Mark Ronson is a producer who needs little introduction. With such high profile production credits including Christina Aguilera, Robbie Williams, Ghostface Killah, Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Rhymefest, Mark Ronson has been a very busy man.
His first album ‘Here Comes The Fuzz’ was released in 2003 and achieved critical acclaim, most notably for its biggest single ‘Ooh Wee’. Since then, he has been developing his experimental style, fusing sounds from different musical genres to create tracks with a unique edge and infectious vibe.
He makes a blazing return on April 16th with ‘Version’ – his dazzling, culture-clashing new solo LP that finds 12 classic tracks turned on their head and recreated into visionary floor-fillers. Joined by the likes of Robbie Williams and Lily Allen, the eagerly awaited LP is a musical masterstroke and looks set to be a musical highlight of 2007.
Here his eclectic taste has allowed him to pick and rework songs he has loved in a new, original and refreshing format. Featuring Dirt McGirt aka ODB spitting verse on a new interpretation of Britney’s ‘Toxic’, and Coldplay’s ‘God Put A Smile Upon Your Face’ also getting the once over from Ronson, the man dubbed ‘Britain’s most successful ex-pat DJ / Producer’ it’s already on heavy rotation across the UK and US club circuits.
Well, we’re all looking forward to your forthcoming album, ‘Version’. What can we expect?
It started off as a pet project, I wasn’t really planning on making another album. I had been asked to do a Radiohead cover ("Just") for a BBE compilation and had a lot of fun working on it. I found it really challenging and incredibly fun to figure out how to play all my favourite guitar songs, and then restructure their chords and melodies to fit over different drum-breaks and whatnot. Basically turning rock songs into whatever-my-bastardized-version-of-dusty-breakbeat-soul is.
Your first album featured some impressive artists including Ghost-face and Mos Def. Other than ODB, who can we expect to hear on the latest album?
Mark Ronson: The new album started off not being guest-star heavy at all. I wasn’t signed to any label and was just making the record for fun, paying for it out of my own pocket. I wasn’t bothered with guest stars, besides I wanted to potentially be able to tour with this record. Then, during the course of the year, most of the artists I was producing for did songs for my record as well. So I ended up with Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Robbie Williams on my album – which I guess a lot of people would (rightfully) pay shit-loads of money for.
The rest of the album is severely held down by the Daptone Horns and the whole Dapking band appear on a few songs. As well as Paul Smith from Maximo Park, one of my favourite groups out there; and good friends of mine who are also singer/musicians – like Kenna, Tiggas, etc… And last but certainly not least, the late great ODB – one of the rawest and most captivating voices to grace any track ever.
I love what you did with Toxic. I don’t suppose you know if Britney Spears likes it?
Mark Ronson: I’m not sure if Britney likes it, I’d be curious to know. I know a couple of the people who wrote the song though, Cathy Dennis and this producer Bloodshy, and they really like it. Because I’ve changed a lot of the songs so much, I’ve had to go to the original writers and get permission. And everyone seems to be really into the versions I’ve done of their songs.
How do you go about deciding which tunes would be good to give the ‘Mark Ronson’ treatment to?
Mark Ronson: Just has to be a song that I like, really. The main point is that the song will work in the kind of beat / horn heavy arrangements that define the record. Also, nothing (except "Toxic") originally had a programmed beat or hip-hop style drums – there’s no use trying to cover a song like "Fool’s Gold" where there’s no way you’re gonna come up with a better groove than what’s there.
How do you keep your ideas so fresh?
Mark Ronson: I think I keep my ideas different by making what I would want to listen to – as opposed to what I think people want to hear. Being a DJ for so long had often clouded my judgment, i.e. you’ve got other peoples’ music in your head too much and it’s easy to emulate them without realising.
This past year, I cut back on DJ’ing and kind of stopped caring about keeping up with the "in-sound" or whatever. Working with artists and just making music for the sake of it. Like when Amy Winehouse first came to my studio in March of this year and she was talking about the way she wanted her record to sound. She turned me on to all these cool 60’s pop groups like the Shangri-La’s and the Cadillacs and whatnot, I got excited and we made a record. Now to see how much it’s being embraced is kind of a surprise, because we were, literally, locked up in a room making the music that we wanted to hear.
In recent years, the producer has started to move to the forefront of the scene, sometimes even eclipsing the vocalists. Consumers are now buying albums for the producer rather than the artist and your work is a perfect example of this. Why do you think this change has occurred?
Mark Ronson: My record is a producer-driven record, but at the end of the day most people will only buy it if they hear it on the radio and like it. Although I think people will sometimes buy something that has my name on it as they’ve liked things I’ve done in the past, the artists that I’ve worked with all have their own identity and I try not to get in the way of that.
I love the Neptunes, but I don’t have the same thing where you can tell it’s me from the sound of the snare drum. Amy’s music is predominantly defined by her songs and her voice. Obviously another producer could have made it sound shit, but you could put a mic in front of Amy and her guitar and they’d still be magic there. With Lily, it might not just be her and a guitar – for now, as she tells me she’s actually getting decent on the guitar – but Lily’s distinct melodies and her unusual lyric/flow are what defines her.
I’m lucky to work with talented people as opposed to having to make a shit artist sound good with a really hot beat. I’d rather give the hot beat to someone amazing and have the whole thing be great.
Who would you say are your musical influences, and why?
Mark Ronson: Rick Rubin – for all the early Def Jam stuff, as well as the Cult’s "Electric", the Chili Peppers’ "Bloodsugarsexmagik" and a bunch of other stuff. The Bomb Squad for their Public Enemy and Ice Cube stuff. The Rza for pretty much everything he’s worked on, same for DJ Premier.
Quincy Jones and Phil Spector for the visionary big band stuff from the 60’s. And all the Motown, hi-records, and stax type of stuff for the raw funk, soul and R&B of the 60’s and 70’s. Then there’s Bowie, Zeppelin, Radiohead, the Smiths, Fiona Apple…. it goes on and on.
I understand that you were musical from an early age, but what made you so interested in hip hop as opposed to other genres?
Mark Ronson: My dad use to play Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five when me and my sisters were really young. We would dance on the bed and sing along to "New York New York". He also gave me De la Soul’s first album when I was a kid. He listened to mostly soul music, which was the basis, sample-wise, for all the early hip-hop so I had an predisposed thing for it, I guess. During my teens, I also really loved the rebellious spirit of the Def Jam stuff like PE, Onyx, LL etc… as well as NWA.
When and how did you get your first ‘break’ in the music industry?
Mark Ronson: My first production break was probably co-producing Nikka Costa’s first album. Before that, I had made a name for myself DJ’ing in the NY hip-hop scene for 5 or 6 years.
You’re obviously a big name on the US music circuit and have worked with some well respected hip hop artists. How did you get involved in working with UK acts such as Robbie Williams, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse?
Mark Ronson: I was born here and lived here ‘til I was 8, but I never used to come more than twice a year. After my first album came out, I started spending more and more time in the UK. I felt really reinvigorated about music too when I would go back to NY.
I realised that growing up in England had really had a huge impact on my musical taste and whatnot, and I didn’t really fully grasp it ‘til I started coming back here. I met Lily while I was in London DJ’ing at YOYO (one of my favourite club-nights anywhere in the world). Amy was introduced to me by my English publisher, Guy Moot. And Robbie found me in a chat room online. That last part wasn’t true.
Looking back at all the tracks that you have produced, do you have any particular favourites? If so, why?
Mark Ronson: Not really. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to music I’ve worked on once it’s done because I’ve listened to it so many times up until when it comes out – from the writing process to the producing/arranging process to the mixing process to mastering to radio edits and remixes etc… It’s enough already.
That being said, I still get a kick out of hearing the instrumentals to "Ooh Wee" and "Like A Feather" as they seem to run in permanent rotation under every "pimp my ride" and "cribs"-type show on MTV.
You’re often described as being a British ex-pat, but how often do you get to visit the UK?
Mark Ronson: I probably come over once or twice a month which is great because I have my dad, step-mum, brothers, sister and tons of family in London and all over England.
Another British ‘ex-pat’ that springs to mind when I think of US hip hop is Slick Rick. Have you ever met?
Mark Ronson: I’ve never met him. But he’s certainly an O.G. I know Ghostface looks to him as the godfather of all the jewellery shit too.
In fact, I think I heard that the US government are trying to deport him back to the UK because of bad behaviour! Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to you.
Mark Ronson: I have nothing to declare.
A newspaper recently reported that you were romantically involved with Lily Allen. Now that your reputation is growing over here, are you constantly chased by the paparazzi?
Mark Ronson: It is funny once you realise that they will make up absolutely anything. I read that I was going out with Lily, Amy and DJ’ing Wayne Rooney’s wedding in the same week (all three false). I guess it’s harder for people who have to deal with that shit all the time. For me, it’s so few-and-far-between that I can laugh at it.
What are your views on the British hip hop scene at the moment?
Mark Ronson: I haven’t been as up on it as I’d like lately. I was really feeling the last Skibadee 12" as well as the Yungun and Mr. Thing collab. I still love the first two Dizzee records and look forward to his new shit. Ty’s first album; I’ve got a bunch of Klashnekoff records that I play. And, just as importantly, beyond the actual UK artists themselves, it’s the UK DJ’s like Dan Greenpeace and record shops like Deal Real that keep the culture of hip-hop alive, be it from the us, UK or wherever.
What other big things can we expect to see from yourself and your label (Allido records) in 2007?
Mark Ronson: Rhymefest album #2 "El Che" which is going to be in the tradition of truly incendiary rap records like Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Also, Daniel Merriweather who sings on my first single from Version, "Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before". He’s a young singer from Australia who’s about to wipe the floor with any of the other young soul pretenders out there. And, even though he could win that battle hands-down, he’s not even trying to do the same Prince-MJ rehash that most everyone else is copying right now.
I’m planning a big birthday party next year. Can you come along and play a set?
Mark Ronson: Maybe. I feel like I can relate as I have a birthday next year as well.