By: P.K. Greenfield
It’s no surprise that the music and entertainment business is chock-full of rejection, shattered dreams, mediocrity, and dare I say, shady and unethical characters. However, there are individuals entrenched behind the scenes that make sure that gifted people are discovered and acknowledged — their best work gets produced and quality reigns supreme — people like songwriter and producer, Harvey Mason, Jr.
His name is not known in every household but his work has entered your home, your car sound system and your downloads for over a decade. He has written and produced songs for major recording artists like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Hudson, and a hit parade more.
He started his journey on a basketball scholarship for the University of Arizona and parlayed his skills, discipline and upbringing into a stellar career in the music industry.
I recently caught up with him to discuss his career, life on and off the court, and anything that inspires him inside and outside of the recording studio.
MM: Your father was a musician and you wrote your first song at the age of eight. Talk to me about how music was part of your childhood.
HM: “I believe that I was nine years old and both of my parents were musicians. My dad was a drummer, songwriter and producer and my mom was also a musician and studied music in college. I started making up my own songs and that’s how it all started. So yes, I was a kid.”
MM: I know that you play piano. Do you sing?
HM: “Yes, when I’m playing piano I’m always thinking about melodies and what a singer is going to sing over the top of what I’m creating. I’m also thinking about concepts and lyrics so I’m definitely doing both at the same time.”
MM: Making hit records is a collaboration. Talk to me about you’re A-team.
HM: “My business partner for over a decade is Damon Thomas. Everything starts and ends with the two of us. We have quite a few talented young producers around us as well but Damon and I oversee everything on every project.”
MM: If I were sitting with you in your car during your commute and travels around Los Angeles, what music would I hear?
HM: “If you were in my car, you’d probably hear ESPN Radio or Old Time Radio Theater those are the two top stations on my radio. The third spot would be classical music and fourth would probably be an R&B station. I listen to music all day when I’m in the studio.”
MM: What is your opinion regarding auto-tune?
HM: “Auto-tune is useful in certain situations, we don’t use it as much anymore; there are certain times when you do need it. Some singers use it as a crutch and I’m not opposed to that if they need it to perform. I would much rather a vocal have feeling, energy and special delivery rather than be perfectly in tune. I never use auto-tune for lead vocals for records but I do use it for the artist to listen to on occasion, not often.”
MM: Let’s talk about sports. Did playing basketball shape or influence your career in the music industry?
HM: “Yes it did, completely. The work that it takes and to get to the division one level, to be on the number one team in the nation, I was fortunate to play for a coach who gave me focus, taught me about setting goals, sacrifice and so many life lessons. Those things have definitely contributed to my success.”
MM: What’s his name?
HM: “Lute Olson.”
MM: He’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
HM: “Yes, he is. I learned a lot from him and teammates like Steve Kerr who was also influential in my early life and the roster of my team have become very successful people, so I learned a lot from being in that group.”
MM: I know that you where friends with Whitney Houston and you worked with Michael Jackson as well as many music icons. Explain what it’s like working in the studio with them.
HM: “Working with such talented and creative people is like playing basketball for Lute Olson. They have very high expectations and their standards are so high for creating the best music. The common denominator when working with artists like Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson is their quality and expectations of excellence — they want their music to be great. Don’t get me wrong… it’s a fun atmosphere because their standards are so high. There are other artists who aren’t interested in making the best song or the best record and there’s a little more bucking heads in those situations. However, I’m always on the same page with the icons in trying to achieve the best.”
MM: Tell me about your latest recording project.
HM: “Well, I’m working with Aretha Franklin and one of my mentors from the music industry, Clive Davis, and we’ve been working on this project for the past several weeks — Aretha Sings the Divas — it’s an amazing record and she sounds incredible.”
MM: When will it be released?
HM: It’s going to be out in the next couple of weeks.
MM: I know that you also worked on the soundtrack for several films: “Dreamgirls”, “Pitch Perfect” and “Get on Up”. Are there any other TV or film projects lined up?
HM: “We’re doing a film called “Straight Outta Compton” which is the NWA story for Universal Pictures starring some talented actors like Paul Giamati, Aldis Hodge, Keith Stanfield and more. We are also working on “Pitch Perfect II.”
MM: I have one of your songs stuck in my head, “Where You At” by Jennifer Hudson. Do you have a song stuck in your head?
HM: “As a matter of fact it happens often and fluctuates between artists. The song ‘No One’ written by Alicia Keys is currently stuck in my head. I love the way it is sung by Aretha Franklin.”
MM: American music is a global export. What are you working on with regards to the international music scene?
HM: “I did a partnership with SM Entertainment. It’s a company that I work with and we’ve made several trips to Korea. We’ve had a couple of hit singles with a group called Mr.Mr , they are very popular throughout Asia.”
MM: What advice do you have for a young person who wants to pursue a career in the music industry?
HM: “Depending on what they want to do, singing or producing music. Work at your craft until it’s competitive in the market and then get it out to the public. Get feedback from your friends and put it out there on the Internet — that’s how I started. Work hard every day until you’ve perfected your craft.”
MM: Tell me something personal. A secret.
HM: “I don’t talk a lot about my motivation for making music. I love the fact that people listen to my music and enjoy it; I get to touch people. There is a sensitive side to me that I don’t talk about. I really, really enjoy it when people get something out of my passion and when people know one of my songs or quote my lyrics — that gives me motivation. I love being able to change somebody’s mood. You know, make them happy when they’re having a bad day or feel love if they’re having tough times or going through something with their partner. That is my motivation for what I do.”
MM: That’s probably why you’ve won six Grammy Awards to date.
Photography by Phoenix White for Emkron Studios and Dabling Harward.