In only the past decade, DJs have gone from niche scene-arbiters to some of the biggest names in music. The star DJ-producer, who creates his or her own music as well as spins, is the most powerful presence of all—and it’s a role that can be traced back to the slim, nattily dressed shoulders of Mark Ronson, a soul and funk music obsessive from London. Ronson cut his teeth spinning in downtown New York hotspots in the mid-’90s. A diligent crate-digger, he’d pull from the curated collection of vinyl he’d brought along and mix obscure samples into his hip-hop sets. He gained a reputation for giving clubgoers a jolt of the unexpected while still rocking the house. The buzz commenced, and before long he was helming private blowouts for P. Diddy and Tommy Hilfiger (and modeling in the latter’s ads).
There isn’t a precise etymology of the title “celebrity DJ,” but Ronson was certainly one of the first to have it affixed to his name, though he was never comfortable with what it implied—it undermined his authentic love of the music he played and serious approach to the craft. So when he got the chance to take his skills as an arranger on turntables into the studio, he jumped at it, co-producing Nikka Costa’s Everybody Got Their Something in 2001. The album introduced a sound that mixed funk, hip-hop, soul, and rock in an entirely new way, and the industry took notice. From there, Ronson has kept busy producing hit songs for wide array of artists including, most noteworthy, Amy Winehouse on her instantly classic 2006 album Back to Black, as well as Nas, Adele, Kaiser Chiefs, Duran Duran, Paul McCartney, Action Bronson, and many others. He has also released four of his own albums, notably Version in 2007, which featured Winehouse’s take on “Valerie” and earned Ronson a Brit Award for Best British Male Solo Artist. But it wasn’t until his fourth solo album, released this past January, that Ronson, at the age of 39, attained chart-topping success under his own name. Uptown Special is his first No. 1 album in the U.K.; and the feverish single “Uptown Funk,” with Bruno Mars, is his first No. 1 hit in the U.S. Like all his solo work, the record is collaborative, with Stevie Wonder, Mystikal, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and others contributing vocals, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon contributing surreal lyrics to nine of the songs.
How did you get into DJ’ing?
I got into DJ’ing because I started to listen to New York radio a lot. Obviously, I knew the stuff everybody knew, like Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, but I heard “Who Got the Props” by Black Moon, and I went up to this kid in my school with the Walkman on and was like, “What is this? You must tell me how I can get this now.” Because there was no Shazam or googling lyrics. Then I played in some bands in high school and we would let rappers come up, but we were pretty sloppy. So then I got turntables and I bought doubles of four records: “They Reminisce Over You,” “Hot Sex,” “Rakin’ in the Dough,” and “Time 4 Sum Aksion.” Those were my first 12-inches.
Who taught you how to cut?
Well, nobody. I didn’t really get that good at cutting because I didn’t have those three years of gestating and nurturing my skills in the bedroom. I was kind of, like, out and playing in clubs after three of four months, because I was pushy with promoters. But I would just listen to the radio—Stretch Armstrong and Red Alert—and then I would go hang out with Mayhem, who did the WNYU hip-hop show.
So you were self-taught.
Yeah. And I would go see guys play live. And then from playing drums and maybe working with samplers, I was okay with matching beats.
How did you get around the technical language of DJ’ing, like, two turntables, mixer, crossfader?
I had already engineered recordings for my high school band on an 8-track, and I knew the ins and outs of hooking up electronics and what a general mixing deck is. And when I was about 14, my stepdad, who is a musician [Mick Jones of Foreigner], had samplers in the house, so I kind of just understood the language; that part came a little bit intuitively.
What was the first instrument you played?
I played the drums first, but I jumped around a lot—there was no, “He’s going to be a prodigy at that.” So it was a little bit of guitar, a little bit of saxophone, drums. DJ’ing was the first thing that really held my attention for more than two years, like, “This is what I want to be about.” And then that led to getting an MPC [a digital music instrument] and understanding what they did.
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.
Uptown Special is kind of an insane record. There are so many incredible superstar people involved and I know you also spent time road-tripping through the South as a part of the process. Did you go into the making of this record kind of knowing what you wanted it to be or did it sort of reveal itself to you as the process went along?
I’d definitely say it kind of revealed itself over time. I was a bit clueless at the beginning of the process and was just kind of pretending not to be. You know the record company will check in every now and again and ask about what kind of record you are making, and early on I’d just be like, “It’s a rap record and a kind of global pop record, whatever whatever” — basically just making up shit because I didn’t know what to tell them. It wasn’t really until last October when I got into the studio with Jeff Bhasker and we started to write some songs that I realized that it was definitely way more complex music than anything I’d done before, so I decided to just kind of roll with it. Jeff is an incredible pop and hip-hop producer, but he also has a very deep jazz background, and I think I was kind of looking for that. And then, bringing Michael Chabon into the equation … it just started to come together. I had been working with Jeff for a couple of weeks and I decided to write Michael Chabon a letter and see if he would like to be involved. It was so weird — and this has never happened to me before — seeing his lyrics on the page, I just immediately started to hear the melodies in my head as I was reading them. I never usually have that sort of instant inspiration, but it happened a couple of times. Then, when we went to Memphis to start recording, that became it’s own crazy thing. After we got there things really changed. I don’t know if it was the studio or just the assortment of people we had there, but the record really took a different turn. It really became — forgive me for using this term — more funk-driven. It was just kind of a feat trying to make the whole thing come together as a record, especially since there are such a wide variety of people involved. You know, everyone from Kevin Parker to Mystikal. It’s a lot to rein in.
As someone who obviously knows an awful lot about the topic, what are your general feelings towards sampling in music? Is it really more prevalent now, or have things like the whole ‘Blurred Lines’ vs Marvin Gaye fiasco just highlighted it?
I remember the first copyright case in hip-hop was Gilbert O’ Sullivan sueing [Markie in 1991]. Some of the things Beastie Boys were sampling on ‘Paul’s Boutique,’ [in 1989], that was mindblowing. I think the most exciting thing about hip-hop, when you’re sampling – obviously hip-hop samples a lot of funk and soul and jazz – but you can throw in the theme song from The Price Is Right, or an old rock record. I feel hip-hop is always searching for the perfect beat regardless of genre. Even early breakbeat, the stuff [Grandmaster] Flash and those guys made, classics, could pull out anything from ‘The Mexican’ by Babe Ruth, to The Incredible Bongo Band. It’s always been this cross-genre thing.
If you could pick out one album from your teenage years, and make it compulsory listening for future teens, which one and why?
Uhm. My favourite album as a teenager? Shit, I dunno, probably Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s first album, it’s called ‘Mecca and the Soul Brother’. I’d never say everyone should listen to this record, but it was a really special record for me. It’s a beautiful record, and the songs on there cross generations. That’s one of my favourites, but obviously I listened to all this shit like [Guns n’ Roses] ‘Appetite for Destruction’ too
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.
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.”