By Luke Crisell | February 14, 2016 | People
The too-kool-for-school king of postmodern pop—Mark Ronson—is at it again ahead of Grammys.
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Watching him slouched on a crescent-shaped purple sofa in a New York City hotel suite, it’s very easy to mistake Mark Ronson’s sangfroid for lackadaisicalness. Listen to the way he delivers every sentence, chewing the syllables like cud, and it becomes even easier. But talk to the people who know him, and look at the sheer scope and quantity of his musical output, and it quickly becomes clear this is a man whose measured demeanor and diplomatic delivery belie an intensity as well as a passion for music that has made him one of the most in-demand producers in the world.
Ronson’s latest album, Uptown Special, was released last January and marked one of the year’s high watermarks on the Pop charts— Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon even wrote many of the lyrics. And, of course, on that record is the most popular song of the year, a Grammy favorite omnipresent on radio stations around the world and, let’s be honest, the reason Mark Ronson is now a household name: “Uptown Funk.” With 1,150,000,000 views on YouTube (and counting), it’s the kind of song that only comes along very rarely, and when it does, can permanently alter the course of Pop music, sending it rushing headlong into new and unexpected places, full of fresh and unfamiliar sounds.
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It would be hard to overstate the success of “Uptown Funk,” which was co-produced by Jeff Bhasker (who has worked with Jay Z, Kanye West, and The Rolling Stones, among many others) and features the unmistakable vocal delivery of Bruno Mars (who co-wrote and co-produced the track). And it’s difficult to underestimate its significance: Put simply, it’s one of the biggest singles in Pop-music history, on a seemingly unshakable course to win a Grammy for Record of the Year.
“We were messing around in Bruno’s studio in Hollywood,” Ronson, 40, says, “and Bruno’s like, ‘I got an idea! I got an idea!’ And he got behind the drums and starts making a straight beat. And Jeff starts playing this bass line and we ended up writing the lyrics to the first verse that night.” But the rest of the process wasn’t as seamless. “Every time we got together, we never had that spontaneity,” Ronson says. “We’d try to write another part and we’d lose the magic.” Adds Bhasker: “It took pretty much nine months to get it to the form it ended up in,” he says. “It was a lot of hair pulling and teeth pulling and second, third, fourth, and fifth guessing of each other. But the Rubik’s Cube got solved, which doesn’t always happen.”
Everything finally came together in London, when Bruno was passing through the city for a festival. “I knew if it didn’t happen then, it wasn’t going to happen at all,” Ronson recalls. They nailed Mars’s part in the studio, then Ronson and Bhasker went for lunch, where Ronson fainted in the bathroom. “We’d done like 80 versions [of the song],” Bhasker says. “I’m more of an optimist, but Mark’s very much like: beat your head against the wall until the wall comes down. He left the table and I was like, ‘Something’s not right,’ so I went to check on him and he was incapacitated on the floor.” Bhasker had tasked Ronson with making sure his guitar part was “really, really special: something Nile Rodgers would listen to and say, ‘OK, that’s legit.’” Wouldn’t statements like that stress Ronson out a little? Bhasker laughs: “Well, it’s not that hard to do: He’s a pretty tightly wound fella.”
All funked up! “I spent 10 years paying my dues,” says the one-time house-party DJ-turned prolific producer and fashion darling, Mark Ronson, here dolled up in a blazer ($1,360) and trousers ($675) by Marc Jacobs. 8400 Melrose Pl., LA, 323-653-5100. Short-sleeved shirt, Paul Smith ($375). 8221 Melrose Ave., LA, 323-951-4800
Nevertheless, that afternoon, “Uptown Funk” was born. Even now, it’s still finding new fans. “The song has been claimed by the under-12 set,” Ronson says. “My friend’s son was really into it and was like, ‘Daddy, is there more music like ‘Uptown Funk’?” The kid is now listening to Rick James and early Prince.
Ronson, who now lives in London, was born and reared in the tony suburb of St. Johns Wood. When he was eight years old, his parents divorced and his mother, Ann Dexter, moved the family—Ronson and his younger twin sisters, Charlotte (now a fashion designer) and Samantha (now a DJ)—to New York, where she married Mick Jones, the guitarist of Foreigner. Ronson and family lived in the San Remo, one of the swankiest residential buildings in New York, and became friends with Sean Lennon, who lived a stone’s throw away in the Dakota. It was a privileged and eventful childhood, one to which many attributed his subsequent success as a DJ. “The family thing is cool, I guess,” he says, somewhat reluctantly. “There are the fun anecdotes, like my mom and Paul McCartney saving me when I was drowning. I don’t even know if any of that stuff is true. It’s just par for the course at this point.”
As a teenager, Ronson began DJing around the city with turntables he received as a high-school graduation present. He soon progressed from house parties in his Upper West Side neighborhood to nightclubs downtown. “When I became known...it was because I was DJing fashion parties. And suddenly it goes from music heads knowing your name to seeing your name in the newspaper. It’s so easy for everyone to say, ‘Oh, he just got that because his mom is the cool woman around town and his dad is a musician,’ and, obviously, that used to drive me crazy.” He perks up a bit here. “But no, I spent ten years paying my dues at these clubs. That’s why people know me: because I’m good at what I do!”
He also found some important fans, which didn’t hurt his ascension. “I remember DJing at [the club] Life, and Puffy [Sean Combs] was at one table, Jay Z at another, and Chris Rock walks in with Rick Rubin,” he says. “It was crazy. Puffy came up to me and asked for my number, then took me to do a couple of gigs. Jay Z started hiring me to DJ his album launch parties.” Jay Z’s track, “So Ghetto,” released at the height of this era in 1999, includes the lines: “Wednesdays I’m up in Shine, Cheetah’s Monday night/ I’m f--kin’ with the model chicks Friday night at Life.” “And the cool thing about that,” says Ronson, allowing himself a little smile, “was that all three were my residencies at the clubs.” This was the era of Funkmaster Flex and Stretch Armstrong, well before the rise of EDM: DJs were there to make people dance, not to be idolized. “You wouldn’t even know where the DJ booth was,” Ronson remembers. “You came to be shown a great time. That’s the thing that kind of unnerves me when I DJ now. They come and stand and stare at you on a stage. And I’m [always] saying: ‘Guys, turn around and dance, you don’t need to look at me!’”
Ronson is clearly done apologizing: “It’s not even a chip [on my shoulder] anymore,” he says, leaning back and putting his arms over his head. “I got to prove the haters wrong. There are 1,000 reasons for me to get down about stuff, but what I realize is: Those are things you can’t control. The things you can control are doing good work, putting your head down, and going to the studio. Making records that feel good, DJing, and just bringing a f--king great time to people.”
Outside the hotel, the rain is torrential. Sirens ricochet between the buildings, a cacophony so familiar in New York it seems to not be there at all. Earlier, when Ronson was wrapping a photo shoot downstairs, I asked him if he wanted to get changed before our interview: he was, after all, still wearing a vintage cream ’70s-style suit, complete with extra-wide lapels and bell bottoms. Ten minutes later he emerged in what looked to be almost the same suit, only in an emerald green. (The cream one, it turns out, was his as well.) “I definitely don’t have just one style,” he says. “If something is beautifully made or well-designed, it’s almost like a piece of music. It says something to you. It actually elicits an emotion.”
Beloved by the fashion set, Ronson modeled for Tommy Hilfiger (in a campaign along with a very young Britney Spears), and had a cameo in Zoolander. At 27, he made his first record, Here Comes the Fuzz. It bombed, but the single “Ooh Wee” and Ronson’s subsequent production of Nikka Costa’s album got him noticed. “You have a little moment where you’re the new hot guy, but you can only be that guy with the buzz for a little bit,” he says. He was friendly with Kanye West, having worked on the single “Jesus Walks,” and the producer Danger Mouse, but couldn’t seem to accomplish anything close to what they were achieving. “Seeing these guys be massive while I was doing the same old shit and writing the music for TV commercials, I genuinely thought, ‘Maybe I’m not cut out for this. I’ve got a girlfriend, I’ve got a dog: that sounds sensible.’” It was then that Ronson met Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen.
He would produce albums for both of them, but it was the late Winehouse’s now-classic record, Back to Black, that pushed Ronson into the global spotlight (he won his first Grammy for Producer of the Year, in addition to Winehouse’s wins for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album). “I just liked her instantly,” he says. “I’ve been in the room with the most talented young writers of their generation, but she had those divine bouts of inspiration that you see in the movies. Most people don’t have the balls to be that honest.” The album, which came out in 2006, sold 3 million copies in the US alone. The phone started ringing again. “It’s probably good that I didn’t get my first success until I was 30 because I appreciated it so much [more] by the time it came,” he says. “I was a bit of an idiot and partied quite a lot around 2006, 2007, but there was no way that I was going to squander it in the way that I might have done if it had happened to me when I was 24. Everything happens for a reason.”
A couple more solo albums followed—the successful Version in 2007 and the less successful Record Collection in 2010—but by this point Ronson was more concerned with quality than shifting units. He married the French actress and singer Joséphine de La Baume and started to take a more considered approach to making music. “I knew with Uptown Special that I had to make something great,” he says. “I can’t control whether something’s going to be successful, I can only control the quality while I’m making it.”
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So Ronson, all grown-up, roped in some important collaborators: Bhasker, of course, as well as Kevin Parker, of Tame Impala, and Stevie Wonder. “I thought: ‘I can’t make bangers and crazy beats that are going to compare with DJ Snake and Hudson Mohawke at this point in my career. But what I can do is make the grown-man version of that: great musicianship, sophisticated arrangements, soulful vocals, and good Pop tunes.” In Ronson’s mind, the stakes could not have been higher. “If this record wasn’t good, then I was pretty much over, at least as my artist’s career went, you know? I just felt like if I’m going to do something, it has to be the shit that I know I do great, and that nobody else is making.” Job done.
The day before our interview, while he and Bhasker were rehearsing, a friend invited them to meet Donald Fagen, who was practicing for his own impending show in a space next door. Ronson, a huge Steely Dan fan (the group’s lyrics inspired a lot of Uptown Special), was apprehensive. “Like, what are you going to say to him?! What if I say something dumb?” They worked up the courage and, later that night, Fagen replied to an e-mail Ronson wrote to him. “And I just ran around showing everyone I care about and respect my email from Donald Fagen. It was the same thing 12 years ago when Q-Tip left a message on my answering machine—I played it to everyone who would come over to my house.” He considers this for a moment, and his eyes flicker with excitement. “I’m still such a [music] fan, so anytime I meet someone whose work I genuinely love or who has influenced me or brought me joy—it could be a legend like Donald Fagen or it could be some 24-year-old producer—it still makes me a little giddy.”
PHOTOGrAPHy by kArl siMONe. Styling by Kashi Mai Somers. Grooming by Jessica Ortiz for Living Proof at The Wall Group. Photo assistant: Ned Witrogen Location: PHD Terrace and The Rickey lounge at the Dream Hotel Midtown, New York City.