, I made a lot of cool connections and did a lot of cool things through that. There’s so many people… Sean “Pen” McMillan introduced me to Kindred and the Family Soul. You risk so much trying to get great and just push to another level, and people don’t know. They don’t know the whole story and I feel that we all have a story because some of us live life on the edge *laughs*.

ROP: How does it feel to look back at where you started at this point in your career? Is that kind of an emotional trip for you?

BJ: Absolutely! On Pineapple Now-LatersI made a song called “Dream II” that talks about how we live Dream I versus Dream II. I feel like now I’m on Dream 60, so many things happen. I actually don’t really celebrate my birthday because so many other major things happen during the year that I don’t like tying all my hope up to one day. If I don’t get to do something or someone doesn’t call, am I sad? Hell no! I’m blessed every other day of the year. Why am I going to even trip like that? I don’t go party or anything, I just want some dinner, a few drinks, some laughs back at the crib, then it’s back to work tomorrow! I’m probably working on my birthday, I’ll be happier if I’m working on my birthday because I’m making things happen, man. I’m writing the first words that I’ll record for my first album… Happy Birthday, BJ! *Laughs*

ROP: A lot of your friends and collaborators are also stepping up in the world. How has it been ascending through the ranks together as a group?

BJ: It’s an interesting time for anyone who’s been working hard over the past ten years or under. I salute my friends, my friends inspire me. I’m elated that my friends don’t forget about our friendship, that we get to work together, kick some ass, and make some real history. I’m excited that my friends have managed to keep the attention of their fan bases and keep me inspired along the way. It’s a super cool time, I feel like we’re the Super Friends *laughs*.

ROP: What’s the vibe when you guys hit the studio together?

BJ: It’s pretty cool, but what’s crazy is that we don’t look at each other any differently. We become fans again when we listening to each other’s music but, when we’re together, we’re just regular people.

ROP: I’d imagine you all still manage to have a lot of fun when you’re together.

BJ: Oh, all the time! All the time, man, we’re like a bunch of big kids in the studio. Us in the studio is like kids in Toys ‘R Us, we want to play with everything.

ROP: For In My Mind, you released a number incredible music videos. What was the goal when these videos were first getting made? Was there any particular surprises you encountered?

BJ: The whole process was surprising. Especially the process of coming up with content for stuff that we had no concept for yet. Things like knowing what the music would feel like, what it was going to sound like with or without lyrics, everything like that. This is the first album that I made between the mixing, mastering, getting all the clearances, it was just crazy. I will continue to be a student of this game. I think that this is something that you can never know enough about.

ROP: Did that process of formally releasing In My Mind through a label ever become frustrating?

BJ: I would later come to understand that it was. It was understanding it, like “BJ, sit down and figure out how we’re going to put this all together.” It literally getting it out of your mind and onto a piece of paper. That’s the whole thing.

ROP: What were some of your earliest inspirations as an artist?

BJ: Really, my inspiration has always been just living life. I remember one time I could sit on a porch and freestyle a whole song with no music. Working with friends, sharing my story, my own imagination, all that is combined in the music.

ROP: You’ve managed to have a very long a successful career. What do you credit with that longevity?

BJ: The passion for the music, honestly. My passion is a huge part of what I do.

Don’t miss out on BJ The Chicago Kid’s upcoming show at The Foundry this Friday, July 22nd! Get your tickets here!

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