The SPIN Interview: Mark Ronson Looks Back on His 20-Year Journey ‘Uptown’
The 39-year-old DJ and producer talks about his career in music, his first U.S. hit as a lead artist, and Michelle Pfeiffer
It took a couple of decades, and a sidewinding journey from DJ to producer to lead artist, but Mark Ronson is officially a pop star in his own right. The bi-continental musician has broken the pop charts in both of his home countries, with his Bruno Mars-featuring “Uptown Funk” going to number one in both the U.K. and (as of this week) the U.S. as well. The breakthrough is well-deserved for the 39-year-old artist, a culmination of a life spent in music, built from spinning at New York clubs at the turn of the century (and at celebrity parties and weddings in the years since), to manning the decks on breakthrough albums for Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, and establishing his own solo career with hits like “Bang Bang Bang” and albums like the cover collection Version. Ronson’s organic soul and funk-based production has provided a mainstream alternative to the more electronic-dervirved pop of recent years, and primed him for long-overdue Stateside chart success of his own. (Of course, as Ronson says himself, “Having a good working relationship with the world’s biggest male pop star doesn’t hurt.”)
SPIN caught up with Ronson on the day before his new album — Uptown Special, out next week — was due to his RCA label (“You’re never done till they literally pry it from your hands”), and the newly minted leading man looked back on nearly 20 years working in music, reflecting on the evolution of dance clubs, how the Grammys are like Yom Kippur services, and what it’s like to finally be the dude whose own name is on the Billboard chart listing.
It sounds like Uptown Special is kind of a return to your early New York days — is that fair to say?
Yeah, I think so. When you’ve been doing shit for a little while, you start to recognize the patterns or whatever the things are that usually come back to you. I’ve been DJing — holy shit — for 20 years. I can see over the arc of that 20 years the shit that I always come back to: Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, great late-’70s, early-’80s R&B. And a certain golden era of hip hop: late ’90s, early 2000s — Missy, Biggie, early Neptunes. It’s when I was really hitting my peak, DJing these clubs in New York — it was kind of a magic time because you had Puffy and Jay Z and Big Pun and all these people coming out to the clubs.
I never start out a record with a total intention. At first, I was thinking, “It would be cool to make something like Malcolm McLaren and Duck Rock.” Talking about Malcolm McLaren, I did a conversation with him for a magazine a couple of years before he died, and we were talking about the Amy Winehouse record [2006’s Back to Black] and he was like, “You know what I really love about it? That it had the spirit of the amateur in it.” For a moment, I kind of bristled, but then I was like “No, that’s the best possible thing.” Me and Amy thought we were making ’60s girl pop like the Shangri-Las with a touch of Motown. But we’re not, we’re two Jewish people from North London, of course it’s going to come out in a very different way and of our own day. That’s what you hope, when you’re going for something, what you get wrong… that’s when something special happens.
What about New York has changed the most since your early days of DJing?
So much has changed. I always remember playing in these clubs, you would get on at 10:30, 11:00, 12:00, and if you started with a good set of disco and R&B classics, you’d notice that crew of girls dancing over there on the floor. And if you’re doing a really good job, you’d look back up at 1:30, 2:00, and they are still there even as you’ve gone into hip-hop and reggae, and if you’re really killing at 3:30 and you look up when you’re playing house and dancehall, they’re still there. You could look up at any point and you had pockets of faces that you recognize. I do miss that because there was a great energy in the clubs those days.
Do you think that’s changed as the en vogue dance music has changed?
I think it’s really with the times. With [New York’s 2003] smoking ban, people going in and out the whole time… Smartphones bred this ADD thing, where you’re really excited for like the first 20 seconds of a song, for when you go “ohhh!” when it drops, and then you look down on your phone like, “OK, what do I do now?” And then the VIP bottle service thing, giant clubs that would have had these really nice dance floors turn into rows of banquettes. The idea of DJing was like, “That girl in the middle of the floor is having a great time,” but now you’re going like, “That girl at Table 7 is really losing her shit.” It doesn’t quite have the same joy to watch.
The music definitely goes in waves. I remember when I started off playing this club called Life in New York in the late ’90s. Basically, before I started playing those places they only played house, because everyone thought it was more sophisticated to play what the Europeans played. So I got in and I started playing hip-hop because that’s what I did and they’d have these meetings on Tuesday mornings with the club owners and managers who would be like, “Mark Ronson and his brand of hip-hop music are destroying the clientele at our VIP,” meaning like, “Oh no, Jay Z is coming now. We liked it more when we just had rich bankers.”
Then of course the whole culture and tide of downtown changed and hip-hop became all the rage. The EDM now is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to hip-hop having a ten-year hold on the sound of what’s coming out of clubs, and getting a bit unchallenging. And now it’s going back the other way again. I think the musical trends in the city, although they don’t change all the time, it’s certainly a cyclical thing.
What song would you have considered to be your first break? Did the songs you did with Nikka Costa open doors for you?
It’s funny because the Nikka Costa thing was the first thing that I produced that was on MTV, and people were buzzing around New York about it. I remember playing [“Like a Feather”] out in a club one time, it might have been Jay Z’s album-release party maybe for Dynasty, and I played it and he came up to the booth, like, “Yo Mark, promise me something.” And I was like, “He’s gonna say, ‘Promise me you’re never gonna play another one of your records at my parties again.'” He was like, “Promise me you’ll let me be the” — I think he used the n-word — “That rhymes on it when you do the remix.” And I saw Busta Rhymes out one time and he was like, “Yo, you did that beat, like DUNH-DU-NUH-DU-NUH!” It was amazing to finally have something out.
At that time, I was DJing these parties, and I really looked up to Pharrell and Chad and the Neptunes, and I loved their music. They’d be like, “Mark’s one of our favorite DJs” as they would introduce me to people. And I’d always be like, “That’s cool they think that, but like, I make music, that’s what I do, I would love to one day be mentioned as producers in the same breath as these dudes.” Kanye, Danger Mouse… I was looking at these guys that I knew early on that were so successful. And I started to think that maybe I’m not that good or maybe this wasn’t what I was made to be doing. I was 29, 30 at that point.
So Nikka Costa was the first thing that really got a look. It wasn’t a hit, per se, but it was a big, buzzed-about record. Then “Everybody Got Their Something,” it was one of those records that had its own life after — commercials and movies and shit. And the production on that record led to me getting my first solo record [2003’s Here Comes the Fuzz] with Elektra. Even though that didn’t do incredibly well, it was one of those records everyone knew about even if it wasn’t a hit, and it was a minor hit in England and that was really lucky, because that led me to going back to England and meeting the people who I met Lily and people like that through.
Do you feel like Here Comes the Fuzz doesn’t really get its due? It’s a fun album.
It’s a fun album, that’s exactly what it is. It was basically like me as a 26-year-old kid with a blank check from Elektra and a lot of hubris going like, “I’m gonna fucking get all the dudes that I love.” When I DJ, my set is 60 percent hip-hop, 30 percent funk and disco, 20 percent reggae and 10 percent rock’n’roll. So that’s what I’m gonna make, is an album that does that, but with original material. Which is kind of a lot to digest in 44 minutes. But I was just like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna do it.” And then [2007’s] Version was a little bit peculiar. I made it when I didn’t have a record deal. I was just making these covers. I was a little bit bored, I wasn’t that excited about music that was coming out. So I was like, “What if I take songs I really like and remake them in a way that I can play them in my DJ sets?”
It’s funny what you say about not liking music of the time, because when I listen to that album now, it feels very much of that time. Because you’re working with people like Lily and Amy, you’re covering people like Maximo Park and the Kaiser Chiefs, it feels very much like that era.
Yeah, definitely. I was falling love with that new Britpop movement that was happening as well: Maximo Park, the Kaiser Chiefs, whatever the world of the NME was at that point. When the Radiohead cover took off and Zane Lowe started playing it, and that was the wildest thing ever because suddenly this thing that I made for no money was kind of successful.
And then Record Collection was a little bit of a left turn and probably a little bit of excess, like, “Oh, I just had this massive successful record, I guess I can do whatever I want.” And you know, “Bang Bang Bang” and “Somebody to Love Me” and some things on there, I’m super proud of. But I think with [Uptown Special] I knew it was a little bit of a last chance. It was like “OK, if I really don’t have some shit on this record… Nobody’s checking for a new Mark Ronson record. I need to do something really great or at least something really original, for whatever it’s worth.”
You said something in the last SPIN interview you did, where Amy wasn’t a fan of “Bang Bang Bang,” and you said something in Billboard about how she wouldn’t like some of the stuff on this record. Is that a motivating factor for you? Is what Amy would think kind of always lingering over you?
No, because we had such a good musical bond when we were working on her shit, but there were so many things that I loved that I would never bring to her music because I knew she would hate it. Her tastes were really pretty staunch. She either really liked ’50s, ’60s gangster, Scorsese pop music, or Nas, Mos Def, good hip-hop. She could tell whatever the most genuine, authentic record was, that was her shit. You could never quite tell why she liked what she liked. But she couldn’t mince words: If she didn’t like something, she would just be like, “Turn that shit off.”
I don’t spend too much time thinking about what music she would like of what I’m working on now because there’s a good chance she wouldn’t like any of it. She might like some of it, I really don’t know. I think about her all the time, but not in that way.
What was the biggest disagreement you can remember having with her when you were recording Back to Black?
We didn’t really ever have a massive disagreement. We almost didn’t have enough time together to even have any disagreements, which is weird. I look back on it, and it was so quick. I do remember there was one time, we had a good rhythm going. I got down the demos of “Wake Up Alone” and “Rehab” or “Black to Black” and she was really into it. I had this percussion groove, it was a groovy percussion, and I was like, “I was thinking about something like that, do you like it?” She was kind of quiet behind me, I could just feel her boredom. She was like, “Nahhh…“
In the studio, there’s this tendency, to be like, “Oh, what about if I fix this bit, or how about this…” I remember her being like, “What are you trying to fix it for? It’s shit, I don’t like it.” It was so good, because it was so on the nose. There’s no point. Fucking scrap it and move on. I learned that from her, that thing, although I don’t have the gift of being both as brutally honest and charming as she was at the same time.
What do you remember about your big night at the 2008 Grammys?
I remember a lot. I remember being hungover and going to the Staples Center and getting there really early, cuz that’s when a lot of the categories I was up for in the pre-telecast were on. So you’re there, and they close all the concession stands. It’s not like going to a Clippers game. There’s no food, there’s no water, you’re hungover and you’re with your mom… It’s basically just like Yom Kippur.
The best thing would have been if Amy was there, cuz you want to celebrate that. You’ve done this thing together. It would’ve been so cool if she was there, but she wasn’t, and it was still really amazing and surreal. All those things that happen that you think never in your wildest dreams were ever gonna happen and they do happen, they feel like they’re happening to somebody else. And at the same time, I’m not really good at enjoying a moment or relishing in something so it’s like, “OK, cool, that was good. What are we doing tomorrow?”
Who came up with the phrase “Uptown Funk”?
I have to say I think that I did. I’m going to take that one. I know we were like, “What do we call it? What do we call it?” And it was something like “Funk, funk.” And I instantly thought like, “‘Crosstown Funk’? What about ‘Uptown Funk’?” Funk has had such a dodgy connotation for so long, because it’s been hijacked by terrible jam bands and whatever. It’s so far removed from George Clinton and Parliament and James Brown and whatever. But I remember saying to Bruno, “Can we really put ‘Funk’ in a thing in 2014?” He was like, “Yo, we’ve got to own it.”
Someone wrote in a review of it — and yes I’m guilty of Googling myself occasionally — someone wrote in a review like, “Sometimes when the name of the song sounds like so much what the song is…” I remember when I was listening to [LCD Soundsystem’s] Sound of Silver, I just remember thinking like, this is the perfect name for this record, it does sound like silver. [My song] just is “Uptown Funk,” you just kind of have to own it a little bit.
How vindicating is it to finally break America as a lead artist?
I don’t think it’s something that I ever imagined happening, so it’s strange. I feel like if this song was Bruno Mars and I just produced and wrote it for him, I’d be just as psyched, and I’d be buzzing, checking the iTunes chart, like “Holy shit, we’re No. 2!”
Are you constantly checking the charts?
Well, I go on iTunes to buy music and check the charts. I’m still a massive pop-culture junkie. I’d be going on it if I wasn’t on it. But it’s so weird to think, that’s my dad’s last name, that’s me. That’s pretty wild. I still know for most of America, it’s “Who’s that Mark Ronson guy? I know the Bruno Mars guy…” But it’s cool. I’m glad that it’s with a song that I love, and not something we sold out or did it just to make it happen. It’s really something that I’m as proud of, or more proud of, than other shit that I’ve done.
Do you have a favorite Michelle Pfeiffer movie or role?
Well, Scarface is obviously incredible, and that’s what we were in the mindset of when thinking about that line [“This here that ice cold / Michelle Pfeiffer / That white gold”]. She was such a big part of my childhood, she was the iconic, the ideal woman. Through Tequila Sunrise, Fabulous Baker Boys, Witches of Eastwick… She definitely was owning that era. You know, that’s Jeff’s [Bhasker, co-producer] lyric and I was like, “Man, that lyric alone was worth your producer fee. Your enormous producer fee.”
I hear a lot of Steely Dan in the album, and I’ve seen you namecheck them in a couple interviews. Have they always been an influence of yours?
I think, yeah, because they were these incredibly smart, brilliant musicians who were completely obsessed and infatuated with American black music, so they did their own take on jazz and soul, mixed with Donald Fagen’s crazy showtunes influence and whatever weird movements were going on in New York in late ’60s, early ’70s. It’s just awesome music, because the rhythm section was really important to them. I’m always the type of person to listen to lyrics the second or third time. It’s always about the beat, the groove, the rhythm section and the arrangement first.
But that’s what’s great about those Steely Dan songs. Every time I hear it I’m still catching lyrics on Aja or Can’t Buy a Thrill that I didn’t even hear the first time. And I’m like, “How is it that in 15 to 20 years of listening to this music that I didn’t notice that line?” And that was really, not so much to copy anything specific they did, but that was a lot of the inspiration behind asking Michael [Chabon] to write lyrics, was like, “Wouldn’t it be great to have lyrics that good, that people are still, ten years later, like ‘What was that line? I never heard it the first time!'”
Do you have a dream collaborator, someone you’ve always wanted to work with but haven’t been able to?
You know, it was always Stevie [Wonder], always. And now he’s played harmonica on this record, which is the craziest thing. Maybe even more crazy than being on SNL or any of that shit. Having Stevie play on the record, my favorite musician/songwriter/singer ever, playing on the intro to the record… That’s my hero, and he’s played on it. So I don’t know if I’ll top it. But I do most of my most exciting work with people on their first or second record. So as well with hooking up with your legends –– it’s just the most insane thing –– I’m always hoping to find that 22-year-old just coming out of their bedroom with something awesome, whatever it is.
As someone who’s DJ’d a couple of high-profile weddings [Paul McCartney, Tom Cruise], when you go to other people’s weddings, what are things that DJ’s do that drive you insane?
I don’t know, I guess whenever I go to a wedding and there’s a bad DJ, I think, “Well, maybe this is just what the couple likes,” and I can’t really knock it. But I always usually get asked to play a little set if it’s anybody’s wedding that I’m going to, and I kind of don’t mind. In fact I would probably get a little offended if they didn’t ask me. Like, “You know I was coming, right?”
How much do you have to balance being a crowd-pleaser and doing your own cool stuff?
I’m always a little bit of a crowd-pleaser at heart. I don’t mean playing the “Macarena.” It’s more fun just to make sure everyone’s having a good time, and then you can drop your little nuggets of obscure shit, or stuff that people that don’t know. But you have to get the floor first, and then you can give a little bit of a lesson.
What’s your one go-to absolute killer, that never fails?
I guess “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce. It’s just that one, isn’t it, when all else fails. “Crazy In Love” and Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” I was in a wedding, though, back in January and the second or third song, the DJ was getting into it and the family was starting to get warmed up, and he threw on “Valerie” and everyone just started dancing and it was great. As somebody who’s spent their whole life relying on songs that bring people to the dance floor, it’s cool to have made one. Because when you’re a DJ, you know how it is, “What do I play next?”… You’re so grateful for one of those records when it comes out, whether it’s a “Get Lucky” or something else. And it’s like, wow, I’ve made one of those records for all my comrade DJs to do that same thing, whenever they’re like, “Fuck.”