The Mark Ronson interview
Yes, he may come from a lineage of rock royalty, but no one can doubt that Mark Ronson has earned his status as one of the best (and hardest working) producers today. The contagiously catchy tune “Uptown Funk” dominated the airwaves in 2015, earning the British DJ-Producer-Musician (together with Bruno Mars) a hand full of Grammy nominations and an ever-growing list of potential future collaborators. Esquire spoke to the ultra-stylish Ronson, as he flew to Dubai to play a private gig at the newly opened Intersect by Lexus venue:
ESQUIRE: If I may just say: excellent socks, sir.
MARK RONSON: Thanks. Green is my favourite colour. I don’t remember when I decided that, because growing up I always liked blue and orange. But, come to think of it, there was always a lot of green in my house.
ESQ: Is the blue and orange because you’re a New York Knicks fan?
MR: Yeah, man. I grew up in New York, and I was a diehard Knicks fan. Especially in the ’90s era with Patrick Ewing and Latrell Sprewell. We even made it to the NBA championships one year, and I remember heading down to Indiana for the playoff games. We were diehard fans in those days.
ESQ: That was a pretty big rivalry between the [Indiana] Pacers and the Knicks. How much did you hate [Indiana’s] Reggie Miller?
MR: It’s funny because at the time I had made a bit of a name for myself DJing at hip-hop clubs in New York, and Reggie Millar’s ex-wife, Rita, would come to my spots. We’d always hassle her for tickets, and Reggie would always get angry at her. “Why do you let your criminal New York friends come to my game!?”.
It was cool.
ESQ: Are you in Dubai for a fleeting visit?
MR: Yeah, I’m just passing through on the way back from India. They’ve just started doing big festivals over there, so I was playing at a couple
of those shows.
ESQ: What are festivals in India like?
MR: They’re pretty nuts. Some of the best crowds that I have ever played to.
MR: Yeah, especially in Bangalore and Delhi. When you go to a new country it always takes a few gigs to understand what works. There can be huge differences. By the end of it I was playing some original Bollywood records while sampling some Dr Dre or Britney Spears — all the time just figuring out the crowd, without looking like I am pandering too much. The last gig in Bangalore was nuts.
ESQ: How different is it to playing in Dubai?
MR: Over here has a much more international culture. I’ve played in the UAE a lot, and people are very aware of what they like. When you go to India, the audiences are 90 percent Indian.
ESQ: That must have been a bit surreal…
MR: It was amazing. We got to meet [Indian composer, music producer and musician] A.R. Rahman and I was meant to go down to his studio to see him, but there was crazy flooding in Chennai while we were there.
ESQ: Much like A.R. Rahman, you are one of those guys that gets introduced with a series of hyphens. DJ-producer-musician… which of those do you identify with the most?
MR: Honestly, I don’t really know. I just… it’s kind of all those things. I think we’re living in a world of hyphens and it’s hard to boil down something to fit one definition. I think if you asked Kanye, he would want to be called a rapper, but he wants to be known as a rapper-designer-artist and whatever else he is. The thing that makes me the happiest professionally
is being in a studio creating new music.
ESQ: So clear it up for us, what exactly does a music producer do?
MR: There’s no simple way to describe it. In hip-hop it’s the guy who makes the beat. In EDM [Electronic Dance Music] it’s the guy who writes the melody.
ESQ: But you do much more than that…
MR: Well, yeah. I came up as a hip-hop producer, wanting to make beats like DJ Premier, but then I got really into recording instruments and recording live. I guess what I do is all those things. The best way I can explain it is that a producer is there to serve the song and the artist. Getting the best out of them, getting the best people to play on the tracks, doing whatever it takes to make that artist sound the best they possibly can.
ESQ: What’s your way of doing that? Are you an ‘arm around the shoulder’ guy or do you get in people’s faces?
MR: You hear all these great stories of legendary producers like Ross Robinson [Slipknot, Korn, The Cure, Limp Bizkit] who would throw a chair at the drummer, screaming “You’re going to die tomorrow and this tape is going to be the suicide note to your family!” And for him, it gets great performances. But no one would buy that coming from me! I feel that if there’s an idea that I’m really passionate about then I’ll fight for it, but I find that diplomacy works better for me. Especially when working with talented and headstrong people like Bruno Mars and [American record producer and songwriter] Jeff Bhasker like I did on “Uptown Funk”.
ESQ: Speaking of which, I read that it is one of the most downloaded songs ever.
MR: I don’t know about that, but it’s definitely got some pretty wild numbers.
ESQ: The upcoming award season should be exciting…
MR: Yeah, the Grammy nominations came out just this morning. We got nominated for Record of the Year, Best Collaboration and Best Pop Album.
ESQ: Regarding “Uptown Funk”, what do you think will stick with you when you think about it in 10 years’ time?
MR: It was a pretty crazy time. The song took a long time to get right, and there were some super-stressful times, but there was also a lot of laughter in the studio with Bruno and Jeff. Essentially, it was just us in the studio playing the kind of music that we love. I think that joy really comes out in the song.
ESQ: People have written essays where they scientifically deconstruct that song to work out what makes it such a big hit. Do you read into that stuff?
MR: Not really. We weren’t trying to make the perfect ear worm; it was more a case of having a moment of inspiration and the rest of the time moulding and shaping it into the best thing it could be.
ESQ: Can you ever tinker too much with an idea?
MR: Yeah, definitely. Just because you’re working on something doesn’t necessarily mean you are making it better.
ESQ: Your childhood wasn’t what exactly ‘normal’. Your parents used to hang out in some pretty cool crowds. Does celebrity faze you?
MR: Not really. I still do get star-struck, but it’s mainly out of respect for people’s work. My mum and stepdad used to have parties where people like Al Pacino, Robin Williams and David Bowie would come, but when you’re a kid they are just tall people in your house. That said, I do get invited to some pretty crazy parties. I remember going to Madonna’s post-Oscar party and I had never seen so many f***ing actors in the same place! It was like a joke.
ESQ: Are you comfortable being labelled a ‘style icon’?
MR: I don’t know. When I think of a style icon, I think of people like David Bowie. I don’t think people will ever make a book about the different outfits I’ve worn.
ESQ: Maybe a Tumblr site…
MR: Yeah, that’s probably more like it. I’ve been dressing up for a couple of years, so maybe that’s why.
ESQ: What sparked your interest in style?
MR: I think if you’re into music, then you dress according to what you like.
At high school I was into heavy metal, and I had a leather jacket with a Cult airbrush on the back. When I was a bit older I started listening to hip-hop and dressed like a Beastie Boy.
ESQ: Backwards cap?
MR: Na, more like suede Pumas, that kinda thing. I think you just see a thing that strikes a chord with you and you follow along.
ESQ: Speaking of your younger hip-hop days, you’ve got a pretty sizeable record collection. Do you still go crate-digging for vinyl in obscure shops?
MR: Definitely. It’s something that I’ve spent so much of my life doing, rifling through vinyl bins and finding some wonderful obscure treasures or a bizarre ’60s jazz-funk Beatles cover.
ESQ: Are you still looking for tracks to sample?
MR: Not much anymore. I moved away from sampling when I hooked up with The Dap-Kings, who basically showed me that you can get those noises from playing live. I still listen to records all the time. Actually, I have a record player at home, but not a CD player.
ESQ: So I take it you’re the kind of guy who opts for books over a Kindle?
MR: Definitely a book kinda guy. There’s something pleasing about holding one in your hands. It’s the same with records, I like the visceral-ness of it.
- – -
Mark Ronson was in Dubai to open the new Intersect by Lexus space at DIFC.