This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, writer Morgan Jerkins — niece of writer/producers Rodney and Fred Jerkins, and daughter of songwriter Sybil Jerkins Cherry — recalls the recording of Brandy’s best-selling Never Say Never album, and the impact the set had on her musical family’s fortunes at the turn of the millennium.
I was only six years old when my family’s trajectory changed forever.
At that time, I was traveling between Southern New Jersey and the Los Angeles area while being homeschooled and auditioning for various commercials. I lived in the Oakwood Apartments in Woodland Hills with my mother and older sister, along with many other aspiring actresses, some of whom would become notable names in the entertainment industry, such as Hilary Duff.
But some of the biggest memories that I have are not necessarily of the stargazing, but of time spent in recording studios throughout Los Angeles, where my uncles, Rodney and Freddie, were working around the clock with Brandy for her sophomore album, Never Say Never.
I remember the first day that I met her: She was eating Taco Bell in front of the recording equipment and wrapped her arms around me as if she had known for me for years. Given the time that she was putting in with my uncles, through that familiarity, I suppose that maybe she had. I was there when Brandy and Monica were going in and out of the booth, recording their soon-to-be iconic “The Boy is Mine” duet. Because I was so young, I believed that I was simply observing, passing time before my mother would take me to Universal CityWalk, not realizing that the stage-setting for my family’s musical legacy was underway.
My grandfather, Fred Jerkins III, was a pastor who resided over a Pentecostal church just right outside of Atlantic City. His four children — my aunt Sharene, my mother Sybil, my uncle Rodney, and my Uncle Freddie — all had various duties during church services, whether it was playing the piano or singing in the choir.
Besides being the first lady of the church, my grandmother Sylvia was a housekeeper for a rich, white family and noticed how their children were playing the piano. Subsequently, she asked her employer about the piano playing — and from there, at the precocious age of five, Rodney began to take classical lessons with my grandmother’s boss. As Rodney got older, my grandfather taught him more Gospel-infused elements, such bass lines for shouting music and different chord progressions that could support the preacher’s sermons. When he thinks of what my grandfather would advise him to do, he would say, “Just create. Don’t try to play something that’s already out there. Create your own composition.”
Although my grandparents ran a household in which secular music was forbidden, Rodney was a huge fan of Teddy Riley, an innovative producer at the forefront of the New Jack Swing sound who would have huge hits writing and producing for stars like Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown. “I would have to sneak tapes and records,” Rodney admits, “It wasn’t until I told Dad that I wanted to be a producer, and he realized that I had the skill, that he came around.”
That coming around happened when he was only thirteen years old. Teddy Riley came to Atlantic City for the Impact Convention. Rodney was working with a local group who was at this convention, where they met Teddy Riley and played music for him. Riley was not impressed with the group, but he was impressed with Rodney’s production. The group’s manager called Rodney from a pay phone and told my grandfather that they needed to drive down to Riley’s studio in Virginia Beach immediately. “I told him that we can’t just go down to that man’s house,” my grandfather says.
But with enough coaxing, they drove the seven hours down to Virginia Beach, parked outside the studio, and waited. By the next day, Rodney met with Teddy Riley, showed him his music, and began to shadow him every summer until he was 16 years old and got his first publishing deal. For several years, my grandfather was my uncle’s manager, supervising him over production deals and providing spiritual guidance whenever he needed.
After working with artists such as Patti LaBelle, Gina Thompson, Total, Missy Elliott, and Mary J. Blige, the apex of Rodney’s early career came when he began to work with Brandy. At a restaurant in Los Angeles, Brandy, who was already a Platinum-selling R&B star with a hit TV show, met Rodney and his colleagues and ended up completing five songs in five days. They worked in studios across Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. Despite the physical distance between the L.A.-area studios where they worked and Rodney’s roots in New Jersey, he brought many of us into his circle, per the encouragement of my grandfather.
My Uncle Freddie was producing and songwriting alongside him in spite of the challenges of also caring for his young family back on the East Coast. He had just quit his steady job working at Prudential Insurance Company to work with Brandy on Never Say Never. “We definitely worked till 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.,” my uncle Freddie says with a laugh. “Our normal start time would be early afternoon, and we would go all through the night.”
My mother Sybil — who previously had only one songwriting credit, ‘90s boy band No Authority’s “Don’t Stop,” which was produced by Rodney — co-wrote “Learn The Hard Way” on the album, which was inspired by the infidelity in her marriage. “Two months into the marriage, I get a phone call in the middle of the day asking if she can speak to my husband… she said that she was in labor on her way to the hospital,” she recalls today. “I was totally blindsided. I was embarrassed. I was in Pacific Studios and someone asked, ‘Why don’t I write to it?’ It was very easy because of what I was going through.”
Man troubles became another focal point in the album when it came to the recording of “The Boy is Mine.” At this time, Brandy and Monica were positioned as rivals in the press, and Rodney decided to play off of that competition. There was a keyboard in my grandparents’ home that had a harp effect, which ended up producing the melody you hear in the intro of that song. According to my uncles, initially, the recording executives did not want “The Boy is Mine” to be the first single.
“We went up to bat for that song,” my uncle Freddie explains. “It was going against the grain. The industry was really sample-driven at the time, and ‘The Boy is Mine’ wasn’t.” Eventually the label budged, and with good reason: “The Boy is Mine” went on to sell over two millions copies domestically, and sat at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 for 13 weeks. The following year, the song won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group. “With that album coming out, it transformed everything,” Freddie says. “It just opened up every door. Any door that was closed, that album opened. With the success of that single being so great, everybody knew who we were at that point.”
After the success of the Brandy collaboration, more successes followed: Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love,” “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” by Whitney Houston, and after the turn of the millennium, further smashes with the likes of Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, *NSYNC, and Beyoncé. As the years followed, I wasn’t in the studio as much. My mother focused on other professional endeavors. My grandfather poured back into the church, became a Bishop, wrote books, and held seminars. Rodney began to produce for the TV show Empire, with forthcoming projects on the way alongside artists like French Montana and Chromeo, while Freddie is producing Gospel music, including a cancer awareness project that’s forthcoming at the end of June.
But one thing that we all agree upon was how that particular year brought our family together to create an astounding project, from which we still reap the benefits. It fostered community, and brought out the talents learned in our modest sanctuary to the entire world.