Latin Grammys 2018
Mark Ronson on Producing For Lady Gaga, Avoiding a Signature Sound
Mark Ronson has produced for some of the biggest names in pop — he helped craft Lady Gaga's Joanne, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 this week — but he's still careful not to take anything for granted. "I don't want bad karma," he explained. "I never say [what I'm working on] until I'm far down the line, because I've been fired once or twice in the middle, and then you have egg on your face."
In fact, Ronson had paint on his face: he was in town to DJ at a Halloween jamboree hosted by Bacardi, and he had embraced the spirit of the festivities with some artfully ghoulish makeup and a thin tendril of blood curling down from the left corner of his mouth. The crowd waiting for him — divided between a dance floor and a multimedia haunted house designed by Kenzo Digital — included several competing Waldo's, a herd of giraffes, a team of Olympic gymnasts, and one Katy Perry Super Bowl shark.
Until last year, most American listeners would have encountered Ronson only through liner notes. Though he amassed four top ten singles in the U.K. as an artist, in the U.S. his success came as a producer: Christina Aguilera's "Hurt," Amy Winehouse's "Rehab," and Bruno Mars' "Locked Out Of Heaven" all cracked the top 20 on this side of the Atlantic. He won the producer of the year Grammy award in 2008 for his work on Winehouse's Back To Black.
Ronson's stateside profile changed in a major way in 2015, when "Uptown Funk" — featuring a Bruno Mars vocal — became the No. 1 in the country for 14 weeks, making him a good candidate for DJing events in canyon-sized warehouses like the Brooklyn Navy Yard location for the Bacardi party. "To go from playing bars in New York with 150 people to going to be able to sell out Webster Hall and play with a band, I was happy," he said. "Trying to chase that success is also dangerous."
This is a consideration when he entertains offers to work with different artists. "Some people want something that you might have done ten years ago that you're not really into anymore," he noted. "Obviously the most famous thing I'll ever be known for is Back To Black. And maybe 'Uptown Funk' now. You always have to suss out — are they just asking you for 'Uptown Funk part 2?' Or coming for my unique brand of retro authenticity or whatever the fuck you want to call it?"
When it came to working with Gaga, Ronson said he "didn't really know what she wanted to do." On their second day in the studio, they wrote the album's title track. "I was like, 'fuck, I really love this,'" he remembered. "So we started following that direction — it was never contrived, like, 'we're gonna make this honest album.' That's what kept coming out. When BloodPop came in, it got a lot better. He took what we were doing, which was maybe a little, not retro, but very live-music-recorded, and started to chop the shit out of it."
Ronson is aware that he has been typecast as a producer with a tasteful retro fetish — the "unique brand of retro authenticity" quip is something he read about himself — and it's not hard to see why: when he works on soul records, he favors the pre-hip-hop era, citing girl groups and Motown in conversations about Back To Black, while the Gap Band ended up being included as co-writers on "Uptown Funk." His rap production discography also leans towards the oldies, including a number of collaborations with New York MCs who came up in early to mid '90s (Ghostface Killah, Nas, Q-Tip).
In conversation, Ronson gently disputes this characterization. "I try not to have a specific sound," he said, "because A) you can date yourself, and B) every artist needs something different, so you don't ever know what holes you're going to have to fill." "I'm not obsessed with chasing any kind of thing," he added. "I wasn't even alive when a lot of the things people say I sound like were around."
But he is unabashed in his admiration for methods of recording that have largely fallen out of fashion. "I love the sound of a well-recorded drum kit, a well-recorded, beautiful acoustic guitar," he said. "I wish more people cared about that shit too. It would suck if it literally is a dying art form, and it stops being passed down because people don't know how to record a great drum kit anymore." (Though he also acknowledged that he is sometimes "in demand" precisely because the pool of people who know or care about recording drum kits has shrunk.)
Accordingly, his success in the U.S. often correlates to the mainstream's fluctuating interest in vintage stylings. He broke out as a producer in 2001 with his work on Nikka Costa's Everybody Got Their Something, which grafted funk grooves onto a hip-hop skeleton in line with the neo-soul that was popular at the time. "Uptown Funk" came in the wake of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," Pharrell's "Happy," and other hits that put a premium on tropes from the '60s and '70s.
The ubiquity of "Uptown Funk" ended up overwhelming its follow-up singles, including "Feel Right," which is one of Ronson's most inspired productions. On paper, it doesn't seem to stand out from his other work: the rapper on the track, Mystikal, is a veteran (his first album came out in 1995); the instrumental is bolt of scrappy funk. But when the two combine, the result is wonderfully incongruous; contemporary hip-hop has largely sidelined sandpapery voices like Mystikal's in a melody-focused gold rush, but "Feel Right" repositions the rapper in an alternate universe where he's a direct competitor with James Brown.
Unfortunately, "Feel Right" was unable to draft behind "Uptown Funk" — it didn't chart. "What was the follow-up single to 'Get Lucky' or 'Blurred Lines?'" Ronson wondered. "I'm sure there was one." "The really, really great artists that have those super deep pop albums, like Bruno, can follow [one hit with another]," he added. "But 'Uptown Funk,' in a beautiful way, just didn't go away." He didn't point out that he hasn't gone away, either.