MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time, we talk to Rodney Jerkins aka Darkchild, who has written and/or produced huge hits for decades, working with the likes of Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Madonna, Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
There is very little room for doubt in Rodney Jerkins’ life. Never has been.
“From the age of 10, I knew exactly what I was going to do; didn’t even consider anything else.”
His phrasing, as you’d expect from a man who has written some of the greatest (and biggest) R&B/pop hits in the last 25 years, is well chosen: “what I was going to do” – not the wishy-washy, mere mortal “wanted to do”.
There was a different type of certainly about music throughout Jerkins’ childhood: the definite divide between what could be listened to at home, and what he was discovering on the sly.
“Secular music was forbidden in our house, so at nine or ten, I would have to sneak out to listen to other music: Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Earth Wind & Fire, The Bee Gees, and then the whole New Jack Swing era, all the stuff produced by Teddy Riley, those were the records and artists that inspired me. At home the only two artists I listened to were [contemporary gospel artists] The Winans and Commissioned.”
The spirituality behind one and the stature of another laid down the twin tracks of Jerkins’ future life and career, one that has seen him write for and with artists including Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Madonna, Brandy, Sam Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Janet Jackson, Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls.
And the certainty remains. “I bet on myself. And if that means a whole year you’re not in the charts or a whole year you’re not on the radio, well that’s the risk, that’s the bet – but you carry on believing. Stay disciplined, stay focused on your craft and there will be huge rewards. There is no multiple that compares to the multiples that I’ve received when I’ve bet on myself.”
It started to happen when I was about 14 and I had an opportunity to play my music for Teddy Riley. At that time Teddy Riley was probably the hottest producer in the States. I got this opportunity to play him my music and he really liked it; hearing him say that gave me the extra push to pursue it.
How did that opportunity come about?
There was a local band in New Jersey, I had written and produced their demo, and they met Teddy Riley at the Impact convention in Atlantic City, he listened to the demo and said, ‘Tell whoever produced this that he’s really good.’ I took the initiative and said to my father, ‘Come on, let’s go meet Teddy Riley; his studio’s in Virginia Beach, let’s drive down there.’
We got on the road for six hours and we ended up in his parking lot, waiting for Teddy Riley. He finally showed up, I went up to him and asked him if I could play my music for him and he said yes.
So despite initially being allowed to play church music at home, at this stage your father has become supportive of your ambitions?
Yeah, I think once he heard the music I was creating, he started to realise, Okay, my son has a gift, and I need to stand behind that gift and whatever he wants to pursue.
Did you always see your career evolving more behind the scenes than in the spotlight?
In my early teenage years I was an artist as well, but when I got into writing and producing for other artists, I kind of wanted to be the person behind the scenes, helping other people grow rather than be the one in the limelight. I never craved the limelight; I wanted to make my name as someone who helped other people achieve their goals.
Is that to do with what you enjoy or is it part of your personality?
I think it’s my personality, y’know, if a guy is wide open, give them the ball, let them take the shot and let them shine.
How did you parlay Teddy Riley’s approval into a career in the business?
That happened when I was about 16. I sent a tape to a guy who used to work at Uptown Records, named James Jones, he liked it and I ended up moving in with him at Hackensack, New Jersey, working with him. One of my first sessions was with Patti LaBelle.
How important has independence and autonomy been to you from the beginning, rather than being tied to a certain label or studio?
I was offered those deals early on, I was offered a deal when I was 13 to work at a studio in Atlantic City; I turned that down. I was offered to sign to Teddy Riley’s company; I turned that down. I was offered to sign to Sean Combs’ company, Bad Boy, to be one of his producers; I turned that down.
“Most people in life look for stability, but I’ve learned that my stability is in God.”
I think that was just the entrepreneurial spirit in me at an early age – like if I could do it on my own, I gotta take that chance. For me it’s always been about taking risks on myself.
Most people in life look for stability, but I’ve learned that my stability is in God.
Which were the songs and projects that then elevated you to the level where you really started to get noticed?
When I was around 19, I got to work with Mary J Blige on her Share My World album [1997, No. 1 and triple-Platinum in the US], and then It’s Not Right But It’s Okay [by Whitney Houston, 1998, No. 1 in 10 countries, No. 4 in the US] and The Boy is Mine [by Brandy & Monica, 1998, No. 1 in the US, No. 2 in the UK], then writing and producing the majority of Brandy’s Never Say Never album [1998, No. 2 in the US, global sales of 10m+, Jerkins co-wrote 10 of the 16 tracks].
Then pushing forward with Say My Name by Destiny’s Child [1999, US No. 1, two Grammys], Jenifer Lopez’s If You Have My Love [1999, US No. 1], Toni Braxton’s He Wasn’t Man Enough [2000, US US No. 2, UK No. 5], Michael Jackson’s Rock My World [2001, Jackson’s last US Top 10 before his death]. That spell was back-to-back-to-back-to-back hit records.
You were still a very young man at that point, and you’re working with the calibre of artists you mentioned there; was any of it intimidating for you?
Nah, I remember my first time working with Mary J Blige, it was like, Wow, I’m in a room with a superstar, but once I was in there, Okay, let me do what I do and let me try and bring the best out of you.
I’ve never been one to have any doubts or fears; if anything I get more confident in that environment.
What was working with Michael Jackson like [as well as Rock My World, Jerkins wrote six tracks on parent album, Invincible, 2001, a No. 1 in the US and UK]?
That was amazing. Going back to what I just said, I gotta say, that was probably the only intimidating moment of my career.
I live and breathe confidence, but when I got into a room with Michael, y’know, I’m there with the King of Pop. But then after I got into a rhythm with him, and we became friends, it became easier and easier.
I learned so much from working with Michael; that was like college for me. He taught me so much about creativity and song writing and production – so many jewels and gems I will never forget. I utilize all those tools to this day.
Which of your songs are you proudest of?
I think there are three which I can be certain will stand the test of time.
One is The Boy Is Mine by Brandy & Monica, that will always live on. And it was my first No. 1.
Then Say My Name by Destiny’s Child. That is my favorite song that I ever produced. I’d been working in London with The Spice Girls and this was the first track that I created when I got back to the States. So many people to this day sing that song back to me.
And another song that’s becoming a classic right now is Michael Jackson’s Rock My World. Unfortunately, back when it came out, there was no real marketing for that album [Invincible]. He didn’t really promote it. But now that song is growing and growing, all over the world.
Of course there are more than those three that I’m proud of, but I’ll pick those ones out for you.
You mentioned the Spice Girls, and sometimes you are asked to work with very mainstream pop artists – is that something that you enjoy?
Yeah, it happens, you know. I worked with Lady Gaga, I worked with Justin Bieber, Pussycat Dolls, lots of different artists.
In the beginning I was only doing R&B, but then R&B started crossing over to pop and I started getting those phone calls. I’m always open to work with anyone, because I want that challenge.
How do you write? How do you start the process?
Always melody first. Whether that’s me on a piano, starting with a progression, or it’s me humming a melody and finding a progression to the melody, it’s almost always melody first.
Is that a less common starting point in the business these days?
I think you have a lot of people who start with beats, but I believe that melody is king and that it’s melody that lives on – more so than the beat.
What’s your approach to collaboration and the increasing number of names being credited to each track?
I think you evolve with the times. There was a period of time when it might have been one or two people in a studio, now you look at the charts and you see eight or 10 names on a song.
But sometimes people are just looking for a line that might be really special, that they couldn’t nail and someone else comes in and does what they couldn’t do. I would always support the collaborative effort.
How important is networking – and the role of a publisher – in this environment, where it’s about getting in the right room and getting the right collaborations?
Yeah, networking is important, and the person who cares about the songwriter, and the rights of the songwriter is the kind of person you want to align yourself with. Because I believe the songwriter is an artist in their own right. We have to understand: without the song, there is no artist. It all starts with a song.
So, with networking, make sure you align yourself with people who really care about songwriters.
You’ve obviously worked with some amazing artists, but are there some who you got close with but just missed out on?
Yeah, I was very close to working with Mick Jagger. When I was working with Michael, I met with Mick at the Plaza Hotel in New York, we talked about working together, but unfortunately it didn’t come to fruition because I was so busy with Michael’s project at that time. To this day I regret that.
Are there any current artists who you want to work with?
Yeah, I think every producer and songwriter looks at certain artists and says to themselves, Man, if I could get in a studio with them, I know I could do magic. I feel that way about Adele. I’ve always been really great working with female voices, and I just feel like if I ever had the opportunity then something special would come out of it.
The streaming services are great for our industry, because they allow a lot more entrepreneurship for artists, it allows them to be discovered, very quickly, and I love that.
Are songwriters being paid fairly by them? Absolutely not. And hopefully in years to come that will change.
There are people taking strong stances on it, and I believe that it is all gonna change. Give it some time, it won’t happen overnight, and of course everyone’s going to fight for themselves at the beginning, but I do believe that songwriters will eventually be paid fairly.
Because, as I say, the streaming services are great, but they need our songs to be great and to continue to be great.
Who are your favourite songwriters of all time?
For me it would be Rod Temperton, he was amazing. And Stevie Wonder is a genius. If you go back and dissect his style of writing, and see how he was able to have such simple discussions and conversations, but also be so intricate as well.
What would your advice be for young songwriters?
Perfect your gift. I believe that sometimes we don’t do enough research. We want to write and we want to make music, but we don’t want to take the time to study. Go back and study: Why was this song great in 1952? Why was this song great in 1960? What this song special in 1970? Why did people connect to those songs?
Study the sound of each decade, see how things change, but also look for similarities – what connects them?
I think that all goes towards perfecting your art. Before jumping in, take the time to study and perfect.
Although, it’s funny, I’m telling people to work hard, and I don’t believe I’ve ever worked a day in my life – because I love what do. The studio’s my playground.
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