Interview: Hot damn: Mark Ronson looks back over a massive half-decade

With a endless list of megastar collaborations, producer Mark Ronson is behind some of the biggest musical moments going. So naturally, he was first on the list for DIY’s party.

He’s been doing backflips for years, but the last half-decade has seen Mark Ronson take his firmest steps forward. As if any further proof was required of his credentials, he delivered an out-and-out pop classic, collaborated with the most unlikely of names (from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Q-Tip to ahem, The View’s Kyle Falconer), remaining so ahead of the game, someone had to call the police AND the fireman.

From working with the late Amy Winehouse on her breakthrough moment ‘Back to Black,’ to taking over every single radio station worldwide with massive pop banger ‘Uptown Funk,’ Mark Ronson is behind some of the biggest moments in music. He’s too hot (hot damn) and at the peak of his powers. So he was first on the list for DIY’s party, to be honest.

You’ve been present at the turning points in many massive careers. You produced a track for Adele’s debut, and also a big portion of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’. When you meet these incredible musicians early on, before the mass acclaim, or huge success, can you see it in them?

When I start working with someone, it’s not necessarily because I meet them and think, ‘oh wow, this person will be a megastar,’ but usually there’s just something really unique or special. Obviously the talent comes first, and then there’s something in their character. All these things play into each other, and make them stand out. I guess eventually that is what all the really great artists, superstars - whatever you want to call them - have. It’s really the ones that sound like nothing else that came before them; they sound like nothing else anyone is doing at the time. They have these massive breakthroughs.

There are incredibly talented people that follow what everyone else is doing, and they’ll do well too. They’ll be able to play festivals and have top 5 records, but the people who really sound like they kick through the door, those are the people with something a bit different about them. The main thing is that when I work with someone new for the first time, I’m always thinking; can I do something that could be great with this person? Musically, do we have a connection, and do we spur each other on?

Everybody’s really different, and there’s no rule across these personalities, but I guess they’re just people that are incredibly talented, and you’re like,’oh man, I wanna make something that turns this person on,’ you know what I mean? Something that instantly will impress this person. I want to be inspired and challenged.

When you first met Adele, she was apparently chain-smoking in the XL label offices, and watching Jerry Springer. You came along to chat production, and she was very flippant - she said something akin to ‘you can produce this one song on my record and that’s your lot’. A lot of people love Adele for that bluntness - was that the case straight away for you, too?

I think everybody just loves her attitude. I think she’s won the entire world over, and I was no different. There are just certain people… I don’t know what it is. This combination of charisma and confidence, and passion. I would say in the first five minutes of meeting her, I knew this girl was about it.

“There is something really exciting about working with young artists. Somebody going on that first journey, and making that first record; the excitement and the things that come with that. It’s infectious.”

— Mark Ronson

Just last month you presented Adele with a BRIT award, and in her speech she nodded to you for landing her first ever BRITs gig. Generally you’re very supportive of rising talent, and vice versa, established artists have been supportive of your career earlier on. How important is that support, do you think?

In the beginning.. I guess, Lily Allen was responsible for putting me on. She took me out on tour, as a support DJ in America when she was really just starting to blow up, and I was just a guy who had been a really good hip-hop club DJ in New York for ten years, with not really much going on. I think there is a certain amount of this feeling; ‘ok, I’ve got on well, now this guy is really talented, I’m going to help him out.’ But most of the time, it’s symbiotic. Of course I had the opportunity to put Adele on stage at the BRITs, and I thought she deserved it cos she’s a great artist, but also, she is an incredible singer. She would raise the whole level. It’s a mixture of both of those things, but for me, there is something really exciting about working with young artists. I think that it’s the idea of somebody going on that first journey, and making that first record; the excitement and the things that come with that. It’s infectious. I feel in some ways that’s probably why I’ve done some of my best work with people doing their first or second record, who are just breaking. But then Bruno was a pretty big superstar by the time I first worked with him. I don’t know that there’s a general rule.

Speaking of Bruno Mars and ‘Uptown Funk,’ that’s a song that took over the world. When you were together in the studio working on the song did you know the full scale of what you had on your hands?

I haven’t really had that many really big hits to be honest. Not giant pop hits like that, so it’s not like I have that thing in my head like ‘oh yeah, everyone’s high-fiving in the studio’. To be honest, we definitely worked that song within an inch of its life. We knew, as soon as we came up with this jam at Bruno’s studio, that it was something special. Over 6 or 7 months of trying to finish it… arguing about it, thinking it wasn’t good enough.. I wouldn’t say we were like ‘hey, this is going to be a massive hit’ cos you never know that. But we did know we had made it as great as we possibly could.

“To be honest, we definitely worked ‘Uptown Funk’ within an inch of its life.”

— Mark Ronson

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.

How do you think the Internet plays into the future of music?

I think it’s definitely leveled the playing field so far as you can put up your music, and become an overnight sensation in an easier way than before. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is that an artist is really great. That’s the underlying thing, or people won’t take notice. That’s been the case since the 60s with people touring bars and pubs, and also now. It’s easier for a kid to make something in his bedroom, upload it to Soundcloud, and people take notice of it. but you know. It has to be good.

Do you think we’ll still be streaming music in five years?

Definitely. I can’t imagine the streaming thing will go away any time soon. I don’t know how else people would get music, but I’m sure there’s somebody in a lab making something.

Photo: Andy Ford. Taken from the April 2016 issue of DIY, out now. Subscribe to DIY below.

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