Cover Story: Mark Ronson Gon’ Show OutMusic Features Mark Ronson
Whether or not you’ve made a conscious choice to listen, you have almost definitely heard “Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson’s undeniable, hook-heavy hit featuring Bruno Mars currently sitting pretty atop the Billboard Hot 100 charts for the fourth consecutive week. Even if it’s been decades since you bought a new record or, worse, if you’re one of those poor souls who claim they simply don’t care for music, assuming you live in an at-all populated area and have set foot in a bar, a grocery store, a mall, a dentist’s office, anywhere where sounds are piped in over a PA system, over the past month or so, you have heard it. If you go to a wedding or a bar mitzvah this year, I promise you that at some point in the evening, you will bear witness to its power as 2015’s great dancefloor mediator; older relatives and angsty teens will come together to groove, and—assuming you have two ears and a pelvis—you will join them. Cause uptown funk gon’ give it to ya.
And the same can be said for much of Ronson’s impressive discography. Over the years, he’s produced work by Mars, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Lily Allen, the Black Lips, Rufus Wainwright, Ghostface Killah, Duran Duran, Wale and some guy named Paul McCartney. He’s got three Grammys (including one for Producer of the Year), which he took home in 2008 after Winehouse’s Back to Black became the biggest thing in the world. You have definitely heard Back to Black.
And yet, despite all this, Ronson is pretty sure you haven’t heard of him.
In addition to producing for other people, he’s put out four albums under his own name (usually featuring guest vocals from some of his favorite collaborators), and while they’ve made him a star in his native UK, this one—Uptown Special—is the first one that can truly be counted as a big success in America.
“We can safely say it’s my only success in America,” he corrects, laughing. “I don’t mind.”
And while he admits that breaking through on this side of the pond—where he moved with his family from London as an eight-year-old and eventually began his career as a DJ in New York City, and where he describes his reputation up until now as “my little whatever, cult band thing”—was a goal of his, Ronson is quick to give credit where it’s due.
“I knew that if I was gonna put something out this time, I had to at least go for it,” he says, in his distinctively transatlantic hybrid accent. “And I think maybe being around Bruno and Jeff [Bhasker], working on Bruno’s album, it was kind of like, ‘Oh man, that would be pretty cool. I see how this works. I want one of those,’ like a legitimate hit, and working with people as talented as Bruno and Jeff, all that firepower, you’re not really guaranteed anything, but you’re certainly stacking the deck a bit. The thing that’s I guess more exciting about it is that you always hear these stories with bands where they finally get the big hit and they’re kind of like, ‘Aw man, we hated that song, the label put it out,’ but this is actually something that I loved. This is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, that I made with dudes who I love to make music with, you know?”
“And honestly,” he continues, “the fact that the whole song came out of Bruno sitting on the drums, me sitting on the bass, Jeff on the keys, like, that was the genesis of it. What I mean is it’s legit, it’s not something like we’re sitting there trying to jigsaw-puzzle the hit together. And it’s cool, I think it kind of feels like that too. It feels like a fun funk record with some mean hooks in it and some…” He stops here, almost as if he’s reluctant to talk himself up.
“You know, I don’t know, I try not to think about it too much,” he finally continues. “But it’s insane. I think that the record—of course it’s an incredible thrill, and you just get so excited to see your name up there on the chart—but I mean, the record wouldn’t sound that much different if it was a song on Bruno Mars’ record produced by me, and I know that [for] the performances and stuff, thank god I have the world’s greatest performer stage right. I know that that’s a big part of what goes on, but yeah, what’s exciting about the whole thing is that it’s brought people to the record and to check it out, people who might not’ve usually heard it.” He pauses, seemingly checking himself again: “I don’t know. I’m not very good at sitting back and enjoying things. I’d rather just keep moving and moving forward, you know?”
Which is partly why, perhaps, the six months it took to finish “Uptown Funk” were such an ordeal. Ronson recently told the Guardian that the stress of recording the song made him lose hair and, at one point, vomit and faint. Of course, he sounds a lot more at ease when he explains it today.
“Bruno was on tour a lot, so there were maybe like six or seven sessions over that time,” he says. “But it was a lot of work, and the thing is, we had the first little demo from the first night with the first verse and the beat, and it was so exciting, and anybody who heard a second of it—whether it was wives, girlfriends, whatever—was just amazed, like ‘whoa, what the fuck is that?’ And sometimes you try to get back together to finish a song like that and it just doesn’t have the same chemistry. It feels forced. So you know, that happened, and then we finally got it kind of going and also, it’s a funk song, so the rules are you cannot have a chorus, a traditionally sung chorus, because then it becomes disco basically…you’ve just gotta have chants and hooks, and really it was when Bruno came up with the bass line that opens the song when the whole thing really kind of just came together. And then I came up with the guitar part, I went to Brooklyn and cut the horns, and that was it.”
Given how massive “Uptown Funk” turned out to be, it wouldn’t be surprising if that was the only real story here, if the rest of Uptown Special was simply window dressing for the single. But the album is far more complex than that, at times danceable and at times subdued and moody, with any number of angles that could have been the big story here—guest appearances by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, lyrics penned by Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon, a track featuring Mystikal doing the kind of James Brown-inspired vamp-rap he has perfected, a road trip across the American South in search of the perfect undiscovered female vocalist and harmonica work by none other than the legendary Stevie Wonder.
Ronson says he reached out to Chabon to see if he’d be interested in contributing because he was “feeling like this music on this record needs something a bit deeper or darker than what I might be capable of” lyrically. No other writers were under consideration for the gig; Chabon is Ronson’s favorite living author, and he knew based on his work that aesthetically he’d be the right fit.
“One music obsessive can spot another,” Ronson explains. “I just knew from Telegraph Avenue and the way that he wrote about the music and how each album referred to the month and the date and all this stuff from the original pressing, like that’s not stuff that was just researched. I could tell he was into the music.”
Chabon’s lyrics wound up being so inspiring to Ronson that they convinced him to go out on a limb and pursue Wonder, someone he readily cites as a hero.
“What happened was one of the really sort of amazing results of having Michael write lyrics is sometimes he’d write to our music, but sometimes he’d just send lyrics and these lyrics, a couple of them, I’d read them off the page and they were almost like dictating melodies, which is great,” he says. “Because you know, sitting down songwriting, especially for me sometimes, it can be a painstaking task, like you might have a melody that you like and the rest of it is like 500 monkeys at a typewriter, like you’re just trying every single thing until you find the next good thing. Whereas if someone just hands you a piece of paper, and all of a sudden it just like tells you a whole melody, the entire verse or chorus, it’s really like—I was kind of like ‘Whoa, what’s going on? This is great. This must be how Elton John feels every day.’ So I wrote this melody to one of Michael’s first set of lyrics, and it just became, every time I’d hear someone sing it, I just became completely fixated. I was like, ‘It’s not supposed to be a voice. It’s supposed to be Stevie Wonder’s harmonica sound. I know it is.’ And I didn’t even think it was a reality. I didn’t think it’d get to the point of emailing his manager or anything at first. I just became more and more fixated on it, and I was like, ‘Fuck it, if I don’t just try, it’s gonna drive me crazy.’ So I sent a message to his manager, and yeah, he liked the song, so in a couple months, he did it. It’s just really amazing, at the beginning of the album being like ‘Hey, you should try and get Stevie Wonder on this album,’ I’d have said ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Such a far-fetched thing.’ But it’s weird how a melody can be inspired by words that then sort of get you fixated on this Stevie thing.”
It wasn’t the only instance of the lyrics inspiring the music on Uptown Special. Co-producer Jeff Bhasker’s contributions led to the trip across the South, where he and Ronson eventually met up with Trombone Shorty, got Mystikal connected to the project and found Keyone Starr, an unknown vocalist who carries her own on “I Can’t Lose.”
“It was totally calling for this strong, female, awesome R&B vocal, and Jeff called me up late at night and said, ‘You know, instead of getting someone who’s top 10 in iTunes or whatever, let’s go drive, let’s get in the car, drive to the Deep South,’” Ronson says. “He had toured the South, and he knew a little about the circuit, the scenes, the talent, and he said ‘We’ve gotta go down there.’ And we were drunk, it’s 2 in the morning, and we just thought we could go…Jeff is brilliant with these big ideas. So we went to New Orleans and we got in the car and we drove up the Mississippi. to Baton Rouge, Jackson, Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago and just went to any church that would have us in, any nightclub, which we had some local people helping us find good singers, they might throw on a little audition, a local bar nightspot during the day.”
Eventually that search led them to Starr, but before that, by sheer happenstance, it also brought them Mystikal.
“So the beginning of the trip we ran into Trombone Shorty, and we were talking to him about ‘I love that Mystikal record [from] two years ago, the “Hit Me” record’ and he’s like, ‘Aw yeah, man, I play with him. You should call up [producer] KLC when you get to Baton Rouge,’” Ronson says. “So we kind of get to KLC’s house, we’re like completely lost driving around Baton Rouge like a bunch of tourists, and we finally find this place and we go and he’s so cool, we hang out, he lets us come in, and then he invites Mystikal over. So that was great to have that connection with Mystikal, and then a couple weeks later when we got to Memphis to start recording, I called up Mystikal and I was like ‘Can you come down here? I’ve got an idea for a song.’ So I played him that track and that’s how it got started.”
Ronson’s well aware what a big deal Uptown Special is for him (“This is definitely the best album that I’ve ever made,” he says), and when you add it to his already-huge career producing for other people, it seems like he’s now in a position where he can pick out whomever he wants to work with and simply pick up the phone, but that’s not how he operates.
“There’s nobody I’m really dying to work with,” he says. “Everyone I’ve ever worked with is just I’ve met them through some kind of nice accident or however it is, all that stuff kind of happens naturally, so I never get too caught up with thinking ‘oh, do I have to work with’—like even Stevie Wonder my hero, I never would have thought in a thousand years that I’d call him up and ask him to do something if it hadn’t been for that melody just smacking me in the head every day going ‘you need to play this for Stevie Wonder,’ so I like the idea of [naturally] finding the next person.”
There’s a great line that you have probably heard during the many times you’ve heard “Uptown Funk” this month: If we show up, we gon’ show out, smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy.
And that’s kind of where Mark Ronson is finally, the “show out” stage of his career. He’s been showing up for years; you’ve heard his work, and now, you’ve heard of him.