Mark Ronson: Doing What Feels Right

Mark Ronson rocks Red Bull Thre3Style US Finals
© Rick Rodney/Red Bull Media House

We hang out with the Grammy-winning producer and DJ, who talks new hip-hop acts and cover songs.

At 37, Mark Ronson has accomplished more than many will in a lifetime. He’s produced 'Back in Black' for Amy Winehouse -- which helped him earn a Grammy award – as well worked on tunes for Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen, Paul McCartney, and Cee Lo. He’s remixed icons like Bob Dylan, DJ'd all over the globe, and dropped chart-toppers, like 'Version,' his album of covers that features an amazing break-beat rendition of The Smiths' 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before.'

Ronson, who runs his own record label/production company, Allido Records, somehow finds the time to host a popular East Village Radio show where he prides himself on introducing listeners to fresh names in hip-hop. We caught up with Ronson prior to his set at the Red Bull Thre3style US Finals in LA, where he talked about some new hip-hop discoveries, his new record and what songs he'd still like to cover. So ladies and gentlemen, the always-knowledgable, the ever-entertaining, the very eloquent Mark Ronson.

What are you working on at the moment?

I've been working on my fourth record. I've been DJing quite a bit, so I've been traveling a lot. I was out here working with Cee Lo a little bit. I'll be doing a record with The Black Lips in a couple of weeks as well -- mainly just trying to focus on my own album though.

Mark Ronson
Mark Ronson and the Red Bull Thre3Style crowd© Carlo Cruz/Red Bull Media House

How far along are you on this new album?

I only have a few tracks so far. It takes a long time sometimes to figure out the sound of what you're doing because otherwise it's just a bunch of tracks -- unless I have a little bit of an identifying element like on 'Version.' It was a bit obvious because it was all covers, it was all horns so it kind of makes sense to me. 'Record Collection' was all about going everyday and recording with the band and that combination of that drum sound with synths on top so that was the gel or the glue or whatever. This one is just back to a little bit more like my first album where it was me and my MPC back in a room again. It’s much more a beat sort of hip-hop influenced, so yeah I’ve just been trying to figure out what it is. I feel like I’ve got a little bit more a handle on it.

Do you know when you're going to try to aim to have it out by?

No, because that’s the best way to jinx yourself by saying that. I’d like to at least have a single or two out by the end of the year. Just putting some stuff out because it's been a while and I feel it when I go to DJ -- I love the Bruno Mars stuff that I did and the Rufus Wainwright, but it’s not like those things are really things that I’d play a lot in my club sets. When I’m DJing, I find myself going back to records like 'Bang Bang Bang' and stuff and I’d just like some new music out with my name on it already, so I can go and DJ and not feel like I’m hawking 2010.

Are you going to have anyone collaborate on the new stuff with you?

Yeah. I’ve done a few tracks with this producer Emile Haynie who is awesome, who I worked a bit on the Bruno record with, and he did Lana Del Rey’s album. We both come from hip-hop and doing beats and now he’s found his sound, but we still have that thing in common, so I’ve been collaborating with him a bit. I haven’t figured out who the actual rappers and singers are that I would like on it yet. I definitely want big name rappers on my shit, of course.

I’ve been working with this other young really talented rapper/producer from New Orleans called Chase N. Cashe, who did 'Drop The World' with Lil Wayne and Eminem and I can’t remember the name of it but the one off the last Drake album – the one with just the piano [Editors: We think he's talking about 'Look What You've Done.'] It’s cool because we’ve been collaborating. I do my East Village Radio show every Friday and filling up two hours with new hip-hop every week, it makes me have to find the best new shit that’s out there so I end up discovering a lot of new and young talent through it.

I still think of songs that I love everyday and when I’m in the studio by myself and I’m too bored to come up with something new or not inspired, I will usually just make a strange instrumental cover of a song I like.

You’re into a wide variety of music – 1960s soul, hip-hop, etc. What are you recommendations of albums that people should absolutely have in their music collection?

As far as new things that I’ve discovered that I really like: There’s this rap group TiRon & Ayomari, this guy Chase N. Cashe, Overdose, Pac Div. Then as far as a bit more musical and dreamy, there’s this girl Rachel Zafira, who just put out a record. I love her shit. You can just tune into my radio show of if you are too lazy to do that, just look at the playlist and discover some things.

Why are you excited to be a part of the Red Bull Thre3Style event?

First of all, to be on a bill with Alain [A-Trak] and Jeff who represent the best of this world. Jeff -- I don’t even want to call him the originator because he’s still one of the best -- he’s amazing, he’s never lost his touch and he just gets better, and then Alain, who is definitely the best of the new generation to me. So being on the bill is great, it’s also super fucking nerve-racking as well because it’s much easier to be on a bill with two mediocre DJs than to have to go on with two guys that are fucking incredible. And not only that but I’m also going go after these fucking whiz kid genius creative next generation people who have just DJ’d so if I can fucking squeak it out, I’ll be happy for sure.

Mark Ronson and A-Trak at Red Bull Thre3Style US Finals
Mark Ronson and A-Trak at Red Bull Thre3Style© Carlo Cruz/Red Bull Media House

If you were competing in Red Bull Thre3style, what would you do? Can you walk us through a hypothetical 15-minute set -- with the rules being that you had 15 minutes and had to incorporate three styles of music seamlessly and keep the party rockin'…

I think that’s kind of what I’ve always tried to do, whether those genres were hip-hop, rock reggae, soul, disco, dance, moombahton. If I play a night where I don’t jump across three genres at least, I feel like I didn’t really give a sense of what I like or I do anyway, but I guess you just want to be as creative – have some moments that you do something clever and technically that you kind of wow the crowd with a routine or you’re making a music bed out of something that wasn’t there. That’s kind of it, but I wouldn’t want to be competing against these kids tonight, that’s for sure.

The Lily Allen thing was the first hit record that I’d ever been on and that was 10-12 years of making beats and kind of just twirling away and having my label and DJing all of these shitty corporate office parties – anything to just be able to keep funding the label or keep the lights on in the studio.

It’s an exciting time with it being mainstream. What do you think of all the cross over that’s happening between genres?

I think it’s exciting. I’ve been DJing for so long that it was before the term mashup really existed and people like AM and Z-Trip, we would play blends. I remember listening to Z-Trip’s first CD and AM playing it for me in his car and it was this mix that he did of 'The Girl from Ipanema' with Planet Rock and just being like, “Dude this is mind-blowing.” I used to take an M.O.P. acapella and throw it over a Zeppelin record and you really had to have your shit together to do that and just coming from being a hip-hop DJ, that’s kind of what you did and to see that is now kind of become the norm is cool. It makes sense to me.

Have you ever thought about doing a second 'Version' and if so what songs would you put on it?

I don’t know. I still think of songs that I love everyday and when I’m in the studio by myself and I’m too bored to come up with something new or not inspired, I will usually just make a strange instrumental cover of a song I like. It’s like seeing behind-the-scenes of a magic trick – dissecting a song that you love and building it back up if you really understand the chord changes and where it goes. It kind of teaches you to be better at a songwriter. I think if Bruno Mars and Jeff Bhasker and those guys hadn’t played in a shitty covers band in Venice for a couple of years while they were coming up – they really understand song craft so well and that’s why they can make these hits. I think they are also incredibly talented I don’t want to undersell that point, but yeah.

Mark Ronson
Mark Ronson at Red Bull Thre3Style US Finals© Carlo Cruz/Red Bull Media House

But are there any songs that come to mind that you’d cover on a future album?

Well, I wouldn’t make another full record of covers but it would maybe put a few on this or do a mixtape or something. I think to be honest, Version was much more about covering guitar driven things and now I find myself drawn to all this amazing 90’s soul and R&B that I just find myself falling back in love with – things like “Blackberry Molasses” by Mista and songs like Horace Brown’s “Taste Your Love” – which I’m sure 3 percent of the people in this world really know. I find myself coming back to that era so I guess with me, it’s like either DJ it out or I’ll make a cover of it.

You’re regarded as one of the most versed producers out there today. What’s your secret to success?

I don’t know. I was doing shit for like 10 years before I had my first record. I guess my first record came out when I was 26 but it didn’t really blow up so probably the Lily Allen thing was the first hit record that I’d ever been on and that was 10-12 years of making beats and kind of just twirling away and having my label and DJing all of these shitty corporate office parties, anything to just be able to keep funding the label or keep the lights on in the studio. I think it’s just the oldest lesson in the book: It’s 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.

Do you have any methods that you follow to guide you towards what projects you say yes to?

I used to say yes a lot because I used to feel like the roof was going to fall in at any minute: “I should to say yes to this because it might be the last gig that I ever get offered…” but that’s being motivated out of fear. It’s tough to decide to really be honest with yourself. "Would I do this if there was no money in this? Would I do this or would I do that?” For the most part, I just do things because they really feel right at the time. Sometimes I look back and am like, “Fuck, I really shouldn’t have given that two years of my life.” I would love to look back and have this meticulously curated Quincy Jones-type career, but I’m going to have a few blemishes on there because I’m probably a bit more impulsive. At the end of the day, I’m happy when I’m going to the studio on that day to work with that band, so only I guess history decides if it’s good or not.

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