Production Values

The voice on the end of the line is frantic, pleading, and growing so insistent that a reporter standing several feet away can hear every word. The voice in question belongs to sitcom princess and R&B star Brandy, talking via cell phone from a grocery store to producer Rodney Jerkins. His client may be agitated, but Jerkins, easing his bulk onto a black leather couch in his magisterial home studio in Pleasantville, New Jersey, is relaxed. “Brandy, don’t worry ‘bout a thing,” Jerkins says, his deep voice now a husky whisper after a day of calls from Tommy Mottola, Will Smith, and even the mayor of Pleasantville. “We’re gonna make the hottest record.”

In an age when producers like Timbaland and Sean “Puffy” Combs outshine the artists they work with, Jerkins’s king-of-the-world hubris is to be expected. But the 22-year-old producer does indeed make the hottest records. Four consecutive No. 1 singles, to be exact: Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” (which won a Grammy last year), Monica’s “Angel of Mine,” Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love,” and, just last month, Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name.” Jerkins, too, has been shaping R&B’s current battle-of-the-sexes mood by co-writing songs like Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough” (which has just cracked the Top 20) and Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay.” His trademark sound, which mixes irresistible pop choruses, stuttering hip-hop beats, and orchestral disco, has become the Top 40 template.

“In my opinion,” says Sony chairman Tommy Mottola, “Rodney is the most creative and inventive young talent out there.” When Sony picked up Jerkins’s fledgling Darkchild imprint last year, he became the youngest person in music-business history to secure major-label distribution for his own label. Now the legendarily demanding Mottola is betting that Jerkins can resuscitate Michael Jackson’s scandal-addled career.

“This is a mental challenge for me,” Jerkins says, running his hands over his freshly cornrowed hair. “Because Michael is so much greater than everybody else.” Jerkins has been working feverishly with the reclusive pop star on his comeback album, due late this year. Sporting a terry-cloth sweatsuit and a massive diamond-encrusted crucifix, his wide grin and groomed mustache suggesting a hip-hopped Mad Hatter, Jerkins proudly points out framed pictures of himself with Jackson. “Michael’s a workaholic like me,” he says, hungrily taking a large slice of apple pie from a microwave in the Darkchild living room. “We’re in the studio for 24 hours at a time.”

Jerkins’s insatiable need to be in the studio led him to invest more than $1 million to transform Martin’s Hardware Store into the 16,000-square-foot, two-story Darkchild Studios, which take up an entire street corner on Doughtry Road in Pleasantville, a colorless small town just outside Atlantic City. Like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince’s Paisley Park or Michael Jackson’s Neverland, Darkchild is custom-built for the accomplished eccentric: The space houses four recording studios, a game room with arcade classics like Centipede, a cafeteria with walls covered in recording artists’ signatures (TO KING RODNEY, LOVE MICHAEL JACKSON, NO LIMIT, 8.16.99), and an eleven-car garage where Jerkins parks $2 million worth of luxury vehicles, including a purple Lamborghini.

Across the street is a strip mall, Jerkins’s Darkchild Plaza; down the road is a new cinder-block construction, Jerkins Hall, where the producer hopes to throw “weddings and bar mitzvahs.” Named for Jerkins’s trademark sound (“real dark and eerie”) and his youth (“I was always the boy genius,” he says frankly), the Darkchild empire is staffed almost entirely by the producer’s family. Cousin Ruben welcomes visitors in the reception area, decorated with painted portraits of Jerkins; his brother Fred Jerkins III is part of his songwriting team; his father, the Reverend Fred Jerkins, is his manager.

Integrating family and business comes naturally to Jerkins, who remains faithful to his parents’ Pentecostal beliefs, making Darkchild a kind of geosphere of clean living: Framed signs hung everywhere remind visitors that there is NO SMOKING, NO DRINKING, NO ILLEGAL DRUGS, NO DRUG TRANSACTIONS. Growing up, Jerkins was forbidden by his parents to listen to pop music. “I had to sneak Slick Rick tapes into my bedroom,” he remembers, “and my mom would find them and throw them away.” But Rodney was given classical piano lessons at age 4 and he was writing songs by age 6. “When Rodney was 13 years old, he told me that he wanted to be a producer,” recalls the diminutive Reverend Jerkins. “I borrowed $1,900 from my life insurance to pay for a drum machine and a small keyboard.” Jerkins also indulged his son’s obsession with Teddy Riley, creator of the R&B-meets-hip-hop “New Jack Swing” sound. “When Rodney was 14, he asked us to take our vacation in Virginia Beach” – Riley’s hometown. “I said, ‘We can take our vacation there, but I don’t think you’re gonna meet Teddy.’ “

“We get to Virginia Beach,” the younger Jerkins continues excitedly, “and sure enough, here comes Teddy in a convertible. I’m jumping up and down in the car saying, ‘Dad! That’s him!’ ” Riley listened enthusiastically to the teenager’s home-recorded demo, which, Jerkins acknowledges, mimicked Riley’s sound. “My confidence level shot up,” Jerkins says. “When I left Virginia, I said, ‘I’m gonna be the best.’ “

Jerkins realized his ambitions less than a year later, at age 15, when Riley asked him to join his stable of producers. “Teddy offered me $150,000 a year,” Jerkins says, his eyes widening at the memory. “But I thought, How did Teddy become Teddy? He didn’t sign with nobody; he just kept working.” Two years later, Sean “Puffy” Combs, after hearing another demo, promised him a job as one of his “Hit Men” for Bad Boy Records. “Something inside me said, ‘Puffy, it’s cool that you want me,’ ” Jerkins says. ” ‘But I feel like I can build my own Bad Boy.’ “

Now, as he works on new albums for LeAnn Rimes and Stevie Nicks, Jerkins is out to prove that he can break out of the confines of “urban” music and conquer the worlds of pop, rock, and country. “Before I hit 25, I gotta do Aerosmith, Kid Rock, or Limp Bizkit,” he announces, digging into a just-delivered pizza. “Then I have to beat Brandy and Monica’s record of thirteen weeks at No. 1. Actually, I want the longest-running No. 1 single ever. I want the Producer of the Year Grammy.” He wipes his lips and flashes a Cheshire-cat grin. “I’m not gonna sleep until I’m 25.”

Production Values