BJ the Chicago Kid aiming for solo acclaim with Motown album, ‘Compton’ single
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You could call Bryan James Sledge an old soul.
Sledge — known as BJ the Chicago Kid — is a singer-songwriter from the South Side, a product of Mahalia Jackson Elementary School and Percy L. Julian High School.
The R&B artist has hooks in the hip-hop world. But he also can croon, putting listeners more in mind of old-school stars who came long before him, like Marvin Gaye or Willie Hutch, Babyface or D’Angelo.
After years toiling behind the scenes for other artists, he’s cracked the mainstream music scene as a solo artist, beginning with “Pineapple Now-Laters,” his highly lauded, self-released 2012 mixtape that got him signed that same year by Motown.
His debut album, “In My Mind,” is set for release in December.
“I’m extremely excited the world gets to hear different voices of our city,” Sledge says. “Even today, when you think of Chicago, you still think of 10 to 12 artists. We don’t have enough artists telling our story.”
Sledge’s rise includes a single on the Billboard-charting “Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre,” a companion to the movie “Straight Outta Compton.” He’s featured on the song “It’s All on Me.”
“Dr. Dre is the coolest person I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “I get a call out of the blue, saying, ‘Yo, Doc wants you to come to the studio today.’ There were so many songs we did for ‘Compton.’ Only that one was picked, and I was actually happy because its message really speaks to me: No matter what happens, it all boils down to you. Your tomorrow depends on choices you make today.”
Sledge grew up in Chicago’s Brainerd neighborhood, one of three sons of two choir directors at Prayer Van Church, formerly at 321 E. 69th St.
“Between that church and my household, there was always music, instruments, people singing,” he says. “I knew at 7 it’s what I wanted.”
His father was adamant he finish high school first.
“I joined the band my second year at Julian, and the band director was amazed to find I couldn’t read music, but if you played it once, I could remember it and play it right back to you,” Sledge says. “My last two years, I sang in the school chorus.”
He began songwriting after Chicago producer-songwriter Kevin Randolph read a love poem Sledge wrote for a girl and steered him in that direction. Randolph got Sledge his first placement — a song written for Chicago jazz great Ramsey Lewis. His first R&B placement was written for Chicago crooner Dave Hollister.
After graduating, he hooked up with Chicago rapper GLC, a childhood friend of Kanye West who got one of his songs placed with West’s first rap group, Go Getters. Then, West moved to L.A. GLC followed, and Randolph was hired as musical director for gospel duo Mary Mary, which is how Sledge got his big break.
Sledge’s connections seemed to be drying up when Randolph called.
“He said Mary Mary’s male background singer had left and, ‘If you can get here, you have a job,’ ” says Sledge, then 19. “I packed my stuff in garbage bags. I wasn’t coming back until I had something to show.”
Through Mary Mary, he became sought-after to write or sing for some of the biggest names in soul and gospel — Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, Usher, P. Diddy, Jill Scott, Jamie Foxx, Chris Brown, Shirley Caesar, Lalah Hathaway.
In hip-hop, he’s collaborated with fellow Chicagoans West, Twista and Chance the Rapper. His was the voice you heard in the background and at the end on West’s 2006 “Impossible,” used in the “Mission: Impossible III” movie. He’s worked with Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Warren G, Big K.R.I.T., Freddie Gibbs, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, Problem and others. His hook on Schoolboy Q’s 2014 “Studio” single got Sledge a Grammy nomination.
With the label that birthed soul now backing him, Sledge seems on the edge of the solo acclaim he’s worked for.
“After working with everybody, helping so many people, it was my time,” says Sledge, who put out several mixtapes before “Pineapple Now-Laters” caught fire. “So many people I worked with, I didn’t even get paid. But the knowledge! People don’t understand knowledge can give you so much more wealth than money can ever get you in life.”