Producer / Composer / Songwriter / Musician Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins graced the Zoom stage on May 24 for the latest Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session at Stuyvesant High School to talk about his long career, experiences and songwriting craft. The Session hosted by producer, songwriter and Stuyvesant HS Music Educator / SHOF NY Education Committee vice chair, Harold Stephan.
Jerkins immediately made it clear that music is his life, beginning as a prodigy at the age of 15. He has added to the hit lists of musical talents such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, George Michael, Mariah Carey, Sam Smith, Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Brandy, Jennifer Lopez, Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Drake, Big Sean, Toni Braxton, Kelly Clarkson, Keyshia Cole, Britney Spears, Cher, Janet Jackson, Destiny's Child, TLC, Natasha Bedingfield, The Pussycat Dolls, N'Sync, Backstreet Boys, Jessie J, Ludacris, Black Eyed Peas, Monica, Ciara, The Spice Girls, Ray J, Maroon 5 and countless others.
Stephan asked Jerkins about his childhood, and he explained that, at 5 years old, he began to play piano, taking classical lessons for eight years, and wound up as a multi-instrumentalist. At 10 years old, “I discovered my love for music production and would read credits on records to learn who did what and what that meant for a song.”
Jerkins went on to talk about his deep faith and background in the church. He told students, “Some of the best musicians in the world are in the church, and it is also a place to get your chops up. There's a freestyle atmosphere for musicians allows people to showcase their gifts." Jerkin’s studio was a block from his church, and he said, “I would play with song ideas in church and then run across to my studio to record them.” He said that a lot of R&B is based in gospel that came from the church, setting the stage for many genres of songs today.
Stephan then introduced four high school students who are part of the All-City Modern Music Project, a program enabling students to write, record, and perform original and cover songs in popular musical genres, and it is the newest member of the nearly century-old NYC All-City music program. The students each performed one of their original songs for Jenkins, who listened intently and gave sage advice.
He encouraged the young songwriters to “Study your craft. Whatever it is you love focus on that piece of your craft and hone it. Mash things up a bit. I’m always searching for multiple hooks, not necessarily the melody but also in the productions. You don't need a lot of sounds, just unique sounds. Dig deeper and find unique sounds. We should challenge ourselves outside the box.” He added, “We may produce something really big and then peel back the layers to see what sticks. Listen to your first instincts and sometimes less is more.”
Responding to a student question about what is his favorite song collaboration, he said, “’Say My Name’....I want to believe there is more greatness ahead, but if I had to choose it would be that. In a mix session for that song with Destiny's Child, I stripped all of the music out and just listened to the vocal tracks, after which I wound up redoing all of the music. I won my first GRAMMY with that song. Never give up on something you believe in and don't pay attention to the ‘no's.’ I’ve proven that my career has endurance.” Stephan agreed, “You don't have a track record like yours without a proven work ethic.”
After hearing the student’s songs Jerkins said, “It’s super inspiring to hear your songs and fresh talent. Study and consume as much music as you can from every genre. Find inspiration by going back to different eras and countries to see if there's something you haven't discovered yet. Best place to write from is feelings, and keep writing from that space and place of honor and honesty.”
Jerkins went on, “I’m big on stacking vocals to make it bigger. A lot of times when people are starting out, they pan vocals hard left or hard right, but if you stack vocals, experiment with panning. It can create almost 3D for backing vocals.”
In response to a question about collaborations, he said, “We're in a digital age and you can't imagine how many musicians I've found on the internet. Find a crew that fits you and your sound and a creative connection.” Answering a question regarding going viral, Jerkins explained, “When you're trying to go viral it never happens and then one day you'll do a remake of a song and get 20 million views. Don't try to go viral, just be authentic, and social media is a good way to market your music. Research opportunities to perform.”
About dealing with writer’s block; “I think you have to go away from it and come back later, maybe go to a different idea. Record every moment and then you have the power to walk away from it and come back without losing it.”
A student questioned, “When you know a song is finished,” and Jerkins explained, “You have to have a second set of ears to listen and pass it around to check out their reactions. With Michael Jackson he mixed one song for 38 days and it still wasn't complete. That was probably overkill. Sometimes the greatest perfection is imperfection. Don't overthink the process.”
In winding up the session, he said, “We are heirs to creativity and the future is bright. I’m looking forward for hearing from more from you guys!”
This Master Session was streamed live on the SHOF YouTube channel and is available for viewing HERE.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame, SHOF New York Education Committee chair April Anderson and vice chair Harold Stephan are grateful to Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, David Gray, EVP/Head Of A&R, Universal Music Publishing Group, Simone Dixon, A&R / Creative, Universal Music Publishing Group and Elizabeth M. Guglielmo, Director of Music, New York City Department of Education for her continued support of these events and opportunities for public school students!
The SHOF Master Sessions at Stuyvesant program has hosted events for NYC public school students highlighting both the business and creative sides of the music industry since 2018, with past sessions featuring Nija Charles, TBHits, Sam Ashworth, Denzel Baptiste & David Biral p/k/a Take A Daytrip, Khari “Needlz” Cain, Steven Van Zandt, Steve Greenberg, Mark Hudson, Samantha Cox, Leyla Blue, Maude Latour, Laundry Day, Pom Pom, Mike Campbell, Billy Mann, Gregg Wattenberg and Rich Christina.