(Photo: Phil McCarten/BET/PictureGroup)
Musical prodigy Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins has been working with the industry’s biggest and brightest stars for over 15 years now. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and The Black Eyed Peas are just some of the A-list artists that have benefited from working with the 34-year-old New Jersey native.
With such an impressive resume, Jerkins was a natural fit to serve as one of the three judges on this season of BET’s Lens on Talent.
BET.com had a chance to chat exclusively with Jerkins in Los Angeles as he discussed his time on American Idol and offers advice on how to land a mentor in the music industry.
What was your motivation to serve as a judge on Lens on Talent?
My motivation was I like giving back, giving my insight and my knowledge to people. The fact that BET and Johnson & Johnson are doing this … to give an aspiring singer, dancer and fashion designer $10,000 to get their stuff started is a big deal. I always look back at when I first started working. I was 12, 13 years old and I was working at Foot Locker. I always said if I had $5,000, it would have made a world of difference. I don’t think my skills were different too much from 14 to 16. If I would have had what I needed at 14, I would have probably been the youngest producer to ever win a Grammy or something. I didn’t have the resources, so the fact that they are doing something like this, is going to allow these kids to go after their dreams in a different kind of way.
What inspiration did your parents play in your music career?
A huge inspiration. In my house, you had to play piano. You had no choice or you couldn’t live in the house. I started classical piano lessons at 5. My dad played piano along with my mother. My whole family played piano. Just being there spiritually, being there emotionally and to help me understand what music really was. It was the foundation in our home and I owe it all to my folks.
Are people surprised that you come from a gospel background?
It’s funny, because at first, it was forbidden to listen to R&B music in the house. It became more acceptable once they heard me start writing songs. I would probably say 75 percent of the urban industry comes from gospel. Somewhere there’s some roots that stem from the church.
How did you enjoy working with the American Idol contestants this season?
It was great. Just being a mentor is something I love to do. It’s one thing to be creative, but it’s another to be able to help people, and I take pride in that. Helping those contestants each week and seeing the fruits of your labor in them going to the next level. It was an experience. It was a lot of work in a little bit of time.
Do you think X-Factor will cut into American Idol’s fanbase?
Yeah … at the end of the day, Simon Cowell is probably going to pull some of the people that were into him along with Paula Abdul. It’s far apart though. You have a fall show and a spring show. I think X-Factor will definitely do good numbers. They have a great platform established around the rest of the world, so that brand is already strong. It’s just about finding great talent at the end of the day.
Who are your mentors?
I would say Teddy Riley. He was the mentor for me in terms of a person that really took the time to help me and my craft. Stanley Brown out of New York. I looked up to Quincy Jones. But Teddy really taught me a lot.
What would you tell someone in the music industry who is looking for a mentor like Teddy Riley?
Internships. My studio has an internship. All the labels have internships. Puff, Diddy, whatever you want to call him, he was an intern at Uptown Records. I have a couple interns right now that work for me that I’m thinking about hiring. The guy who runs my studio started as an intern. You start with internships. If you have to scrub the floors, clean the cars, whatever you have to do in order to show your boss that you’re really trying to make it. The bosses watch and they will eventually take notice and hopefully it will help a person go to that next level.
What advice do you have for the aspiring singers on Lens on Talent?
My advice is you have to be different. We’re at a day in the music industry where people want something fresh and new. For me, it’s all about tone. I listen to a singer and the first thing I have to identify is a distinctive tone. The tone has to be different enough or something about it that feels like it could work on radio. And just never stop believing.
Is there one can’t-miss artist that folks should keep their eye out for?
Yeah, my artist. I have a artist named Lil Play. His song actually just got added to 106 & Park. It’s called “Birthday Dress.” I’ve been developing and working with him for two years now. I think he has the personality and the swag that it takes to be an artist.