At 27, Rodney Jerkins has a list of credits — as a producer, musician and songwriter — that could make an industry veteran's head spin. He has been unleashing chart-topping singles since he was a teenager, building up a resumé that includes Platinum artists such as Whitney Houston, Brian McKnight, Britney Spears, *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, Enrique Iglesias, Jessica Simpson and Will Smith. He has several soundtracks under his belt, including Honey, My Baby's Daddy and Scary Movie 3; owns Grind Factory, his Los Angeles studio; and oversees his own label, Darkchild Records, where he finds, signs and produces new talent.
A self-made success story, Jerkins is a multi-instrumentalist with the Midas touch when it comes to creating hits. Based in Orlando, Fla., he's currently the “It” man on industry wish lists, and to hear him speak, he has only scratched the surface of what he plans to accomplish. Today, he's settled into a familiar spot: Number One on the charts with the new Destiny's Child single, “Lose My Breath,” from their latest album, Destiny Fulfilled.
How does technology allow you to collaborate with artists while in Orlando, given that so much of your business is in Los Angeles and New York?
It's so awesome, because I finished the Destiny's Child record and Tony Maserati mixed the first song in California. He does all my mixes, but it's hard for me to be there, so we did it all by Internet with no MP3s and just full-bandwidth downloads. MP3 is not the clearest format, so we do it so we can download. It's really rough! I've been doing this professionally for 11 years and I've been able to catch both sides of the world: great analog and the digital wave. Stuff where you had to be there, you can now do by phone and e-mail.
Do you prefer digital to analog?
I like digital because it's a lot cleaner, but I love the warmth of analog. There's nothing like Neve EQs and analog mixes on vocals and tracks. It makes everything warm and Pro Tools is not able to capture the true essence of analog yet. Sometimes I use both. We record everything in Pro Tools. The last time I used analog was on Michael Jackson in 2000 [Invincible]. He was a little scared of Pro Tools. We tried to get him to use it, but he didn't want to go that route yet and I understand: He came from the school of analog. But experimenting with new toys keeps you ahead of the game.
The dance and remix markets have begun incorporating real instruments into tracks. Have you been doing this?
Yes. I started before they did. My path has been to always have syncopated rhythms live, orchestras live, sample sounds over driven beats. Lately, I'm doing a lot of stuff on my wife Joy [Enriquez]'s album with live piano, drums, bass. People want real music again.
What's your take on the market?
When I was in California, I was looking for a studio to rent for a while. I was working on film projects and seeing major studios for sale took me by surprise. They [had purchased] million-dollar boards, and then Pro Tools came along and made it easier to make great-sounding records. You could use a $20,000 Sony or Mackie board, or any small unit, and still get great quality. I'm not saying it's better than an SSL, but it's quality where the ear on the street can't tell the difference. A kid listening to the radio doesn't know if you mixed on an SSL or a Mackie board. I have friends who aren't in the music industry who have Pro Tools in their homes just to experiment with because you can get it for under $800. Everybody wants to produce or make beats because it's so simple and cheap. Everyday people can make a record. I used to get a lot of noisy 4-track and 8-track demos. Now I get demos that sound like records, and they did them at home with Pro Tools.
What are you working on now?
I finished Destiny's Child, Kierra Sheard [“You Don't Know,” from her Number One gospel debut, I Owe You] and I'm mixing Versatility, my instrumental album of hip hop, jazz, gospel, dance hall, pop and R&B. I'm playing all the instruments, and I'm doing it for the DJs, producers and samplers. Young producers want samples and they get cheesy sounds from sample CDs. I know, I was one of those kids. Now they'll have something to sample, and it's a way for DJs and the film industry to license music for film, commercials and clubs. People can sing or rap on it. It's something I plan to do every year.
I'm working on stuff for J-Lo and Toni Braxton, and a rapper/hip hop artist named Asia Lee. I'm writing a song for Carlos Santana. I'm working from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day.
Tell me about your studio Grind Factory and your label Darkchild Records.
Darkchild is an imprint distributed by Bungalo/Universal. Grind Factory is my West Coast studio. I call it Grind Factory because grind means work hard and don't rest. Don't expect to lounge out and watch TV there. It's been open since June 2003. Darkchild is in New Jersey, but I do a lot of work out of L.A. I tap into a lot of film projects and that's the main reason that I needed my own place. I spend maybe half the year in Florida, off and on.
You have accomplished so much at such a young age. What makes this possible?
God gets all the glory. I can't take the credit. I was born with a gift from God, and I know it's a gift because not everyone has it, so it has to be God. I feel I have only accomplished one-tenth of what I'm going to accomplish. I have so much more to do. I feel I'm just starting, but starting with the experience of a veteran who has been doing it for over 10 years.
It's no secret that you have cars, mansions, plenty of material possessions. Based upon your background — you were raised a strict Pentecostal, your father is a Reverend — how do you balance this with your beliefs?
My background keeps me humble. A great family reminds you of where you came from. Things are just things. I serve God, and if I'm constantly on my knees, praying daily and worshipping God, I seek Him. Houses and cars are just extra blessings. God blesses me because I have not ignored Him, I have only adored Him. I'm in His will, and no music industry can take that away from me.
When you work with me, there's no drinking, no smoking, no cursing, and if you don't like it, don't work with me. I serve God, who created all this and can give it or take it away. A lot of men work to get rich. I'm happy to be rich in Christ first.
As a songwriter, producer and musician, how do you keep from overstepping your boundaries in the studio?
When I produce, I'm there to make the best thing happen for that artist and give them all I can. Even if they can't sing a lick, I have to make it happen. I've worked with some of the worst singers in the world, but we've had success with them, and at the end of the day, the record company is like, “Wow! How did you get these vocals out of them?” A lot of Pro Tools and [Antares] Auto-Tune. You've got to have a lot of patience. I want the artist to sweat and be mad and say things about me under their breath. Nothing comes easy to get to greatness. My name is going on that record, and I want people to listen to it and say, “Did you hear that song?” It's about hard work and discipline.
How did you get into production?
My brother [Fred, a writer/producer who now works with Jerkins and independently] produced a lot of stuff locally when I was 10. I started asking him questions and he'd teach me. I fell in love with Teddy Riley's sound, the New Jack Swing. I wasn't a whiz kid, but I believed in myself and that I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it. I never gave up on my dream.
What is your definition of a producer?
It's being able to coach the vocals, know the board and equipment and tell the engineer what I want. So many people say they're producers just because they can make a beat. Don't call yourself a producer if you're not one. A music producer knows which note is flat or sharp, what to sustain, what should be staccato or legato, how to record and mix a record. A real producer can be left alone in the studio with the equipment and come out with a hit record.
Tell me about your working relationship with your engineer, Jeff Villaneuva.
He's the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Even with a Grammy or a Number One hit on Billboard, you need a team, and for two years I had the wrong team. I met Jeff at a conference where I was speaking. I had him come over to assist on a session and the first thing that caught me was his spirit. He's more than an engineer; he's a friend. I'm going to push him to be one of the best engineers in the world.
How did you establish yourself as a producer?
I had a Number 12 R&B song with Gina Thompson and the phone rang. Then I had a Number 2 single with Mary J. Blige, Number 4 with Joe — I was about 18 years old. But when I had a Number One across the board with Brandy and Monica [“The Boy Is Mine”], 14 weeks at Number One, the phone would not stop ringing. That's what a hit does. God bless people who just want to make records, but I'm not excited unless I have a single or a hit. It excites me to know I gave a hit to someone. It gets my blood pumping. That's what I call your own personal standard, what you accomplish. I try to keep the bar at a high level. I want to be top-notch every time I set foot in the studio. It's not just a record or a song — it's part of my legacy.
How is it different producing someone like Vanessa Williams vs., say, an artist who is all about beats and effects and whose vocal ability is almost secondary?
I mix the beauty with the funk. It's as simple as that. A perfect combination is the Beauty and the Beast. For Toni Braxton and Vanessa Williams, I do beautiful vocals with a beast track and the combination is perfect. It's something else, some grit, some dirt underneath — and I take it to a whole new level. It mixes beautifully. I can't do something light — that's nothing, especially if they've done it throughout their career. I've got to bring something new, some edge.
How did you become involved with the new Destiny's Child album?
I was supposed to go to London for a meeting and my wife argued with me about how she didn't feel it, so we went to New York for a couple of days. I bumped into [singer/songwriter] Beyoncé [Knowles] in the hallway at Sony. I won a Grammy with Destiny's Child, so I said, “I heard you're in the studio,” and gave her a CD. Two days later, I was back in the studio with them, and 30 days later, “Lose My Breath” was the top song in the country.
What were you listening to and for during those sessions?
The first song we did this time was reminiscent of “Say My Name,” which we'd done before. It was good, but not great, and greatness means not repeating history but making history, so I created a marching band — type of thing on the spot. It just happens that way sometimes.
How do you know when it's right?
It's just a feeling you get. That feeling…you just know, “We got it!” We write every day, but there are always those [projects] that stick out. You get excited and you're almost ready to celebrate on the spot because you know the potential. That's how it was when we finished the new Destiny's Child.
You've commented before that there is a Rodney Jerkins sound. How do you repeat the success of that sound from project to project without sounding the same?
You have to reinvent yourself constantly and that's a task. You create a sound and everybody calls you for that sound, for the hit you have on the charts. “You want a duplicate of what I just did?” “Along those lines, but different.” You have to take things you've done in the past and add something new. Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes I nail it. Everybody will fight you, wanting what you did before even when you don't want to give it to them.
What do you use to create that sound?
A Pro Tools hard drive system, an SSL board and KRK speakers in L.A., a Sony DMX board and Augspurger speakers in Florida. My outboard gear and keyboards are all the same. I use a Moog for bass, a [Korg] microKORG synthesizer and a Tascam GigaStudio for a lot of my sound. I have Roland Fantom 3080s, 2080s — I've got them all. I have 11 3080s. For mics, I use a Telefunken, a Sony C800 and lately I'm using a BLUE Kiwi. It's clear, like the Sony, but warmer. I've wanted to start a mic collection but I never had the chance. I was always into keyboards and synthesizers; now I want a lot of old classic mics.
Can you create a rough sketch of how “Lose My Breath” was cut?
I love to start with a melody — chord progressions, sounds, whatever — and work rhythm after melody. I create beats later. When I write, I challenge the writing. We'll do 20 different choruses or verses and I pick the best. Twenty bridges. I preach to writers and producers: You have to challenge yourself. My best grooves come fast, but writing and melody I spend a lot of time on and really perfect it. “Lose My Breath” was tracked fully with all the parts: chorus, verse, B sections. The track is cut and they sing over it. You can have a great track, but if the lyrics or the melody aren't great, it's not a great song. It was awkward working with them this time. Last time, they were all there. This time, we did it one girl at a time. Beyoncé, Kelly [Rowland] and Michelle [Williams] were in different rooms and were physically all together one time. And they all did their vocals in the control room, not the vocal booth. They said it was more comfortable. I said, “You could have saved money and done it at home!” It wasn't hard because I had worked with them before and I know their capabilities, but it was awkward because I had to sit and wait, sometimes for hours, for someone to finish upstairs, and when you're in the zone, you want to keep going. They had so much to do that week. They were in other rooms with different producers to get three songs done a day.
Do you ever become frustrated when you can't get it after a certain number of takes?
Jerkins at Grind Factory, his LA studio.
Yes, because sometimes you say, “Do it again, again, again,” and you think it will happen and the artist will nail it, but they don't. You have to get on the computer and manipulate it to make it work. I'm from the old school and I think Pro Tools can make people lazy. It's superb in cleaning things up, but I can tell when there is no realness to it. I hear it as a producer. When I listen to an album, I hear the Pro Tools, the Auto-Tune.
Do artists and producers today rely too much on technology? There was no Pro Tools when Marvin Gaye did it!
Marvin, Aretha, the Jackson 5, Mahalia Jackson — they just had a mic and a board and they were making it happen. The true integrity of music is definitely gone. I hope to be a pioneer of our generation and bring some of it back.
Elianne Halbersberg is a freelance writer. Cover photo and interview arranged by Rick Adams of Image 3 Promotions.
Engineer Jeff Villaneuva on Working With Rodney Jerkins
Only six years after completing his associate's degree from Full Sail, the multimedia, engineering and music production school in Winter Park, Fla., Orlando native Jeff Villaneuva became the right-hand man to superproducer Rodney Jerkins, joining him a year ago as Pro Tools engineer. It started with a chance meeting at an ASCAP event in Orlando, where Villaneuva boldly introduced himself, followed by an invitation to work on a recording session at Jerkins' home studio and culminated in Villaneuva's personal manager, Rick Adams of Image 3 Management, negotiating a hiring deal between Villaneuva and Jerkins.
Engineer Jeff Villaneuva
Prior to becoming part of the Darkchild family, Villaneuva interned at Crescent Moon Studio in Miami and then at Crawford Communications, a post-production house in Atlanta. He returned to Florida to intern for Soundarama, was hired by an upcoming studio called Underdog and later worked with Lauryn Hill in Miami. Now he works exclusively with Jerkins.
“I'm one of Rodney's engineers,” says Villaneuva. “He also has a staff in New Jersey. I travel with him everywhere and I also do a lot of research on equipment and new technology, samplers, staying on top of Pro Tools systems and making sure, technically, that everything is possible for him and everything is smooth any time he can create.
“We work as a tag-team. I'm with him as much as possible through the actual creation of any track. A lot of times, I'm on the Tascam GigaStudio, which is their newest sampler, looking for sounds and getting them ready to go. Once the music is created, we automatically go to Pro Tools and do rough mixes on the track before the artist gets there. At that point, we start recording and Rodney gives me a lot of freedom for miking techniques. I used AKG C-12 mics for vocals on Destiny's Child.
“I like to keep outboard gear very simple; less is definitely better. I use a Neve 1081 preamp into a Tube-Tech compressor, directly into Pro Tools|HD Accel 6.4, bypassing the SSL 9000 J Series console. I'm there throughout the recording to do editing, pasting and tuning vocals. We strive to get as close as possible to a final mix without even starting the mixing process so that it's almost complete.”
Villaneuva admits that he lives, eats and breathes Pro Tools. “The trend in the industry for people my age is to not work a lot with tape machines,” he says, “so digital is my way to go, but I also use a lot of analog outboard gear — mainly tube compressors.
“I strive for speed and efficiency on edits, keeping the artist moving with minimal time between punching in tracks. I often set up a template with 20 tracks for backgrounds, so I'm editing at the same time as we're recording to keep waiting time minimal for Rodney and the artist. It helps me out, because at the end of the session, all I have to do is back up after a long day.”
Villaneuva was involved in three Destiny's Child tracks on the new album: “Cater to You,” “Lose My Breath” and “Gots My Own.” “Lose My Breath” came together at 3:30 a.m. and despite the unusual hour, Villaneuva thoroughly enjoyed the project. “When we were actually doing the song with the girls, everything was done on the fly — from creating the music to writing the lyrics,” he says. “Rodney is a melody king and a producer who can pick melodies and riffs, so a lot of times, we'd go in and lay down quick ideas. He'd say, ‘I like that, let's take this part.’ Just by doing everything spontaneously, he already has a vision of how it should sound, which makes my job easier.
“The girls were very involved, too. They collaborate a lot with Rodney and there is a chemistry going on. They were very relaxed and trusted him with their sound. When each one came in to do their parts, they had a feel for the song and were able to interpret it without having to worry about a bad mix or vocal paste since it was already done. They're very professional. They do their thing in one or two takes and work very quickly. They're perfectionists. Beyoncé would cut a take, we'd hold it and she'd want to do it again. She'd top the one we were holding and would just floor everyone in the studio.”
— Elianne Halbersberg
Rodney at home
Maybe I’ll take the Bentley for a spin…