Catching time to talk these days with the Underdogs, aka Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas, isn't easy. When Billboard first spoke with the hit-making producers last year, the duo was holed up at its

Catching time to talk these days with the Underdogs, aka Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas, isn't easy.

When Billboard first spoke with the hit-making producers last year, the duo was holed up at its Hollywood studio, knee-deep in a recording session with Chris Brown, who is now nominated for a best new artist Grammy Award.

It was about a month before the Dec. 5 release of the pair's first soundtrack effort, "Dreamgirls," and just a few days shy of the release of the pair's second film-related project, "Bobby." That soundtrack is fronted by Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige on "Never Gonna Break My Faith," co-produced by the Underdogs and the song's co-writer, Bryan Adams.

The next encounter came on the day the Golden Globe nominations were announced. "Listen," co-produced by BeyoncŽ and the Underdogs (it's the singer's signature song in "Dreamgirls"), picked up a best song nod. It was one of five nominations the film garnered. Also vying for best song: "Never Gonna Break My Faith."

Asked if they were going to celebrate that evening, Mason and Thomas answered almost in unison with an emphatic no.

In fact, they were on their way back to the studio for a session with singer Heather Headley.

"We have to worry about next year now," Mason said.

Thomas added, "It's time for us to work harder than we've ever worked."





What was the hardest thing about producing the "Dreamgirls" soundtrack?

Thomas: Just trying to get to know what director Bill Condon wanted. He's a great director and knows exactly what he wants. He knew every lyric to every song; knew where a handicap was. We ultimately had to go through different versions of songs to find out what he wanted. But he was very helpful in explaining to us what direction he wanted to go in.

Mason: Music supervisors Randy Spendlove and Matt Sullivan worked with us every day, making sure we accomplished what Bill wanted. We were searching all over the place to find exactly how to achieve the balance between respecting the original songs and the time period from whence they came and updating the material for today's theater audience. We were walking a fine line.


What is it about your production style that you think helped seal the deal for your first soundtrack?

Thomas: We're not just R&B guys. We can do pop, rock, blues . . . a wide variety. Both of us are musicians and play several instruments. We understand how to record things live and work with an orchestra. We can also program with a drum machine and work with all the other computerized components that are current today.

Mason: We're pretty diversified as producers. I think the music supervisors saw that initially and took that to Geffen. In our studio we have a grand piano, drums, an organ and actual recording rooms with microphones-things you're not seeing in a lot of young producers' studios. We like to incorporate a love of live material in our productions, including string arrangements.


This project dovetailed with a second soundtrack opportunity, another story set in the '60s: "Bobby."

Mason: The head of music for the Weinstein Co. heard the material we'd done for "Dreamgirls" and came to the studio. She wanted help on the end-title song, written by Bryan Adams. But beyond creatively working with Aretha, Mary and the Harlem Boys Choir, they needed someone to deal with the business and administrative aspects of putting this together.

Like with "Dreamgirls." We were dealing with musicians, the director, the music supervisors, special-effects people, union contracts, studio budgets, engineers, contractors. It's more than just D and I sitting at the piano and playing different chords. It's very challenging organizationally.

Thomas: [laughs] It's intense. Film people don't care if you might have Aretha or anyone else in the studio. If they need something, they need it then and it's got to be done.


Describe working with two R&B titans, Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige.

Mason: When Aretha came to our studio last September, it was very easy to collaborate with her as far as getting a great vocal. But she has distinct ideas of what she wants to do and also a very high set of standards. She'd do something, and we'd say, "Great."

D and I are both pretty hard to please when it comes to vocals. We spend a lot of time and pride in our vocal production, but she was pushing even further. To see that was pretty inspiring.

Thomas: We talked to her for a good half-hour beforehand. She's full of stories. It was like having royalty at the studio. Something you call your mom about.

Mason: Harvey Weinstein had the idea of putting Mary on for a duet. To get her, we ended up flying to New York and recording her at the Sony Studios. When she came to the studio, I thought she was in some kind of funk. But she was just really preparing herself for the song. When she got in the booth, I could tell she was feeling the song's inspirational lyrics and was ready to record. Her first take was incredible. The next day the choir came in and sang their part, and that was how we did it.


How do you approach working with an established artist versus a newcomer?

Mason: It's fairly similar. The only difference is you have a history to draw information from with an established artist. We know what Aretha sounds like; what her range is. The same goes for Mary. You can go back to past vocal performances and gauge what you're doing from there and try to improve upon that. With new artists, you really don't have anything to reference. You're helping to develop their sound, define who they are vocally. That's the only difference.

Technically, we approach it the same way. We try to get them to give their best performance by making them feel comfortable and giving them the confidence as a producer that we're there to look out for them and make them sound great. Then it's a collaboration at that point. They're putting their ideas out, we're putting our ideas out; going back and forth until we get that great performance.


Are more soundtracks in the works?

Mason: Yes, people are talking to us about other films.
Thomas: Tracey Edmonds [president/COO of Our Stories Films, a co-venture between BET founder Bob Johnson and the Weinstein Co.] also says she's looking for something to do with us.

Besides soundtracks, Underdog Entertainment comprises a stable of writer/producers, Universal Music Publishing-administered Underdog Publishing and J Records-distributed Underdog Records.

Mason: Our goal was always to have a music factory. And it's really gotten to that point, as we oversee 10 writer/producers. These people work with us and independent of us on their own projects. Our label has signed three artists: Luke & Q, female act Girlfriend and former Epic artist Glenn Lewis.

Thomas: Among our writers is Steve Russell. Formerly a lead singer with the group Troop, he's been with us six years. All of our writers are talented musicians who don't just program drums. The musicianship is sick up in here. If we wanted to go out and play as a live band behind someone, we'd kill. We also have four full-time engineers.


How do you juggle devoting time to your label versus other Underdog concerns?

Mason: Because we're both involved in all aspects of the label and the production company, it is difficult to budget time. It's been a learning curve for the last two years, picking up the ins and outs about the business side of making records. We feel pretty comfortable making music for our but beyond that there have been other things to take into account, including promotion, marketing, airplay.


Luke & Q bowed last year with the single "TK," didn't they?

Mason: We were testing the waters with that song. Now we have the official first single, club record "Turn It Around" featuring Young Dro.

Thomas: We wanted to have a record that represented where these two kids are from, New Orleans. Once we had that record, we reshaped the album around that and came up with the whole sound for them. It took us a couple of years of development to get them where we wanted. They are R&B singers with vocals like K-Ci & JoJo and hip-hop stories from the South.


Beyond a few exceptions last year, R&B/hip-hop sales have been wobbling. Is R&B still on the upswing?

Thomas: You could get away with one great song on an album, but there's no more of that now. It's a different dynamic because of downloading; now kids can make the choice of listening first before they buy. You have to put out a strong album. If pound for pound there are great songs on the record, people will buy it, period. It's definitely been on the upswing since Mary, Chris Brown and others.

Mason: The more people who come from musical backgrounds and go into promotion, production, songwriting, A&R, plus get their business head together, the better. They'll not only understand the business aspect, they'll also have a true passion and ear for how quality is represented musically. Plus consumers will always have a hunger for R&B music.
Thomas: If you listen to Justin Timberlake and others, a lot of the hot music today comes from what's being done in R&B and hip-hop.


Is it still a producer-driven industry, or has that evened out?

Mason: It's more songwriter-driven than anything. The premium right now is being placed on the song, as it should be. There was a time when certain producers could produce just about anything, and the label execs would say, "That's a such-and-such record. Let's put that out as the first single."

The way radio is working right now, you can't put out anything just based on the producer's name. The general public and radio are so selective and focused on a certain genre and a certain set of songs that you have to have a great song to crack through all that.


Then is there an Underdog sound?

Thomas: Yes, it has to do with our chord progressions, melodies, vocal production, drums. It's all those things put together.

Mason: When we do R&B midtempos or ballads, there's an Underdogs sound. Like D says, it starts with our music. The drums have a certain sound; the basslines and bridges are distinctive. It's the way we sonically mix our records. The way we stack and arrange our vocals is different from what others do.

People are now catching on to that and catching up. But we constantly try to change and stay fresh. The only confusing part of that answer is we've done a lot of different styles of music: R&B, hip-hop, rock, orchestral. So when people hear us doing a rock'n'roll record or a movie like "Dreamgirls," they'll say, "Hey, that doesn't sound like an Underdogs sound."


Can you name a couple of songs that quintessentially capture the Underdogs sound?

Mason: That's a tough call. Omarion's "O" is signature Underdog, I think. Mario's "How Could You," Ruben Studdard's "Change Me."


You're due to work with Whitney Houston. Among others collaborating with her is Akon, who told Billboard recently that he'll be doing uptempo records with her since she's coming out of a dark period. Have you figured out what approach you'll take?

Mason: We've met with Clive [Davis] a couple of times about direction and what he's expecting. It's some of what Akon was saying. However, Whitney also needs to have the songs that everybody loves to hear her sing. We'll get more into it in January.


Can you name a couple of songs that quintessentially capture the Underdogs sound?

Mason: That's a tough call. Omarion's "O" is signature Underdog, I think. Mario's "How Could You," Ruben Studdard's "Change Me."


What one characteristic about each other was proof that this partnership would work?

Mason: It was D's sheer talent musically and his winner's energy. The first song we wrote [Tyrese's "I Like Them Girls"] came naturally. The next thing we knew, three people wanted the song. So it was a quick transition to a partnership. But even before people liked the song, it was fun collaborating with someone on equal footing.

D is also a motivator with big goals and dreams; he thinks on a winner's scale. I have a sports background and tend to pick up on that from people pretty quickly. I remember when we first got together, he talked then about having a nice studio.

Thomas: As far as musical talent is concerned, we both bring our A-game. But other than that, Harvey is the general of our camp. I'll be the one who gets everybody pumped up. But Harvey is the one who's going to make sure everything is done and our business is handled correctly. He can go harder than anybody. Where I can go crazy [laughs], he can always bring that balance to our partnership.

People are now catching on to that and catching up. But we constantly try to change and stay fresh. The only confusing part of that answer is we've done a lot of different styles of music: R&B, hip-hop, rock, orchestral. So when people hear us doing a rock'n'roll record or a movie like "Dreamgirls," they'll say, "Hey, that doesn't sound like an Underdogs sound."