Even after the massive success of their "Dreamgirls" soundtrack, production duo the Underdogs insist on operating as, well, underdogs.
"Every record we make is pressure-packed," Harvey Mason Jr. explained. "We think our reputation is on the line for every artist we do and every record we release. So if it's Whitney [Houston], we're gonna try and give her the greatest song we can, but it's the same way we treat every artist."
That's good news for newcomers like boy band NLT and R&B duo Luke & Q, who have been working with the Underdogs in between the duo's more high-profile clients like Ne-Yo, Omarion and virtually every former "American Idol" finalist with a record deal.
In the past few weeks alone, Mason and Damon Thomas have worked with Nick Lachey (see "Don't Tell Effie: Nick Lachey Says He's Teaming With 'Dreamgirls' Underdogs"); Chris Brown; and Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas (covering Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You [Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin]" for "Shrek 3").
The Underdogs' philosophy with all artists is a simple one: "We like to just bring to them what we do naturally," Mason explained.
And they bring artists custom material only, meaning there's no vault of unrecorded songs they pass around. "When Monday comes around, we start writing the song for the person [coming in that week]," Thomas said.
While they treat all their recordings equally, the guys are certainly stoked for two big projects in the pipeline: Houston's comeback album and the debut from Jennifer Hudson, who was unsigned when the Underdogs worked with her on "Dreamgirls" (see "New Beyonce Single — And Eddie Murphy Singing — Featured In 'Dreamgirls' ").
"She's such a great artist and a great worker," Mason said of the Oscar-winning Hudson (see "Marty's Party: Scorsese, 'Departed' [And Effie Too] Get Oscar Gold"). "And she's just fun to be in the studio with, so I don't think it's gonna be a problem cutting a record with her. She's been so busy doing all these different events and awards shows and stuff, but now she's ready to work, so we're very excited."
With Lachey, the Underdogs wrote "huge choruses, stories and songs girls love." They opted for more high-energy material for Brown. "The songs we gave [Brown] are just a step up from his first record," Thomas said. "He progressed as an artist, vocally. He's a lot stronger. He has more range and more dynamics as a singer."
Unlike other production duos, both members of the Underdogs write lyrics and play every instrument. "It's a creative advantage," Mason said of having an equal counterpart. "Putting both of our ideas together, generally, we come up with something that we wouldn't have come up with individually. I might have a great start on an idea and he would complete it. Or even if we both feel like we know what the idea is, the other one will come in and add to it. And we have a great time. We sit up here joking and laughing and making music."
So splitting the profits is never a problem? "We want to have a decent living, but we don't make music to make money," Mason insisted. "So many people today come into the industry trying to make money. You gotta remember people started making music before people were making big money. We would be making music, honestly, if we didn't get paid."
Along with producing, the guys also have an imprint at J Records (the first ever to be approved by founder Clive Davis) called Underdog Entertainment.
Their debut act is Luke & Q, two young singers from New Orleans. "They're kind of hip-hoppy-looking guys, but they're really true R&B singers," Mason said. "We've written good songs with the normal beats and stuff but real choruses, real lyrics, real melodies, so it's a little bit of a change of pace."
It's also where the Underdogs see music heading.
"A lot of good singers are back on the radio again," Mason said. "More story-driven songs, concept songs, songs that actually say something — rather than just a trendy lyric — are coming into popularity. People always want to hear good chords and nice melodies and the right words. It goes in phases, but I think people always long for that."