Houston Music

Troubles Far Behind Him, Houston's Kay Jay Prepares to Seize the Moment

Kelly James, a.k.a. Kay Jay
Kelly James, a.k.a. Kay Jay Photo by Don Lee/Courtesy of Kay Jay
When Paul Wall and Baby Bash were recently arrested on felony drug charges, Kelly James — better known in Houston music circles as Kay Jay — took to Facebook with a message of reassurance.

“For everyone that has been hitting me up about Paul Wall and Baby Bash.. i was not with them!! I'm okay and they will be as well…” he wrote.

James knew his followers might have questions since just two weeks earlier, the video for his new song, “Live For Today,” debuted. The video features Wall and was released as a sneak peek at Kay Jay’s first full-length project, Seize the Moment, which bows January 27. Just yesterday, James announced the release party will be held at Fitzgerald’s that same night.

The album isn't just ten tracks worth of new Houston music, though. It’s a chronicle of overcoming daunting obstacles that included James’s own run-ins with the law. With so much to look forward to this year, he quickly quelled the concerns of those who support him.

Photo by Don Lee/Courtesy of Kay Jay

“I went to prison for two separate cases that ran concurrent for six years, exhibition of a firearm on a school campus and accessory to aggravated robbery," he says. "I was locked up a total of five years, five months and spent the remaining seven months on an ankle monitor after I got out, in November of 2010. While in TDCJ, I took vocational computer trades and enrolled in college, which allowed me to move around Texas to pass my time quicker while furthering my education. I was on five different units over four years.

“Prison was definitely one of the most impactful events of my life," adds James. "Being away from your family with no freedom has a way of really making you re-evaluate your life. Although it definitely helped get me on the right path, I would have to say that my mother dying from cancer and [my] almost dying as well in 2012 from my drug addiction was what really contributed to my current success.”

James’s success is more than just the audience he built by way of It’s Never Too Late and Tees, Trees and MP3s, a pair of well-received mixtapes that established him as an authentic Houston musician. He says he taught himself to write music while incarcerated, but it wasn’t his first choice for entrepreneurial success.

“When I was released from prison, I instantly enrolled in college with the help of a grant while working with one of my best friends at his manufacturing company, Caught In Customs," he says. "It was there that I was inspired to start making my own clothing designs and eventually came up with c10ud. c10ud represents ‘One above the rest” and signifies to stay lifted, mentally and spiritually, above bullshit and drama.”

Photo by Don Lee/Courtesy of Kay Jay
It wasn’t easy, he notes. His legal troubles stemmed from a drug addiction, which manifested itself again momentarily after his mother died. He needed a year away from school to get past those harrowing events, and graduated last May. The clothing brand helped open a door on his new career, he thinks.

“Constantly being around artists while trying to push my brand motivated me to get back involved with my music," says James. "I felt like the 'new' Houston scene was still missing something and was hoping that I could bring some positive, motivational music with a street twist to the scene.”

He was encouraged by reviews of the mixtapes and last November he played his first live show, a well-received set at Houston Whatever Fest. It was quite a long way from the first rap songs he remembered hearing — “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This.” James listened to Eminem to learn to freestyle, he says, but like most native Houstonians, he too found his heart belonged to local legends like Chamillionaire, Z-Ro and Slim Thug. These are the rappers who inspire his sound today, he vows; some are featured on Seize, including Wall and Devin Tha Dude as well as Scotty ATL and MC Gringo. James tabbed a pair of Houston producers, TrakkSounds and Jon Z, to ensure that “this album would be all bangers, no fillers.”

The first video from the album is for “Live For Today.” It’s no surprise James has a plan for the perfect “last day,” were he ever to face such a moment.

“If I only had one more day to live, I’d make sure all my family and good friends knew I loved them and appreciate them for believing in me. I’d put on my favorite Gucci outfit, go out and grab a badass steak and lobster meal, get a full spa treatment, go to my favorite club that would only play all my favorite music, contact the woman I have always had the biggest crush on and tell her we only have today, so it’s now or never,” he laughed. “And then, whether that’s successful or not, I will then end the night skydiving. Although it is my biggest fear and adrenaline rush, I would love to end it in the clouds, to where even if I died, people could say I stayed lifted, one above the rest.”

Beyond the album release, Kay Jay has already been asked to perform at a Fight Time Promotions mixed martial arts event in Florida in February, an encore of sorts to the show he performed for 2,500 at the organization’s December event. As a fighter who has never let life’s difficulties derail him, he’s a perfect fit.

For now, he’s squarely focused on Seize the Moment. The album title is obvious, and is at least partially “inspired by a huge tattoo across my chest that can somewhat be seen on my album cover," he says. "I got the tattoo right when I got home knowing that I was about to chase my dreams and would eventually come to that stage in my life where I will have to seize every great moment and live it to the fullest!

“The album is full of different songs that tell the story of me getting out and overcoming obstacles and stereotypes," he adds. "It is set to inspire others to never give up and to show that no matter how many trials and tribulations one faces, it is never too late to rise above them all to become the best person God intends for you to be.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.