Producers Corner:  The Underdogs



02.23.04: Harvey Mason Jr. has not said a word, but one already knows two very important facts about him: He’s incredibly
 busy, and he’s incredibly punctual. Busy enough to be forced to reschedule an interview five hours later in the day, due to an unexpected (but rather impressive) business meeting. And punctual enough to call for a 10 p.m. interview at exactly 10:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Not 9:59. Not 10:01. 10:00. Even better, when he does begin to speak, he offers the greatest excuse in the history of rescheduled-interview-excuses.
“Clive Davis surprised us today,” he says nonchalantly, “and then Toni Braxton came by, so we were back in the studio again.” Toni Braxton, of course, is one of the great R&B divas of the last decade, while Clive Davis could be the most revered record company executive in history, a man responsible for the careers of Whitney Houston, Santana and Alicia Keys, among others. Yet Mason’s nonchalance is not exactly unwarranted. After all, he first crossed paths with Braxton back in 2000, when he co-wrote “He Wasn’t Man Enough,” her Grammy-winning, No. 1 R&B hit, while working under the tutelage of another Grammy winner—producer Rodney Jerkins. As for Davis, he’s now a business partner, thanks to a recent deal with J Records to distribute Underdog Entertainment, the label helmed by Mason and his fellow collaborator, Damon Thomas.
The Underdogs (aka Mason and Thomas) may not yet be household names, but in their three years together they’ve worked with plenty who are, including Justin Timberlake, Tyrese and every American Idol save Clay Aiken. Their individual credits go back even further and are equally overwhelming. Thomas helped write and produce Brandy’s 1994 debut, helmed the boards for 2Pac’s final recording session, and co-wrote Top 10 hits for Pink, Faith Evans and Dru Hill. Not to be outdone, Mason’s stint with Jerkins resulted in engineering and writing credits for artists like Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, Mya and one of his idols, Michael Jackson. “Working with Michael for 18 months on [Invincible] was a life-changing experience. It was an amazing thing just to watch him every day.”

The dawn of 2004 finds the Underdogs busier than ever, handling sessions for Craig David, Heather Headley and Babyface, even as their second production for Ruben Studdard, "sorry 2004," climbs the charts.  And Mason wouldn't have it anhy other way; this is a man who loves the studio so much, he  can't even pick a favorite "studio moment."  "There're too many," he confesses happily.  "Every day we work with an artist is an adventure.  It's always fun and different in some kind of way."

You got your start mentoring under Rodney Jerkins, one of the hottest producers of the last 10 years.  I suspect that was pretty invaluable experience.

Oh yeah, I can't really put a price tag on it.  I learned so much, and we made a lot of great records in that time.  He exposed me to the types of artists I wanted to work with and the types of businesses I wanted to be in; he showed me how to structure my company... there were just so many different things.  the work ehthic he had-taking music so seriously, like it's life or death-was a great thing to see.

How old were you when you started working with him?

I must've been...(thinks for a moment) 29.

So was it a "big brother" relationship?

No, because he was only 19 at the time (laughs)!  If it was that type of relationship, it was in reverse.  we were just really close, musicallly and collaboratively.

Was there any specific factor that caused you to step out on your own?

Not really.  We just had different ways we wanted to work, and different things we wanted to work on.  I mean, I came to Rodney's camp as a songwriter and producer; i had produced records on my own already.  so at some point, I'm sure it was inevitable I was going to do my own thing.  There came a time when we each had certain (seperate) projects we wanted to do, and away we went.
But it was a  very amicable split.  we still get along really well, and we talk from time to time.  I'm always happy when things go well for him, and hopefully he feels the same for me.

So what prompted you to hook up with Damon?  After leaving one collaborative relationship, I would assume you'd be eager to celebrate your independence.

Well, that's what I started doing, actually!  I was like, "I don't want any partnerships.  I don't want to be involved with anybody."  But I had met Damon years earlier, when he tried to work with us at DarkChild (Entertainment, Jerkins' production company).  For one reason or another, it didn't work out, but I always remembered him being a relly talented, cool guy.  So, when I got to L.A., we just connected.  He said, "Let's write a song together," and I wasn't so sure, but then it felt totally natural.  the first couple songs we wrote were great.  and once they were recorded and became singles ("I Like Them Girls" for Tyrese and "You Got the Damn Thing" for Olivia), they established us a partnership.  It wasn't anything we planned out.  It was just a way to get some creativity flowing.  we never really had a plan of starting a company and being producers together.

With the rise of "name" producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes in urban music, does it seem like young musicians who might've gone into singing or rhyming are now treating production as a viable career option?

I don’t know. It depends on where their interests lie. Speaking for myself, I’m not a big fan of being in front of people onstage, trying to do a show. I just like making music. So, for me personally, I looked at the music business and said, “Well, what do I want to do? I want to write, I want to make songs, I want to produce, I want to be in the studio.” Weighing the decision to be an artist versus a producer? It was pretty easy for me.
Also, it depends where your talent lies. If you’re a great singer, you don’t want to waste that gift just producing records for everybody else. You need to follow your talent.

But there has been a trend of talented artists, like Missy Elliott or Pharrell Williams, starting their careers making hits for others.
I think a lot of those folks might’ve tried to be artists first, but didn’t have success until getting the visibility of being a producer. You can establish a “coolness factor” that way. It certainly helps you as an artist.

Although we won’t be seeing an Underdogs album anytime soon.

You won’t see anything coming from me, that’s for sure (laughs)!

That said, you’re doing a lot of work behind the scenes before the actual artist is even involved.

Yeah, myself and Damon play nearly all the instruments. We also write, do the melody, do the lyric … we pretty much do all of it.

Do you use the “Prince technique”—basically putting an entire track together from scratch, then just replacing your vocal with the voice of the artist?
Well, it’s the modern era of technology, so we could do that. But we also have other people we collaborate with, so they’ll work with us on a lyric or melody. And sometimes people from our camp will bring an idea for a track, or a concept for a lyric. There’s other writers involved—it’s not just me sitting down playing and singing everything. It’s an ongoing process. A lot of times, our songs will develop from the beginning to the end. We’ll mess with a track right up until the time we’re mixing, and even then we might mess with it some more.

How much of the artist’s input goes into a track?

Sometimes a ton, and sometimes none! There are times when we have a song as the artist comes into the studio. But other times the artist writes with us, so we wind up talking about what their feelings are and where they’re coming from with the rest of the album. That way, we’re in line with where they want to go creatively. It just depends on the artist.
Do you have a preference?

I enjoy trying to make a song special for the artist. Pretty much all the songs we write are specific, whether or not the artist participated in the actual writing process. To sit and talk to an artist and see what they’re going through in their life—what they do to have fun, or what phrases they say—makes the writing more exciting. The track is more personal, so it’s more “felt” when they sing it. And that translates to the listener, I think.

I suspect it’s more enjoyable to the artist when a song is “tailor-made” for them.

Yeah, if we’re that specific and that detailed about their life, they really feel it. They’re excited to have a voice in their music, as opposed to just singing a song that somebody told them to sing.

Which probably happens more and more nowadays, since R&B is big business, and there’s always a dozen executives or A&R men pulling an artist in different ways.

Right. That’s very true.

Do you ever feel some of that outside pressure?

Yeah, we see some of it because the record companies are putting a big investment on the line for these songs. So every song is important to them, which I can respect. When they spend the kind of money they do to make a record, they want every song to be something they feel good about. So we’ll deal with A&R people constantly, pretty much on every song.
Most of those experiences are great, though. I mean, they love the music; we love the music. We might have differences of opinion, but music is always objective. As long as there’s a respect level between A&R and the producer, usually it works out pretty well. If you’re coming from the frame of mind of, “Let’s make the best record we possibly can,” then we totally respect that. And we’ll get along great.

Now that you have your own label, you’ll be doing some A&R yourself. Is that going to be a difficult adjustment?

Well, I’m a producer before I’m a businessman. So I might have to switch hats and spend a little more time wearing the business hat. But when it comes time to make the records, I’ll be approaching from the musical standpoint. And I think it’s going to be that much easier dealing with other musicians, because hopefully they’ll have some respect for what I’ve done and what I’ve established, both for my artists and for artists in other companies. And I’ll have total respect for them, because I know what trials you go through to make a record.

How much difference is there between working with an established artist—say, Luther Vandross, who’s been making albums for over 20 years—versus a brand-new performer like Ruben Studdard?

When you’re dealing with artists like Luther, who are at a very established level, they know exactly what they do. They know who their audience is, they know who they’re trying to reach, they know how they’re supposed to sound and they know what radio stations will play their music. And they come to the studio with all that information. As a producer, you try to use that information as best you can, but you also try to complement it with the things you bring to the table.
When you’re working with new artists, you’re helping them define their sound. You’re helping to find their market. You’re finding what kind of songs they should be singing, and what radio stations will play them. So it’s a lot more about defining an artist and collaborating with them to develop what their sound really is. And even though a lot of new artists have their “sound” already, they still don’t have any past success to bank on. They can’t say, “This is me. This is what I do.” No matter how confident a new artist is, they don’t have the history of someone like Luther.
It’s just a different process in making records. You don’t have to do as much psychology with someone like Luther. He comes in, he knows what he wants, and he knows what he’s going to do. And as a producer, I’ve studied all his records. And I know his range, I know what his favorite licks are, I know what he does. And so I can push him to do the best he can do, and hopefully a little past that. But with a new artist, it’s more about exploring and discovering what’s there.

If the bulk of your waking hours are spent in the studio, then why not tailor the studio to your own needs? That’s the idea behind the Underlab, a self-contained facility taking up an entire floor in Babyface’s Edmonds Tower complex. Indicative of the producers’ desire to move quickly between multiple projects, the studio boasts four independent tracking rooms, each containing identical equipment setups. “All the rooms are outfitted with the stuff we like to use, and we can literally walk in and just hit ‘record,’” says Mason. “There might be a specific mic we need for somebody’s sound, but for the most part, everything runs through the same chain and gets recorded in the same way. It’s a nice system. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t want to go to another studio and have to make records.”
The Underdogs don’t attach their name to a lot of products, but they do endorse Emagic’s Logic. “We use that software in all our rooms and all our samplers. That’s a big part of how we make our records.” And, on a personal level, Mason confesses he can’t live without his Apple iTunes library. “That’s the difference between now and then. I still have a ton of albums, but they’re all iTune-d now. I travel with my computer so much, and I could never carry all those CDs around.”

You’re gonna love this one: What are five essential albums or artists to shape you as a producer?
Wow … tough question. (Long pause) I think there’s different categories to that answer. The modern stuff that inspires us would include R. Kelly and a lot of things the Neptunes do. But our music is also influenced by a lot of different records from the past: Quincy Jones, Kenny Loggins, Babyface. We love Coldplay, if you can believe that! We think Timbaland’s incredible. (Pause) I remember songs by the Gap Band that messed me up. Same with Lionel Richie. Michael Jackson did that a lot, from his early stuff all the way through the Teddy Riley [productions]. I would just sit and study those. And I remember I heard Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and thought, “These guys are incredible.” (Pause) Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Christopher Cross. (Laughs) I’m leaving out a million different people who have changed my life. I’m sorry. 


B2K – “Gots ta Be” (B2K) *
Kylie Dean – “Who Will I Run To”
Joe – “Priceless” (And Then … )
Brian McKnight – “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda” (U Turn)
Stacie Orrico – “(There’s Gotta Be) More To Life” (Stacie Orrico) *
Calvin Richardson – “Not Like This” (2:35 P.M.)
Ruben Studdard – “Flying Without Wings” (Soulful) *
Ruben Studdard – “Sorry 2004” (Soulful) *
Justin Timberlake – “Still on My Brain” (Justified)
Tyrese – “I Like Them Girls” (2000 Watts) *
Tyrese – “How You Gonna Act Like That” (I Wanna Go There) *
Tyrese – “Signs of Love Makin’” (I Wanna Go There) *

*indicates Top 10 single

Babyface – Face2Face
Brandy – Brandy
Brandy – Never Say Never
Kelly Clarkson – Thankful
Dru Hill – Enter the Dru
Faith Evans – Keep the Faith
Fourplay – Heartfelt
Whitney Houston – My Love Is Your Love
Michael Jackson – Invincible
Mya – Fear of Flying
Pink – Can’t Take Me Home
Britney Spears – Oops! … I Did It Again
2Pac & Outlawz – Still I Rise
Luther Vandross – Luther Vandross