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The closest you can get to emulating Mark Ronson’s address book is by turning the wheel on your iPod and pretending that all of the artists are your friends. Since he first jumped onto New York’s club scene in 1993, the British-born DJ/producer has built up a reputation as the city’s most notorious party starter, with Jay-Z, Diddy and Prince requesting his services, as well as the likes of Christina Aguilera, Jack White and Ghostface Killah all queuing up to work with him in the studio. What makes his success even harder for his rivals to swallow is the fact that Ronson hasn’t crawled his way up from the ghetto either. As the privately-educated son of socialite Ann Dexter Jones and the stepson of Mick Jones, one of the founders of 70s rock group Foreigner, Ronson’s life has been more a case of diamond rocks than hard knocks. But, as he prepares to release Version, an album that features covers of Morrissey, Britney Spears, Kaiser Chiefs and Coldplay anthems, the 31-year-old explains that it’s always been his music, not his money that has opened up all the important doors.
Another Man: What was your first attempt at cracking the industry? Mark Ronson: When I was 15, I started a band with some friends. We were just getting into Black Moon and Wu Tang, so we thought that we’d try and incorporate rap into indie rock, but we were terrible. We sounded like a really bad version of The Roots. Plus, we had the worst name ever. We were called the Whole Earth Mommas. I remember we were arguing about the band name all the way up to our first gig, and then during the second song our lead singer, the guy who wanted that name, announced, ‘We’re the Whole Earth Mommas!’ and everyone was like, ‘Oh fuck.’ But because there weren’t that many bands our age who could play instruments, we got quite a following. AM: Did the Whole Earth Mommas bless the world with any recordings? MR: No, but Sean Lennon, who was a really good friend of mine when I was growing up, had an eight track in his house and an extra room in his apartment, so he let us use it at weekends to record. It was quite funny actually, a few years ago he turned around and said to me, ‘By the way, all that music you guys were making back then was terrible!’ I guess he was just humouring a friend. AM: Not many kids get to record in Sean Lennon’s house though. When did it occur to you that you weren’t living a normal childhood? MR: Well, one time, Sean and me went along and hung out with Michael Jackson at one of his concerts. AM: How old were you? MR: We were about 13 or 14 years old. It was very innocent, though, there was nothing weird about it. Anyway, I just remember not telling anyone in school about it, because who the fuck would believe that, and if they did, I’d have just sounded like a dickhead. It’s one thing to impress kids, but it’s another when you step over that line. If you said that you’d just met a famous baseball player after a game, that was acceptable, but saying that you’d hung out with Michael Jackson on the Bad tour just seemed a bit over the top. AM: Can you remember it well? MR: Yeah, there were two things. He came over to Sean’s the night before the show, and had a prototype of one of those infrared laser things. It was so antiquated that you had to plug it into the wall. We spent the evening shining this red beam down on to the sidewalk from Sean’s seventh-storey apartment, freaking people out. There was another time we went to an after party, and spent hours throwing toilet paper soggies out of the window at people. It’s what kids do. The only weird thing was that Michael was standing next to us doing it too. AM: Were you embarrassed by your privileged background? MR: It wasn’t so much the privilege because I went to a school where pretty much everyone was privileged, it was more that I never liked drawing attention to myself. I don’t know if it’s something I picked up from being a kid and moving around a lot, but the more you blend in, the better. I never played down where I came from or pretended to come from a rougher background than I did, it’s just that I didn’t choose to draw attention to that side of my life. So for people to try and stick something on me like, ‘You only got to where you are because of your
family connections,’ I find ridiculous. When I decided to make music, I was lucky that my dad had a keyboard and drum machine that I could fuck around with, but the rest of it is bullshit. AM: Did you always want to do something with music? MR: I always knew I wanted to be on the creative side of making music. I remember when I was in the band my friend said to me, ‘I really see you as more of a producer behind the boards type of guy.’ I was so offended, I didn’t talk to him for like an hour or something. AM: A whole hour? MR: (Laughs) Yeah. The thing is, he was completely right. Everyone has these visions of grandeur, of being a rock star, but I think being a producer is my main thing in life and being an artist comes second. AM: Your recent productions have emphasised a fondness for jazz and old funk. Do you feel like you’ve finally found your signature style? MR: It’s only in the last year that I’ve started making the music that I want to. In the past, I’ve always come at it like a club DJ, you know, thinking, ‘What’s going to compete with Pharrell’s drums,’ or whatever. But after my cover of Radiohead’s ‘Just’ blew up, I realised I could make music purely because it was really enjoyable. It was hip hop that made me go back to the old funk stuff. As a DJ, I’m always looking for breaks that people like RZA sampled for old Wu Tang records, and that’s what made me discover some of the old funk shit, and me trying to put my own spin on it. Plus, I love collaborating with different artists. I’m not like James Murphy who can sit in a room by himself, write a song and then sing it himself. That’s not what I do. I’m more of an arranger. AM: Version is mainly a covers album, what do the original artists make of your interpretations? MR: I know the Kaiser Chiefs love the version of ‘Oh My God’ that I’ve done with Lily Allen. It’s nice to do someone’s song and love it, and have them be into it as well, because otherwise it would be bad karma, even if it went on to sell two million copies. AM: Are you scared that critics will say, ‘Great, but all you’ve done is put a funky brass band over someone else’s songs’? MR: These are my favourites songs of the last 15 years. It’s not like, ‘Oh, let’s do these quirky covers of some cool indie songs.’ It’s a labour of love. I’m sure that my version of Morrissey’s ‘Stop Me’ isn’t what he intended when he first recorded it, but I know that he’s happy with it. There’s still the hurt and the pain in the vocals that he was trying to convey. I would never substitute angst or emotion for some gimmick. AM: You’re known for surprising people, is that why Ol’ Dirty Bastard appears on Britney’s ‘Toxic’? MR: Yeah. I was fucking around with Coldplay, Radiohead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and it was partly a conscious thing because I didn’t want to look like an indie snob. I love good pop music as well, and ‘Toxic’ is a great song. If you take out the synthy bits and the drums, it has a very bluesy progression, so I thought that it could work well as a dusted out, Al Green-type of beat that the Wu Tang might have used. I’d done this song with ODB before he died, and I was able to salvage the second verse, where, coincidentally, he was talking about burning up. I met him when he was on a lot of prescription drugs and was on prison release, but the engineers said that it was the first time that they’d seen ODB get back to his old self, getting excited about making music again. AM: You appear to have led a pretty blessed life, is there anything that hasn’t gone your way that you thought would have? MR: When I first started with the Nikka Costa record, everyone was making a big fuss over it. I had idols like DJ Premier coming up to me saying, ‘Wow, these beats are amazing.’ I thought I was ensured some meteoric rise and would be chilling with The Neptunes at the Grammys in no time, but a couple of projects didn’t come off and it didn’t quite happen like that. You could argue that the last seven years have not gone the way I originally envisaged. I mean, some amazing things came out on the side, and yes, it’s very cool to do a mixtape for Jay-Z’s movie, but that was never the goal. I think this is the first time I’m happy doing what I’m doing in a way that is authentic to me.
Version is released on Columbia.
Music AnOtherMan 315