It’s undeniable that Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins is on the Mount Rushmore of R&B super producers and songwriters of the late 1990s and 2000s. He’s given us everything from 1997’s “I Can Love You” by Mary J. Blige and two 1998 bangers in “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay” by Whitney Houston and “The Boy is Mine” by Brandy and Monica. But he also gave us the 1999 ladies anthem, “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child, and one of Beyoncé’s greatest songs, 2006’s “Déjà Vu” featuring Jay-Z.

Now, the famed multi-Grammy Award-winner is searching for a protégé. And, who knows; it just may be someone from Chicago.

“I’m looking forward to getting some of that incredible Chicago talent out there to join and sign up so I can see what y’all working with and be part of what we’re trying to build,” Darkchild told The TRiiBE.

Darkchild is partnering with Protégé, an expert mentorship platform, to find 10 undiscovered music production protégés who will spend two days with him in an in-studio writing camp. The winners may have their work pitched to some top A-list artists to consider for their own recordings. According to a press release, Protégé will cover a $500 subsidy for travel and hotel accommodations.

This is the first writing camp that Darkchild is hosting with undiscovered talent. He’s hand-picking the winners himself.

“I actually was going through submissions earlier. And, you know, there’s definitely a few things that are standing out to me,” Darkchild told The TRiiBE. “For me, it’s giving back, paying it forward, trying to find something great, young, hungry. 

Applicants can submit a 60-second audition video through Darkchild’s Protégé page. Each submission will receive a personalized feedback video from Darkchild. Click here to submit.

There’s no age limit for the contest. The submission portal will remain open until the desired number of applicants have been found, according to a press release. 

According to Darkchild’s Protégé page, the deadline for scholarship applications has closed. There’s a $100 fee to secure an application spot.

“When we do this camp, everybody will be there together. So it’d be fun to create a collaboration and create that kind of camaraderie amongst each other,” Darkchild told The TRiiBE. “But it’s also a little bit competitive as well, because everybody’s going to be there really trying to get a spot on my team. And I’m hoping that I’ll be able to see who shines the most and someone will walk away with the deal.”

The TRiiBE spoke with Darkchild via phone on Aug. 4 about the details of the Protégé writing camp and what he’s looking for in submissions. Check out the conversation below.

(This interview was edited and condensed for clarity)

How did you get connected with Protégé?

Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins:  I got connected through a friend. She’s the owner of the company Stem. I use Stem for a lot of distribution. She was just telling me about what they were doing. And I thought it was kind of cool. So I decided to lock in with Jackson and the team over there and talk through ideas. 

One of the things that has been really successful for me, the last few years, is doing these songwriting camps. So I was like, man, what if we gave people the opportunity to actually join me in a camp? And they were like, really? That’d be crazy. So we put it together.

So you are personally going to be hand picking the winners?

Darkchild: Oh, yeah, I’m in it. I’m in it right now. I get the notifications on my phone. I’m checking the talent out and then I’m giving them my feedback. 

If I would have had this, or think about if people had something like this 20 or 30 years ago. The technology game and how it’s grown, how it’s able to help people get discovered, to me, is amazing. 

What makes this so special is it’s not limited to just one talent. It’s not limited to just songwriters, or producers, or artists. It’s everything. Musicians. You got managers coming on the app now. It also cuts out the middleman. It’s allowing direct communication with people that are already in this space, people that are already successful and in this space and looking for their next protégé.

In terms of the camp itself, what happens once you pick the winners?

Darkchild: It’s either gonna be in Florida or LA for this first one. We would basically be in a studio, depending on what environment I create, whether it’s a commercial studio environment or Airbnb environment, for two days. 

I’ll probably end up doing like two shifts, where people will work together in teams for, like, four hours a piece. I kind of write like that, operate like that, anyway. Then I’ll go around and see who’s doing what, giving them tasks and challenges to problem solve in a musical way. 

The reason why we put them together is because we want to see who shines. If you want to be an artist, or if you want to be a producer or songwriter, you got to know how to collaborate with people. Not everybody can do that. Some people like to be on their own, in their own space. I’ll be able to see that. I’ll be able to see what personality stands out. And hopefully we’ll be able to find a diamond in the rough at this camp.

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When you’re going through submissions, how do you decide what you’re looking for? I’m sure you’re receiving hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions. What makes a person’s submission stand out?

Darkchild: I’m looking for something unique. For example, there was a female producer-slash-singer-songwriter. And in her video that she uploaded, you saw her on the keyboards playing and then you saw her on the guitar and you saw her singing. Everything she could do, you saw. I was like, “Oh, this is crazy.”

There was another guy. He started out singing and the next thing you know, he’s playing the keys and the guitar. He picks up like the trumpet and he starts playing the horns. I was blown away by it because I love art. 

For me, personally, I love musicians; so to see musicianship and then also just hearing people’s stories. There was a girl who’s from India. And there’s another girl from Israel. From all over the world, people are submitting to this and it’s crazy to hear some of their stories.

In terms of songwriters or any musicians coming out of Chicago, are you seeing them in the submissions as well? Would you want to see more Chicagoans in the submissions?

Darkchild: I would love to see more Chicago. I think I got a couple. It’s funny because my A&R director, he’s from Chicago. His name is Premo Stallone. We would love to have more Chicago natives join this competition. It would be great to see someone come in from Chicago. My attorney lives in Chicago. I got some partners of mine in Chicago so I would love to see the talent out there.

When you think about Chicago, what comes to mind for you when you think about songwriters, artists and musicianship?

Darkchild: Steppin’ music. Yes, I love steppin’ music. That’s one of my favorite styles of music, to me, that doesn’t get it’s just due on a bigger scale, on an international scale, but I love it.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the potential deal? Will winners receive a deal with your label? Will you be shopping them around to labels?

Darkchild: It’ll be dependent on the talent because we have so many different types of talents submitting. So if it’s an artist that I think is dope,  it would be a situation with our label. If it’s a producer that I think is dope, then it would be a production deal or publishing deal. It really depends on where they are talent-wise. 

Your versatility and agility alone over the years has allowed you to stand the test of time and to span genres. You can give us a Brandy hit record, a J.Lo hit record, Whitney Houston classic, everything. How do you write for different artists across genres? How do you figure out how to write to fit an artist’s style?

Darkchild: I think the key to it, for me, has always been being the perfect assist. If I’m throwing an assist, I want my assist to be perfect. I want that person to be able to score. If a person is shooting a wing jump shot, and you throw the ball too high, and they gotta catch it high up in the air and come back down and then go to the shot, that’s not a good pass. The artists that I work with, they’re the stars and superstars. I just got to make sure I just assist them in anything that they do.

It comes from conversation, like, really just talking to them. It  doesn’t matter the genre. Music is 12 keys on a keyboard anyway. What makes the genre the genre is really going to be whatever I make that’s popular and also whatever I make that sonically is relevant to the genre they’re in. So I just try to sit down with the artists and talk to them and see where they want. See what they’re looking for. And then create from there.

For people who are submitting to this writing camp, should they be thinking about a certain genre?

Darkchild: No, they should think about submitting  where they fit the best at. If they’re hip-hop, then they shouldn’t be trying to make R&B. Submit where you feel you’re really good at.

I can’t stress enough how much of an impact you’ve had on the music industry. What does it mean to be a successful songwriter and producer in the industry?

Darkchild: What does it take? It takes patience. You have to constantly know how to evolve just because lingo changes. They always say if you’re a songwriter in the R&B or pop world, you should study hip-hop. Hip-hop has natural metaphors that, when you listen to a lot of hip-hop artists, it helps with your words. 

With producers, you gotta constantly keep refreshing your sound sonically, figuring out new ways and new tricks to make yourself sound fresh because every few years, it’s going to change. That’s just the way it works.

As a songwriter, what does it take to really sharpen your pen? How do you get better?

Darkchild: There are so many ways to sharpen your pen. It starts with books. Literally, a thesaurus can help you. I remember when we were doing Brandy’s Never Say Never album. I had cliche books that I brought in for everyone. Now if you go back and look at that album, probably half the album was titles that came out of these cliche books. “Learned the hard way,” that’s a cliche. “Never Say Never” is a cliche. It’s just so much out there for songwriters to be able to take from and learn from. 

But more importantly, I think the most important thing to sharpen your pen is to study. You know what I mean? Always study the greats before you because you can always learn from amazing songwriters.

My last question might be inspirational for someone who is thinking about submitting to the competition. How did you get discovered?

Darkchild: My mother had me doing piano lessons when I was, like, five years old. By the time I turned, like, 11, I was really into music production. I would hear the beats. I would hear everything that’s going on and say, “That’s what I want to do.”

When I was, like, 14 years old, there was a local group called Triple Threat. I lived in South New Jersey. They did a demo. I was the producer of their, like, three-song demo. And somehow they got the demo in the hands of [R&B legend] Teddy Riley. He wasn’t really feeling the group but he was feeling the production. That’s what their manager told me. So I asked my dad can we drive to Virginia Beach. He was, like, “For what? That’s a six hour drive.” I told him Teddy Riley heard my music and he liked it and I think we need to go see if we can meet with him. My dad packed us up and we got in the church van and we went down to Virginia Beach. A couple of days later, I met Teddy Riley and he invited me in the studio and heard all my music. From there, I became his protégé.

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.