In 1995, Harvey Mason Jr. cashed a $2,500 check for remixing the song “Get Me Off” by Motown jazz-funk duo Impromp2. For many, that might not sound like a lot of money, but to the now-accomplished music titan, it was the ultimate payoff thanks to an A&R named Guy Abrahams.
“It was the first time that I was being paid as a professional producer,” Mason says, vividly to Rated R&B on an early afternoon in late May. “I made money as a songwriter all the way back when I was nine-years-old. I wrote a song (“Love Makes Me Better”) for Grover Washington Jr. So, I made money before with music but as a producer and someone who had gotten the attention of an A&R that was really my first professional check.”
Twenty-five years later, the revered Grammy-nominated hitmaker has amassed a list of songwriting and production credits for monumental figures in music including Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross. Mason secured a writing placement on Brandy’s 1998 classic album, Never Say Never. A 2001 Grammy nomination for Toni Braxton’s Y2K comeback hit “He Wasn’t Man Enough” followed.
A year prior to his first Grammy nod, Mason started the production company, The Underdogs, where he worked closely with music creator Damon Thomas. One of their first songwriting and production efforts to make a great impression on the R&B community was Tyrese’s “I Like Them Girls.” The song peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart in June 2001.
Their other collaborations involved work for countless artists across various genres such as Mario, Justin Timberlake, Kelly Clarkson, Ciara, and Justin Bieber. The pair’s remarkable diversity led them to work on the soundtrack for the 2006 film Dreamgirls, which starred Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson. Music from the musical picked up a heap of awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song (“Listen”).
More work in film and television for Mason and The Underdogs followed such as The Help, Sparkle, Straight Outta Compton, The Wiz Live! and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.
In Rated R&B’s interview with Harvey Mason Jr, he reflects on five songs that have shaped his longstanding career.
Chris Brown — “Ya Man Ain’t Me” from the album Chris Brown
That’s definitely an old one. I think that is one of the first couple of songs we wrote for Chris. He was like 15 when we started working with him. He was instantly recognized by me and my partner at the time, as somebody that was a huge standout superstar. He just had the charisma and unique sound. [He] was such a great dancer, we wanted to give him a vehicle that showcased all of that and how special he was as a singer and a performer. He also was living the life of a 15-year-old, so when we were writing, we’re trying to balance the storytelling from a [teenager] but also something that people could relate to.
Musically and production-wise, it was something to showcase this emerging superstar that we felt was going to have such a great career. It was a fun time in our career because we were able to work with both established artists and new artists. At the time, when they brought us Chris Brown, they said, “This is a new artist that we’re so excited about. You’re going to love him.” He came to the studio and he sang, and we’re like, “Oh my God. This guy is amazing. We got to write great records for him.” So, that’s kind of how that came about.
Tamar Braxton — “Coming Home” from the album Calling All Lovers
Man, Antwane. You’re finding some songs. I got to search my memory and find out how that one came about. I don’t remember exactly, but I’ve been working with Tamar since 1997-1998. She was singing backgrounds on records I was doing for Toni Braxton and I always remember thinking, “What a talent Tamar was and what a great voice she had.” She used to be able to sing just like her sister, but then we would hear her sing when she wasn’t singing background for Toni, she would do her own style.
I remember always thinking, “She’s an incredible artist in her own right. She should be making solo records” and at the time, she was starting to. When we were able to do that record with her, it was kind of the realization of a lot of years of me knowing that she was a great artist and the same thing for us as producers.
My goal is to write and produce a song that showcases the talent of the artists. It was always a challenge for me to make the artist sound the best they’ve ever sounded. How do we get Tamar to sound better than she’s sounded on any record? That meant everything from the track, to the mix to the vocal performance. When we went in the studio the challenge with Tamar was just how do we give showcase her incredible vocal ability and give her something that is relevant and a really contemporary-sounding record.
Whitney Houston — “Nothing But Love” from the album I Look to You
That was a record we were involved with for Clive Davis. I was doing a lot of records with Clive and a lot of times he would ask me to work with the divas and the artists that were amazing singers and amazing superstar artists. I was very lucky to have gotten the chance to work with Whitney Houston. That was one of my later recordings.
I worked with her during the mid to late ‘90s as well. I had a relationship with Whitney and I knew her abilities from first-hand experience, so being able to produce and do those songs for her was such an honor because she was one of my favorite singers. [With] that song in particular, I don’t remember exactly the genesis of it but I do remember the opportunity to work with Whitney at that time.
The goal was [to] give Whitney music that brings you back to the amazing Whitney Houston and make songs that sounded like the Whitney you always loved and remembered and you were dying to hear again.
Monica — “Sideline Ho” from the album The Makings of Me
(Laughs). I loved making that song. We went down to Atlanta to work with her and wrote it there. It was really the energy of that city and environment that we were in and just all the people and it has a realness to it and an edge and grittiness to it that I think sometimes the R&B community had in Atlanta at the time and Monica was just such a talented artist and a great singer.
What Monica did really well was take common everyday storylines and put them in songs. We were trying to be very conversational and give her a situation that probably happens more often than people think, put it in a song and let her be real about it. Again, we spent a lot of time making sure the vocal performance was authentic and relatable to the listeners.
Tyrese — “How You Gonna Act Like That” from the album I Wanna Go There
That’s not a deep cut like the other ones. That is a very fresh, A-side cut (laughs). We had done so many Tyrese records. At the time, we were making songs that we used to call them “ghetto ballads.” They were things that people would be going through in life and instead of singing the romantic power ballads, we were kind of going in the opposite direction.
“How You Gonna Act Like That” was talking about a real situation that would probably happen to a lot of people. With Tyrese, that was the challenge to give him one of those songs. On the production side, we wanted to walk the line between very pure R&B but hoping that we could introduce this sound and this message to a pretty wide audience. I think we were fortunate to accomplish both those things.