The Underdogs: Fresh Produce

  They may dub themselves The Underdogs, but the production duo consisting of Harvey Mason, Jr. and Damon Thomas is anything but sub-par. Getting their start in two of music’s most revered production teams, Mason and Thomas developed a team of their own in 1999. To date, they have worked with a number of R&B […]


They may dub themselves The Underdogs, but the production duo consisting of Harvey Mason, Jr. and Damon Thomas is anything but sub-par. Getting their start in two of music’s most revered production teams, Mason and Thomas developed a team of their own in 1999. To date, they have worked with a number of R&B artists including Omarion, Joe, Donell Jones, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Fantasia and Whitney Houston to name a few. Their most recent accomplishment came from their production of the soundtrack for the film adaptation of Dreamgirls. Life couldn’t be better for The Underdogs, who pride themselves on being the best at what they do. In fact at one point, they had seven songs on the chart all at once. While it may seem like they’ve reached the top, the team took a minute to talk to us about remaining focused and hard working – forever the vices of the underdog. Hey fellas! It was hard getting a hold of you guys. Where are you? Harvey: I’m at the studio. I’m at the same place I’m always at. You guys define versatility. It’s obvious you have no boundaries as to what you can do with music. How do you go about working on the Shrek the Third Soundtrack and then proceed to lace Omarion with a song? Damon: They approached us with it and it was a great opportunity to work with Eddie Murphy and Antonia Banderas. It was really cool. It’s a different set of challenges, but it’s fun. It’s all music to us. Harvey: Definitely a different set of challenges. For something like Shrek, musically it’s fun because it’s a chance to do live instrumentation, and of course it’s crazy to work with Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas. And flipping over to Omarion, he’s just such a huge star. He has so much talent and energy, and we just try to translate that into a song. But why no Hip-Hop? Harvey: You know, that’s not really a distinction we made for ourselves. [R&B artists] are the people that come to us, but we love Hip-Hop. We’d love to do some Hip-Hop. Damon, few people know that you were a songwriting and production partner for R&B producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds during the late 1990s. What would you consider the most valuable lesson you learned through your work with him? Damon: [Babyface] is like a big brother to me. I would say he taught me to never be afraid to change something, to do my own thing. Harvey, contrarily, you were a member of the Darkchild crew. What would you consider to be the biggest difference between working with Rodney Jerkins and your new partner, Damon? Harvey: While working with Rodney Jerkins, I was employed by him. Creatively, he set the tone. It was his company. Working with Damon, we’re truly creative partners – we challenge each other. Was splitting with your former partners difficult, or were they understanding of your new career prospects? Damon: It was something [Babyface and I] both thought I should do. He’s such a huge name that he thought it would be best that I stand on my own and build a name for myself. For me, it was hard at first, but it worked out because I still work with him on some things. Harvey: There were no hard feelings at all between me and Rodney [Jerkins]. We spent every day of the year together for two years straight. I learned a lot, and I owe a lot to him for teaching me all that he taught me. I just think it got to the time where we both needed a change, and I needed to develop on my own. Harvey, what would you say Damon brings to the table that you feel is uniquely different from you? Harvey: Hmm. I don’t know. He’s a lot crazier than I am. He’ll try a bunch of different ideas. He’s very experimental. He says dumb lyrics and stuff but they end up working out and turning into something great. But I’m the grinder. The work-a-holic. Same question for you, Damon. What does Harvey bring to the partnership, distinctly different from you? Damon: Harvey is focused. I can make a whole room light up, but sometimes I need a break from it. Not Harvey. That’s probably the biggest difference. That seems to work out. Balance is important. Now you guys produced the score for the Oscar-winning film, Dreamgirls. That must have been an amazing accomplishment for you, since you haven’t had your production company off the ground for 10 years yet. How did that opportunity come about? Damon: It was like making history. It was a great experience. Not in too many producers’ lives have they had the opportunity to work on such a huge film, musically. We are just happy to be a part of history. Harvey: I don’t know how it ultimately started, but we had a meeting with the music supervisor, we played some material, and they gave us an idea of what they wanted the sound to be. They came out to the studio and saw that we are real musicians. I think they saw that and developed a lot more confidence in us as musical producers. We started working immediately. We did 61 songs. There were orchestras and everything. You have to be a true musician, not just a beat maker to do that kind of stuff, you know. What was running through your minds when Jennifer Hudson won the Academy Award for best supporting actress? Damon: I was very happy for her. She is a very humble person – she was always very nice. Even if we are at red carpet events or parties, she is always very sweet and nice. Harvey: I was just excited and just really really pleased for her. She deserved it. Her performance was amazing. She is a nice girl and she works hard, really hard, and it’s great to see her enjoying the fruits of her labor. She’s super-nice, friendly and down to earth, so to see someone like that win was amazing. You are working with Jennifer on her debut album. Since she has been catapulted into stardom after winning the Oscar, do you guys feel pressure to deliver something bigger and better than you originally anticipated? Harvey: No, we don’t really succumb to pressure. We have worked with many monumental artists. It isn’t pressure for us because it’s music. It’s just good energy. Every time we step in the studio we try to do something great, whether it’s a new artist or an accomplished artist. Since we’re on the topic of artists that you have worked with, what artist would you say has been the most difficult to create music and lyrics for? Harvey: Different artists we approach differently. We spend a lot of time working with them, learning about what they are about. We try to do our homework in advance, because any artist can be difficult to work with if you don’t do your homework. There have been a couple of occasions when working with younger girls, like 13-year-olds, and sometimes that can be a challenge because you don’t know what to write for a 13-year-old, naturally. Trying to put ourselves in that position is difficult. But that would really be it, as far as difficulty. Damon: Harvey and I are blessed. We are really good at what we do. I agree. Live instrumentation is coming back in a major way, and you guys are ahead of the curve because you both play instruments. What are some of the instruments you play? Damon: I am a piano player first, but I can probably play anything. I’ve been playing the piano since I was five. Harvey: I play piano, bass, drums, a little guitar, and a lot of percussion. No keyboards for you guys, huh? Harvey: That’s my main thing now, but I can mess around with all kinds of instruments. Alright, while we’re on the topic of keyboards and real musicianship, let’s talk about your take on “ghost producers.” Harvey: We don’t believe too strongly in ghost producing. We both worked really hard and we have a great team. You can look at the credits and see who they are and what they do. When I was with Rodney [Jerkins], he gave me credit, so we aren’t really with not being credited. We didn’t come up like that. That’s what’s up. Who do you feel is on your heels right now? Damon: Coming up, Ne-Yo is one of the best songwriters out, and Timbaland is hot. He’s one of the best. Harvey: I wouldn’t say “on our heels” but there are some producers that are really great. Timbaland, he’s so creative. We love Jermaine [Dupri]. Will.I.Am does great music. Jimmy [Jam] and Terry [Lewis], L.A. Reid and BabyFace, and R. Kelly. These are the main guys we are motivated by, inspired by and compete with. Oh, before I forget, congrats on your imprint at J Records. That’s such a big accomplishment. Clive is the man! Tell me about your debut act, Luke and Q. Damon: They are two kids from New Orleans who used to sing background for Tyrese. Honestly, they’re like the singing version of the Clipse. We’re actually pretty close to finishing their album. The singing version of Clipse? That should be interesting. Is it hard to prioritize when you’re working with monumental artists such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, along with your own artists, who may need a little more t.l.c.? Harvey: We try to focus on the task at hand. We try to just work with one artist a week. We don’t do a ton of set-up work. We have a joint venture publishing company, we write, we produce, we are working with getting our artists straight, and then we have a studio. So we have a lot of different hats to wear so you just have to stay organized to get everything done. And because we are so busy, we don’t even think in the mind-set of who’s bigger or smaller. It’s all music. I can’t imagine you guys have had a chance to breathe since you’ve started, what do you like to do during your down time? Damon: I don’t know. On days off I try to spend time with my family. I ride horses and stuff like that. Harvey: I relax a little bit on Sundays. I have two kids and they’re both jocks, so that keeps me pretty busy. Family men. That’s good to hear. Tell me what can we expect from you guys in 2007? Any albums to look out for? Damon: Look out for us on Chris Brown’s album, Jennifer Hudson, NLT, Nick Lachey, Jesse McCartney and a few others. Harvey: The launch of our artists is a big thing for us. We’re getting into television, producing more scores, more albums. Hopefully R&B music continues to progress and just get better.  If you weren’t making music right now, what would you be doing? Harvey: Wow! I’d be trying to find out some sort of way to make music. [laughs] I played basketball so maybe I’d be doing that, but music is my life.