Mark Ronson: My Life in 10 Songs
‘Uptown Funk’ producer talks collaborations with Ghostface, Amy Winehouse and Paul McCartney
Mark Ronson began his career as a New York club DJ, spinning hip-hop for downtown trendsetters and warming up for Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex. Flying back and forth across the Atlantic, he has since produced rap records for Ghostface and Nas, pop-soul for Adele and Amy Winehouse and late-career gems by Paul McCartney and Duran Duran. For Ronson, these projects aren’t as different as they appear: “Even when I made Back to Black,” he says, “I was trying to make sure that every track on there, the RZA would hear and want to sample a piece.”
With “Uptown Funk,” his Bruno Mars-featuring tribute to early-Eighties R&B, at the top of the charts, the 39-year-old producer took us inside 10 of his biggest tracks, sharing behind-the-scenes stories from studio sessions with some of the most remarkable artists in music.
Mark Ronson feat. Debonair & Sha Stimuli, “Turntables” (1998)
“It was that era in New York where everyone had a record deal if you were a big prominent DJ like Funkmaster Flex or Clue, and Jessica Rosenblum, who was the lynchpin of this New York hip-hop scene, threw a party at the Tunnel with Flex on Sunday nights. She asked me if I wanted to be in this album, and I was already getting into production. I thought it was amazing, you know, to be included in this group of people that was Biz Markie and also, like, Max Glazer and Cipha Sounds.
“Back then I played at the Palladium ”“ there was a party called ‘Planet Rock.’ Then I was playing around my own smaller parties in little downtown spots like New Music CafÃ©, which went on to become Shine. It was funny because those parties were a little more downtown-y: They had a mix of skateboarders, drug dealers, pretty girls, whatever, but it wasn’t quite as raw as the Tunnel crowd. Then Jay Z, Biggie and Big Pun suddenly started coming to our little parties, which was pretty cool because, you know, I hero-worshiped these people.”
Jimmy Fallon, “Idiot Boyfriend” (2002)
“I worked on that because I just produced this album for Nikka Costa. Jimmy’s record was going to be a mix of skate-punk, the Beastie Boys, all this stuff. Not only did we produce and arrange his songs, I got to travel around all these college campuses learning how to record live stand-up comedy, which was off the hook. It was just riding around in a Greyhound bus through, like, Scranton, Pennsylvania with Jimmy.
“When it was time to perform the record live, I was like, ‘Wow, I can recruit all these great fucking musicians, and all these great New York hardcore bands.’ He was like, ‘No, no, no. They can’t be great. They have to not be very good.’ So I was like, ‘Well, if you want not very good, I would happily play bass for you.’ I ended up getting to tour with Jimmy as his bass player when he was opening for the Strokes in 2003.”
Mark Ronson feat. Ghostface Killah & Nate Dogg, “Ooh Wee” (2003)
“When I had watched the movie Boogie Nights, I had heard a little bit of that string snippet ”“Â it was from a Boney MÂ cover of ‘Sunny.‘Â It wasn’t on the soundtrack, so I listened to the end of the movie for the credits to figure out the Boney M scene, and I hooked it up and put it over these drums. Ghostface was (and still is) one of my favorite rappers ever, and I sent him the track because he’s always so great over uptempo things, even slightly more happy, disco-y-vibe things. I remember sending him this beat, and he was like, ‘Oh, I get it! So this is like some Tony Manero-like, John Travolta shit. . .All right.’
“I don’t think it even scratched the Top 100 in America, but everyone kind of knew that beat. It was a minor hit in England, and that got me coming over to DJ a lot of clubs there. Eventually, it’s what led to me meeting Lily Allen.”
Lily Allen, “Littlest Things” (2006)
“I met Lily in a club called Yo-Yo, this great hip-hop night in London. Somehow we got to talking about music, and she gave me her demos. I think I waited like a month, and then I found the CDs at the bottom of my bag and listened to ‘Smile’ and ‘Knock ‘Em Out.’ I just was like, ‘Holy shit. I have to work with this girl!’ I wasn’t really a big name, certainly not worth the label flying her out, so I got her a ticket on my air miles and put her up at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown at the height of the bird flu epidemic. So she walks into this hotel, and everyone is wearing masks ”“ like, Chinese businessmen wearing masks ”“ probably totally freaked her out. We went record shopping that day, and I kind of went around different places in the Village, like A-1, and I just looked for samples. I heard that one [Pierre Bachelet’s ‘Emmanuelle in the Mirror‘], and I played it for her. Then I kind of went back to the studio and just wrote it really quick, and I think Santigold came over for a little bit and definitely wrote a line or two.”
Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse, “Valerie” (2007)
“‘Valerie’ is kind of amazing because Amy wasn’t in New York when we were recording the musicians on Back to Black; she had to go back to the U.K. ”“ a Visa thing or something. I even remember that Amy called me up at one point when she first got the liner credits, or the CD booklet, she was like, ‘You mean to tell me there’s a guy that played on my album named Binky Griptite?’ [Laughs] Then this was recorded the first day we all went to Brooklyn and she met them.
“I was finishing up my album Version, and I thought, ‘Oh man, it would be great to just cut a song with Amy when I’m here.’ Because the theme of the album was mainly working with indie music, I was like, ‘Is there a guitar band that you like?’ She said, ‘Well, I love this song “Valerie” by the Zutons. They always play it at my local.’ To be honest, the first time I heard the song I was like, ‘Uh. . .OK.’ The song wasn’t blowing me away, but she knew what a great song it was ”“ like, inherently. Those chords spoke to her, and she knew how great it would be once she cut it.”
Adele, “Cold Shoulder” (2008)
“I went into the offices of Richard Russell at XL, and he was like, ‘We got this girl, Adele. We’ve heard lots of great things about her and she wants to play you this song from her demo and see if you want to produce it.’ I walked in and she played me her song and I thought it was great. I asked her, maybe being a little greedy, like, ‘Do you have anything else you want to play?’ You know, you’re thinking maybe there’s another one, and she was like, ‘Nope, that’s it. That’s the only one I want you to do.’ I was so blown away and impressed by how already what a strong vision she had of what she wanted for her record. To be honest, the demo is pretty amazing ”“ just her on the Wurlitzer.”
Duran Duran, “All You Need Is Now” (2010)
“Duran Duran is probably my first favorite band that I can really remember. I really liked when they got into the slightly more rhythmic stuff, like ‘The Reflex,‘Â but I have to say as a whole album, my favorite is probably Rio. At first you’re like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m working with my favorite band,’ but then you get over that quick because you need to start producing and contributing some great stuff to it. I think that that album is some of the best stuff they’ve written in years, and I really love the sound of it.”
Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven” (2012)
“That was an idea that Bruno had for a while, in a slightly different version, but when we started to work on the record he’s like, ‘I got this jam, I’m sure this is the one.’ We must have worked on it for seven or eight different arrangements ”“ different kinds of chords, different kinds of tracks ”“ and we knew we were going to get this right at some point. Then it just clicked.”
Paul McCartney, “Alligator” (2013)
“Working with Paul McCartney was amazing on a lot of levels. The most obvious is when you say, like, ‘Holy shit, I’m working with Paul McCartney!’ But then the things that you learn about arrangements. And how still, at this point, he’s in there playing wine glasses and pouring the wine to make sure the tuning is perfect to make an A-minor chord. He said something I’ll never forget during the recording: We were recording an acoustic guitar, and he was like, ‘Yeah, it sounds like a nice acoustic guitar, but I want it to sound like a record.’ There’s a million nicely-recorded guitar sounds, but you want that shit to sound iconic, like track two, Side B.”
Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk” (2014)
“Any one of us individually ”“ Bruno, myself, Jeff [Bhasker] ”“ could’ve made a strong record, but I think there’s something really lovely and magical that happens when the three of us are in a room together. I’m not saying that it’s three times better, I’m just saying that it’s like a whole new thing. You always hear people complaining that they weren’t into their biggest hit. I feel pretty lucky that the song that is my biggest hit is something that I am as proud of, and that it’s also something I did with a friend.”