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Rodney Jerkins Passing the Freshness Test

Posted in MusicWorld on October 31, 1999 by

At age 22, Rodney Jerkins has been accused of having the "Midas Touch." There's no question that this young artist/producer is on the fast track. You can see it in the elegant, million-dollar home he recently purchased and the Lamborghini sitting in his driveway.

Yet in talking to him, you get a sense that the fancy trappings don't really matter. His soul is connected to a higher authority. "I pray a lot," says Rodney. "Looking at Christ first is what inspires me. I pray, 'God, give me a creative mind today. Give me something fresh and new that the world wants to hear.' That's what inspires me, nothing else."

His father, an Evangelical pastor, may have something to do with Rodney's deep religious beliefs. Certainly, he - and the church - were partially responsible for Rodney's love of music. As a young boy, sitting in the church pews, Rodney was mesmerized by what he heard. "I just wanted to listen to my father and my brother play," he says. "The way they played - I wanted to play like them."

At the age of 5, Rodney started piano lessons. It was a family tradition, and Rodney, as the youngest son, was the last to begin. By age 12, he had branched out to gospel and jazz. The early classical training stays with him today, surfacing even in his R&B compositions.

Rodney craved sounds that were different, even though he had to sneak around to listen to secular music. "I used to listen to a lot of Teddy Riley's stuff. It was just a sound that was totally different from the sound that was out. I was digging something new, part of a new generation. When you hear something different, it's new information to your ear. I loved it and I was into it and I followed that style."

At about age 14, he knew that this was what he wanted to do with his life. "I was doing a lot of demos for people in the area, rap demos," explains Rodney. "Every chance I got I would work on music. A lot of people thought I was crazy - even my family. They said, 'That's all you do is music, music, music. You've got to do something else'." But Rodney wouldn't be deterred.

"I could feel something happening when I turned 14," he says. "My confidence level changed. I wasn't doing music as a hobby. I knew I was going to be successful at it."

That's about the time when he met his idol, Teddy Riley. "My parents and I waited for him in his parking lot," Rodney explains with a smile. "When he finally showed up, I went over to his car and was pulled off by his bodyguards." He reenacts the scene of when Teddy tells the guards to "let him go, he's a kid." Then, his eyes soften as he recounts the next part.

"He took us into his building and showed me and my mother and father so much love," recalls Rodney. "I got to play my music for him and he loved it." Teddy became an unofficial mentor to Rodney, showing him what Rodney calls "the world": houses, cars, signs of success. "He gave us a lot of information when we first started - what to do, what not to do, who to talk to, who not to talk to."

Yet as much as Rodney revered Teddy, he refused the contract offered to work with him. "A lot of people would sign a contract thinking they would get that world, but we were just a little bit more cautious. We wanted to take our time with this. We wanted to build our own empire. I loved Teddy to death and I felt at the time that I was young and if he felt that I was hot then, in five years, he would think I'm really hot."

The encounter with Teddy caused a change in Rodney's family: They realized he had the potential for a successful career in music, and began to help him do whatever it took to make it.

First, Rodney made a gospel album with his brother Fred Jerkins III, known to the family as Freddie. "It was a gospel rap album called On the Move," says Rodney, who performed on the album. We didn't want to do it to go gold or platinum. We wanted to do it to get used to the production skill." The brothers recorded it in the little set-up in Fred's home. And it sold out locally.

"After that it was like, do I really want to be a rapper, singer or producer? I love rapping. I love being a performer, but God really started moving in my life when I'm writing, the production aspect, telling people how to make it better. That's what I started doing. I started working more and more on my sound, the 'Darkchild' sound."

"I was looking for a name to reflect my music, which had a lot of minor chords - a dark sound. And because people called me a kid, I thought of combining the two," says Rodney. The name was officially incorporated when Rodney was only 17.

He then signed a worldwide publishing deal with EMI Publishing. That moved Rodney, with his family, into a bigger, nicer house. It also got him better production equipment. "I started shooting for artists like Vanessa Williams. I went for it; I got it. I did a lot of remixes. You have to start at the bottom and work your way to the top and that's what I did," he says.

Rodney described his climb to the top in baseball terminology: "I hit a double. So I'm in the game now. And then the thing is the follow-up. Because the next time I'm up, I want to hit a triple or home run. And then came 'Don't Wanna Be A Player' by Joe. That song went gold and I think I hit a triple. And then came Mary J. Blige and I did a lot of work with her. I think I hit a home run.

"Then, I had the chance to work with Brandy. Now the bases are loaded. And if I hit this ball right, we could either win the game and I could take this to the World Series, or if I miss, I lose the game. You got to start over and try to get back on base again. We did . . . almost the whole album. If we hit, anything after that was just smooth sailing. If we missed, people were going to say they did a whole album and nothing hit." He smiled proudly as he remembered Brandy's phone conversation telling him they had hit number one. "We hit a home run."

Rodney works on a regular basis with superstars from Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston to the Spice Girls and even Shaquille O'Neal. He rarely sleeps, and calls the four hours he gets each night "cat naps." Yet he seems very pleased with his lifestyle, which allows a break only for church on Sundays. Maybe that's why he remains grounded, and doesn't drink or smoke.

He gets his kicks out of composing: "I sit at the piano and play around until something strikes - I can hear when it strikes. If it sounds like something catchy that will be remembered, then I go with it. It's very difficult keeping sounds fresh and new. That's what people have to realize. It's hardest to be hot and stay hot because there's always something new that's coming."

As part of that quest, Rodney channels his energies toward his new label, Darkchild Records, under Sony Music Entertainment. He is most excited about two new groups he's signed, So Plush and Rhona Bennett.

As for the future, Rodney may work in films, doing scores or soundtracks. "I feel like right now is my time," he says, "and I don't feel like it's going to stop for a while. I want to be the best in the world. I don't want to be compared to nobody. I want to be in a class of my own."

By Felicia Lowenstein