Timing is everything. For Bryan Sledge, bka BJ the Chicago Kid, it's perfect.
After years of singing background for industry greats Mary Mary and Usher and songwriting for the likes of Mary J. Blige, the soulful singer is finally making himself comfy in the house that the legendary Berry Gordy built. The South Side Chicago native inked a deal with Motown Records last August, six months after releasing his album Pineapple Now-Laters via iTunes.
BJ is confident he’s got the entire package – passion, humility, quality and soul – and you can’t help but believe him when he says it. His eyes glimmer when he talks about his inspiration for music, he speaks in a stream of metaphors and every so often bursts into song to explain how he feels. When you first hear his velvety voice, you try to figure out exactly who you hear in him (D’Angelo and Marvin Gaye are popular picks), but make no mistake, the sound you hear is his and his alone.
“It sucks when artists show their influences more than they show themselves. I don’t ever plan on being that guy,” he insists. “I mean, I’m not mad at being compared to great people. I just have to continue to carve out my own individuality in that.”
VIBE caught up with the Windy City crooner, where he rambled passionately about his most recent blessings, what his hometown has taught him and why right now is his time. --Stacy-Ann Ellis
VIBE: First of all, congrats on signing to Motown! How’d that happen?
BJ the Chicago Kid: It was really a very incredible situation. I’ve known Ethiopia [Habtemarian] for a few years. She knew who to team me up with to help chisel me as an artist and as a writer. She linked me up with Dre & Vidal even after me and Dre & Vidal had our run. I would see her from time to time but I would never have my hand out like, “what’s next?” I began working on my project and working on my album. The album came out, she heard some songs and she was loving the new sound. She had a new position and she always wanted to help. She always believed in the project and believed in what I did. So her and Rex [Rideout] pretty much orchestrated the whole situation for me at Motown.
Were you excited? Did you feel like it was your time?
It’s perfect timing. I’ve learned that my thoughts aren’t going to be on point when you’re trying to figure out your life. Some things really are just meant to happen. Me lying back, accepting that and working on myself in that time to be prepared for the time was the best thing that I could’ve ever done. I’m still working on music when ain’t nobody checking for me or when I feel like the people I think should be checking for me ain’t checking for me. It’s still being steadfast in your ways and understanding and believing that one day it’s going to happen no matter who doesn’t believe you. When I came to LA, I didn’t come with my hand out like, I hope I get a deal tomorrow. I came out to California to be a songwriter and sing background. That’s what paid my bills and that’s what kept me alive. [I had a plan] whether people believed in it or not. There were people that believed in the beginning and it wasn’t according to their timeline, so they stopped believing. That ain’t even on me dog, that’s on you. Just know I’ll be here when you come back because I ain’t going nowhere.
What’s the next thing we can expect from you?
Everything, man. Music is the door of people understanding how creative I am. But there’s so many other things as far as, and I hate to say this because it’s the most typical thing, but I don’t have a clothing line at all, but I have a few ideas that I structured and put together to the point where it’s not silkscreen t-shirts. It’s not street wear. It’s quality pieces. Also, I feel like I already write movies in three and a half minutes anyway. Music’s only going to open the door for some of the things that I know are quality stuff.
So is that all going to come after your big Motown debut?
I’m working on it every day but music is the forefront right now. That’s the thing that everything else hides behind. I’m not mad at that. The album is next for sure. A couple features with a couple dope artists as well. Honestly, I never stopped working from before I was signed. It took a while to even understand that I was signed because I never stopped working. I still was recording. I ain’t kick my feet up. Hell nah, this is where the work begins. Now you’re in the ring. You were trying to get in the got-damn auditorium first. All the training that I’ve had before, whether it was touring with another artist or writing for another artist, was to prepare myself for my run. Like I said, I never knew the day, but I knew it was happening. There’s nothing that made me feel like it wasn’t going to happen.
How did Pineapple Now-Laters come together? What inspired you?
Definitely J Dilla. I was on some Dilla shit. I love how Dilla can break the mold of giving you a song. It’s one verse, one hook, and the rest of the hooks after that hook are chopped up and you love it. Everything a regular song’s supposed to say, it has all the same qualifications, but it’s done differently. I love breaking rules, that’s why I used to get whoopings when I was a kid. I broke all the rules. I bent ‘em until they couldn’t bend anymore. I always loved pushing it to the limit. To understand Dilla, I feel like you have to be a certain kind of person. The typical person wouldn’t get it. The typical person wouldn’t understand why we feel like he’s incredible. How could you call an album Donuts? Who knows the real meaning of why he said, “Yes, this is it and I’m not changing it.” But it’s personal. It probably means so much to him just as a man first before a producer. That’s what Pineapple Now-Laters is to me.
Does the name have any specific meaning?
It was my favorite candy as a kid. That candy’s like ice cream. Someone told me this when I was grown, it sounded like the most childish thing ever: there’s happiness in ice cream. He said, let’s go get some ice cream. Before I could finish my cup, I was like damn. That’s what Pineapple Now-Laters is to me. It changes the mode. That’s the epitome of soul. As a kid, when I first heard “Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye, I didn’t know what to call that feeling, but I know I felt it. And to recognize you feel something at such a young age, and this man’s talking about something that’s far more mature than me, it says something resonated in me long before I heard this song. Something was in my soul to be able to receive this thing.
Would you say Pineapples is a good R&B album? Or is it soul?
I’m not the typical R&B artist. I don’t think Pineapple Now-Laters could ever be compared to a Trey Songz album. We’re two different types of artist. I feel like it just helps give me my niche of who I am. I’m a fan of hip hop, jazz, blues, gospel, country. How can I fit all these inspiring sounds into this? I just naturally let it happen.
So you don’t call it any genre?
I mean, it has a soulful sound, but a lot of people will take something that has a soulful sound and call it soul music when it’s not necessarily. It’s like you get Al Green to sing “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. It’s a soulful guy singing this same song. I believe “call it what it is” gets it the respect that it needs. I understand that the way you see it is the way people perceive it and that’s the way the album is.
What’s your favorite song on the album and which one best personifies you?
“The Big Payback” describes me and one of my favorites is “I Want You Back/Lady, Lady.” Or “Dream II.” The reason I say “Dream II” is because there aren’t a lot of R&B artists that can actually ignite a flame of ‘go get it.’ We all sing about sex all the time. We’re telling you go get that. But on “Dream II” I’m going to tell them to go get theirs. Ideas don’t pop up for nothing. It could actually come to life if you breathe air into it. That one thing was huge in itself, just to be able to inspire a generation through song in such a crazy world that we live in now. This is not the day of people inspiring each other. Not to go get your dreams or build something or to have a Plan B. Nobody ‘s telling you that. We’re afraid to do that. I’m going to break that, because it’s a whole ‘nother level of realness out here that people don’t even get because they’re not that. And I feel like timing is everything. It’s perfect timing I’m here.
How’d the “His Pain II” collabo with Kendrick Lamar happen?
Me and Kendrick work just to work. If he has a song, he’s gonna call me the day he gets it. Like, I got a song I need you to get on, whether he’s working on an album or not. I do the same thing. It happens organically of course. When I heard the subject of that record I was like whoa, you know you called the right one for this right? I felt honored not to be on a song with Kendrick, because I done did that before, but I felt honored to take them this close to religion without making somebody make a choice. If you celebrate somebody, he celebrates who he celebrates, and somebody else celebrates somebody and I celebrate somebody, I think we all understand that we’re blessed. No matter who you serve and what God that is, cool. We’re all blessed. That’s our common point. Let’s just celebrate that and ride that out. And after that’s done, we can go back to our own separate ways. We’re individuals but that’s one thing we can celebrate as a whole. That’s why I felt it was so powerful. Sometimes you gotta pick that one good thing and rock with that. Kendrick also tells an incredible story on that too. He lets you in the mind of a kid that lives in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The kids today are very different than a few years back. On the song he says, “The gunshots missed me and hit that little boy. I don’t know why He keeps blessing me.” This character in the song thinks that’s a blessing! Because it missed you and hit a little boy? He’s saying so much in that song that a lot of people won’t understand until after changing their mindset in listening to it. There are so many ways you can listen to that record and get something different every time, it’s ridiculous to me. We ain’t gonna leave that song alone. I refuse to let time take the heartbeat of that song. So just keep an open eye for that.
You’ve built up quite the resume as a songwriter. Who’ve you worked with?
Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Anthony Hamilton, Mario, Warren G, Snoop, Nate [Dogg], Toni Braxton, Ramsey Lewis, Busta Rhymes. It’s been a long time coming.
How has Chi-town shaped you as a person and as an artist?
It started when I was young. I’m sure the same things that shaped me shaped Rockie [Fresh] even [Sir] Michael Rocks. We didn’t live the same exact life but we all understand the same rules that that city teaches you no matter if it’s North Side, South Side, East Side or West Side. Chicago teaches you things as a man, it teaches you street rules and it teaches you professional rules all in this one city. You just gotta be able to understand where you’re going in life to apply it. One hood rule is, you go to the liquor store at night time and there’s guys hanging out in front of the store. You got your partner with you and he ain’t from around here but y’all gotta go in and get your liquor. There are people at the crib waiting for liquor, y’all want to have a good time, y’all ain’t gonna let some knuckleheads in front of the store ruin your night, right? So what you do is walk to the store and when you’re walking in that door, you speak to everybody. “What’s up y’all? Y’all aight?” By the time they say yeah, you’re in the store. You damn near got your first bag of chips in your hand. Because you’re acknowledging them, that’s all that matters. If you act like you’re hiding something or you don’t want to speak to them, it’s showing a lack of something, that you’re holding something. Who are you supposed to be? That’s when they begin to sniff you like a hyena. You gotta understand how the rules go. That means now, I’m BJ the Chicago Kid and I come into the corporate office, am I just going to speak to the one person I know? Nah, I speak to everybody. Work the room, because at the end of the day, that changes the mode.
That’s real. What has it done for your music?
I feel like Chicago has helped me in decision making and taking my time and doing things. And especially my confidence. When I’m on stage singing, I feel like no one is going to be able to fuck with me, and that’s how I’m supposed to feel in order to give you the best me. For anybody to say I’m not supposed to feel that way, you ain’t fucking with me. You have to feel like you’re the greatest to be the greatest at what you do. I had a conversation with a good writer friend the other day and I said, I’m sick of looking at Michael Jordan and admiring Michael Jordan. I love Michael Jordan, but what I want to do is admire MJ, but I want to find my golden moment and make that change me into being a MJ. We look at our heroes so much we forget that we’re the generation that gets better. I don’t want to love this so much that I don’t think I can actually be better than it because I understand every generation is supposed to be better. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We’re so busy adoring him, you’re missing time of putting yourself in a place where you could be adored years later. I don’t want to adore something that much that I forget that I have a special quality. And it’s with all due respect, but in time everything switches up. So I’ll pay my homage, that’s why I sing “It’s a Man’s World.” That’s why I sing “How Does it Feel.” Yes, I’m going to pay homage my whole life. That music really grabbed me from my most innocent stage. I will forever be BJ the Chicago Kid, but I don’t want to love Jordan so much that I don’t think I can make me some.
What are your goals for 2013?
Work harder, learn more, do more, get my non-profit [The Chicago Kids Foundation] crackin’. Last year we had our first turkey drive and it felt amazing because that was my first time being able to give anything back to my city. I’m not on Rick Ross’ level and I’m not on Kanye’s level, but if I gave away 20 turkeys, I’m like man… It wasn’t 20, it was way more. It was just a blessing to have the beginning of that. I couldn’t wait for days like that. I couldn’t wait for a time for me to be at Motown and actually have the attention of the people. It’s amazing to know that you can actually do this thing with your emotions, with your feelings, with your music.
Where do you see yourself ultimately?
My life will not leave music alone. I’ll probably fuck around and be an older, mature guy like Clive Davis still wearing suits, still walking in these offices, still doing what I do because music is a part of my life. Whether it’s the business side of it or it’s the actual music itself, it’s a part of me. I’m in the music business, and this is one door I can never let close. It’ll always be cracked open. I broke the lock, turned all the lights on, so it’s open for me forever, man. I feel like every song I put out makes it available for me to leave that door open and break the hinges and make sure it can never close. Every song is my opportunity to make sure that door doesn’t close. Every little thing. This interview is making sure that door doesn’t close.
What key differences can we expect between Pineapples and your forthcoming album?
I made a few songs on there to kinda pick up where we left off, but after that, it’s going to be *phew*. Just different content, the vocal ability is improving even more. The choices I made in the past and the choices I’m making now are going to show why I’ve done what I’ve done. I feel like it’s only going to prove itself more. I’m totally excited for the music, film, clothing, my non-profit, keeping balance with my family and building relationships even more with my label. So, really understanding how to kick ass even harder. It’s always a growing process and I’m with it man. The best part is not knowing what’s coming next, but you give your all with every little thing. I don’t expect anything but good things.
What are you bringing to music that we’ve been missing? Why now?
Why not now? What I’m bringing is back that timelessness. Back to the time when you could hear Al Green sing “I’m….” and you forget you just got that bill and that bill is in your hand. But when you hear that note… I’m that guy that’s gonna change that. Whatever it takes to pull you out of that negative thing. Soul music helps you lose yourself. I feel like that’s one of the parts that I’m bringing back. I’m also bringing back niggas really singing again. Like singing singing. It’s not like it used to be. When R. Kelly first came out, he wasn’t the greatest vocalist. He was a cold guy period. In time, vocally he got tight…er and song-wise, like whoa. He grew in front of your eyes and you loved every moment of it, not taking nothing out of the first thing that made you fall in love with him. That’s what’s missing. That’s what’s been missing. R. Kelly has reinvented himself 50 times before our eyes. Those are some of the things that we forget. We haven’t had a Stevie Wonder in a long time. We haven’t had another Marvin Gaye in a long time. We haven’t had another Teddy Pendergrass in a long time. Or another Al Green. I embody that. I come from that. I’m going to give y’all that.
Be on the lookout for BJ the Chicago Kid’s Motown album debut in 2013. Until then, check out Pineapple Now-Laters on iTunes.