If there’s one name on everyone’s lips at the moment, it’s that of super producer Mark Ronson. The British born New York dweller is the man behind the current airplay favourite Stop Me, which is taken from his highly anticipated new album Version.
Despite his hectic schedule, Mark came into Crossfire HQ to give Zac Slack and Abjekt his thoughts on what it was like to DJ with Biggie and Jay Z in the audience, how he went about transforming a Smiths’ song and who his tips for 2007 are.
Hello Mark, welcome to Crossfire, where did it all begin, were you always surrounded by music at a young age?
Yeah I was definitely lucky to come from a family that encouraged music. My dad, someone growing up in London who was really into all the old 60s funk and soul had amazing records that I eventually ended up raiding when I started DJing.
And then when my mother re-married, my step-father was a musician as well in a popular rock band at the time called Foreigner, music was definitely all around. I started playing drums when I was 5, came to New York when I was 9 or 10 and started playing guitar, saxophone, lots of instruments so I was definitely lucky in that way.
When I started really getting into hip hop when I was about 15, my step-dad had this dusty old sampler lying around, because he never used it, an old Akai drum machine and I just started using that and making hip hop beats with a few kids from my school that rapped. So I found myself in a position that a lot of kids in my situation wouldn’t have been, that there were drum machines lying around the house. I was definitely lucky for that.
You have been quoted to say that moving to New York when you were 9 was a factor, do you think you were opened up to new music at that age even?
Hip Hop is the soundtrack of New York, it was born in that city and its something you feel all the time, you can just picture it in the streets when you walk down there. Not that everyone in New York listens to Hip Hop but its definitely inbred in the streets, you can’t avoid it. I think that was the amazing thing, I came from England, and my dad listened to Hip Hop. I remember my dad giving me De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising and I remember dancing on the bed with my sisters listening to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 when we were 6 singing along to New York New York!
I think living in New York put everything in a different light. It’s a fast paced city, it’s a hustle, you feel that high energy. I remember going to LA for a few months to work on this Nikka Costa album and just being miserable there. So I love the hustle and bustle of New York but I also love London.
I think being from London and growing up with a really wide appreciation for a lot of different music was good. Over here you’d hear Uptown Top Ranking on the radio next to a Stone Roses song next to a Soul II Soul record next to a Blur record, that’s kind of a privilege to have growing up as your musical education. And then New York gave me that gritty Hip Hop shit…
But was there any one particular band back then that inspired you from the funky hip hop side of things?
I mean, obviously I knew Rapper’s Delight and things that you just hear around that were fun, but the first stuff that really made me a super fan of hip hop was the classic Def Jam era of 90-91 I think… I don’t even know what era it was because it was beyond that but there was definitely LL’s Mama Said Knock You Out, Public Enemy Fear Of A Black Planet, Third Base The Cactus Album and the first two Beastie Boys albums, they were the ones that really turned me onto hip hop.
And then as you become more of a fan you realise that 12inches and remixes come into play and you start getting into bands that just have singles like early Wu Tang. I completely became fanatical about it, buying all the 12inches and that’s what led me to DJing.
…and DJing is the next step where you got to meet these guys right?
Yeah it was amazing to DJ in New York coming up because we were DJing these little hole in the wall clubs in the lower east side and all of a sudden you’d be DJing at a club and you’d see Guru or Premier or Sadat X from Brand Nubian come in, it was kind of amazing.
These were the heroes that made you want to DJ in the first place and then from there, Biggie and Jay Z started coming down and you were thinking “how the fuck do they know about our little hole in the wall hip hop club?“. It was amazing to play records for the people that inspired you to play records.
When urban music started to get more popular with the jet-setters, you got to play in Milan and Paris for fashion houses, what was that like in comparison?
Well when I started DJing, I was playing mostly in these lower east side grimey clubs, with skateboard kids, hooligans, some pretty girls that liked to slum it and some hip hop celebs, that was the thing. Then I started DJing the more trendy clubs, it was unusual at the time because they were only playing more European music, like house and at first they’d be like “what is this?!” and the club promoters would say “Mark Ronson and his brand of hip hop are ruining the clientele of our VIP room!“. But really everyone was having an amazing time, so when I was doing those parties, that was when the fashionista started to notice me and I was flown out to do parties in Milan and all this shit.
It was fun, at first I was nervous thinking “I’m playing for these fashion people, I’d better play fashiony music” and go into a record shop and spend $200 on house 12″s before I went out but that was like, when you’re starting out, you’re insecure of what you do. But if they’d wanted someone to play that, they would’ve got someone else, so I’d always go out there, play that kind of stuff for the first half an hour, realise that no-one was dancing, people were looking at me funny and then I’d start smashing the hip hop and all of a sudden the dance floor would be packed with these people that aren’t used to hearing it.
I think that’s what’s good about being a DJ, people can tell when you’re playing the what you love to play. You can hear it in the way someone plays records. If I’m playing house records, its going to end up sounding a bit like a fish out of water, if that’s not what I play or I’ve never played before. Whereas even if they don’t like hip hop, they’re going to love the way I play it.
Let’s move onto your first record, Here Comes The Fuzz. Was it a big challenge to go from DJing to producing? Or was it a natural progression.
A lot of DJs have gone on to become good producers, you know, Dre, Chad from the Neptunes was a producer at one point, Jelly Bean that did Madonna’s early records. There are advantages and disadvantages – the advantage being that you know what sounds good in a club, the disadvantage being that its hard to separate yourself from a club.
When I’m doing something for my records, I may want the drums way up front, smashing it, whereas if I’m doing something for Amy Winehouse’s record, obviously its going to have a different sentiment. But you become a bit club obsessed, but I think I’ve learnt a little more how to separate it in the same way as I’ve learnt how to DJ a bit less just to not cloud my mind too much.
But it was a natural progression, I was always into producing beats the whole time I was DJing. I used to play in bands from the time I was 14, it was only when I got my turntables when I was 18 that I stopped concentrating on my guitar, and being into creating music. And then after DJing for 5 years and being completely wrapped up in it, I went back to producing. So I’ve always been doing them both at the same time. All DJs make their mixtape albums as such and my first album was a bit of a mix tape album, it was definitely wasn’t surprising the crap out of anyone.
You’ve got some major names on that record. And the single did really well from it, Ooh Wee had Ghostface, Nate Dogg and Trife on it and that seemed to get well recognised in the UK. Was that as well received everywhere else as it was here?
No, I’d definitely say for Ooh Wee, England was the territory for it, the territory, that’s how label people speak. And it was funny coming over here for the first time because I made that record in America, for an American label, Elektra, and not really thinking how it would do in England. And even though it was where I was born and came over once or twice a year to visit my dad, coming back for the first time when Ooh Wee was released and started doing really well and having people saying “Man, I really love your song”, it started to click in my head – of course they like it here because I’m from here, born here, this country shaped my musical sensibility and it just seemed quite obvious at the time.
And it was nice, it wasn’t for the ego of just being in a place where people sweat your shit and are like “oh you’re a God here”, but it was an eye opening thing for me and that’s when I realised England was a much more important part of my musical heritage than I realised and I started working a lot more with English artists. And that’s why for this new record I signed directly to Columbia in the UK.
Don’t get me wrong, the record was a hit in other places, but England was the biggest place, y’know top of the pops, blah blah blah.
So what about Elektra Records? That label died soon after your record came out. Did you concentrate on other people’s records or were you trying to get yourself a new deal at the time?
After my record came out, about a week later, Elektra Records folded so it put me in a difficult position, I didn’t really have much support for what I was doing. I’m not the kind of person who will spend a lot of time sitting at a piano writing songs, and I was working with a lot of other people at the time. And for the 2 years after that, I was mainly focussed on the artists on my label, Rhymefest and Daniel Merriweather, getting the label set up. I think looking back on it, it wasn’t the smartest move because I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man!
I guess if you’re going to look at the kind of person in the industry I’d like to be, its more of a Rick Rubin than a Russell Simmons. So I was trying to run around like a label guy for 2 years and it was good and I got my artists in some great positions but I sort of neglected music. Whereas in the past year I decided it made me happier to create music and that’s probably what I was more talented at. Obviously the records I’ve worked on in the past year have made me much happier than the stuff I was trying to do. And besides, I have a partner Rich who runs the label and does a great job.
So I realised that my job is to make sure that my artists are making great music and that direction is steered forward but I don’t need to sit every record company marketing meeting.
So how do you set about getting people to work on your records? Do you have a set list of people you want to work with, or do people come to you?
On my first record it was very much about like “oh I’ve got this beat I’d love to get MOP on” and I’d call their manager and get them to come in. The great thing about being a DJ is being in that position to always be around artists, meeting people like Puffy, Mos Def and D’Angelo all the time in clubs I was DJing at put me in a great position and these people would love to come to my parties. At least I could get my foot in the door.
On this new record, Version, which is just covers of some of my favourite songs, its much more of a family vibe. I had people coming down, working late night, and I’d be like “Hey man I need a guitar part, I’m not sure if I’ve got an idea for it, why don’t you come down?“, so my friend Mike would come down. And then I’d say “why don’t you sing this thing on top because that’d be cool”, so it’d be like that, a rotating cast of people.
And whoever I was working with at the time on their album, even if it was back at the beginning of the year with Lily or further down with Amy or Robbie or whoever else, people were cool. It’s a fun record, it’s like pick a song you love and we’ll do a cover of it. It’s been very low-key and organised which is a nice thing. To be in a position at the end of the day to look at people like Lily and Amy, who when we started working at the beginning of the year weren’t in the position they’re in now… to a label person it looks like “oh he’s got all these big sellers on his album”, but that’s how I roll!
What about the tracks themselves? How did you choose the tracks that you were going to use on the record?
It was quite simple choosing which tracks were going to go on the record, it was my favourite songs really. It was taking songs, mostly from the indie guitar world, because I didn’t want to take songs that already had beats or that were “funky” because I guess the whole point is that’s what I’m doing to the songs – I’m making them really beat heavy at the end of the day. Beat. Heavy.
The songs are all amazing songs, stuff that I’ve listened from The Smiths’ Stop Me is a song I’ve listened to probably about 10,000 times in my life, to a song like the Kaiser’s Oh My God which is a modern classic.
And then Britney’s Toxic just to show we’re not all fucking guitar snobs and whatnot. Just really honestly they’re songs that I love that I thought would work well in that vein. Doing the Just record was the first thing were I realised you’d take the horns and substitute the heavy guitar. And I realised the horns doing the guitar bits sounded kinda cool so on the Kaiser’s cover you’ve got the horns doing the guitar line, it’s cool.
Then there’s songs like Stop Me where all you’re really saving from the original is the emotion and the chord progression as opposed to replacing different things from the arrangement, although we did listen a lot to Johnny Marr’s guitars. It’s obvious you listen to the things you love in the original songs, there’s a painstaking detail to the arrangement, even if its transferring those lines to other instruments back and forth.
Yeah its definitely a process that’s going to take some time. Hearing a cover of a Britney song next to a cover of a Smiths song shows what a varied range of tracks you’ve picked. Was it important to get that range, or did it just come about that way?
Yeah, like I said, the only thing about the range that was important was that they were songs that I loved and I love all kinds of music. And the Britney song shows there are great pop songs and Toxic, even though my arrangement is completely different, is still a great song at the end of the day.
Oh absolutely, I think it came out very well. Talking of the cover versions, when did you come up with the idea of an album of cover versions rather than a collection of your own original songs? Did the popularity of your version of Radiohead’s Just make you want to do a whole album or were you already underway with it by then?
Basically when I did the Radiohead cover, I had such a good time doing it and it was so much fun to strip a record that is such an amazing song and do something different to it. So once I had done that even before it came out I started working on other covers because it was just fun. I would sit down with a guitar or a keyboard or a clav, a clavinet is the famous sound from Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, that kind of wah-keyboard, so I’d bring a drum beat up and learn the chords from a different song and see which sound good? Do the chords from the Kaiser’s Oh My God work well on a clav? Or how would I play Britney on a guitar?
That’s how they all came about and by the time Just blew up I was sitting on about 7 of these so I was in a position and come over and meet with a few of the major labels and have a song on the radio and have 7 more that were kind of in a similar vein, it was a good position to be in and things just lined up.
Cool. So other than doing this record, you own and run a record label, Allido Records, which houses Rhymefest and Daniel Merriweather. How’s it running a label?
Well like I said earlier, I really like running a label, I just realised that because I’m a micro-managing perfectionist Virgo, it’s quite hard for me to let go of the reigns, but I realised that without doing that, I wasn’t going to get any music done. That’s the balancing I’ve been doing, like I said my partner Rich is amazing, he runs the label stuff and I just stay on the creative side.
What about signing stuff to the label? Do you try and focus to a particular type of artist? With Rhymefest doing well at Scribble Jam not that long ago and then going onto to pen stuff for Kanye and winning a grammy, you must be pretty pleased with how things are going for the label!
Yeah, I’m pretty much in charge of the talent, I play it to Rich and if he believes in it… We’ve got Rhymefest, Daniel Merriweather and this band called Domino, this amazing band with a female lead singer based in New York. I’m producing their EP right now, you can go to their myspace right now – www.myspace.com/dominoband – Shameless plugging so necessary.
The only thing I look for is that there’s nobody out there that does anything like they do and that they’re the best at it. Rhymefest, as far as being a colourful character that can tell a story with such a varied degree of emotion, be funny and poignant and hard all at the same time, I love Fest, I know that there’s no-one out there who does what he does and he’s fucking brilliant at what he does.
Daniel Merriweather who sings on The Smiths’ Stop Me is another kid. He’s from half way across the world in Melbourne, Australia and I heard his voice and he’s amazing. There’s no-one who gives me the same emotional feeling when I listen to him singing and Domino are the same thing, they write these really quirky clever poppy songs and the band sounds great, Domino’s voice sounds great and she has these wondeful harmonies. I’d never sign anything that sounded like something else that was popular at the time.
So what else is coming up on the label? I heard a rumour about a soundtrack to a film called Half Nelson, is this true?
Yeah Half Nelson is this great film with Ryan Gosling that’s up for all sorts of awards, its this tiny indie film. It’s a beautiful film about a school teacher, it doesn’t specify which city its in, it could be Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta and he’s a very human character who has a problem with drugs, coke, and his whole life is a sort of a big hangover yet he starts to teach 12 year old kids in school and it just feels really real, the mood is really sombre, there’s nothing elaborate or extra Hollywood about it. And they had all Broken Social Scene and all these sorts of songs in the film ready and we thought it was something we could do to help them fill in a few extra blanks with some songs and let it work.
Other than that we’ve got Domino coming up, Rhymefest’s next album, Daniel Merriweather and we did a series of compilations for the Hard Rock Hotel because they wanted to put together a compilation that put them in a new light.
So, rather than how you would expect to be in the Hard Rock and hearing AC/DC and these kinds of things, hooking them up with good new bands like Wolfmother, Queens Of The Stone Age, Weezer – not necessarily underground bands, just stuff that a lot of the people who go to the Hard Rock Hotel or Restaurant wouldn’t know.
Yeah but how do you manage to get all of this fitted into your busy schedule? You still do East Village Radio right?
I love the East Village Radio show, I used to do a show on Kiss in the UK that was really fun, but somehow doing a show on a really, really popular radio station on Saturday night from 11 to 1 just made me feel too nervous because my tastes go across the board and I don’t want to feel like I have to play high energy party stuff and I’m sure if I was a bit more ego-driven I’d be like “fuck it, I don’t care this is on a commercial station I’ll play whatever I like”, there’s part of me that still wants to make people happy.
So on the East Village Radio show which is so the opposite of that, it’s basically a tiny closet in East Village that looks out onto the street on the ground floor, turntables in the window and you just play music and we leave the door open so its like being in a tiny shop in the front, people walking by here, and we’re next to a restaurant so people are waiting in line for tables and I just play whatever I want and that was the allure of it, just not having any pressure.
Now it’s got the point where I think we get around 40,000 podcasts a show and it’s a great thing. And also the other thing is whoever is in town, I mean one time when Lily was around and I had to go out of town, she did the radio show by herself. I think its an amazing show, you should get it if there’s any way to get a copy of it because she literally doesn’t know how to use the mic and everything is backfiring, its before she was famous and just sounds like someone learning how to use a computer for the first time but she still plays some good tunes.
Any other guests that we might know turning up?
Amy Winehouse was just in town the other day so she came in with an acoustic guitar and played a few songs. Whoever I’m working with, I always play their demos their demos first. So if you were listening to East Village Radio back in May, you would have heard the demo of Rehab, and that’s kind of the fun of it.
Here’s an obvious question for you, is there anyone you’ve not worked with before that you’d like to work with in the future?
No, it’s pretty good right now. I wish there was more time to work. Now I find myself in a position that I would have envied last year, having more things that you want to work on than you have time to do. But I guess you just have to juggle and make the right decisions.
So what new records are coming up with Mark Ronson production on them? What can we be expecting to hear in the future?
I did one song for this singer Candi Payne on Columbia, its brilliant. Her voice, to me, is a mixture of 60s Dusty Springfield and Mika and she’s done this amazing record with this guy Simon, they did this whole album together and I’ve just done one song on it, because I love the song and I asked if I could produce it. It’s called One More Chance. Her record is coming up.
Jack Penate, another upcoming talented kid, I’m really trying to work on his record. Actually sometimes interns that work in the office and my friends send me new music on Friday so I can get it together for my East Village Radio show and one of the times it was this Jack Penate song and I just loved it and played it on the show and got an email on the Monday from Nick at XL saying “hey we heard you played a Jack song, would you like to work on his record?”.
That to me is the pinnacle of the internet, the best thing that it can do for you, just the fact it makes the world that small. You play a song by someone you like but know nothing about on Friday and on Monday you’re asked to work on his album.
Other than that we’re working on Daniel Merriweather’s new album right now, I’m actually in the studio working on it right this second and then my album of course!
But is there a wish list of people you want to work with, people you idolise?
Not really, I think the people I work with are good enough. I mean, I worship Stevie Wonder but its not like that means I think it would be great to go in and work with him. The really cool thing is I got an email the other day from somebody who manages Elton John who asked me if I’d be interested in working with Elton on his new album. That’s kind of amazing, that’s one of those things where someone you love is seeking you out.
But the fact is, just to work on something for the sake of working on it, or just because you want to meet your idols is not always the best thing. Sometimes its best not to meet your heroes because you can be seriously disappointed.
What about the UK scene? Looking at the tracklisting on your record, there’s a hell of a lot of Brits on there, you’ve obviously got some love for the UK.
Yeah I like UK artists, obviously I like working with Lily, Amy, Robbie those people, over this past year. Other than Ghostface and Christina, I think most the artists I work with are English.
I like the hip hop scene over there, I think its really healthy, the fact that’s great is that the successful kids don’t try and sound like the US artists. I like Klashnekoff, obviously Dizzee, Ty, I like anybody that’s doing something different. Sway is someone I’ve been talking about trying to find a way for us to get together on his upcoming album.
That sounds good, I look forward to hearing that, he’s a UK hip hop prospect without a doubt. So thanks for coming in Mark, its been a pleasure talking to you and finding out what you’re up to. Good luck with the album Version.
My last question to you would be, do you have any tips for 2007? Who should people look out for, who are we going to be listening to?
There’s this kid Calvin Harris that I really like.
Jack Penate, of course who I’ll probably be working with and Candi Payne and my record! (laughs)
Of course…anyone else?
A young up and coming singer by the name of Elton John (laughs) and Daniel Merriweather! That’s it man!
Thanks for coming into HQ Mark.
Mark Ronson’s album Version is released on the 16th of April on all formats and you have to have it. You can find him at www.markronson.co.uk .