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Music Sermon: Janet Jackson's Early Chapters

In honor of Janet Jackson's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, VIBE revisited the early chapters and shows how the baby sister of one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music…became one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music, herself.

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

The third time’s a charm. After twice being nominated and snubbed, Janet Jackson has finally been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This year has been Jackson’s year of redemption – scratch that, vindication. A year that felt like a moratorium on her career was finally fully lifted. The obsessive extent of recently-ousted Viacom head Les Moonves’ vendetta against Jackson following the infamous 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” has come to light, and Janet has triumphantly returned to the public eye in a way she hasn’t been since that ill-fated halftime performance. She resumed the tour she postponed due to pregnancy, and returned to the charts with her 20th No. 1 single, “Made for Now.”

But this isn’t a story about Janet the Icon. Those stories abound. She’s a symbol of sexual liberation, of feminism and empowerment, of LGBT+ allyship, of live performance mastery, of dance legend–we know those things. This is a story about how she got there, and how remarkable it is that the baby sister of one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music…is also one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded music, herself. Janet is the only Jackson sibling to fly even remotely close to the sun that is Michael’s level of success, and she did it by deliberately separating herself from the family — and her brother. Janet’s success story is tied to her journey of finding her own identity, not unlike the journey Solange had to take decades later to separate herself from her superstar sibling. When Jackson is discussed now, what’s kind of left out of her narrative is how she struggled for years to find her place, her role, and her footing pre-Control. The big origin story is her break away from Jackson family patriarch and career mastermind Joe, but we don’t really talk about what that looked like for her the way we’ve examined with her siblings. Nor do we really talk about how exceptional her ascent was, forging her way under the shadow of not only a megastar sibling, but an increasingly scandalized family, to be taken seriously in her own right and on her own terms.

From early on, the baby Jackson had an outsized personality and talent for her age. Possibly even bigger than her brother’s when he was a young old soul thrust into the spotlight. Janet has said she wasn’t even considering entertainment aspirations, thinking instead of maybe one day becoming a professional jockey until Joe Jackson put her in the family’s Las Vegas show at age seven. From that point until her young adulthood, Janet’s career was by her father’s design, not her own.

Sassy young Janet was a massive hit as part of the family’s revue, paired with Randy to cover songs by popular male/female duos including Sonny and Cher and Mickey and Sylvia. They specialized in that specific brand of cuteness derived from kids acting “grown.” She hit her marks, lines and cues like a pro three times her age. Janet seemed aware even at a tender age what was expected of her, because “….in the Jackson 5 family, everybody works.”

Grown-up sass — hints of the Janet we’d encounter with Control — in an adorable little afro-puffed, chubby-cheeked package was her thing. She was gifted with a knack for completely age-inappropriate impressions, including her signature, Mae West (this would be such a problem in 2018).

The littlest Jackson arguably stole the show, continuously, with a stage presence, energy, and professionalism that not only matched, but in some cases rivaled that of her siblings. Joe allegedly considered packaging Janet with older sisters Rebbie and LaToya as The Jackson Sisters, but differences between the older two kept that from gaining traction.

Norman Lear spotted Janet in her family’s act, and after the short-lived The Jacksons variety TV show went off the air, he had her audition for Good Times. Janet was added to the post-James Evans (Damn, damn, DAMN) cast as the scrappy, abused Penny Gordon: a lovable, adorable girl who follows J.J. home, and whom Wilona eventually adopts. This was many Gen Xers first introduction to Janet, even if through syndication.

While big brothers were out conquering the music world — Michael with Off the Wall and Thriller, then the brothers as a reunited group for the Victory album and tour — Janet cultivated an acting career. In the early ‘80s Janet was really actress first, singer second, with roles on Diff’rent Strokes and then Fame. Roles that still allowed her to sing, though. After all, she was still a Jackson.

Janet has said that she wanted to continue down the acting road, but Joe wanted her to record. So that’s what she did. She debuted with an eponymous teen soul joint, bolstering production from R&B staples such as Angela Winbush, Foster Sylvers (of the I-can’t-believe-they’re-not-the-Jacksons, Sylvers family) and The Time member Jesse Johnson.

Then, when that album failed to make significant noise, she released the bubblegum pop confection, Dream Street. Both albums were decent outings; not bad, but pretty unremarkable. They didn’t make room for Janet’s actual talent at all. The sense that she was placed where she needed to be and told what she needed to do came across in the music and her performances. Not that she wasn’t a consummate performer, but she was only at about a level two compared to the Janet we would see just a couple of years later.

The albums weren’t working, and she wasn’t feeling it, either. At one point, she was disillusioned with both acting and singing, and considered going to college. She’d made friends with kids from South Central during a moment of adolescent normalcy in junior high school (the Jackson siblings were mostly tutored), and some of them were now at Pepperdine University.

Instead, she followed a Jackson rite-of-passage: rebelling against Joe’s constraints in a declaration of independence. Jermaine did it by marrying Berry Gordy’s daughter Hazel and staying behind on Motown when his brothers left. Big sister LaToya’s moment was posing for Playboy. Janet rebelled by eloping at 18 with someone who understood her better than most probably could. James DeBarge was a member of an entertainment family patterned after her own, and had become a confidant for her in the absence of brother Michael. The marriage was fraught with problems and annulled after about a year, but James brought her back to music and provided her with some much-needed life experience to channel into her work. She told music journalist David Ritz (who, for a while, was one of the only journalists to secure in-depth interviews with Janet during every album cycle), “My marriage was rough, but it deepened my emotions, it made me think about life, and it pushed me towards independence.”

The Control album is when the world first met Janet Damita Jo Jackson, forreal forreal. It was the first time we heard her stories, her thoughts, her feelings, her experiences, instead of those thrust upon her by others. And it was uncomfortable as hell for her, at first. Family friend and A&M Records Head of Urban Music John McClain connected her with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for her third album, forging one of the most important producer/artist relationships in music. The story from there is music lore: Jam and Lewis bring her to Minneapolis, take her to the club, encourage her to explore the city and have experiences to inform the album. What isn’t usually mentioned in that narrative is A&M’s reluctance to record another Janet album at all. “The company didn’t know how dynamic she is,” McClain told Rolling Stone. “…I knew that Michael and Jermaine and Tito and Jackie are real quiet, but when the red light is on in on the studio or when the spotlight hits, they turn into different people. Basically, I had an idea of what Janet had in her.”

Learning to trust herself and explore her creative talents was something Janet had not been allowed to do in the past, and it was like building a new muscle. As the project went along, she became more confident and open. The process of creating Control also made 19-year-old Janet — who was already aware she’d been sheltered — realize just how limited her experiences were. Jam and Lewis’ language and humor (Janet wasn’t used to frequent cursing) almost made her want to retreat back to Encino and Mama Katherine’s arms, but she started to realize she was trippin’ a little. “They were being real. The problem was with my perception, not with (them),” she said years later. “I was this little prude, I was uptight. I knew I wanted control…but I soon saw that I’d have to give in order to get: give myself over to a creative environment that was different and even a little dangerous from anything I’d ever known.”

The now infamous intro, “This is a story about control, my control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do. And this time, I’m gonna do it my way,” wasn’t just an album theme. It was a declaration about the rest of Janet’s career, although we didn’t realize it at the time. Just in case there was anyone who didn’t realize the song was completely autobiographical, she drove the point home in the video (with a genius nod to her Good Times days).

Control is a coming-of-age story set to music, covering everything from the excitement of young, new love…

...to the frustration of ain’t sh*t partners and folks who try to test you.

Oh, and choreography that had kids everywhere bustin’ up their mama’s kitchen chairs…and their behinds.

The album was bold, anthemic, and all Janet (with the assist from Jam and Lewis). Once she finally had perspective, she never let anyone take over her direction or decisions again. Over the years, she’s fiercely denied the involvement of any Svengali figures in her life. John McClain acted in some management capacity, but later insisted he never formally held the title, and many assumed ex-husband Rene Elizondo had taken on the role starting with Rhythm Nation, which Jackson repeatedly said was false. She was essentially managing herself with the help of trusted advisors, involved in every single aspect of recording, creative, visuals and performance. She once broke it down very succinctly, “Nothing happens without my approval.” (It all sounds very similar to another R&B-turned-Pop star after she severed professional ties with her father.)

Control introduced the world to the real Janet. Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 was when she came for domination. Although Control broke sales records, spawned hit singles and was certified multi-platinum, the industry wasn’t sure whether Janet could do it again. She not only replicated the success, but topped it.

Control was an R&B album, on purpose. Jam has said they were “going for the black album of all time.” Just as intentionally, Rhythm Nation was broader, incorporating pop, rock and hip-hop (Jam and Lewis were bricklayers of the sonic foundations for new jack swing). The tone was set via a manifesto at the beginning of the album. A “pledge” for members of this new nation Janet was leading into the ‘90s:

We are a nation with no geographic boundaries
Bound together through our beliefs
We are like-minded individuals
Sharing a common vision
Pushing toward a world rid of color lines

The concept album was Janet’s foray into social consciousness (Ritz called it her What’s Going On, the politically-charged opus by Marvin Gaye). It also highlighted her incredible versatility, garnering award nominations and wins across genres, including a Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy nod for “Black Cat.” She may have come in the door through R&B, but she wasn’t going to be confined to a lane, and she continued to prove it. Janet is the only artist to have Grammy nominations in the Pop, Rock, Dance, R&B and Rap categories and to have No. 1 hits on every format — except Country.

While Janet did work to separate herself professionally from her brother, he was still not only her most trusted advisor through much of her career, but her benchmark for success. The two were the closest of the Jackson siblings, and a healthy career rivalry went along with that. “I’d love to break any of (Michael’s) records,” Janet exclaimed at the beginning of the Rhythm Nation cycle. “That would be great for me.” And she did. Rhythm Nation was the first album ever to generate No. 1 singles across three separate years (89, 90 and 91), and all seven singles cracked the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, breaking big brother’s record of seven Top 10 Hot 100 singles with Thriller.

Through Control and Rhythm Nation, Janet had proven her talent and star power. However, she was still mysterious and private in the way we’d all come to expect from the Jackson family. She also still had an air of appropriateness — the wholesome good girl. And then…janet. Control was where Janet found herself, Rhythm Nation was where she became a star and a cultural leader, janet. was where she became a grown-ass woman; the actualization of the Janet we know now.

By 1993, the Jackson family drama was increasingly in the public eye. Michael was still a couple of years away from child abuse allegations, trial, and “Wacko Jacko,” but his eccentricity had long been fodder for public conversation. The Jacksons: An American Dream miniseries had aired with high ratings the year prior. LaToya’s ’91 tell-all, although full of unsupported allegations, had given insight to Joe’s dysfunctional dynamics with his children. Janet mostly stayed out of the fray and made a declarative break from her family with this album by putting an actual period at the end of her first name in the title.

More shocking, though, was her physical declaration. We’d never seen more than a sliver of belly from the body-conscious Janet prior to the final video of the Rhythm Nation cycle, Herb Ritts’ stunning “Love Will Never Do” video, which was basically “New Janet, who ‘dis?” in visual form.

But that video ain’t have nothin’ on Janet’s Rolling Stone cover. Forget breaking the internet, it broke real life.

Sexuality is such a part of Janet’s identity as an artist now, it’s hard to remember how jaw-dropping this was back then.

Hits about voyeurism…

Jams about insatiability and sex in public…

Dance breaks while telling dude, “You know you want it, come and get it…”

...all from little Penny? Cue the pearl clutch! But all around, she was more open, accessible and real to us than she’d ever seemed. She did more press, she revealed her personality, she was chillin’ with her girls (her dancers, who she lovingly called “the kids”). She seemed fun.

The janet. era is the culmination of Janet’s cycle of growth, and it reveals the most marked difference between Jackson and her brother in their artistry, as well as the key to her self-possessed stardom. Michael obsessed over being the biggest star possible. He set out to do things that had never been done before. He wanted to amaze and astound. He wanted to f**k everybody’s head up. Janet, on the other hand, was focused on being an increasingly more genuine artist. In one of her many interviews with David Ritz over her career, she shared that she wasn’t focused on becoming a bigger star, “but a better artist, deeper, truer to the things I find exciting. If right now, I find sex exciting…I put that in my art. If next year, I’m depressed or confused or angry, I hope to have the courage to express those feelings. I hope to be an honest artist — no more, no less.” For all of Michael’s perfection, one didn’t always (or maybe even often) get the feel that he was being an “honest artist.” He was preoccupied with the reception of his work in a way Janet doesn’t seem to be. Over the years, her moves have always felt more genuine to her artistry, more about speaking to her fans, than measured against what’s currently poppin’. Her public quiet reserve has felt more like confidence than timidity. As though after the long journey to finding her artistic voice, her priority has been to stay true to that, at whatever cost. For example, in the wake of the Super Bowl scandal, Janet apologized, but she didn’t grovel or embark on a full apology tour just to get back in anyone’s good graces, though it hurt her — massively — in the prime of her career. Yet she’s not faltered or changed; she knows it wasn’t a measure of her talent. It’s easy to imagine that even now, had the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snubbed her again, she would have been like “I’m good, luv. Enjoy.”

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VIBE Vault: Jada Pinkett Smith Talks Motherhood, Marriage & Sexiness In May 2001 Issue

Ever since playing streetwise Lena James on the college-campus sitcom A Different World, Jada Pinkett Smith has portrayed many a sexy shortie with attitude, boast a tough-as-nails swagger with a dash of vulnerability. Her film career—highlighted by Menace II Society, A Low Down Dirty Shame, Set It Off, Jason’s Lyric, and Woo—has been dotted with every possible permutation of the strong ghetto girl in distress.

But with mature roles like Bamboozled’s socially conscious Sloan Hopkins tucked under her belt, the Baltimore native who once spit verse with a teenaged Tupac Shakur in high school is proving to be more than the stereotypical neck-swiveling drama queen. Pinkett Smith has taken on a roster of challenging characters: exploring family matters in Fox Searchlight’s April release Kingdom Come, as well as starring in the highly anticipated pictures Ali (with husband Will Smith) and The Matrix 2 and 3.

But don’t think this woman is strictly business. The 29-year-old feels the upside of growing pains in both her professional and personal lives. As the mother of two youngsters (Jaden Christopher Syre, 2, and Willow Camille Reign, 6 months) and stepmom to 6-year-old Trey, Pinkett Smith is macking the maternal lifestyle—juggling play circles, early morning call times, and a little conjugal nookie on the side with the talented Mr. Smith. This pint-size fireplug’s still got teeth-gritting edge.

VIBE: Tell me about your character Charisse in Kingdom Come. I hear she’s pretty headstrong.

Jada Pinkett Smith: Definitely, but she’s a fool. She’s really self centered and headstrong about all the wrong things; she can’t see outside of herself. The patriarch of the family has passed away, and her focus is still all about her. It’s like, Sis, it's not all about you right now.

Co-starring with LL Cool J, Whoopi Goldberg, Vivica A. Fox, Toni Braxton, et al, you’re doing another movie with a predominantly black cast. But you know what they say about working with our people…

It’s always been such a pleasure working with black directors and black casts, because you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining yourself. It’s the same reasons why white people do all white films. These are the people you can relate to, that have the same experiences as you. I’ve never had any drama, only love. Like in Set It Off: There was so much buzz that there was going to be some drama with four black women working together, but that was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a film.

You’re married to Anthony Anderson’s character in Kingdom Come. Can we expect any love scenes like you’ve done in the past? We all remember you rolling in the grass with Allen Payne in Jason’s Lyric.

None of that anymore. My older son is a little bit too old for me to be doing that if it’s not with his dad [laughter]! That part of my life is in the past. I’ve got sons now, and I’ve got a little girl. That was the other, younger Jada, who didn’t have any other responsibilities but to herself. Now I’ve got to think about my kids.

Of all the characters you’ve played—from manslaying Woo to stand-by-you-man Lyricto gangsta-boo Stoney to knucklehead Charisse—which of your roles is filled with the most Jada?

I really wasn’t in a space of maturity with that character to really fall into the depths of Lyric’s vulnerable space as I would’ve liked to. I think about it today, and I go, Wow, I could have done this and done this. That was another side of myself that I wasn’t comfortable showing yet. And from A Low Down Dirty Shame, Peaches was basically Jada at that time but to the third power. Set It Off was definitely Jada to another level. Stony was rah-rah but not that rah-rah [laughter]! That’s exactly how I would be—scared but [knowing I] gotta do my thing. Woo was truly the other side of Jada, like Honey, please talk to the hand [laughter].

If Woo was your alter ego, how did you deal with trifling men before you met Will? 

The best punishment is just to be out. There's so much you can take, I was definitely one of those chicks that would hang in there for a minute trying to week it out. But once I realized in my head that it just wasn't it, I rolled. Then niggas was was like, “Well, where you going?” I was like, Man. I told you. You saw me hanging in there with your crazy ass, trying to work this out. You know what I'm saying? Now you want to know where I am? I’m somewhere not with you.

Was there a specific incident? 

Nothing really, because when I was younger, I wasn't living right either. I can't really say that someone did anything so bad to me, because whatever they did, I deserved it.

Jada Pinkett Smith is a former playa-playa in repentance? 

You can say it however you want [laughter].. I was young in Hollywood. I didn't know about relationship and commitment. Unfortunately, that's something that we're not really taught, especially in our households. Most of us come from very dysfunctional places. Will is the first monogamous relationship I've had. I never knew what it took to have a healthy relationship or what commitment was all about.

How have the kids impacted your coochie-cooing sessions with Will?

HA HA [big laughter]!!! Well, shoot, kids are always going to put a little damper on that parade, but not so much that you can’t handle your business. They come, and, once again, you have that transition period where you have to find your groove within this new lifestyle you've been given. But it hasn't been drama. We've handled it very well [naughty laughter]. 

Inquiring minds want to know the real deal with Will Smith. Does he come correct in the boudoir? 

I'll just say this one absolute fact. For all the women who want to know, all the women in the VIBE world: Will puts it down! I could not be married or be monogamous with anybody who didn't. That's real [big laughter]! All I have to do is look at Will, and everything gets turned on from that. I'm pretty much an easy catch. He’s got beautiful eyes, and his physique now is out of control ‘cause of Ali. Yeaaahhh… It doesn’t take much for my buttons to get pushed. 

But Will is tall, maybe 6’2”, and you're so petite. 

It doesn't matter. Size doesn't matter. He says this all the time: I can't come at him in a bad way. And I’m like, Whatever, Daddy—just bring it. That's why we're such a happy couple. We can't be mad too long. 

It's great to have such a strong physical connection. 

And also the spiritual connection. The friendship even deepens sexual connection. When all of that is tied in together, it never gets tired. You have your times when you're kind of slow—if you're working, or during pregnancy. That's why it's important to have that friendship and that spiritual connection. That's what keeps it all together until the physical aspect of it booms back in, because everybody has their slow times.

Your children will grow up faster than you realize. What kind of relationship advice will you give them? 

You basically have to go with the flow. I know for my daughter, I probably won't put restrictions on her in a [harsh] way, because, being female myself. I understand the type of freedom a young girl needs. But when I talk about freedom, I mean you have to have a sense of responsibility. That's very difficult in our culture, because we're basically selling being a ho as what it is to be a woman today. If you're not a ho, then you're not really down or you're not really hip. I don't talk about freedom in that sense—basically just giving it away to whomever you want. There was a time when black women were very uptight about their sexuality. I think right now we're going through a space where we're finding our freedom as far as our sexuality, but I think we're going to our next extreme. We're going to find that middle ground. I hope by the time my daughter is of age we'll be at that space.

You're considered one of the sexiest people in Hollywood. What’s your definition of sexiness?

Really [laughter]? Well that is quite an honor. I'm learning as I get older, because I haven't always been this way. I'm gaining a better understanding as I mature that what people are attracted to most of all—and especially my husband, who's pretty much the only person I have to worry about these days—is beyond my physical. I'll be 30 this year. I'm moving into a whole other space of my womanhood! So I've kind of outgrown that whole, well let me go out with my short skirts on, with my stomach out or my bust up. I don't necessarily think that's something I have to do. I feel like I've been there like hardcore [laughter]. I might go back to feeling like that. Now I'm finally feeling like a woman, whereas before I was a little girl just trying to be a woman. Now I'm really feeling myself. Trust that with Kingdom Come, Matrix 2 and 3, and Ali, y'all will see a whole new Jada. Believe me. Y’all bouts to see it like y'all haven't seen it. 

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This article originally appeared in VIBE's May 2001 issue. Written by Brett Johnson | Photography by: Isabel Snyder and others.

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'The Old Guard' Celebrates Women On Both Sides Of The Lens, Says Director Gina Prince-Bythewood & Actress KiKi Layne

Gina Prince-Bythewood is not new to this. Her decades-long screenwriting credits go back as far as 1992 when she contributed to the Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World. Her directorial debut happened nearly 10 years later with her 2000 film, Love & Basketball which grossed over $27 million in the U.S. box office and went on to become a black cinematic classic. Since then, Bythewood directed more films like The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Beyond the Lights (2014). Today, Bythewood is stepping away from the dramatic and romantic films of yesteryear and making her mark in the genre of action films with the new Netflix movie, The Old Guard.

Based on the comic book by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard stars lead actresses Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road, Hancock) and KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk, Native Son). Theron plays Andy, an immortal mercenary recruited for a mission to protect the mortal world. Layne plays Nile, a U.S. Marine recruited to join the badass task force. Before her "rebirth" into her new eternal life as a soldier, she learns about life as an Old Guard, what she'll stand to gain and lose as undying warrior and more.

Upon receiving the script, Bythewood was "incredibly excited" and happy to have an opportunity where she could not only take on a different type of cinema but also bring a young Black female hero to life and into the spotlight. "I knew the type of action film I wanted to do, an action drama," she says in an interview with VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle. "And I knew absolutely when I got the opportunity, that I wanted us [Black people] to be in it." And that we are. With actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) taking on a supporting role, Layne holds her own in the action-packed feature film as she tests her body's limits in scene after scene. The rising star would be sure to let you know how physicalities set her and her character apart.

"I mean I love the opportunity to be that physical," she says. "Nile still has so much heart and, being led by Gina, being encouraged to dig deeper into that and to not be afraid of her vulnerability, which was exciting. So I kind of play that, but then still play that physical strength and being a Marine and all of that. So I would say that would actually be the biggest difference between us."

The Prince-Bythewood and Layne sat with Belle to discuss the limitations around the term "Black cinema," being a part of a film that has Black women in front and behind the lens, and what they hope for The Old Guard's impact 20 years from now.

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On how music inspires her screenwriting:

Prince-Bythewood: Music is everything to my process. When I start to write, I create soundtracks for myself too. If it's just songs that either speak to what I'm writing or open me up emotionally to what I'm about to write. I have soundtracks for myself for directing, and then I create soundtracks as I'm editing. It's everything and I love doing songs for score. I love the traditional score, but I also love songs for scores. And those are songs that just help elevate the scene, add a little bit more emotion. It doesn't take over the scene, but it absolutely aides it and songs tell such a story...I love soundtracks, it goes back to Purple Rain. Where you could listen to that soundtrack and then watch the movie again in your head because the songs were that distinct, that's what I love to do with my films.

On the Black women she pulled influence from when preparing for her role:

Layne: Black women who I find to be strong and just maybe haven't seen it represented that way on film. Honestly, just thinking about my mom. Angela Bassett was the biggest example of strength. Who else was I thinking of? Those are like the first students to kind of pop in my head of just like, especially with Angela, the way that she just carries herself. There's such pride and dignity and integrity to her that I just, I mean love. Period. But it was definitely something that, when thinking of Nile, trying to bring some of that in there as well.

On the limiting term "Black cinema" as it relates to Hollywood:

The term "Black cinema" is not a negative to me, nor to us. My issue with it is with Hollywood. In terms of Hollywood using that to describe any film that has a black person in it. So suddenly they feel like, "Oh, we've done our one black film." As opposed to, "We should be in every single genre. Sci-fi, Western, love stories, period pieces." That's who we are, that's the breadth of our humanity, that's what I want to see. I just don't want to limit us, but I revel and celebrate black cinema and black film.

On how they would like The Old Guard to be remembered 20 years from now:

Layne: In 20 years from now, I would hope that it would be, you won't necessarily remember, but as a, I don't know, a piece of getting Hollywood to tell more of these types of stories with women at the lead in front of and behind the camera. I'm hoping that it will be an opportunity that leads to more doors like this being opened. Just showing that we're just as capable and it's just as interesting when we do it.

Prince-Bythewood: And then I'll just add in 20 years, if people are still watching this film that says it all, that this film had longevity, it spoke to them and it was a world and it's characters that they wanted to see again and live with again. And as artists, I think that's a pretty incredible thing.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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Watch: Rodney Jerkins Talks Producing On ‘The High Note’ Soundtrack, Andre Harrell And How His Dad Sparked His Career In ‘Billboard’

When you think of your favorite R&B and pop hits by Brandy, Destiny's Child, Mary J. Blige, and Michael Jackson, you can't help but think about the musical genius behind the tracks: Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. Since his start in the music industry at the young age of 14 (under the mentorship of legendary musician Teddy Riley and his father Pastor Fredrick Jerkins), the Grammy-winning producer has created songs across countries, genres, and mediums.  To date, Jerkins has contributed to over 115 movie and television series soundtracks with his first credit for Joe's "Don't Wanna Be a Player" (not be confused with Big Pun's hit) on the 1996 Booty Call soundtrack.

His latest accomplishment is serving as the executive music producer for the new video-on-demand film, The High Note, starring actress Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of the legendary Diana Ross. In the Nisha Ganatra-directed  film, Ross plays Grace Davis, a diva and iconic singer who has to "choose between playing it safe or listening to her heart in a decision that could change her life forever." Weeks prior to The High Note's premiere, Focus Features and Republic Records released "Love Myself," the lead single from the movie's soundtrack, which features Ross singing on her very first musical recording. As the film's executive music producer, Jerkins worked with her on another track, "Stop For A Minute," and helped Ross become comfortable with laying down tracks in a music recording studio, an experience she'd only witnessed second-hand while her mother worked on music.

"When we first started, that was Tracy's first time in the booths," says Jerkins about working with Ross. "That can become somewhat intimidating. I said, 'Tracy just trust me. I've worked with every artist. I've worked with actresses who had to sing before.' I said, 'This is what I do. Just have trust that we'll get through it.' As we started to work, her confidence started to build and she started to understand what it took."

VIBE and Cory Taylor of R&B Spotlight had a chance to sit down with Jerkins to talk about his extensive career, working on the official soundtrack for The High Note, his advice for upcoming producers, and more.

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On when he got the call to be a part of the film's soundtrack:

I was in Florida at home and Mike Knobloch, the head of music at Universal, he called me one day. He was just like, "Man, I got a prize that I think you would be perfect for. Would you mind reading the script?" I said, "Yes, send me the script." And this was crazy. I was actually working with an artist at the time. I have this artist named Jac Ross and I was just listening to Lee Moses because Jack has this super soulful voice. In the script, the first scene had a Lee Moses song. I called Mike before reading the rest of the script. I was like, "Yo, this is mine." I said, "The first song. I just studied Lee Moses two days ago." So the fact that the first song in the scene was a Lee Moses song called "Bad Girl," I was like, this is mine.

On how his Dad sparked his start in the music business:

I got started with Teddy Riley working in Virginia Beach. I was kind of this apprentice down there. I was 14 when I first met Teddy. Every summer I'd go down there and just kind of sit and learn. I would go back home and work on stuff and work on ideas. It wasn't really until I was probably 16 or 17 when I really got my first songs heard by record companies, and people started paying attention saying, "Yo, there's this kid in New Jersey." I think what really sparked that and my father, who was mentoring me at the time, I think I said to him one day, "I got all this good music, but nobody knows who I am, because I'm from South Jersey, Pleasantville." There's no outlet down there. My dad invested money out of his own pocket, and he bought this ad in Billboard.

At first, people thought he was crazy because there were no ads in Billboard. Like if you looked through Billboard, it was just charts. For some reason my dad, he bought this ad and in this ad it said: "Super producer." I was young and wasn't a super-producer yet. He put this ad in and 50% of the people laughing at it were saying, "Yo, this is crazy. This dude is crazy." You had the other 50% of people calling and saying, "Yo, we want to meet."

 

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Dad, Thanks for instilling in me Christ at an early age. It’s because of you I choose to lead my family in that same direction. You’ve given me so many great moments as a child growing up. Believing in me when others didn’t. Pushing me to greatness. Being unconventional with your approach is exactly the way I do things to this day. Demanding respect from my counterparts. Not being taken advantage of, and being prayerful about everything. These are the life lessons and qualities you have given me. By watching you apply all of these things in your life I’ve learned to do the same. I appreciate you and love you dearly! HAPPY FATHERS DAY DAD!

A post shared by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins (@rodneyjerkins) on Jun 21, 2020 at 4:51pm PDT

On his fondest memory of the late Andre Harrell:

He would call me up when I wasn't working with him. I remember when I did "Deja Vu" for Beyonce and Jay-Z. I was in New York City, the song was out, and Andre called and said, "Yo, where you at?" I said, "I'm in this old studio." "I'm coming to see you right now. I'm coming to see you right now." I ain't know what he wanted. He came up to the studio. He was like, "Playboy, playboy. Do you know what you just did? Do you know what you just gave this girl?" And I was like, "Nah," because I'm just keeping it moving.

He's like, "Man, you gave her Michael Jackson, 2005, like you gave her the Michael Jackson 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough' for a female like this." I was like, "What you mean?" He was like, "The way you put the horns with the live bass and the drums, and still knocking with the 808, people aren't doing that." He was so animated when he spoke to you. He made you believe there's something much greater in yourself. That was my guy, man. He did that constantly with me. He would be like that all the time. I'm talking about even like three months ago, like in February, we had a similar conversation.

Advice to up and coming producers looking to get their foot in the music business:

First, I would say study all the greats that came before you. I'm not talking in the last 10, 20 years. I'm talking about going back, going back to Barry Gordy days, and study them. Study sound. Every sound and every genre possible. Don't be a one-trick pony. Be able to produce any type of genre. I would also say be different. What I mean by that, a lot of technology has allowed it for producers to become easy, but it's also become easy in the same sonic, in the same sound. All the tools are the same. You have everybody using the same tools right now. It all starts to sound the same. I would tell producers to challenge themselves to be different. Be unique, be different.

On his future plans to produce music for films: 

I'm going to continue to do movies. I've made it my thing. I can't say it right now, but it looks like I got another movie coming my way right now. With the same company, by the way. I'm going to continue to do it because I love it. I think it brings out a whole different side of emotion for me. It allows me to create differently. Sometimes we get caught up in what's popping at radio, what's popping streaming...I would love to do more in the TV and film realm because I just think that's the natural progression for me and my career.

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