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Davis' new favorite: Underdogs

06.06.04: By Steve Hochman  Special to The Times

CLIVE DAVIS hasn't exactly been profligate when it comes to handing out label deals to producers and songwriters in the course of his storied career.

So he must have a lot of confidence in the Underdogs. Davis gave the writing-production team of Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas their own label, Underdog Entertainment, which will debut in late summer or fall.

"I've really only done it with Bad Boy and LaFace," says the chairman and CEO of BMG North America, with three decades as one of the music business' top executives under his belt. "So I've been very selective."

Given that those two labels both involved people who went on to join the ranks of the music business' power elite, the bar is pretty high. The Bad Boy deal, done while Davis was head of Arista Records, created a very successful fiefdom for Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and a home to such stars as Notorious B.I.G., Faith and Puff Daddy/P. Diddy himself.

LaFace, also created at Arista, was founded as the realm of the production-writing team of Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and developed such major acts as OutKast, Pink and Usher. Reid was so successful heading the company that he eventually replaced Davis as head of Arista.

"Clive trusting us with this label is a big thing," says Mason, the son of veteran jazz drummer Harvey Mason. "Clive has had an eye for seeing who he thinks
 will bring him stuff he can use and can sell."

The Underdogs are one of the leading hit-making entities of recent years, with its Los Angeles studio having been host to Justin Timberlake, Tyrese, Marian Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Brandy, Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard, among many others. The duo is currently working on the Backstreet Boys' reunion album and a Toni Braxton album. Many of those acts are already part of Davis' BMG sphere.
 Even before the label deal was struck, the Underdogs had become something of Davis' home team, working for him on many projects.

"We've been working closely together now for several years, Davis says. "To give them an opportunity to present artists to me, it was a natural extension. They brought us an artist we were going to call 3S, and it grew into this relationship. Yes, I'm very careful and selective, but on every count — how well we worked together, what success we had — it bodes well to continue and expand."

Mason says the key to the duo's approach is material that tells a story true to the artist.

"I don't think they have a particular signature," Davis says. "For me it's what led me to L.A. and Babyface, really — the songs they were submitting and writing."

The Underdogs are not just occupying their time with major-label talent, though. They've been participating in a program called Inner Cities Industry, through which they've been teaching disadvantaged youth about music production. The program is holding a gala event. this afternoon at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

"It's a cool story," says Mason. "The guy who started it, Bruce Wheatley, was a college friend of mine at the University of Arizona. He asked me to be involved and brings kids to the studio. Kids who want to be engineers hang out with the engineers, songwriters go with the songwriters, we give them music to work on and they take that back to school, write lyrics and they come back and we record the music. It's a great learning. experience."