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The Hitmaker

by Nicole Pensiero
When it comes to needing a bona fide smash record, the who’s who in the music industry turn to South Jersey native Rodney Jerkins.

It’s less than a week after Whitney Houston’s funeral, and South Jersey native and acclaimed record producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins is fondly remembering all the good times they shared.

Jerkins—who produced and co-wrote several songs for Houston’s 1999 comeback album, My Love Is Your Love—says the two shared a bond that went far beyond R&B music: a bond forged by their strong religious faith.

“Whitney and I were both raised in the church,” says the affable Pleasantville native, whose father is a minister there still. “And we were both deep in the church.”

So much so that Jerkins wasn’t totally surprised when Houston called him one Sunday morning several years ago and told him she’d be driving down from North Jersey to his father’s church for services. “I couldn’t believe it, but there she was. We introduced her, and she jumped up and sang a song,” Jerkins recalls. “That was such a real thing for Whitney to do and it’s such a precious memory for me.”

The Grammy Award-winning Jer­kins—who at age 34 has already been in the music industry for more than 17 years—has plenty of precious memories, and is “grateful for them all.”

“I have had an amazing, blessed life so far,” says Jerkins, who has been responsible for more than $170 million worth of record sales worldwide. “I’ve never lost my passion for what I do and I’m so grateful I have a gift I can use to create music and help other people reach their dreams.”

In addition to Houston, the go-to hitmaker has created works for countless stars, including Michael Jackson, Destiny’s Child (he was the writing and production force behind their massive 1999 hit “Say My Name,” which he says pushed his career “to an entirely new level”), Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani, Janet Jackson and Katy Perry to name a few. These days, he’s turning his attention to a new generation of stars that includes Justin Bieber, Nelly Furtado, Kelly Clarkson and Alicia Keys. In 2009, he co-wrote and produced Lady Gaga’s hit, “Telephone.”

Still, Jerkins gets a bit wistful talking about two of the biggest stars he knew, both now gone: Houston and Michael Jackson.

“Michael I met when I was 16,” Jerkins recalls. “I was producing his Invincible CD when I was, what, 21? He taught me more than any other artist and he was, by far, the greatest artist I’ve ever worked with. An absolute genius. Michael added so much to my career.”

And, Jerkins says, Jackson was a “regular person”—at least when he wanted to be. He recalls when the two were working on the Invincible album at Jerkins’ Darkchild studios, “right in Pleasantville, unbeknowst to the public,” when Jackson “grabbed a bike we had in the garage and started riding it outside the gate, along the road. Nobody even noticed him.”

Houston, meanwhile, had visited Jerkins only months before her death. The two were talking about collaborating on some new material for the troubled diva. “I was shocked and hurt when I heard she’d died,” Jerkins says. “It is just a tremendous loss.”

The producer never imagined his relentless passion for music would result in opportunities to work with musicians whose songs he grew up listening to, much less being able to help shape their careers. The youngest of four children born to the Rev. Fred Jerkins Jr. (who was his manager until 2007) and choir director Sylvia Jerkins, Rodney grew up surrounded by music. His talent—and outgoing nature—was evident at an early age. Once, as a a toddler on vacation with his parents in Disney World, Jerkins drew a crowd by dancing to the music of street musicians. He started piano lessons at 5, and before long, was singing and playing piano and drums at his father’s Evangelical Fellowship Church.

Before he’d even entered his teens, Jerkins had a growing awareness that music was moving “front and center” in his life. One clue to that reality came when he realized he’d rather stay inside with his music, “writing songs, creating songs,” than be outside playing basketball with his friends. “I was obsessed with music, pretty much always,” he says. “I didn’t have a master plan, but I knew pretty early in the game that music was my thing and was going stay my thing.”

At 13, Jerkins told his father he wanted to be a record producer; his dad, in turn, borrowed $1,900 from his life insurance to buy Rodney a drum machine and small keyboard. Shortly after, Rodney—with help from his older brother, Fred Jr. (who has worked with him on many production and songwriting projects through the years) put out his first album, a gospel rap.

The following year, Rev. Jerkins indulged his son’s growing fascination with the work of record producer Teddy Riley—creator of the “New Jack Swing” sound, a melding of R&B and hip-hop—by taking the family on vacation to Virginia Beach, Riley’s hometown.

“My dad and I must have sat in the car for something like seven hours outside Teddy Riley’s studio before he finally showed up,” Jerkins recalls with a laugh. “He invited us in and let me play some of my music for him.” It was the beginning of a friendship and mentorship that had Riley offering Jerkins a “minimum 150 grand” contract while he was still in the 10th grade. “I turned him down because I wanted to build my own production company, which I eventually did,” Jerkins recalls.

His teen years proved to be a dynamic launching point for this whiz-kid’s career. At 16, Jerkins began professionally producing records alongside Sean (then “Puffy”) Combs at Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records in New York. Before long, it was obvious homeschooling would enable Jerkins to keep up with his classmates at Absegami High School, while establishing him as a formidable talent in recording circles. At 17, Jerkins landed a $1.8 million publishing deal with EMI Records and “never looked back,” as he puts it.

With his first major financial success, the teenaged Jerkins did three important things: “I paid my tithes—10 percent—to the church; I bought my mom a Mercedes Benz and I bought my parents a new house in a neighborhood they always wanted to live in.

“I wasn’t this crazy, selfish kid. I always tried to do the right thing; think of others in my life.” As his renown grew, Jerkins’ nickname—“Darkchild”—began showing up on songs by artists he produced. Whitney Houston sung it; Toni Braxton purred it. Even Michael Jackson got in on the action, whispering it at Jerkins’ urging. It was a form of branding, Jerkins says, and it helped cement his credibility in the industry.

With a cadre of luxury cars, a 48-track studio in Orlando and a reputed (but unconfirmed) net worth of $30 million, Jerkins has lived the good life for a long time now. But he’s still a very down-to-earth family man, married to singer Joy Enriquez and the father of two young children, 3-year-old Rodney David Jr. and daughter Heavenly Joy, 2.

Over the years, he’s lent his name to various charitable foundations, raising money for causes as diverse as AIDS outreach to assisting displaced families after Hurricane Katrina. Most recently, Jerkins worked as a producer on American Idol, honing the show’s finalists as they came down to the wire.

Five years ago, after nearly a decade in Pleasantville, Jerkins decided to move his recording studios to Florida “because of a shift in the music industry.” He now divides his time between Orlando and Los Angeles—with occasional visits to his old South Jersey stomping grounds.

“I still come back a lot; there is so much love there,” Jerkins says, “People are so good to me and my family.” When back in the area, Jerkins says, “I just do my regular old stuff, like walk around the Hamilton Mall. It’s still fun for me to go home.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 12 (March, 2012).
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