If you ever find yourself waiting for underwear to dry at Michael’s Coin-Op Laundry in dull, remote Pleasantville, N.J., set your sights on that unremarkable, three-story building across the street — the one that looks like a defunct Jiffy Lube, except for the security cameras, remote-control gate, and silver Lamborghini Diablo parked out front. It’s quite possible that at that very moment you’re no more than a few hundred feet away from Michael Jackson, or Whitney Houston, or Jennifer Lopez.
Today, however, you’d have to settle for a Japanese pop star named Hikaru Utada, who’s roaming the Darkchild recording studios complex while Rodney Jerkins — the owner of the building (and the Lamborghini) — finishes her track. By the end of the morning Jerkins will have deftly crafted a slamming, dance-floor-ready mix for the young singer. By the end of the day he will have driven the two hours into Manhattan and signed a three-year, multimillion-dollar extension of his publishing deal with EMI. By the end of the month he will have produced six tracks for the Spice Girls’ next album and watched a song he cowrote and produced for Toni Braxton sail to No. 1 on the R&B charts. And by the end of the year — if everything goes according to plan — he will have cowritten and produced the majority of the new Michael Jackson album; recorded new songs for Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Jessica Simpson, Aerosmith, Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart, and LeAnn Rimes; and released a CD from So Plush, the first act signed to his Sony distributed label, Darkchild.
What were you doing at the age of 22?
A sort of Regis Philbin of the current pop scene, the wunderkind songwriter-producer is everywhere — and people who keep time with him keep scoring big-time. Jerkins seems able to make almost anyone the sound of the moment, combining a tackle box worth of hooks with street-friendly beats and backing tracks created by — are you listening, Puffy? — real musicians (often himself). He also has a gift for coaching female vocalists, helping semi-singers like Jennifer Lopez and the Spice Girls almost sound like pros (”We hit notes we never thought we could hit before!” gushes Emma ”Baby Spice” Bunton) and toning down the showy riffing of more gifted singers such as Whitney Houston. ”His melodies are simple, and sometimes his lyrics can be deliberately repetitive,” says veteran songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, who works with Jerkins on her new musician-targeted website, Tonos, and first introduced him to her friend Michael Jackson. ”But what he does is any time you might even remotely be getting bored he adds elements. He always keeps your ear interested and satisfied, and that’s a true art.” In the sage opinion of Britney Spears, who tapped Jerkins for a reworking of the Rolling Stones’ ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on her new album, ”He’s so young he still hasn’t gotten to show the world what he is capable of doing.”
Jerkins’ best chance to show off will be on the long-awaited new Jackson album, which Jerkins says is about 50 percent finished and represents — many people think — Jackson’s last chance to reclaim some contemporary pop relevance. ”I think he understands that, and I totally understand that,” says Jerkins, sitting in Darkchild’s lounge area after completing the Hikaru song. ”I think I’m more responsible [for his career] than anybody, than even him, actually.”