We recently caught up with legendary producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we touched on how he originally got his start as a producer, his hits through his career for the likes of Brandy, Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child, Michael Jackson, Joe, Toni Braxton & More, as well as developing his new artist Jac Ross.
Rodney Jerkins: I was a kid in high school making music locally. Doing as many demos as I could possibly do. I was from a small town, not too far from Atlantic City, New Jersey, there were no outlets there. I would find myself catching the bus to New York to get my demos heard. One day I was in my dad’s basement and I wrote this super cheesy letter. I saw a name on the back of Father MC’s album, it was James Jones Jr., he was the A&R director. I wrote this cheesy letter with this cassette tape that had like 10 tracks on it. I had this demo and I sent this cassette tape to Uptown Records, addressed to James Jones. The music industry doesn’t take unsolicited material, but I figured I’d give it a shot. Next thing you know, I got a call the next day. It was the A&R from Uptown Records. He told me he had a box and always put the cassettes into a box, but for some reason, something told him to check this out. When he heard it, he liked it. He asked me to come up to Uptown Records the next day. They had everybody from Guy to Mary J. Blige, Heavy D., Puff Daddy. I was 16 years old! James Jones asked me if I would be willing to be an in house producer and do work at Uptown Records. I literally left high school and was up in Hackensack, NJ staying with James, going to Uptown Records every day. I was working with artists like Horace Brown who was the new artist up there that everybody was talking about. It was basically the first time I actually had a time to be in the New York City area and feel the vibe. I remember being at James’ office like when am I going to meet Andre Harrell. I’d be waiting for him to walk by. Next thing you know, I got a glimpse of him. He came into the office and said “So James said you that new hot flava from Jersey!” I was just so happy to be in his presence. It’s funny man, thinking back when I had an opportunity to play my music for Andre. Through the years he would call me and tell me about records that I was working on what he loved about them. We had this incredible chemistry because he had such a passion for music beyond anyone else I’ve met. His passion, if you think Puffy has passion for music, just think that Andre was the father of that. We all got that swag from Andre! If you were in New York in those times, you understood what Andre was to music. He’s going to be missed dearly, all of our conversations. He gave me my shot in so many ways, even when I wanted to work on movies. I working on a movie called “Honey” and that was his movie. He always believed in people. He would always speak life into people.
YouKnowIGotSoul: That time must have been such an amazing learning experience for you, because a few years later you were working with Mary J. Blige, and then came with Joe’s “Don’t Wanna Be a Player”. What was that era like for you?
Rodney Jerkins: I think it was a natural progression from the basement to the big stage. Doing records in your basement locally and everybody telling you that it sounds like it should be on radio. Then getting the opportunity produce for those artists and getting on radio. It’s just a blessing. Working with Joe and doing “Don’t Wanna Be a Player”. Again, I remember in my dad’s basement creating that track, and singing that hook. We were playing pool and I started singing it. It just came to me. Little did I know, I sent it to my publisher, and he said Joe wanted to cut it. He wanted me to come up to Joe’s house next week. I was with Joe a week later and we did this record. From there, Mary J. Blige was right after that. I did “I Can Love You”, “Searching”, “Can’t Get You Off My Mind”, on the “Share My World” album. That whole album was just amazing to be a part of. It was like another evolution of Mary J. Blige. I’m just blessed to be able to say I worked with so many incredible artists in my journey, it’s amazing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: In 1998 you had Brandy’s “Never Say Never”. That album from top to bottom, even the album cuts could have been singles. Talk about the creation of that album.
Rodney Jerkins: That was another situation where somebody believed in me, Paris Davis. I’ll never forget getting the call from him after he heard the Mary J. Blige stuff and loving it. He invited me to come meet Brandy when I was in L.A. I met Brandy and the next day we were in the studio and stayed in the studio 5 straight days. In those 5 days, we did “Learn The Hard Way”, “Never Say Never”, “Happy”, “I Put That on Everything”, all of these records consecutively. It became a cool journey. “Never Say Never” was built on a cliché book in the studio and we drafted all these titles from clichés. We just built an incredible camp around the project. It was the coming out. What I always wanted to do was be a producer who wasn’t just known for making a record that hit the top of the charts, which is great. I wanted to be a producer known as creating a body of work. I remember looking up to producers like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for what they did with Janet, and DeVante Swing what he did with Jodeci, and I would listen to those albums and decide that’s what I want to do. I wanted to make records where you fell in love with and heard the journey of the artists from beginning to end. The intro is just as important as the song, the outro is just as important. Once I got Brandy to believe in that vision, then we just locked in and created this incredible team around her project, and the rest is history.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The song “Angel in Disguise” we’ve always felt is amazing. How did Joe get on that record?
Rodney Jerkins: I felt like we needed Joe. It was like the song was great and everybody was feeling the vibe of the song, it was completely different from anything anybody had done. I think that line was just needed. Also, the cleverness in that is the fact that you even know that. It’s just a one phrase line by Joe, it’s not a featured record with him throughout the song. But that’s what made it unique and special, we could bring artists who are amazingly talented and give them a job and not much from it. It just adds that color we needed to that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: It was also interesting how you brought that back on Brandy’s song “It’s Not Worth It“ from the “Full Moon” album!
Rodney Jerkins: That was funny because I felt like that song was the continuation of the production of “Angel in Disguise”, so I said we had to bring Joe back one more time. It was funny because it was actually in a different key, so I had to pitch that on in the key of “That’s Not Worth It”.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You also worked on Whitney Houston’s album that year. On the song “Get It Back”, was that Brandy singing the background vocals?
Rodney Jerkins: On Whitney Houston’s records, I was using a girl named Toni Estes for background vocals. Of course Whitney herself as well.
YouKnowIGotSoul: So right after the success you had with Whitney and Brandy, “Say My Name” comes out which you produced for Destiny’s Child. That sounds totally different from the others. Take us through that process.
Rodney Jerkins: For me, I get bored too quick! Because it was all happening so fast, from 95-98, it was like record after record after record. I just got bored with my own sound. I wanted to do something different. I caught some inspiration in London, working with The Spice Girls. They took me out to this club and I heard this DJ spinning this two step type of sound, which was huge in the clubs. I wanted to try to implement it into what I do. This DJ made me a CD and I studied it on my whole flight back. The first song that I worked on when I got back was “Say My Name”. That two step garage sound, you don’t hear it too much on the song now, but if you heard the original version, it was all that UK garage sound. I flipped it later on, but that’s where the inspiration came from for that, and it gave me the next breadth in my sound.
YouKnowIGotSoul: As the new millennium started, you were working with Toni Braxton, Michael Jackson, and gave them totally different sounds for them. Like “He Wasn’t Man Enough” for Toni Braxton.
Rodney Jerkins: That song comes from L.A. Reid. He challenged me during Christmas that year, and said he needed me to go into the studio on Christmas Eve. They were going away on break, and he wanted me to send him a song that he could play for Toni. When we got into the studio, L.A. said, “Everybody knows Toni to be the new Anita Baker, I need her to have people wanting to dance to her music!” I like it better when you challenge me. I took that as a challenge to bring a new sound to her. Little did I know a year later, she was winning a Grammy for the record.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How about Michael Jackson’s “Invincible” album. How did you approach that album?
Rodney Jerkins: I’ve always had this dream of working with Michael Jackson, that was my dream as a teenager. I believed I would and I prayed to God to bring me that blessing and it took place. I didn’t want to just be another producer that worked with him, but one that added a unique sound to Michael. What I wanted to bring to Michael was the groove. I felt like Michael was making great records, but the stuff I loved about Michael was the groove, and I wanted to bring that back to him. So when I worked with Michael, I was probably about 21 years old. For me, it was really how can I bring something fresh and cool but still mature enough for him. That’s what I wanted to do with that record. It’s not me alone, I had a great team of people. We had a studio full of talented people. Lashawn Daniels, Fred Jerkins, Nora Payne, Harvey Mason Jr., Bernard Bell. We had literally so many people that were working throughout this project. It was really, really an amazing time for myself and my career.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Next let’s touch on the work you did on Brandy’s “Full Moon” album.
Rodney Jerkins: That was simultaneous with Michael Jackson! I was working on it in the next room. I was doing two projects at the same time. I was bringing a lot of what I learned from working with Michael to Brandy. If you listen to “Full Moon”, it was nothing like “Never Say Never”. It was how can we be innovative and creative and do something completely different that people will appreciate for years to come. Brandy of course wanted to challenge herself with new tones in her voice which was great. We just went into the studio and it was just happening. We worked night and day between two rooms. It was an amazing time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Take us through the creation of the Brandy song “When You Touch Me”. That song is a journey from beginning to end.
Rodney Jerkins: That started with my cousin Big Bert. I used to have a studio, the F room in Miami. My cousin was in the booth, and he had a setup with speakers and a keyboard in the booth. I walked into the booth and asked him what he was working on, he pressed play, and it was dope. We start to build on “When You Touch Me”. There was a girl by the name of Kenisha Pratt. She was a songwriter who pretty much was the glue to “Full Moon”. She was an intricate part to “What About Us?” and “When You Touch Me”. Then also Teddy Riley was finishing up something for Michael, and he had this studio bus outside of The Hit Factory in Miami. I knocked on the door of the bus and told him I needed him to do Talk Box on this record. I walked on the bus and played “When You Touch Me”, and if you listen, you can hear Teddy Riley on Talk Box. Things came together, the way it happened was just amazing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You mentioned the “Honey” soundtrack earlier, and you had the Blaque song “I’m Good” on there. That was the era when you created this sound that we still love to this day. These crazy bridges you had going on, the hard knocking drums.
Rodney Jerkins: As you get older, you just look for new things to try. So from that soundtrack and doing “Honey” for Blaque, then came the whole Megan Rochell and J. Holiday and then Beyonce “Déjà Vu”, and “Cater 2 U” and “Lose My Breath”. I’ve always been a believer of song, and I believe in the journey of a song. The journey of a song should take you on a complete ride. I’ve never been good at giving a 4-8 bar loop. I want to add colors and things that hit you. In the second verse you might hear something you didn’t hear in the first verse. The second chorus might have something not in the first chorus. Then with the bridge I want to take you to a new city, and in order for us to get to the new city, I’ve got to take you on this bridge to take you there. I treat my records like life. If you want to go on this journey and this new place, we’ve got to cross this bridge. That’s what I love to do.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about the Ray-J song “One Wish”. The way you and Lashawn put that together was amazing. We never heard Ray-J sing that high!
Rodney Jerkins: It’s funny because when Lashawn and I did that, we did that at my home in Florida. We brought Ray-J to Florida to do the record. Even Ray-J in the beginning said it was too high. We told him to push and go for it. That’s what we did. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re just trying. The way to get to success is to try. You don’t take a shot, you won’t get there.
YouKnowIGotSoul: R&B had changed so much in the late 2000’s but you were still pushing forward. You did Janet’s album, and were bringing new sounds. What was your approach during that time, when R&B was no longer at the forefront?
Rodney Jerkins: I believe you have to pivot. I encourage any producer and any songwriter, you have to adjust in times. You can’t be stuck in one way. If you’re stuck, you’ll be left there. As music started to evolve and R&B started feeling like it wasn’t a place for it anymore, and pop really started taking over, all I wanted to do was urban pop. It was pretty much the same mindset. I was going to do pop records, but I was going to make sure my drums were still hard, I’m still having 808’s and chord structures and bridges. If you listen to records like “Telephone” by Lady Gaga and Beyonce, I gave Gaga her world to breathe in, but also Beyonce her world to breathe in. That’s why the beat switches when Beyonce comes in. I’m staying true to the artist.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve helped to groom so many producers over the years and bring them to the spotlight. Harvey Mason, Adonis, Makeba, D’Mile, Camper, Harmony. What’s the importance of doing that?
Rodney Jerkins: I think it says something to my ears, to me being able to find talent when they’re young and being able to help be out there. I’m pretty good at seeing talent early on. I had Rico Love early on too. Just vibing with people like you mentioned. Just incredible young talent. These are guys who were in my studio 24/7 and learned the system and the way we work. We would do things I don’t think people even fathom. We would do songwriting camps where we did 30 songs in two days! Full songs, verse and bridge. It’s because when you have incredible talent, it sparks creativity among each other. We begin to just gel and then you have people that have fresh perspective. I embrace that and say let’s try it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your new artist Jac Ross.
Rodney Jerkins: I think he’s the voice of a generation, I think the most amazing voice that I’ve discovered. When I found him, it gave me new inspiration. When I heard his voice, I thought we hadn’t heard a voice like this in years. It was fresh. I’m so excited for Jac Ross and I want to thank you guys for the support. Jac Ross is the truth. You’re going to love this kid. He’s special.
YouKnowIGotSoul: In a time when vocals aren’t appreciated like they once were, how do you break an artist like Jac Ross?
Rodney Jerkins: People have got accustomed to auto tune and digitizing vocals. But, when something comes along fresh and breaks the barrier, that’s my motivation. I want to break the sound barrier and what we’ve been used to for the last 15 years. Now we can try to get back to just the raw element. I’m going to make you feel what I have. I’m not worried about the sound of what’s going on, I’m worried about bringing something new to the world right now.