Around late 1999, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins was confident in his chances of winning a Grammy Award for producing Destiny Child’s “Say My Name.” When the female group’s second No. 1 pop single received three nominations a few months later, the hit-making producer and songwriter was motivated to figure out a way that he could both evolve with his musical sound — and his physical shape.
Anticipating his big moment on music’s biggest night, there was no way Jerkins—also famous for producing such hits as the Brandy and Monica classic collaboration “The Boy is Mine,” Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” and numerous tracks on Mary J. Blige’s “Share My World” album—wasn’t going to look his finest. At the same time, the rigors of long hours in the studio hit him harder than a Mike Tyson uppercut as he became extremely overweight.
Rodney Jerkins went on to win the Grammy that year and also lost a huge amount of weight—nearly 50 pounds. Like any successful musical collaboration, it was a group effort. As one of the heavyweights in the music industry, Jerkins had the luxury of being able to reach into his expansive contact list and reach out out a true heavyweight for help: “Iron” Mike Tyson himself, the former boxing champion of the world.
As a child, Jerkins and his pastor father watched Tyson’s meteoric rise from boxing prodigy to global icon. Now, months before his biggest professional moment, the then-girthy and prolific melody maker asked Tyson if he would be his personal trainer and boxing coach. Tyson agreed, offering Jerkins the opportunity to move into his Las Vegas home for 30 days under one condition: He committed himself to following the boxing legend’s health regimen at all times during his one-month stay.
“I wasn’t feeling good about myself and my health,” the two-time Grammy winner said. “I told myself I needed to lose some weight. I didn’t feel good, and I wasn’t feeling very good about myself or my health. The discipline in myself told me that I had to do it if I wanted to be great. Music is no joke.”
Neither was training with Tyson.
Rodney Jerkins Finds Himself in Mike Tyson’s World
Tyson, who trained for fights in his prime at a gym just blocks from Jerkins’ church in his hometown of Pleasantville, NJ, woke the out-of-shape producer every day at 4 a.m. for a three-hour workout, which consisted mainly of cardio workouts on the treadmill or pedaling an exercise bike. Following the workout, it was back home for breakfast, which typically consisted of egg whites, spinach, protein shakes, and sometimes oatmeal.
Following a two-hour power nap, Jerkins and Tyson headed back to the gym around 11 a.m. for the day’s second workout, which usually involved weight training. Afterward the two would have a hearty lunch, then relax for a few hours.
At 6 p.m., it was back to the gym for more weightlifting and cardio, followed by a salmon or chicken dinner and vegetables. Jerkins says it was hard keeping up with Tyson’s energy, and sometimes fatigue would set in at various points of the week, especially when they first started. On Sunday, which was scheduled as an off day, usually became a 5-mile walk or long jog. But Rodney Jerkins got accustomed to Iron Mike’s routine, and the results began to take shape, especially the mental side of fitness, something Jerkins wasn’t used to.
“I saw myself really just thriving from that and doing more even from a higher level,” Jerkins, 45, said. “Working out helps you think differently, and it opened up something in my mind. I had more clarity and could hear the music so much better that I was making.”
That rigorous training with Tyson recalibrated Jerkins’ focus and dedication to his craft. The composer of the theme to the UPN sitcom “The Parkers” went on to craft hits for artists like Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, Sam Smith, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Black Eyed Peas, Ariana Grande, H.E.R., SZA and Summer Walker.
Surprisingly, the two never sparred during the monthlong stay in Vegas. Jerkins says however, that Tyson, was “an animal” when it came to training and coaching, oftentimes telling his high-profile student to pace himself and never to give up. That pain at the end of the workouts, Tyson told Jerkins, was change leaving his body.
“What you put into your body is what you get back,” Jerkins, now 45, continues. “My sleep habits were better. If you’re eating right and working out properly, it all matters in the workflow and daily life. Now, I had the energy, so it was nothing. You would have to tell me to go to sleep because I had so much energy.”
The results: In one month, Jerkins went from a high weight of 334 pounds to 290 prior to the 2001 Grammy Awards, in which Destiny Child’s smash “Say My Name” won for Best R&B song.
Jerkins’ workouts with Tyson even inspired his collaborators. Tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams became regular visitors in the studio when he was putting together Brandy’s third album, “Full Moon,” in 2002. “Every morning before our sessions, Brandy would go and play tennis with them,” Jerkins remembers.
Fitness Helped Produce a More Focused Jerkins
These days, Jerkins, who earned a second Grammy in 2014 when the Sam Smith hit “Stay with Me” won Record of the Year, is empowering the next generation of musical talent with the same perseverance, discipline, and consistency he learned from observing Tyson. The sought-after hitmaker is leading a competition on Protege, a music-centered mentorship app, to find 10 undiscovered songwriters, producers or artists to participate in one of his intense, two-day songwriting camps.
Contestants can submit 60-second audition entries for direct feedback from Jerkins himself. Those aspiring talents selected will earn a stipend and the chance to potentially have their music pitched or placed on projects with high-profile acts.
Comparing his songwriting camps to NBA tryouts, the finalists are paired into rotating teams with Jerkins going over ideas with them and monitoring their chemistry and work ethic. Protege allows Jerkins to elevate the camps he started hosting at late singer Whitney Houston’s guest house in 1999 that launched the careers of his mentees like Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr,
Grammy-and Oscar-winning producer D’Mile, Grammy-winning singer Lucky Daye, and producers Harmony Samuels and Tommy “TBHits” Brown.
The camps remind Jerkins of those days he didn’t want to get up early or felt pain from a drill but pushed himself to finish his sets. “It’s trying to get the best song possible,” Jerkins said, “and it gives me a chance to see who works well together and who doesn’t work well together. This is the opportunity to prove that you can hang. If you wanna be in this game, you gotta prove yourself.”
“It may not happen in the first two or three years, but by the seventh year, you’re walking down that Grammy aisle and up to that stage and getting your just due. It’s only because you kept pushing. You could’ve given up, stopped, but made that choice to keep going.”
Jerkins Continues His Boxing Journey—in Different Ways
Rodney Jerkins is currently developing and executive producing a project based on veteran boxer Roberto Duran set for 2023. There’s also a television series in the works based on Jerkins’ own life, similar to “Everybody Hates Chris.”
The former executive music producer for “Empire” has partnered with actress Taraji P. Henson on “Hyde Park Academy,” a series based on a music school in Chicago. “StoryMakers,” a new digital series produced by HUE Unlimited and Jerkins’ company, Evolve Media Group, allows songwriters and producers to share their journeys with the artists they’ve worked with. There’s also a feature documentary on Jerkins’ life and career coming along with a new imprint, Alienz Alive.
Jerkins has also become a board member for boxing and fitness equipment brand SPARBAR, One of Jerkins’ closest friends, boxing trainer Raynard McCline, the same person who took Jerkins to the gym where Tyson used to train, suggested that he invest into something boxing-related. McCline made the introduction to SPARBAR and connected Jerkins with its CEO, London-based Jasvinder “Jazz” Gill.
“I’m a sports head, and I like the whole fitness side of it,” Jerkins said. “If there are products that can better people’s lives or their craft, then I would love to get behind it.”
Although he admits he hasn’t been as proactive about exercising as intensely as those 30 days he spent with Tyson, Jerkins greatly appreciates how Tyson’s guidance impacted both his health and creative output. “I was just telling myself I need to get back into it,” Jerkins said. “I’m older now, so my metabolism has slowed down so much—I gotta figure out how to kick it back up,” he says. “I still live in the moment, so I gotta make sure I stay on my toes and keep creating. I’m looking forward to getting back to a place where I’m having that regimen.”
Follow Rodney Jerkins on Instagram @rodneyjerkins.