Superstar DJ and producer Mark Ronson has earned both praise and popular success for his throwback, soul- and funk-influenced work with such diverse artists as Ghostface Killah, Amy Winehouse, Boy George, and Bruno Mars. The stepson of guitarist Mick Jones of Foreigner, Ronson spent the first eight years of his life growing up in England. Having played guitar and drums from an early age, it wasn’t until moving to New York City with his mother that he discovered DJ culture. At age 16, and already a fan of such popular hip-hop artists as Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, Ronson began listening to the various hip-hop mixtapes released by DJs. Inspired, Ronson confiscated his father’s record collection and tried his hand at mixing. It was the first step in a career highlighted by work on a Grammy-winning album by Winehouse, as well as his own global smash hit “Uptown Funk.”
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.
It’s funny that you started with more of a hip-hop aesthetic, and then as a producer you came back to an instrumentalist aesthetic?
I bought an MPC because it was my love of hip-hop beats that made me want to be a producer. Like, when I decided I wanted to be a producer, I wasn’t thinking of how I was going to learn to mic a drum kit. Pete Rock, Premier, yourself, Diamond D, Large Professor—those were the kind of beats that made me want to figure out how to do it. But I realized that I was never going to be as good as Primo or any of the guys that I idolized on a purely beat status, so you just kind of collect all the talents and tools you’ve learned along the way to forge something. That’s how I came back to recording live instruments. Like, when I produced Nikka Costa’s “Like a Feather”—as a beat alone, it’s kind of cool, but I thought it was kind of a DJ Premier knockoff beat. But then putting the kind of fuzzed-out Beatles guitars and the Wah-y bass made it something different. That’s when I learned, “Okay, so by taking all these things that I’ve learned along the way, that’s going to be what might separates me from other people.”
It helped you find your own voice.
Are you more hip-hop or instrumentalist in terms of your production? Or is it a case-by-case thing?
I think it depends, but the thing about hip-hop that is always instilled in you is that the drums can never be weak. Like, a bad snare sound can ruin a song in ways that a bad guitar sound can’t. Picture any Motown song and put a horrible gated reverb snare, and it’s over. But if you maybe changed a guitar tone to a fuzz tone, it doesn’t ruin it. So no matter what genre of music I’m working on, it’s always drums first. I guess it’s something I’ve never really grown out of.
Right. What was the music around you as a kid growing up in London?
Well, my dad was super into music. My parents were kind of young; they liked to party and hang out, so there would always be people at the house late at night. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and there would be a hundred people in the living room, smoking, drinking, whatever, and I would find my way to the speaker where the music was playing and play air drums to whatever was playing. So my dad got me a mini kit. He was really the epitome of the English soul-head, like, the white soul boy. He had all the great 45s and stuff like that. So I think, subconsciously, I’d been hearing all the horns and stacks and that sound since I was born. And then I liked music; I liked to go buy records. I remember as a kid being really fascinated by putting a needle on a 45—how the needle would sound when it landed on the vinyl and then when it started up. Which now sounds like I’m full of shit because it’s so obvious that a DJ would be obsessed with that, but I do remember that pretty clearly from being a kid.
So when you moved to New York, when you were 8, was it a complete culture shock?
It didn’t feel like it, I guess, because we traveled around a lot as kids—once my mom hooked up with my stepdad, we had spent a summer going on tour with him around the States. Then when I got to New York, there were quite a lot of kids from different countries in the school.
What was your first DJ gig?
There was a promoter who did a party at this place on the Upper East Side where underage kids could get in, and I would harass him about it. I had to bring my own turntables, my own mixer, everything. I remember playing “Protect Ya Neck,” which had only been out for maybe two or three months, and getting the nod from a couple of older dudes in the crowd, like, “How’d you know about this?” and just being like, “This is what I want to do.”
You were one of the first dudes I knew who set up hip-hop records by playing the original sample, and now it’s kind of common practice. You took great care, and you still do, in setting up the record, and you were able to slip in your own taste but still keep in mind that it’s a party and people need to get loose and dance. So would you say that your aptitude with that was your calling card as a DJ?
I think so. I wasn’t amazing at cutting and scratching, so I’d think of really clever ways to put records together in ways that nobody else was thinking about. Like, if I was at Club Cheetah on a Monday night, which was one of the most hip-hop crowds that I played for, I would play “It’s All About the Benjamins,” because it was the biggest record of the time. Right at the Biggie verse, flip into the rock remix, because even if they don’t like the guitars, no one’s going to complain because that verse was just incredible. I just loved to watch the crowd react to hearing the original sample. I think of some of those clubs I used to play at, like Shine at Canal and West Broadway, when there were 300 or 400 people on a sweaty dance floor … When you play that record, you feel the rush. It’s like a whoosh; it’s like a collective thing through the room, like, “Holy shit, that’s where that record came from.” I don’t know why I enjoyed that so much. It’s weird … When everyone went to the record shows to find breaks and new stuff to sample, I would be running around looking for the records that had already been sampled. It’s almost completely backward. There’s no way you remember this, but at one of my first record shows, I had a Rotary Connection album with their song [“Memory Band,” which was sampled on A Tribe Called Quest’s] “Bonita Applebum,” and I went up to you, and as a way to try to talk to you, I was like, “Hey, is this what you took ‘Bonita’ from?’ ” just to seem in-the-know. You we’re like, “Uh, I have no idea,” and just kept walking. But I was always obsessed with covers, as well. If I saw that a record was on a soul label and I saw “Eleanor Rigby” on the back, I’d be like, “Okay, I know I’m going to like something about that.” And it kind of makes sense that I ended up making a whole record of covers, because I obviously liked them. There’s something about a soul band covering a pop or a rock tune that just always appealed to me.
How did you get your foot in the door as a producer? You had been DJ’ing for a while in New York and had obviously met all sorts of people …
Well, when you’re playing in the sexy little spots, the A&R guys are always around and—it’s kind of like DJs—they’re just awkward dudes, so they end up in the booth. So you’re talking and you’re kind of like, “Hey, I make beats. I’ll do a De La Soul remix on spec for you.” So I did a few little things like that, but I didn’t really have a voice yet. I was just kind of looping up breaks that I thought were cool. But then our friend Dominique Trenier was at the club a lot when I’d be DJ’ing, and he came up to me and was like, “I don’t even know if you produce, but the way you put together Rufus and Chaka Khan with EPMD with Biggie with AC/DC, I have this artist Nikka Costa signed to me, and that’s what her record should sound like.” So I probably bluffed a bit and made it sound like I had more experience than I did, and then we started this slow, steady thing of going to the studio with her. I learned so much from both her and her husband during that record, because I didn’t know anything about recording live instrumentation. This was just before the bottom of the industry fell out, so you could be left alone for a year to make an album. Even though the album came out and didn’t do as well as it should have, or as Nikka deserved to, the single was on MTV and it had a buzz around it.
So after that, you got the itch to do your own thing. You called the album Here Comes the Fuzz, and when I think of you, I think of fuzz and guitar. But what was the impetus for you to say, “Yo, I’m going to do my own album”?
It was around that time that any DJ in New York, like Clue, Kool Kid, Flex … It was almost like they were giving out record deals at JFK Airport for any DJ landing. And even though the Nikka Costa record wasn’t a Billboard smash, it sounded so different that everybody in the industry noticed it and were like, “What is this new sound?” I don’t think I ever thought, “I absolutely have to make my own record.” I probably would have been just as happy producing records for other people, as long as it was with exciting people. But I couldn’t believe my luck: “You mean this major label [Elektra] is just going to give me a blank check to work with Jack White and Q-Tip and Ghostface Killah and Sean Paul and Freeway, like, my heroes? This is insane.” I just made the tracks thinking, “Okay, who would sound good on this?” And that was it. There wasn’t too much thought to it, actually.
This was 2003?
Yeah, it was a weird time for music: The industry is bottoming out; now there’s CDJs [CD players that emulate vinyl control of music] and people are not bringing vinyl around to DJ anymore; the gate is starting to open with all these different types of talent coming through; music is changing. Was this a transitional period for you?
Well, the album came out, and even though it probably sold three thousand copies, “Ooh Wee” was kind of a hit in England, which was cool, because suddenly I was going back to London, where I hadn’t really spent any time since I was 8 years old, except to visit my dad. And it made sense that this slightly eclectic record that I made seemed to work better over there, since that’s where my tastes were formed. So that was kind of nice, because all the buzz that gets you in the meetings, that dries up pretty quickly, and you realize you’re no longer the hot guy. People don’t call you back. I’m not even using a cliché. So I started to feel that New York was changing a bit—you had the beginning of this scene at Don Hill’s and the MisShapes. It made me feel like, “Oh, there’s cool shit going on that has nothing to do with me,” and you start to think that maybe your days are a bit numbered. And I was also starting to see guys that I had met early on when I was doing my first record—like Kanye, Danger Mouse, a few other guys—just fucking skyrocket. I remember being at a point where I was like, “You know what? I’ve got a nice girlfriend, a dog; I’m going to start looking into a thing where I can get into a jingle house and just do that. That’s a respectable thing. I don’t want to be beat hustling for the next ten years.” But this thing of going to England, it kept me a bit relevant. I had met Guy Moot, then with EMI, and he introduced me to Amy [Winehouse]. And it was about that time when I thought I might tuck it all in, that I suddenly stopped really caring about what anybody else wanted or what was commercial or what I should be doing anymore. So right at the time I met Amy and Lily Allen, I was like, “Fuck it, let’s just make the music that we like.” And because they were both new artists, there weren’t a whole lot of expectations on me, so we were kind of left alone. I don’t know, something happened—and the combination of meeting the musicians from the Dap-Kings—it just clicked.
You and Salaam Remi were both producers on Back to Black. How did all of you first get to work? And what was it like when you first met Amy, and what was the music conversation like between the two of you?
Well, Salaam produced his own five and I did the six that I did. But when I met Amy, she came to my studio—I think she was only supposed to be in New York for a day—and there was just instantly a bond there, like, you just meet some people and you get each other right away. She was so charming, as well, and charismatic and funny. We just started listening to music in my studio, and she was asked what kind of album she wanted to make, and she was like, “Well, they play all this stuff down at my local pub, like the Shangri-Las.” She started playing me all this really dramatic ’60s girl-group stuff, and then she’d be like, “I also love this song by the New Birth, ‘It’s Been a Long Time.’ ” It was, like, sometimes someone would come to my studio and I’d play a couple beats or tracks I had lying around, but with her, I was like, “I have nothing to play this girl. I need to come up with something.” So I told her, “You should go back to the hotel and come back tomorrow and let me see if I can come up with something tonight.” I was so inspired and I tried a couple things on the drums and the piano, and I ended up basically writing the music for “Back to Black,” the song, that night. She came back at 10 in the morning, and I played it for her. She was pretty stone-faced, and I was like, “Whatever, she didn’t like it. She can go back to London.” But then she went in the other room and called her manager, and then came back and was like, “Cool, so I’m going to stay another week.” I was over the moon. Most of the songs she had already written; it was only “Rehab” and “Back to Black” she had written while in New York. And then I would just start figuring out arrangements for the other songs that she had written on the guitar. And that was kind of it.
So you guys recorded it in Brooklyn?
We recorded all the tracks in Brooklyn, but we demoed everything in my studio on Mercer Street. And then I went to the Dap-Kings and played them these demoes. Amy had to go back home, because her visa or whatever, and I went to Brooklyn and recorded the stuff with the band—my first time ever getting in front of a band. I’m thinking, “These guys are going to fucking crucify me.” And they’re all so good at their instruments, so I thought they were going to be cocky. They’re like a crew; they’ve been playing together a long time. Definitely, at first, they were a little bit suspicious, like, “Who’s this kid?” The first day that I went to their studio and they were getting drum sounds—Homer [Steinwess] was in the booth and Gabe [Roth] was EQ’ing the deck, tuning the mic—it was like having an out-of-body experience, because I couldn’t believe in 2006 you could make that sound with a drum kit-sound like a break but play it live. And it was even more surreal watching it because we’re listening back off the tape, so it was out of sync with what my eyes were seeing, and I didn’t know what that meant either. My brain was, like, melting hearing this. And I knew right there that this was the sound I wanted to make for the next ten years.
The single performed extremely well and people were talking about it, but did you expect it to have such a massive impact worldwide?
No. I had no idea. I would think out every reason why things could go wrong, maybe because of my experience with the Nikka Costa album that everybody said was going to be gangbusters, and with my own album.
The thing that you didn’t expect goes crazy.
Yeah. I remember going to this club I like, the Beatrice Inn, and hearing the DJ play “Rehab,” and going, “Oh, shit, they’re going to play it in America, too.” I never thought that it would come back across this way. But I guess it just was something: Amy’s talent, the songs were so good, her voice was so good, there was a very captivating story, and then this sonic backdrop that me and Salaam had provided … It was, like, very real, you know?
Right. And then to go to the Grammys and get all these nominations, you must have been excited. But to actually come home with the Producer of the Year Grammy, which people like Quincy Jones have won, I know that you must have kissed your tuxedo.
Yeah, you know, the whole thing was so surreal at that point, but like I said, I can hyper-reason myself out of any enjoyment or validation. I don’t know if it’s a neurotic trait or what it is. It’s the most amazing thing that I won it.
Did Amy ever call you at a time when she was despondent and maybe you didn’t get right back to her because, “Ah, she’s just starting some shit”?
She wouldn’t reach out to me so much when she was in that thing because I was almost like a brother. When I met her, when we made the record together, she was super together, maybe the most together she’d ever been in her adult life because she was doing something great. I’d heard these stories, like, “Oh, you’re going to make a record with Amy Winehouse? Good luck.” Because a couple years before, she’d been drinking heavily. But I was like, “What’s everybody talking about? It’s a dream working with her.” And then, yeah, I saw her slowly get into drugs. But I maybe had this naive thing where I’d think, “She’ll eventually get it together like she did the last time.” We would get together to go to the studio and I’d be like, “Amy, what are you doing?” She knew I’d partied a little bit with other things, but when it came to the harder drugs, she knew I was a little bit goody-two-shoes. She’s be like, “Oh, Mark, you don’t want to know about these things.” And maybe because I’m not that forceful, I would try to sort of reason with her, and then I would get frustrated and she would just get annoyed with me, and either tell me to get out or throw a glass at my head, like she did one time. Or I would leave frustrated, like, “I’m not staying around for this whole circus sideshow, with these people around and whatnot.” Every time she would get sober, she would go through these phases of, “Oh, I’m fucking sick of it. I don’t want to be this person.” She’d be like, “I checked myself in to rehab. I don’t want to be a fucking joke.” And it’d only take her a day or two to sound like her old self again—pretty amazing. She would get her sharp wit, everything, it was back. And you’d be so psyched. But those periods wouldn’t really last that long, unfortunately. Toward the end she was off drugs and seemed pretty good, but we kind of had a little falling out, then became friends again.
Why’d you have a falling out?
Because I had said in an interview that when we worked together, Amy would come to me with the songs she wrote on acoustic guitar and that it was my job to come up with the rhythm arrangements and figure out what the band’s going to do. In response, she tweeted something like, “One album I write and you take half the credit.” I could tell it was a period when she was just angry sitting at home not doing anything, not making music, and decided she’d had enough. But it lasted all of two days. We had some time penciled in to go back into the studio that October. And it felt like she was ready to go and reclaim her shit, you know what I mean? So it was a shock.
You thought, “She’s got these demons, but she’s going to figure it out.”
Yeah, I did. But it’s strange because I’ve lost three people to drugs that I’ve been extremely close to—my best friend Max from growing up, AM, and Amy.
DJ AM. And those were three of the more troubled of my friends, but it’s still a shock, and it’s still weird, and it never feels right. But I don’t think because those people had problems at some point that I ever thought there was a chance of losing them, which is probably a bit naive. Or maybe it’s because I was around a lot of drug use as a kid and nobody died; I just thought that’s what people did: People did drugs and they get better.
It seems that that experience with Amy was important because it got you to this place you are now. And I think that your musicianship and your artistry are exemplified by this ambitious record that you have out right now—you seem, to me, to be even more of a serious musician. If I could go one step back, you worked with Bruno Mars on his last album, and obviously that union carried through to this record. Tell me, how was it working with Bruno?
I was on my honeymoon with Joséphine [de La Baume] when I got the call about working with Bruno, and I actually wasn’t that familiar with his stuff. But after doing a couple of indie records that sold seven copies, I was like, “I should go meet this kid.” And the more and more I worked with him and talked to him, I just became more impressed by his musicianship as a writer, as an arranger, as a producer. But I don’t think that it really had any direct correlation with working on my own record—my own record was something I was going to do anyway, and I just happened to go to Bruno’s studio one night when I was working on it, and luckily I came out with the jam “Uptown Funk.” But, I don’t know—I think wanting to be a better musician comes from growing up. At the time I was making this record, I had a feeling that it might be the last chance I get to make a solo record. Like, if this one isn’t really good, who would give a shit? I think you just realize that time is a bit more precious. You’re not going to run around and do shit on a whim the rest of your life. And I think also surrounding myself with people like [producer] Jeff Bhasker and really talented musicians makes me want to raise my game a little bit.