Moving Forward & Never Looking Back: A Conversation with BJ The Chicago Kid

BJ The Chicago Kid © T. Harrison Hillman
With his powerful and soulful vocals, BJ The Chicago Kid has made waves in the music scene and is showing no signs of stopping.

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From singing backup for multiple artists to scoring three Grammy nominations, BJ The Chicago Kid has worked his way up and torn through the R&B music scene with soulful hits that strike audiences with fervorous emotion. His fans connect and resonate with the stories he puts forward, and the feelings are reciprocated fully.

In My Mind - BJ The Chicago Kid

In My Mind – BJ The Chicago Kid

His breakthrough began in 2012 with his self-released album Pineapple Now-Laters which later led to him signing with Motown Records that same year. The album was a study of BJ’s person as a whole – exploring areas of his life with a diverse set of sonic formulas and melodic excellence. The 2016 follow up, In My Mind, was a showcase of a man who could not only roll with the classics but also vibe with the now.

Garnering him three Grammy nominations, In My Mind was a massive step and door opener for BJ as he continues to trailblaze and collaborate with some with of the industries greats like Chance The Rapper, Kanye West, and more.

Atwood Magazine sat down with BJ and discussed his latest tracks (a three-song collection entitled The Opening Ceremony, released 5/11/2018 via Motown Records), singing at Obama’s farewell speech, and, of course, his favorite Chicago style pizza.

BJ The Chicago Kid © T. Harrison Hillman

BJ The Chicago Kid © T. Harrison Hillman

A CONVERSATION WITH BJ THE CHICAGO KID

Atwood Magazine: To start off, I want to talk about the three new tracks you just dropped. I found them to be so smooth and sensual, very reminiscent of Pineapple Now-Laters, especially on the track “Rather Be With You.” Do you think this slower style will be a big theme for you on the next album?

BJ: It’s not necessarily a slower style, it’s just more of me trying to tap into what the fans love. I had the time and experience to hear from what my fans love and what is authentic to them and what can draw them into me more. It’s just an ongoing study, you know? I love the slow music and I love this style and it’s just an evolution of what we do. I’m always excited for it, so that’s what those three songs are all about.

With the track, “Nothin into Something” I think your vocals are a big focal point, and they sound so lush and truly shine in my opinion. Should fans expect to see more personal tracks like this in the future?

BJ: Yeah, definitely. I’m a vocalist, man, and I want to showcase that and I’m here to give my fans the best level of that as possible, you know? I’m very much into enjoying the ride of the song vocally, so some of it is chill and some of it is moving and I really like to draw myself into that.

Listen: ‘The Opening Ceremony’ – BJ The Chicago Kid

You have such a powerful voice that is easily recognizable, and it’s coupled with such beautiful lyrics. What does the writing process look like for you?

BJ: Honestly I try to make the process as smooth as possible (laughter). I try to go with the flow, you know? Whatever comes to me first – whether it’s the verse, the hook, or if it’s in the background, you know? I just go with whatever comes first and then I go from there. Sometimes I have a concept sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I sit there and listen to the music and vibe with it.

An example would be the song from Pineapple Now-Laters,Aiight.” It all started with the singing. The “ahhhs” and “oooohs” and just went from there. I had no lyrics so I just laid all harmonies down first and then the lyrics were going to come later. I go with knowing and trusting that the rest will come along.

Your involvement with the church and your religion has played a big role in your life. How has your experience, being so heavily involved in the church and the choir, influenced the tone, themes, and sounds of your work?

BJ: That’s the birth of it. The church teaches you of the tone and teaches you how to use utilize it, how to harmonize, and how to sing in unison. It teaches you how to work well with others. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself and you have to trust others so you don’t sing out of key. It’s so you don’t strain yourself or crack your voice or keep trying to hear yourself over the music.

So many techniques only happened from that field, you know what I’m saying? It was the best training that I could possibly ever have. The same thing with musicians that travel the world with everybody from Kendrick Lamar to J Cole, you know? Those cats played in church and it’s the same type of experience, so it was the best training for our future which we didn’t know how big it would be (laughter).

BJ The Chicago Kid © T. Harrison Hillman

BJ The Chicago Kid © T. Harrison Hillman

You've mentioned working well with others, and you definitely embody that with your amazing collaborations. I'm wondering, what are some dream collaborations that you still have in mind?

BJ: I would love to work with Cee Lo Green. He’s a huge, huge, huge, huge inspiration to me. Missy Elliott is also a huge inspiration to me. Man uhh, Little Dragon.  There’s just so many people oh my God I could keep going. D’Angelo of course. Who else? There’s just so many people on my list (laughter).

Working with Little Dragon interest me. You both have varying styles, and you’ve covered two tracks of theirs before, so what makes you want to work with someone with their style?

BJ: The mindset I have with music is I want to see myself in their music and in their style. There are certain things that remind you of what you love in other artists and that remind you of your own influences and, also, sharing their own influences. It’s so cool how the dot connecting happens and being inspired from another artist.

Like you said, I’ve covered two of their songs before and I’ve always been a fan of Little Dragon from the production, lyrics, and from her voice.  I think her voice is extremely soulful (laughter). I don’t think people understand how soulful her voice really is. And she has different elements to showcase other levels of that but I just see myself in her music, man.

You’ve discussed before how your mentality is very much moving forward and dwelling little on the past and of the opinions of others. What ways has this helped your progress as an artist? Has it been a hindrance in any way?

BJ: Nah, man. Some people die looking for that verification and to hear that “that was dope, that was good” and they end up dying not knowing how amazing they were. But it’s always nice showing appreciation and telling that to your friends because you might never know what they think of you, but if you tap into them that could inspire them to tell that to their peers. Showing appreciation is one of the coolest things we as human beings can do – in and outside of music.

I’m just really big on appreciating people. I’ve had people help me when I’ve had nothing to give them. I’ve had people help me when I couldn’t pay them. I’ve had people help just out of the kindness of their heart, and I think that makes the world go round – good people make the world go round.

Showing appreciation is one of the coolest things we as humans can do.

In the past, you’ve stated falling in love is losing popularity – do you still see love struggling in this generation?

BJ: I think it has taken a few steps back, but it definitely is still alive. I have friends my age and younger married and with beautiful children, having a beautiful life. And, you know, receiving the ups and downs like any other human being would, but they’re taking that choice to be happy, you know what I’m saying? That’s huge, man. Beautiful. I sing for that very reason, man. To have someone to share your life with, bro, is beautiful. That’s why we are here, man.

You’ve mentioned Raphael Saadiq being a role model for you, and I think it shows with both of you sharing such gorgeous love ballads, but who else do you see as an inspiration or mentor?

BJ: There’s a lot out there, man. Donell Jones and his albums are still freaking amazing to this day. The “Where I Wanna Be” album is such a classic R&B album. Someone’s head is gonna pop up anytime you play it, and the “My Heart” album is an awesome example of that as well. And, for this guy, I’m only speaking of the music, not anything personal, but R. Kelly has undeniable musical talent. Personally, I won’t go there, but musically I respect his game. His music game is crazy (laughter). I mean, his music is probably a big cause for the population nowadays (laughter).

BJ The Chicago Kid

BJ The Chicago Kid

With all of the backup singing and writing for others you have done, how do you feel it has impacted your own work?

BJ: I’m a sponge wherever I go, and that’s a good thing or a bad thing (laughter). But being an artist, you have to live a little more on the edge than others. We sing, we perform off of our own experiences, but if you’re one of those artists that just sings whatever is given to you on that piece of paper then that’s another subject. But for the people who don’t, it’s a big part of the creative process.

Back to the sponge comment, do you find that you’ve had to overcome obstacles because of it?

BJ: Every experience for one person is not for you, you know? So sometimes you just have to leave the bones and take the meat, you know what I’m saying? Sometimes it just takes trying something in order to figure out if it’s right for you or not. It could be a method of work, it could be a process, and it can be an actual way you create your product. I have my process and I go see other people and listen to their music and then I can be a part of their world and they can be a part of mine, and that’s part of the learning process for me.

So they have the items that customize their style, but you can also pick stuff up along the way that can be used and created into your style and into ways that are only for you. So my life is a combination of learning and gathering from other people to help me create my own recipe, so that’s how it goes. You might not make the spaghetti like your mom did, but it’s okay. You might add extra sauce or maybe oregano. It’s about cooking your dish your way – that’s what life is.

It’s about cooking your dish your way – that’s what life is.

I want to touch on singing at Obama’s farewell speech for a bit because I found it to be so amazing. What was going on in your mind when singing there and how does it compare to performing at one of your concerts?

BJ: Ah man I could have shit a brick – excuse my language – (laughter). Like, dude! I got there and it was this amazing feeling of what is happening and what was about to happen – to be a part of history. On that stage, I was good. As soon as I was off, I turned around and said, “What just happened?” (Laughter) Like, that’s when reality set it. My hands were shaking like I was getting ready to sing but I already sang. I did good with the nerves until I was done (laughter).

Huge blessing, huge opportunity, and an awesome time to show my family why I’ve been gone. It was an awesome validation and doctor’s note, you know? I’ve been trying, not knowing what’s to come, to tap into something great that just started with just me. And it’s so beautiful because of what else it has provided for others, like creative opportunities, employment, and so one. It’s amazing what happens when you just say to yourself, “I’m going to go do it.”

You have the US R&B tour coming up with Ro James – what can fans expect from it?

BJ: Honestly, man, I don’t want to give it away, but I hope they are ready. This is not a typical tour. We’re friends, so we’ve done a lot to promote this tour and make a well thought out detailed show. It’s a co-headline tour, so we’re sharing the stage at the same time. So that should erase anything that people think it will be. It’s not some DJ set, you know? So whatever expectations people have should be erased and that bar needs to be raised.

So, side note for me personally. I’m planning on heading to Chicago later this year, and I want your opinions on a place to get great Chicago style deep dish pizza.

BJ: (Laughter) No problem, I got you, bro. There are a lot of places go, and it’s like the Cubs vs the Sox’s, you know? But Giordano’s pizza was the first deep dish pizza I’ve ever had. Awesome. It has never let me down in my entire life. There’s also Lou Malnati’s, and theirs is a more different type of crust, still deep dish, but they have their own swag of presenting the same type of product in their own way, kind of like what we were talking about with that questions a few minutes back. Now, I love both, but Giordano’s is my place.

Lastly, what does the rest of 2018 look for you?

BJ: Releasing music and traveling, man. Just creating. I’m working on some movie soundtracks and things like that. There’s a lot that I’m doing but I want to take the time to express those in the correct manner as they grow and as I grow, you know?

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📸 © T. Harrison Hillman

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Adrian is a 2017 Florida State University graduate where he focused on editing, writing, and media. He is now living in Seattle. Adrian works as a digital marketer, but music and all that goes into it continues to be a passion of his. You may find Adrian wondering around the city aimlessly (more than likely lost) or at home watching anime, movies, or reading anything horror related. He can also make a dang good breakfast bagel sandwich.