MAYS LANDING — In his sunken living room, Rodney Jerkins Jr. sprawls on the couch, swaddled in charcoal-gray warm-ups and propped up on two giant throw pillows like a baby rajah – a yawning, sagging rajah, who was in a Manhattan studio until 5 a.m.
“You’ve got to fight the fight,” the rhythm-and-blues wunderkind says into the phone, not looking up. He appears as if he’s going to fall asleep in midsentence.
Outside, it looks as if there’s a party going on: Six Mercedeses, two Bentleys, and a Lincoln Navigator are pulled up to the hacienda-style home where Jerkins lives with his mother and father. But it’s only a quiet Saturday night. Jerkins owns the cars. The house, too.
At 21, the man is large.
In two weeks, Jerkins will sit in the audience at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, wondering if he’ll get to give a little victory speech at the Grammy Awards. He’s got four shots, including record and R&B song of the year for the Brandy and Monica duet “The Boy Is Mine. ” He’s also up for best R&B album, Brandy’s Never Say Never, which he coproduced.
This night, though, Jerkins is just trying to catch a breather. His phone conversation done, he remains horizontal and explains that he’s home merely to spend Sunday at the church where his father preaches. Then he’s off for Florida to work on a record by ‘N Sync, then a Lil’ Kim project. After the Grammys, London calls: He’s signed up to give the next Spice Girls album a tougher sound.
“This week was very difficult,” he says, his voice a soft, low rumble. It began in Vegas, where he caught his friend Mike Tyson’s fight. Then he flew the red-eye to New York, where he worked on tracks for Latin superstar Marc Anthony, actress Jennifer Lopez, and Coko, once a third of SWV.
“I don’t ever like people to know where I’m going. One day I’ll record in Los Angeles. The next day I’ll be in New York, or Jersey. The next day I’ll be in Georgia. I’ll go to London, Trinidad. Go to the Bahamas, Virginia. I like to go where there’s nothing but studio and woods and no malls and no people to talk to. Just work, work, work. ”
His visitor asks to hear a sample of that work, and Jerkins perks up. Grabbing a set of keys, he says, “This is where I hear all my music,” and he leads out the door to the black Mercedes CL500, which he bought himself “for 1998. ”
It was a very good year, says his father, the Rev. Frederick Jerkins, who serves as his manager: Between songwriting and producing, Rodney’s yearly gross is coming in at between $4 million and $6 million, his father says.
Rodney wedges his formidable frame behind the wheel and fires up the car, apologizing for the condition of the passenger seat and carpet, which are littered with a jumbo bag of Herr’s chips, Federal Express envelopes, a mound of tapes and CDs, and a hammer. You don’t ask.
He slips his latest project, Coko, into the Kenwood system. It starts with a wallop, four chunky notes, then a siren’s call – “Unh, unh, Coko, dark child . . .” – until a catchy sing-song chorus that repeats the words “sunshine, sunshine. ”
It’s either the mega-bass or Jerkins suddenly coming to life that makes this 4,695-pound machine quake in the driveway.
“I have a feeling about `Sunshine,’ ” he says. “I think it’s going to be a No. 1 record. ”
This would sound grandiose if he didn’t currently have the nation’s top single, Monica’s “Angel of Mine,” and third-hottest dance track, Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay.”
“It’s a lot of energy with beat,” he says over the music, set to be released this summer. “I want my bass to be hard, where people can dance to it and feel it, but I want my music pretty. I want my chords pretty. I want my strings, my piano pretty. And I want melody. Listen to the melody: `Sunshine, sunshine. ‘ So simple, but so catchy. That’s the kind of hook that, when you go home tonight, will stick with you. Anything that a kid 8 years old and younger can hum back is really a hit record. ”
Jerkins wasn’t much older than that when he started making a name for himself. Raised on church music and a piano student from ages 5 to 13, he recorded his first album – a gospel collection – at age 14. He began composing songs in eighth grade. They started as poems he wrote to a classmate named Allison at Arthur Rann Middle School in Galloway Township, N.J.
“We thought they were love letters,” says his mother, who serves as office manager for two of his companies. Jerkins employs his brother and two sisters as well. His poems were exercises in self-discovery, encouraged by David Evans, whom he calls his favorite teacher in the world.
“He wasn’t a great student, but he had a great mind,” Evans recalls. “He got the freedom to share those gifts he had, which enhanced his reputation and how the children felt about him. He was this big kid who had all this sensitivity. ”
By then, Jerkins had acquired the habit of sneaking into his older brother Freddie’s room to fiddle with his production equipment. “He’d always come home [and say], `You were messing with my stuff, wasn’t you? ‘ ” Rodney remembers. “ `No, no, it wasn’t me,’ I’d tell him. But it was. ”
His father borrowed $1,900 against his life insurance to buy a drum machine for the boy when he was 13. “From that point, he worked night and day,” his father says. “He’d be up half the night playing and creating new songs. My wife and I would be banging on the floor, `Please go to bed! ‘ He’d say, `I got to do this while it’s on my mind. ‘ ”
Brad Cohen, a Philadelphia entertainment lawyer, remembers being handed a tape mixed by the 14-year-old Jerkins. “It was more than good,” Cohen says. “They were probably the best tracks I’ve ever heard from anyone. ”
Jerkins’ first crack at the big time came when he was 16. He had dropped by the office of Bruce Carbone at Mercury Records in Manhattan, hoping to interest him in his sound. Carbone suggested he try remixing Vanessa Williams’ new song “The Way That You Love.”
“I was like, `Are you serious? ‘ And they were. ” Mercury used Jerkins’ version for the single and video. The secret was out.
“All it takes is one,” he says. “Then everybody claims you. That’s what makes it harder: `I got the kid first.’ `I got him.’ `I’m the one that’s got the kid. ‘ They were calling me `the kid. ‘ It makes your worth go up a little more. ”
At age 16, Jerkins left school and hired a tutor who stayed with him a year and a half, until the student started spending too much time traveling. “I liked school, but I was making lucrative amount of money at 16. I had to weigh my options: Do I want to go to school eight hours a day, or do I want to try to work with people I dreamed of working with all my life? ”
When he turned 17, his mentor – new-jack pioneer Teddy Riley, the producer of Heavy D, Bobby Brown, and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, among others – offered him a contract to produce and write. The deal included a house, a car, and more money than he’d ever seen, Jerkins says.
He turned it down.
“I said, `You know what, Teddy? I want to try to make it on my own. See if I can prove myself. ‘ And that year was the breakthrough year. I really made more money than what he offered me in my contract. ”
Before Jerkins turned 18, he signed his publishing deal. That year, he bought his parents the house. And Sean “Puffy” Combs offered him an even sweeter deal, but Jerkins turned him down, too.
Since then, he’s written for or produced Mary J. Blige, Shaquille O’Neal, Tatyana Ali, Brownstone, Immature and Kenny Lattimore – more than 30 artists in two years. His fourth Grammy nomination is for co-engineering Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation Project.
“I respect Puffy, I respect Teddy. I love those guys, and they are mentors. But how can I become the Teddy? How can I become the Puffy? I got to learn the responsibility of being a top-notch producer. Now I talk to those guys, and I say `I told you, I told you it was going to happen. ‘
Back from the car, Jerkins plops back down on the couch, asks his mother to pick up some Gatorade from the store – “some orange, and that icy-blue kind” – and offers to play some of his phone messages.
The personal assistant of Sony president Tommy Motola is calling: “Tommy wants to set up a meeting with you and Danny Devito to discuss movie ideas. ”
The next voice is high and easy-going: It’s Tyson thanking him for making Vegas.
After that, it’s composer Carole Bayer Sager hoping to collaborate.
“Everyone wants to work with Rodney,” says Darren Higman, the Atlantic Records exec who had to settle for one Jerkins track on the Doctor Dolittle soundtrack because the producer was too involved with Brandy’s Never Say Never album. “A Rodney Jerkins song is the pedigree you want in R&B music. Right now, Rodney is in the position to do anything he wants. ”
He’s won the respect of those who have seen a lot of comers fall. Brandy has bragged about Jerkins’ work to veteran record producer David Foster, who says he was impressed by the young man’s gift for coaxing gorgeous vocals.
“Quite often young producers and songwriters coming up don’t learn their craft properly. They learn the computer and how to make sounds and groove,” says Foster, who has worked with everyone from Hall & Oates to Celine Dion. “Rodney obviously has studied music. It was refreshing to hear those ridiculously hot beats, but with musicality all over them.
“That’s going to set him apart from his contemporaries, and that’s why I think he has a huge, huge future ahead of him. ”
The immediate future holds a few things that have so far eluded Jerkins: a record label and his own house. He’s in negotiations with Sony for the former. As for the latter, he pulls close a binder filled with photographs of houses clipped from magazines, saying, “I’ll give you a sneak preview. ”
He’s bought a few acres nearby and plans to build a high-ceilinged estate with pools indoors and out. Maybe some ornamental dolphins.
“I want to do that so bad,” he says. “I’m really a house freak now. I was a car buff for three years, but in the last six months, I became a house freak. ”
Jerkins has deeper goals as well. “Just being more spiritual and getting myself totally into the church and into God. . . . Just becoming more Christlike in being all He wants me to be. The music is good. The business is good. I think I have a good personal life. But I think of settling down, finding a wife in a couple years. ”
At this turn in the conversation, his mother, Sylvia – back from the market – talks about how wise her son is at 21, and how humble he remains. How he still checks in several times a day, wherever he is, and how “he knows who to be around and who not to be around. ”
They knew he was something special early, she says, from the time he was 3 or 4 and the family went to Disneyworld. They were on Main Street, listening to a string band, when “all of a sudden, Rodney leaps away and gets in front of everyone, tap dancing. He took the crowd away from the band. ”
Her son can’t hear any more of this. He bows out, saying good-bye, and moving swiftly out the door. In his hands are his car keys and a CD in a plain case.
It’s a batch of songs from Michael Jackson. The king of pop would like a little help on a few tunes.