YouKnowIGotSoul had an opportunity to speak with Harvey Mason jr. who is currently the Interim President and CEO of the Recording Academy. Harvey is most known for his work with his production team The Underdogs as they’ve produced countless classics for the likes of Chris Brown, Jennifer Hudson, Toni Braxton and Tank. In this interview, we talk about the work that he’s doing with the Recording Academy right now including the MusiCares program and the COVD-19 Relief Fund. Harvey also discusses what his plans are for the GRAMMYs and responds to some of the criticisms that he’s seen with the annual award show. Lastly we discuss his work on Aretha Franklin’s upcoming biopic as well as some of his history with Rodney Jerkins and The Underdogs.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Recording Academy®/Photo by Rich Polk, Getty Images©
YouKnowIGotSoul: You played basketball at the University of Arizona and then became one of the biggest music producers in the industry. Now you’re running the Recording Academy, so just talk about how you’ve been able to successfully transition through each phase of your career.
Harvey Mason jr.: I think about that and I look at all the people that I went to college and played basketball with like Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott. We’ve all done the same thing. We’ve used our background and training from basketball and pivot to different careers. For me, I used all the lessons that I learned in sports and I used those in music. It’s a weird combination but the competition, sacrifice, hard work, dedication, ability to be persistent and singularly focus on something, those are things that don’t normally come with being a producer. It definitely comes with being an athlete, so I brought that to my music making. I sacrificed and wouldn’t go out to clubs and party with my friends. I would be in the studio trying to get better. I would have doors slammed in my face and they would say “This isn’t’ very good” and I would be like “Great, that’s my motivation. That’s what I need to get better”. Those are things you get from sports or hanging around people like Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott or my coach Lute Olson. I’ve been able to do that throughout my music career. Once I got into the music career, the desire to learn and be challenged also came from sports and those people I played with because to transition into being involved in the Recording Academy comes from wanting to do something else exciting and important. To be able to learn, grow and evolve, I’ve been very lucky to do multiple things in the industry. It’s not just about producing records all day. It went from producing records and then making music for TV and films and now involved in the Recording Academy. Having the opportunity to develop other parts of my professional career and personal life has been very gratifying.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your role with the Recording Academy.
Harvey Mason jr.: I ran for chair which is an elected position. I won that position about a year ago and then I was asked to step in as as the Interim President and CEO of the Recording Academy. In that position, I’m really responsible for the day to day operation. It’s everything from our affiliates program like MusiCares which raises money and helps people in need who are music professionals. Not just members, but anyone in the profession who has issues with addictions or needs help with bill paying or medical care. It’s for someone who has been involved in a disaster and has lost their instrument or their studio has been damaged. People in the music community has MusiCares as a resource. The other thing that the Academy does is advocate on behalf of people in Washington, DC. It’s people working on legislation to make sure that music people are fairly compensated. We just made a huge push on the COVID-19 Relief Fund. Our teams in DC made sure the voice of our music people were heard and represented. That worked because now music business people are considered small businesses and they can apply for loans or unemployment. We’re also very active in education and making sure young people are exposed and educated around music from an early age. We provide instruments and teachers for schools. Of course we’re also involved in the Grammmy process. We reward and award greatness in music as well as preserving and making sure history in music is continually archived and preserved. As President and CEO, I’m responsible for making sure that the organization is doing all of those things to the best of our ability. We also make sure that we’re representing our 22,000 members in our academy as well as the music industry as a whole so that it can be something that we can be proud of.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We’ve seen a lot of changes that have taken place in the music industry since the start of this pandemic. How has it affected you as a producer?
Harvey Mason jr.: I’m very fortunate that I have great people that I work with and I’m able to continue writing. I have a studio that I can create from. I’m one of the rare few. There are so many people that have been affected and their career has come to a grinding halt. I’m lucky that I have a couple of films and songwriting that I’m doing. It’s very difficult for a lot of music people to go through this. It’s one of the reasons why I thought the COVID-19 Relief Fund was so important.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The pandemic has forced musicians to innovate and find new ways to promote their music. Timbaland and Swizz Beats have been doing those Verzuz battles. Can we expect The Underdogs joining in on a battle soon?
Harvey Mason jr.: I don’t know. *Laughs* I’m not as good at bragging and dancing on screen as I would need to be to do good in one of those settings. A lot of people have been asking us if we would want to do one. Who knows? I sure enjoy them. Teddy Riley and Babyface was one of my favorites. A lot of them are people that I’ve admired and respected for so many years. To see all those string of hits together back to back, it’s incredible.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The last time we spoke, you were working on the music for the Aretha Franklin “Respect” biopic. Talk about the music that you did for that.
Harvey Mason jr.: It’s coming out in December now. We pushed it back a couple of months because of the craziness that’s been happening. The music and film are great and Jennifer Hudson is amazing. We’re very excited. The music was real recreations of the classic and iconic copyrights and Jennifer is singing them all. She’s singing them as new versions. Some films use original versions, but this is all Jennifer re-recording all the songs. It’s really exciting and it sounds amazing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What’s your approach when you’re recreating classic songs?
Harvey Mason jr.: It’s a fine line that you really have to balance. What people love about the original song and respecting the copyright and then making sure you’re giving the audience something that they’re used to hearing today. They’re used to hearing big bass and sharp high ends. The 1960’s didn’t have those qualities. You’re walking a line between “How do I make sure I don’t screw up the classics” and balancing that with “How do I make sure when people are listening to the songs in theater, it blows them away?”. It’s about the music sounding amazing and relevant.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You spoke about the GRAMMYs earlier and I know a lot of people on social media complain that the GRAMMYs are rigged. How do you ensure that the authenticity of the GRAMMY awards is still there?
Harvey Mason jr.: I think it’s making sure people realize what the process is and education around what we do and how we derive our winners is important. There’s absolutely zero part of our process that’s rigged. It’s up to us being transparent and letting people know our rules and procedures. It’s making sure that we communicate this stuff properly and it’s definitely a priority for me because I want the honor of winning a GRAMMY to always be consistent. I want somebody to win the GRAMMY and say “This is the greatest night of my life”. That’s what it’s always meant to me and I think anyone who has ever won a GRAMMY would say the same. It’s emotional and exciting, so I want to make sure that continues and get the word out to anybody in the community that has questions about how our process works and how pristine our voting process is. But that falls on us and it falls on me specifically as the person leading the Recording Academy. It’s my job right now to make sure what our process is and it’s also my job to make sure that the process is absolutely unquestionable. Those are all things I’m working on and it’s a huge priority for me. I’ll also tell you that you’re going to see some changes. I’ve been here four months and in the next month, you’re going to see changes with what we do. We’re going to institute new things into our process and we’ll be talking about it. I know this is important to you, but you’ll see how important it is to me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The other complaint people have is that the R&B categories are never broadcasted during the GRAMMYs telecast. I know there’s a lot that factor into those decisions such as ratings, but how do you make sure that every genre gets the attention that it deserves?
Harvey Mason jr.: It’s definitely a balancing act because we want to represent all the different genres and we want to cycle between different genres and which one we can show on the telecast every year. There are 12 slots and you’re trying to juggle which genres you can fill every year and you’re balancing that with what our network partner wants to see on our show. As an academy, our funding comes from the show. It’s not funding that we just have parties with, this is funding that goes into running the Academy and making sure we’re providing for the music community. That goes back to the MusiCares, advocacy, education and museum. Everything we do as an academy is funded by that television show. We really have to balance our desire to be fair and balanced and showcase all genres with making sure our CBS partnership is strong and provides us with the income to make sure we can keep our programs and provide for the music community.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You and Damon Thomas signed a lot of songwriters to The Underdogs camp. Talk about the importance of finding younger talent and grooming them.
Harvey Mason jr.: Although I was older than Rodney Jerkins, he was actually like my little brother and he’s somebody that brought me into his Darkchild camp. I learned so much from being around him and grew so much as a producer and songwriter during my two years there. When I finished working with Rodney, Damon was finishing working with Babyface. That’s why we named ourselves the Underdogs because we came out under two very successful production companies. As we got more and more busy, we started meeting other talented people that were coming to us. We just started signing people to our company. We were becoming so busy that we were having to write ten songs a week for different artist. Having talented people around us that brought us amazing inspirations, ideas and songs was always part of the plan. We knew we were going to build a collective group of creatives and that’s why The Underdogs was so special. We had a great blend of unique people working together.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about developing James Fauntleroy early on. He’s one of the best songwriters in the music industry right now.
Harvey Mason jr.: We saw an amazing amount of creativity. It was hyper creativity coming from somebody who didn’t have any experience or knowledge about songwriting, but just the creative ability to write genius lyrics and melodies. When we first signed James, he didn’t have a lot background in professional songwriting, but he had this way with words. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. We wanted him to be a part of what we were doing and he came in right away without the barriers of knowing what you’re supposed to and not supposed to do, it was just pure art. He was a true artist in every sense of the word. He got into our system and just got the repetition that he needed and the amount of collaborations and interactions with other creatives. He really grew in that system. Don’t get me wrong, He was great when he got there, but he added some additional skills to repertoire after hanging around all the different people in the camp. He’s definitely grown into one of the most talented songwriters in the game right now.