If you happened to be searching for a mother lode of soul, New Jersey probably isn't the first place you'd look. But if you take the Garden State Parkway south from New York City and exit in the town of Pleasantville, after a few turns you'll find a squat, beige building with a sign outside that reads DARKCHILD STUDIOS. The immediate vicinity seems intensely, iconically suburban--there's even a crossing guard out front with a hand-held stop sign--but as it turns out, Pleasantville is a good deal funkier than its name might suggest.
Darkchild is owned and operated by Rodney Jerkins, the hottest producer/songwriter in pop music today. He's the man behind Jennifer Lopez's hit If You Had My Love, a single so irresistibly sexy that it managed to make early skeptics stop thinking about Don Johnson and Eddie Murphy and all the other very valid reasons actors shouldn't sing. Jerkins' song Say My Name went to No. 1 for the vocal quartet Destiny's Child, and he also produced the most interesting track on Oops!...I Did It Again (Jive), the anticipated new CD from Britney Spears that's due out this week. Meanwhile, off and on for a year now, Jerkins has been working with the biggest pop star of all: Michael Jackson. Not bad for a guy who, at age 22, is barely old enough to run an Internet start-up. Says singer Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child: "He's the bomb, and he drops nothing but hits."
In person, Jerkins, short, round and dressed in a gray T shirt and gray shorts, doesn't come across like a Mack Daddy or Puff Daddy or any other kind of daddy. He's so laid back, he could have a second career as a futon. But you can see why he works so well with anxious, career-minded stars: he exudes an aura of calm. Jerkins works out of Pleasantville in part because he grew up in the area, but also so he can avoid all the drama that comes with recording in New York City. Okay, maybe he can be a little too mellow. During an interview, he also reads and sends messages on his Motorola two-way pager. "Just got a page from Carole Bayer Sager," he says casually. Ooookay.
As he chats in a common room in Darkchild, a TV plays old Michael Jordan clips and Jerkins seems slightly distracted by it. Scratch that--inspired by it is the right word. On the screen, M.J. drives, elevates, shoots--nothing but net. "That's what I want to be right there," says Jerkins. "I want to be the greatest. I want to get to that level. Watching him play makes me want to go into the studio and write a song."
Jerkins has wanted to live large ever since he was small. He started off playing drums in a Pentecostal Holiness church in Pleasantville (his father is still a minister there). Using musical skills honed in church, Jerkins sold his first song when he was 14. By the time he was 21, he had a label deal with Sony. Now many of his family members work for him. His father is his manager, his brother his songwriting partner, his sister a paid consultant. Midway through the interview, his mom calls. She's got clothes ready for his photo shoot.
Hitmaking is personal for Jerkins. He's not interested in producing explicitly violent or sexual material. "I kinda want to do things that my mother can hear," he says. "If my mother can listen to it, then I'll work on it." It is an uncommon attitude in contemporary pop: it's unlikely, for example, that Jay-Z mailed off any CD singles of his song Big Pimpin' for Mother's Day.