Interview: An “Underdog” in Name Only, Harvey Mason Jr. Has Grown Into One of R&B’s Elite Producers
Over the past decade in r&b, the terms Harvey Mason Jr. and The Underdogs have been synonymous with hit records. Even the most casual r&b fan is sure to have heard of the Underdogs, and if they haven’t, the odds are very good they produced one of their favorite songs. Harvey Mason Jr., one half of the production duo, was groomed by Darkchild and has gone a long way to live up to his mentor’s legacy; one hit song at a time. As great admirers of the music he’s helped to create over the years, we’re excited to bring you this exclusive interview with one of r&b’s elite producers. Harvey took the time to discuss with us how he originally got his start under Darkchild, how the Underdogs were originally formed, his process for creating music with artists, the history behind some of his biggest production credits, his hiatus from the Underdogs, coming back together to work on Chris Brown’s “F.A.M.E.” album, what’s next, and more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How did your father’s career as a musician play a role in your life as you went on to become a producer?
Harvey Mason Jr.: Well just growing up around music my whole life and being in the studio as a kid and watching my dad do his job always made me interested in it and was something that I saw him enjoying and saw him make a living out of. It definitely influenced my career choice and definitely introduced me to the field and how to make a living out of it. It also gave me a passion and an appreciation for real music. My father was part of a generation of musicians that were amazing at what they did and great musicians and great artists. I was very fortunate to be around and be exposed to some amazing music and musicians.
YKIGS: How did you originally link up with Rodney “Darkchild”Jerkins?
HM: I had finished my college, I played basketball in college, and I had finished and went to decide what I wanted to do for a career path. I had always been writing songs so I started writings songs and making music for artists. I was making trips out to Los Angeles to play my music for record executives, artists, other producers or anyone who would listen. At one point, Brandy and her A&R person heard a song I had did called “Truthfully” and Rodney happened to be executive producing the album. So when he heard “Truthfully” he loved it and wanted whoever wrote it to be brought out to L.A., so we spoke and he asked if I’d be up for co-producing the song with him and I agreed. He was a producer that I respected and really liked his work so the chance to work together on that song was a perfect introduction. So we worked together on that song, and the week after we finished working on that song, he told me he was going to work on Whitney Houston’s album and asked if I wanted to come along. So he kept asking me to come with him to work with different artists every week so for two years we just worked together non-stop the entire time.
YKIGS: So was “Truthfully” your first major placement as a producer?
HM: I had some smaller records placed and I had been doing some work with smaller artists, but I guess that was the turning point for me and it introduced me to Rodney and his team. It also exposed me to the high level executives on the record side; they started paying attention to my writing. So that was definitely a tipping point for me.
YKIGS: Give me the history behind the Underdogs and how that production team originally formed.
HM: It actually stemmed from the Darkchild camp because Damon Thomas at that point was working for Babyface as part of his camp and was looking to move on. So he went and met with Rodney and myself and was talking to us about possibly working with us. Damon came and hung out with us in the studio and was working on some music with us, we got along well, but it ended up not working out for whatever reason and Damon didn’t mesh with the Darkchild camp completely; so Damon went on his way. Ultimately when I parted ways with Rodney, Damon and I reconnected and we jumped on the phone and decided to try and do it again. I didn’t really want to join another camp; I had been with Rodney for two years and I kinda wanted to do my own thing. But since Damon was up for it, I was up for it, and we got together and started writing songs. The first song we wrote was a song called “I Like Them Girls” and it was a record that a lot of people really liked and a lot of artists wanted, but we ended up cutting it with Tyrese. So that was how the partnership was formed; we didn’t really have a partnership, we didn’t have a name, we didn’t have a bank account, but we people wanted to pay us for that record. So we had to set up a name and a bank account quickly, and that’s how it happened.
YKIGS: Did the Underdogs grow over the years, or did it remain just you two?
HM: Well the Underdogs were always Damon and myself. Then we signed other writers to the company and other producers. Eric Dawkins played an important role in the early Underdog days and Steve Russell wrote a lot of the songs with us, Tank wrote a lot of songs with us. So there were definitely other people collaborating with us and writing with us but Damon and I started it and kinda had the master plan of working together with other writers and other creative people and collaborating to make great music.
YKIGS: Talk about your process when putting a song together. We’ve spoken to many producers and each of them have different techniques for creating a song and working with artists, what’s yours?
HM: We always like to write songs specifically for artists; we don’t just sit around writing random songs. We like to know who we’re writing for and we like to know exact specifics. So when we got hired to do a job, for example we just worked with Mary J. Blige, she’ll come to the studio and play us a lot of songs, we’ll talk to her, we’ll see where she’s at in her life and her career, see what her frame of mind is, and then we’ll write a song specifically for her. So we kinda like to get a gauge from the artist where they are, and then the artist doesn’t necessarily have to be in the studio the whole time, but it’s good to be around them and get their influence and their input and their frame of mind. It’s also good to know where they are in their career; we have to study their past work, we have to study the work they’re doing at the time you’re working with them so you don’t just do something that’s totally out of left field for them. On the other hand, you want to be original and you want to do something that somebody else wouldn’t do. So it’s really a fine line between paying attention to what they’ve done and where they are in their careers along with kinda pushing the boundaries for them and doing something that’s fresh.
YKIGS: I’ve got a list of a few of the biggest songs you’ve had a hand in creating and I was hoping to get some background on them and how the song came together.
YKIGS: The first one is Omarion’s “O”.
HM: We were in the studio with Omarion and we were working on songs for him specifically. I think he said some to the effect of the name of the album was going to be “O” or something happened where we knew that was a really cool title and something we wanted to work with. Tank actually had a big hand in that record, he started working on the track and brought it to Damon and I and we thought we had something. That’s generally how the Underdog camp would work; we’d all go to our rooms or come up with track ideas and come up with starts and then we’d come together to finish them. So that was something that Tank started and we heard it, loved it, developed it, and finished writing the lyrics. Of course, the track for us comes first and then we finish writing the lyrics. We played it for Omarion and he loved it and cut it. That was a really fun record.
YKIGS: “Naked” by Marques Houston.
HM: I think that was the third song we did for Marques’ record, we had done two already, and we really wanted to push him vocally, we didn’t think he had been showcasing what he could do singing wise in some of his past records. We had the idea of kinda taking him into a falsetto direction and showcasing that part of his voice. From there, we knew the general idea of the key, we came up with the track, I don’t remember whose concept it was, but we thought the “Naked” concept was original and a little bit racy and provocative enough for Marques to be able to pull it off. So we finished the lyrics, Marques loved it and delivered great vocals. For us on that one, it was all about trying to get great vocals; we had written the song specifically to showcase what we could do vocally and I think we pulled it off because I think that was one of the best songs he’s ever had.
YKIGS: Justin Timberlake “Still on My Brain”.
HM: That was one of the earlier songs we did as the Underdogs. Damon and I were in the studio with Justin, he was in the studio with us, he had come to work with us for his first solo record. He played us some stuff he had done with The Neptunes early on for that record and we were totally floored, we felt it was groundbreaking music. He also played us some songs he did with Timbaland like “Cry Me a River”. So he played us these songs and said he needed a musical balled to round it out, something that would showcase his vocals. So after listening to a lot of the material for Justin’s record, me and Damon sat down at the piano and started fiddling around with different chords. Justin was there on that particular occasion and started singing, so really the three of us just came up with that on the spot based on an acoustic piano, then we finished up writing it and produced it. That one came together quickly with the artist in the room and he had a lot of input on that.
YKIGS: Tyrese “How You Gonna Act Like That”.
HM: We had worked with Tyrese on his subsequent album and we had a good feel for Tyrese. For him, his songs have to have the right attitude, they have to say the write things, and a lot of times he’s speaking to girls. We have a pretty good handle on how to write for Tyrese, so that was just some personal experience some of us were going through, I don’t remember exactly who, but the concept came about of a girl mistreating a guy, and this is the guy’s response. That’s how that song came together; it was a concept first, which a lot of times doesn’t happen, and then we worked backwards from there. We came up with the track and Eric Dawkins was really involved in the writing of that and then we played it for Tyrese and he loved it. I thought he delivered that one impeccably.
YKIGS: We noticed that in 2009 you started doing a lot of production on your own. After teaming up with Darkchild, and then teaming up with Damon Thomas as part of the Underdogs, what was it like producing on your own?
HM: We had kinda done a lot of records together as part of the Underdogs and Damon and I had decided to go our separate ways and kinda do our own thing. So in 2009, or maybe 2008 even, I started producing my own music and going back to what I did before. I did some fun records, I even got into some TV and film stuff which was always a goal of mine. I just took that time to develop new opportunities. I did a lot of work for Clive Davis and I did a lot of American Idol stuff, and some Jennifer Hudson stuff. I had been producing records on my own for a long time so it was not a huge shock to my system to be not working with Damon. It was a good opportunity for me to just do what I wanted to do; I picked projects that were fun for me and I took my time and did them.
YKIGS: We know that on Chris Brown’s new album you guys reunited as the Underdogs. Is that going to be a permanent thing and how did you guys decide to come back together?
HM: Well the idea was brought to us by a couple of executives in the industry and one of them was the A&R for Chris Brown’s record, he thought it would be great for us to do a song together. I was up for it and Damon was up for it, the three years had gone by and we hadn’t written any songs together so we came together to write a song for Chris’ record. We wrote two and recorded two; one is on “F.A.M.E.” and the other is on “Fortune”. It was perfect timing and the songs we wrote I guess were somewhat on track to what he wanted and the executive was expecting. So the experiment worked out and we’ve been writing songs continuously since then. You never know if it’s permanent or not permanent, but we’re definitely enjoying writing songs together. Eric Dawkins is back in the mix and Steve Russell has been working with us along with some other young guys. We’ve got a really great energy going with what we’re doing and we definitely plan on continuing it and playing it out and seeing where it takes us.
YKIGS: Who are some artists you’re currently working with and what projects do you have coming up in the future?
HM: We’ve been working really hard on this Mary J. Blige record and we’ve done quite a few songs for that. In addition we’ve done a song with her for a soundtrack for a film called “The Help” which is a really great and special song, we wrote that with Mary J. as well. We’ve been working with a couple of new artists on Jive like Jacob Lattimore. We’ve been working on Jason Derulo’s new album. We worked on Nicole Scherzinger’s new record, we did a soundtrack song with Jennifer Hudson. The other thing we’ve been doing that’s kinda cool is working with Tia Toscana, she’s one of the girls from Idol that I think was let go prematurely, she’s got a great voice. I’m very excited about her record and what she’s got coming up. We’ve also been working with The Braxton’s which is Toni and Tamar and I did some songs for their television show. Supposedly they’re going to be doing solo records so that will be fun. I’m just trying to pick the right projects that are good music and good people.
YKIGS: You’re one of the top producers in r&b and have been for years now. Since there are a lot of talented producers in r&b these days, do you ever view it as a competition or is there some sort of comradery there? Can you just sit back and enjoy the work of other producers?
HM: Well first of all I think it’s very competitive. I think any time there’s more than one person competing for the same slot on the record there’s intense competition. There are fewer records being made so there are fewer and fewer slots for songs to be placed. It is competitive but it’s a fraternity and all of the guys making r&b records know about each other. There are guys that have been doing it a long time and there are new guys that are coming up and we’ve got to keep our eyes on all of them and try and bring them into the business the right way. Sometimes I’ll reach out and mentor younger guys and sometimes they’ll reach out to us and ask us questions which we always love and respect. Then the guys who’ve been doing it a long time we definitely keep in touch, we talk, we collaborate a lot of times and work on projects together. If you’re an r&b artist you’re going to go through and see three or four of the top r&b guys so we all work together and get input on how to best work with certain artists. It’s not competitive to the point where we are all fighting with each other; we all get along well and respect each other. I definitely appreciate and admire a lot of the work these other guys are doing and I get a lot of inspiration from r&b producers and producers of other genres of music. When I get a chance to meet them at awards shows, I definitely take the time to go up and talk to the guys that I respect and am motivated by. So it’s really kind of a fun group of guys.