April 16, 2015
Guest: Mark Ronson
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The song "Uptown Funk" just ended its 14-week run at the top of the Billboard 100 chart. The vocal is by Bruno Mars, who co-wrote the song, but the album it's from, "Uptown Special," is a Mark Ronson album. Ronson, my guest today, is a musician, producer and DJ. He's put out four albums under his own name, and they all future guest artists singing the songs he co-wrote and produced. Ronson's production work on the Amy Winehouse album "Back To Black" helped to make international hits of her songs "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good." Mark Ronson grew up in the music world. His stepfather is Mick Jones, the co-founder of the band Foreigner. Ronson was born in London, but his family moved to New York when he was about 8. He's now a much sought-after producer and has done recordings with Adele, Paul McCartney, Ghostface Killah, Lily Allen and Duran Duran. This is his current hit, "Uptown Funk."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")
BRUNO MARS: (Singing) This hit, that ice cold, Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold - this one for them hood girls, them good girls, straight masterpieces, styling while in - living it up in the city. Got Chucks on with Saint Laurent. Got to kiss myself. I'm so pretty. I'm too hot - hot damn. Call the police and the fireman. I'm too hot - hot damn - make a dragon want to retire, man. I'm too hot - hot damn. Say my name. You know who I am. I'm too hot - hot damn. Am I bad about that money? Break it down. Girls, hit your hallelujah - whoo. Girls, hit your hallelujah - whoo. Girls, hit your hallelujah - whoo - 'cause "Uptown Funk" going to give it to you - Saturday night and we in the spot. Don't believe me. Just watch. Hey, hey, hey, oh, stop. Wait a minute.
GROSS: That's Bruno Mars's "Uptown Funk" produced by my guest, Mark Ronson. Mark Ronson, welcome to FRESH AIR. What a great track (laughter).
MARK RONSON: Thank you.
GROSS: So you've said that that started as a jam, but it's so heavy with hooks. And it's so kind of produced and filled with references to other recordings, so it seems so not like a jam (laughter).
RONSON: I think that...
RONSON: ...that where it came from in the initial birth of it - it did come out of a jam at Bruno's studio, you know? He was playing drums. And Jeff Bhasker, who co-produced the record with us, is on synths, and I was playing bass. And I think that that spirit, or at least the raucousness of maybe that, is in there. And then yeah, like, along the way, you fine tune it 'cause you're thinking, like, OK, we need to now turn this into a song.
And then, you know, Bruno, I think, is probably one of the greatest sort of hook writers of certainly anyone I've ever worked with, if not, like, this current generation of pop artists. And also, when you're doing something that doesn't sound like anything else on the radio at the time, you almost need to, like, ironclad it to make sure it gets through, you know? You have to put these hooks in it, you know? You've got to make sure you got all that ear candy in it to get it through the gate.
GROSS: So you play guitar on this track, and...
RONSON: Yes, I play guitar, and I co-wrote it, yeah.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to tell the story (laughter) about how stressed out you were when you were recording your guitar part for the track.
RONSON: You know, we had been working on the song for quite a long time. And you know, like a lot of songs, the first time that we had that jam, you know, everybody's so excited. We got, like, this kind of, like, little instrumental track with a few words, enough words to put together, like, the first verse. There's nothing more exciting than that period of the song 'cause the potential is, you know, unlimited. And it's just, like - that initial phase of creation is exciting.
And then every time you get back to sort of try and work on it, you can never get that spirit back. And you try and write another verse, and it seems forced because the first one was so natural. And you know, there were so many times - whether we were doing sessions in LA or because Bruno was on tour, you know, I'd go to Canada or sometimes in London; we were recording most of my album in Memphis, so he would come there - we'd work on the song, and we weren't exactly at each other's throats, but we'd just had it with staring at each other in a room and just - man, maybe this song wasn't meant to be.
But because this song was for my album and I kind of realized the potential in it from that first little bit of excitement, I kept fighting for it. I'd wait, you know, maybe a month until everyone's nerves cooled down and be like, hey, can we get back in and try and work on that song again? And eventually, we did get it. And one of the last things to happen was to get my guitar part. I guess just the pressure of knowing I still had to, like, come up with something to basically - like, my end of the deal. And everyone else had done this great - you know, Bruno had done this great vocal. Jeff had all these great synth parts.
And while we were doing the guitars, I had done 50-60 takes of it, and I couldn't get a part that I liked. And we went out for lunch, and I sort of - I guess the pressure of the song and the guitar part - I fainted in the restaurant. And I was kind of, like - let's just say I, like, redecorated the walls in the bathroom at this nice restaurant and had to be carried out.
RONSON: And luckily, I went to Toronto two days later 'cause that's where Bruno happened to be on tour, to work on some other stuff for the song. And I got it there. It just became easy. And maybe it was just psychological, getting out of home, whatever it was.
GROSS: So obviously it was very stressful producing this track. And what's interesting about that is that the track has so much kind of joy. And even though I said it doesn't sound spontaneous, it sounds like it was really kind of well thought out before, there's a spontaneous feeling to it. And to hear how stressed out you were about it and how many takes there were and how maybe it almost didn't even happen because you and Bruno Mars thought maybe it wasn't meant to happen, it seems so at odds with the actual sound of the recording.
RONSON: I think everything that actually ended up on the final track is joy. Like, you know, even if we might have rerecorded the drum take from the original - like, Bruno when he played that thing - like, we were always excited at every moment about this song. It was so much fun. You know, it's kind of OK to take a long time to get a guitar bit in a performance 'cause when you finally get the part that you like, it feels incredible to play.
Like, it was just, like, getting that thing to as good as we knew it could be, you know? Bruno was on tour. He'd come offstage playing these arenas every night and go straight to his dressing room where he had his engineer. Like, you know, everyone else is going out and partying. He's just, like, sitting in there, like, OK, how do we make this baseline better for this song, you know? But what we started originally, this song, which was, like, jamming with three individuals who I very much love to play music with, and just our love of that kind of music comes through. And thank God that comes through 'cause that's kind of the best part.
GROSS: What does it mean to be a producer? I think a lot of people don't really know. And what does it mean for you to be a - I mean, like, you're a real hands-on producer, so what does it mean when you're producing something?
RONSON: I think, you know, for me, it's sort of, like, whatever the most appropriate job - however I'm going - you know, if I'm producing a record for another artist or a band or a rapper, it's, like, whatever I need to slot into to make that music the best it can be or help the artists, or whoever I'm working with, achieve whatever vision they have in their head for a song.
So sometimes if I'm working with a rapper, like Ghostface Killah or Nas, producing usually means, in hip-hop, that you make the music. You make the beat, and you give it to them. And they write the rhymes. Then, you know, the other more-traditional role of the producer in, like, the kind of Quincy Jones sense is kind of part arranger. So you're coming up with, like, these - you hear these songs that are quite bare-bones, and you dream up what's the band doing? What's the rhythm section doing? What's the guitars, strings, pianos - that sort of thing. It's almost like a little toolbox. You just pick up a little bit of whatever the ones you think are appropriate, and you try and, you know, combine them. And then you bring in other people that are great for the things that you're not so good at.
So when I was working with Amy Winehouse on "Back To Black," you know, she had all these beautiful songs, incredibly well-written and just her on an acoustic, nylon-string guitar. And she'd play them for me, and then I would kind of drum up my idea of what I thought - make a demo with what I thought the drums should be doing, the guitars - like, quite a crude demo. And then I'd play it for her. And if she liked it, we'd run with it. And then eventually, we got the Dap-Kings in to record, and that was that.
And then, I guess, you know, on this record, on my album, it's a bit different 'cause I'm, you know, I'm writing a lot of the music, so it kind of starts with me writing the songs, or writing songs with Jeff Bhasker and Michael Chabon in this instance, and then going from there.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned Amy Winehouse. So let's talk about the huge hit album that you had with her, "Back To Black." I know you produced most, but not all, the tracks on that album. You produced "You Know I'm No Good," right?
GROSS: Good. Let's hear that one. And I'm choosing that because it's a great recording, and also, the horns stand out so well on it. And that was all your doing - getting the Dap-Kings to perform with her. So why don't we hear that, and then we'll talk about it. So this is the late Amy Winehouse. The song is "You Know I'm No Good," and it's from her album "Back To Black" which was largely produced by my guest, Mark Ronson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")
AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Meet you downstairs in the bar and heard your rolled-up sleeves in your skull T-shirt. You said, what did you do with him today and sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray 'cause you're my fellow, my guy. Hand me your Stella and fly. By the time I'm out the door, you tear me down like Roger Moore. I cheated myself like I knew I would. I told you I was trouble. You know that I'm no good. Upstairs in bed with my ex-boy...
GROSS: That was the late Amy Winehouse, her song "You Know I'm No Good." That track was produced by my guest, Mark Ronson, who produced most of that album, "Back To Black," which was a huge hit. So the way you were describing it, it sounds like she played you, maybe, a demo of the song. What did you hear in your mind, and how did you put that together for what became the final recording?
RONSON: Well, on this song, this is really one of the best examples of one of the songs that the Dap-Kings, you know, the musicians who played on this stuff, really brought to life. Because of the chords and the way Amy had played the song, I had always thought of it almost as, like, a kind of Latin, like - I feel so ignorant, but I don't even know if it's Samba. What is it? But it was originally like, (imitating rhythm), and that's how I had the demo. And I kind of got in, and I just told the band - I was like, here's my arrangement, but I'm not really feeling it. So why don't you guys just, like, hit on a groove or how you would play this chord chart.
And Homer and Nick, the drummer and the bass player from the Dap-Kings, one of the most incredible rhythm sections - probably the most incredible rhythm section I've ever worked with - just came up with that (imitating rhythm), and that - I just - that was one of the really musical best moments of my life, just hearing that. And it was really, like, the second day I had started working with the Dap-Kings. I had never even recorded a full band before. It just instantly changed the song. And then Dave Guy and then Neal came up with that horn line. And that was when I really discovered the magic of the Dap-Kings and how, you know, very much like The Wrecking Crew in LA and, you know, The Funk Brothers, like, are a special group of musicians that really just bring you something that nobody else does.
GROSS: I think that baritone saxophone works so well because Amy Winehouse has such a deep voice. To have an instrument that's going to be way beneath her, it just even adds more deepness (laughter) to the recording.
RONSON: Yeah, I agree. You know, that was the first time that I probably ever used a baritone sax. And it's certainly the texture that, you know - it's all over the record 'cause it's a nice compliment to her tone.
GROSS: So how had you first heard the Dap-Kings? You must have heard them before deciding to bring them on for this album.
RONSON: Yeah. I had started to use - Dave Guy, the trumpet player, is an incredible musician. I had started to work with him a little bit because I was making these demos of cover versions I did for my second album, "Version." But I was kind of doing all the tracks, and then we would work out the horn arrangements together. So he came into the studio one day, and they had just cut a cover of "Sign, Seal, Deliver" for something with Sharon Jones, and I just was blown away by how they got that sonic. I mean, it was just so much the real deal.
And at the time, Amy and I was working on demos for "Back To Black," and I was probably using, you know, like, whatever computer trick I could that - they have plug-ins, you know, for your computer that make things sound old or whatever it is. And I played Amy this recording of Sharon Jones, and I said, like, how good is this? We should get these guys to play these demos. And she's like, yeah, yeah. She would say, like, it's the nuts. If she thought something was really good, it was the nuts. So she said it was the nuts, and we got the whole band, not just the horn section.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Ronson, musician and record producer. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is record producer and musician Mark Ronson. And his latest album, which is called "Uptown Special," has that huge No. 1 hit "Uptown Funk" in which Bruno Mars is the guest star.
So how did you get to work with Amy Winehouse? How did - did she approach you? Were you matched up by someone else?
RONSON: Basically, there's a good friend of mine who works at EMI Publishing, a publishing company. He had asked me - he was like, you know, do you know this girl, Amy Winehouse? She's in New York for a day. She's kind of meeting people to maybe work with on her second album. And I remember that about three years before that, her first record had come out. And I just remember really liking this one song off it called "In My Bed" and being a little bit enamored. This, you know, this young kind of Jewish girl from North London, you know, I have the same thing - from a Jewish family from North London - with this incredible voice. And so I said, yeah, I'll meet her. And, you know, to be honest, it wasn't, like, I was some big shot. Like at that point, you know, I was meeting with anybody that might want to work on music, you know 'cause you never know where chemistry's going to come or your break or whatever it is.
So she came to my studio one day. And I was on Mercer Street - Mercer and Canal in downtown New York - and we hung out, talked about music, you know. She was so magnetic. And I guess her energy, like, I just instantly liked her. And I wanted to impress her basically. Like, I wanted to have a piece of music that would make her be like, wow, I want to work with this guy, you know, for lack of better words. And so I said, well, why don't you go home back to the hotel and I'll work on something tonight and see, you know, come back tomorrow and I'll play you a little piece of music and see if you're into it? So she had played me all this stuff of the Shangri-La's, and it was all this '60s girl-group pop that she was into, and I was kind of inspired. And she came back, and I had, the next morning, the piano chords for "Back To Black" and the kind of little skeleton beat with a tambourine. And I just put a bunch of cheap reverb on it 'cause I thought, like, that's what that sound was supposed to be like. And she really dug it. And that's how we ended up. She ended up staying in New York another week, so we worked on, you know, the rest of the songs that she had.
GROSS: Was it odd for her - for you when she had the hit of "Rehab," knowing that she really did have drug and alcohol problems, that rehab really was an issue in her life?
RONSON: I guess because at the point that I met her, she was pretty much sober and, you know, the most together she had been maybe, like, in years. So it was strange 'cause everyone was telling me these stories like, you know, you're working with Amy Winehouse? Oh, good luck. Like I heard she's been working on this record for three years and blah, blah, blah. And I just had no idea what everyone was talking about 'cause she came into New York. She had these songs. She seemed to be creatively on fire. She wrote "Black To Black" and "Rehab" while we were there in the studio in, like, you know, kind of a matter of hours. And - so yeah, so she was good.
So when she was telling me this story about rehab, we were actually walking down the street. And she was saying, you know, there was this time like a couple years ago, I was in this dark place. And my family came over and some friends and they tried to make me go to rehab, and I was like no, no, no, and she put up her hand. And I just thought, like, that's such a catchy, kind of turn of phrase. And, you know, should we go back and just maybe do you want to try and write a song with that? 'Cause it just instantly sounded like a hook to me. So it very much sounded like something that had happened in her life and she kind of moved past. So there was never kind of any weird like - yes, if she was like - if she had terrible problems and was drinking every day in the studio, there's no way I would've said, like, oh, that's a great idea for a song. But because it felt like something that she kind of, you know, just overcome, it didn't seem like a bad idea.
GROSS: You know the way you tell that story, it sounds like one of those musical biopics where someone's having a conversation and suddenly they turn it into a song, the kind of thing that seems to rarely happen in real life. It's amazing that that song actually started out that way.
RONSON: Yeah, you know - I'm so, like, hesitant to join in. It's kind of like, you know, gimmicky and that kind of thing. But she just said it, and it just felt so natural. And it really just sounded like a song. I mean, we were standing on the corner of Greene Street and Spring downtown. I can remember it so well. And I was just like, she's telling me this really deep story. Like, is it kind of, like, gross that I'm, like, just all I can hear is, like, a big pop hook in there? But she understood that where I was kind of coming from and was into the idea.
GROSS: Why don't we hear a little bit of that? And this is Amy Winehouse and the track is "Rehab." It's produced by my guest, Mark Ronson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")
WINEHOUSE: (Signing) They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, no, no, no. Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you'll know, know, know. I ain't got the time, and if my daddy thinks I'm fine. He's tried to make me go to rehab, but I won't go, go, go. I'd rather be at home with Ray. I ain't got 70 days...
GROSS: That's the Amy Winehouse recording "Rehab," which was produced by my guest, Mark Ronson. Ronson's new album, "Uptown Special," includes the hit "Uptown Funk" with guest artist Bruno Mars. After we take a short break, we'll talk about growing up with his rock star stepfather Mick Jones, who co-founded the band Foreigner. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with musician, songwriter, producer and DJ Mark Ronson. His latest album, "Uptown Special," includes the track "Uptown Funk," with guest artist Bruno Mars. That track just ended its 14-week run as the number one song on the Billboard top 100. This is Ronson's fourth album under his own name. They all feature guest singers and rappers. Ronson has also produced hits for other people, including the Amy Winehouse album "Back To Black," which featured her songs "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good." He's produced recordings with Paul McCartney, Lily Allen, Jimmy Fallon, Adele and Nas.
So, Mark, you come from a really musical family. Your stepfather is Mick Jones, who was - who is the guitarist in the band Foreigner and wrote one of their biggest hits, "I Want To Know What Love Is." So let's just hear a few seconds of that song to refresh people's memory.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO KNOW WHAT LOVE IS")
FOREIGNER: (Singing) In my life there's been heartache and pain. I don't know if I can face it again. Can't stop now, I've traveled so far to change this lonely life. I want to know what love is.
GROSS: So that's Foreigner, a song written by my guest Mark Ronson's stepfather, Mick Jones. So how old were you when that song was released?
RONSON: I think I was about maybe 10 years old. You know, that - he met my mom when I was about 7. And then we moved to New York. We were living in London at the time she got married to him. And then he wrote that song for her. So it's kind of amazing. I mean, my wife is always like - I don't write lyrics. So I couldn't, like, really technically write a song for anyone. I could write a very nice instrumental. So she always sort of gives me a hard time because it's just such a ridiculously impossible standard to live up to, that your step-dad wrote that song for your mom. But yeah...
GROSS: You can understand how incomprehensible it is to me to have parents where your stepfather wrote a song for your mother that becomes this, like, huge international hit. I can't grasp what that would be like (laughter). Did you like the track when you were 10?
RONSON: Yeah, I think I did. I loved it then, I think. I love it now. You know, I really - I loved something about being around the recording studios - you know, like, those days in the '80s and stuff. And they would be, like, in the studio 'til 4, 5, 6 in the morning working on these songs. And sometimes, I'd be allowed to be hanging out in the studio, which I just loved kind of, like, being in the room with these big recording desks, with all these, like, buttons and knobs and watching the guys use them. Or sometimes, he'd come home - you know, I was getting up to go to school in the morning. He'd be coming home at the same time. And I'd - he'd play me, like, the most recent mix of the song from the studio and ask for my input. And I don't remember any of this happening. But he would always tell me that I'd be like - you know, in my little-English-schoolboy voice way - well, I remember that the bass was turned up slightly more on the mix from last week, and I thought that was good - or whatever. Like, there were some little things in there that he said that he - you know, he came to, like, really enjoy my, like, opinion or at least, like, my little comments on the songs. So I was kind of destined to probably be a studio rat. Like, I just - like, that was my - that just felt like so - like a comfort zone for me.
GROSS: What was your favorite part of being in the studio?
RONSON: I think just kind of all of it - just, like, watching, like, that mixing process and messing around with the gear. You know, my step-dad had a little home studio at home. So when I started to make music and stuff when I was 14, 15, you know, he knew I was responsible enough that he let me mess around with it, make demos. And, you know, there were, like, maybe three rappers in my - in my class at my high school in New York. And they were in this talent show. I think it was, like, the Reverend Al Sharpton Talent Show at Stuyvesant. It was pretty random. And I remember making the beat for their performance and just being so enamored by how, like, these samplers worked and how you had to, like, match these samples and the tempos so they worked together in the keys. And it was just - that was kind of, like, my favorite thing to do.
GROSS: So in a lot of families, the parents try very hard to discourage the child from getting into music as a profession because it's so hard to make it. And, you know, and the child usually has no examples around them of somebody who they know who actually did succeed. But you had your father, so you - your stepfather - so that you knew that that was conceivable. And you knew all of these musicians who were quite successful. So what was the attitude in your house toward you becoming a professional musician or a producer?
RONSON: Well, I think that our mother - like, we moved here from England when we were 8. She was, like, incredibly strict. So we would have to, you know, do our homework three times, jump through hoops, whatever it was before we were allowed to, like, sort of I was allowed to go to the band practice or go to shows or whatever it was. So she had, like, a really strict kind of, like - you know, it wasn't just, like, this kind of lax, rock and roll household where it's just like, all right, you want to play guitar? Go play guitar. But at the same time, I think they knew that that's what I loved doing. I never really thought anywhere in the back of my head that it was a realistic option, that I was ever going to have the kind of success that my step-dad had - 'cause, you know, like, even as a kid, like, it's still slightly pragmatic and, like, just thinking, like, oh, this is crazy. And then, at the same time, the music that I was into around that time - I was 16, 17 - was hip-hop and the stuff that was coming out of New York. So it was so different from the - you know, the realm of music my step-dad was doing. They didn't kind of quite understand it. It was a bit like, why are you wasting your time going around and DJing in these hip-hop clubs? But I think they were going to give me, like, a few years to just see. You know, and of course I was supporting myself while I was doing it. So they - you know, they saw that I could just about get by, even though it seemed like a bit of a foreign thing. Like, maybe if my step-dad was, like, a lawyer, he would have been like, why are you messing around with this guitar? Because he was a guitar player, he was like, well, why are you messing around with these turntables? Come back to the guitar or whatever it was, you know?
GROSS: So there was, like, a musical gap in your family between what you wanted to hear and play and what your stepfather played.
RONSON: Yeah. I mean, I loved everything that he did and respected it. But I think what I was doing was just, like - just musically, like, my passion was just, like - just was in a different, you know, a different genre.
GROSS: So you moved to New York when you were about 8?
RONSON: Yeah, we moved when I was - when I turned 8. Third grade was my first year in New York.
GROSS: So was the music that you were listening to changed as a result of being in New York as opposed to England?
RONSON: Oh, definitely. I mean, you know, you're kind of young, and your tastes have formed I think at that time - slightly. But, you know, you just kind of, like - you hear things on the radio. And you pick the things that you like. I probably liked Duran Duran and a couple other things. And then, you know, growing up in New York in the late '80s, you know, especially at, like, the beginning of what they call the golden era of hip-hop, which is like De La Soul and all this stuff and the beginning of "Yo! MTV Raps" and, you know, rap really just, like, absolutely becoming this focal point of, like, mainstream culture. We would sing De La Soul songs on the bus, like, you know, on the way to sports things, like the soccer team or the cross-country team. And, I mean, New York at that time was very much, like, you know - the sound of all the cars coming out of the window was all rap music. And, you know, I'm sure I would have found that music in England. And the stuff that you like, you know, it would have found its way to you anyway. But it was very much like New York absolutely changed, yeah, my tastes. And New York itself just as a city has, like, this - its own energy. It's like this hustle energy. Everything is on 10. It was also a little bit grimy in those days before the sort of Giuliani cleanup. And yeah, there were all those things. You know, I was completely shaped by growing up in that city.
GROSS: You started off by DJing. What was it like at the beginning? What kind of places did you DJ? And, you know, how many turntables did you have early on?
RONSON: I started off DJing... Probably, like, you know, I was about 16. And I had two turntables. And I just had maybe a handful of records - maybe 10 records. And I would buy two pairs - two copies of the same record, so I could practice scratching them and bringing the brakes back, you know, by emulating my favorite DJs on the radio, which were like Stretch Armstrong and Funkmaster Flex, Red Alert. I would listen to their routines and try and copy in my best way, like, what they were doing - 'cause I didn't really know anyone else who was a DJ who could really teach me or show me this stuff. And, you know, like anything, in the beginning you just play wherever you can. And you just, like - if someone's doing a gig, they've got 20 bucks - like, you're there with your whole, you know, speaker system and turntables. Literally my first DJ gig was at a - it was at this bar where they served underage kids on the Upper East Side, like Second Avenue. And I brought my entire PA and turntables in a snowstorm for, you know, 50 bucks - 'cause you just can't wait to - you love this stuff so much. You just can't wait to kind of get out and do it. And, you know, you just think, any way that I can get discovered. And after a couple of years of playing in clubs in downtown New York, you know, people like Puffy and Guru and Premier from Gang Starr and Biggie and Jay-Z and all these kind of heroes of mine are suddenly coming into these places where I'm DJing. And, you know, it was, like, a thrill. And if you do a good job, there's a chance they might remember who you are. And that happened with Puffy. And he started to, like, kind of book me for other gigs - and later on with Jay-Z as well. So that's sort of how I started to make my name.
GROSS: What kind of gigs would they book you for?
RONSON: Like, if Puffy was kind of doing a little European tour to promote his new album or something, he would bring me with to play. Or Jay-Z would have an album release party, you know, whether it was in New York or Los Angeles. And I would get - I'd get booked to play those kind of things. And I didn't even really have a very close, personal relationship with any of these guys yet. I was just so thrilled that these guys who, you know, made so much of the music that comprised my sets and that made me excited and want to DJ, you know, were into what I was doing.
GROSS: Was being both British and being white ever an issue for you when you were DJing and first establishing yourself in that world and people didn't really know who you were yet?
RONSON: No, it was never, you know - I mean, it sort of sounds a little bit, like, cliche. But the Eric B. and Rakim line from the famous song "I Know You Got Soul," it ain't where you're from; it's where you're at. So if you go in and, you know, you play in these clubs and you kill it, you're usually kind of OK. Like, you know, I was a little bit of an anomaly being, like, you know, one of the few white people in some of these, like, you know, all-black hip-hop clubs in New York or wherever I happened to be playing at. But it's like, if you do a good job, you're kind of straight. So yeah, that was kind of what happened.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Ronson, musician and record producer. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is musician and record producer Mark Ronson. And he produced the hit single "Uptown Funk," which has a vocal by Bruno Mars. That's been number one on the Billboard 100 for about 14 weeks. And it's - that track is on his album - on Mark Ronson's album "Uptown Special," which has several guest stars. Bruno Mars is one of them. He also produced the hit album "Back To Black" for Amy Winehouse. And he's produced music for Paul McCartney and Adele and Ghostface Killah and lots of people.
On your own albums, in which you have, you know, several guest stars on each album doing the singing, you also do some singing. And how did you start singing?
RONSON: I started singing really kind of by accident. You know, I mean, I think the main thing is that the kind of music that I make could be considered kind of soul and R&B music, you know? You have to have a great voice to sing that stuff. It's - singers I've worked with like Adele, Amy, Daniel Merriweather - these people have incredible voices. So I never had it, like, mixed up in my head like, oh, I can do that, you know? But it was just really only on my last album that I sang. And it was because at the last minute, the guy, Jonny, from this New York band called The Drums, had sung the vocal. And then at the last minute, his band sort of told him they didn't want him on the song. So rather than throw out the whole song, I just at the last minute thought, like, OK, well, let me see if I can sort of, like, squeak this out. But, you know, on this album, "Uptown Special," you know, the vocalists - it's Bruno Mars. It's, you know, Keyone Starr. It's these incredible vocalists. And it's soul music. It's R&B. It has to have that, you know? So that's - I've kind of just hung up my microphone, and I think, like, for the betterment of mankind.
GROSS: Well, we'll see about that. And I'm going to actually play a track with you singing. And this is from your album "Record Collection." And the song is "Lose It In The End." And it's a song that you co-wrote. And Ghostface Killah is on this too. Why don't you say a few words about this song?
RONSON: Well, this song is - yeah, this is the one I was kind of talking about. So I wrote this with Jonny from The Drums. And the music was written by a couple of the Dap-Kings guys that I work with a lot. And I kind of liked it. It had this slightly kind of innocent, late '60s Zombies vibe to this song. That's how Jonny writes in his very high voice. And I didn't really know how I was going to be able to sing it all. But I just knew if I did a hundred takes, we'd be able to find something. And I haven't actually listened to it in so long, but I remember enjoying the music when we made it.
GROSS: I thought it had a slightly Ennio Marricone-ish thing going on 'cause there's, like, someone whistling, and there's chimes.
RONSON: Yeah, you're right. You're right, there's whistling and chimes in the beginning. And, you know, Tommy Brenneck, who plays that really beautiful Marricone guitar thing at the beginning of the song, he's my favorite guitar player in the world to record. You know, he's a young guy from Staten Island who I met when we were recording "Back To Black." And everything that he plays is just so tasteful and - yeah, he came up with that line. And it just instantly kind of made the song cooler.
GROSS: And he's in a band called The Budos Band.
RONSON: He's in The Budos Band. He also produces and, you know, co-writes all the Charles Bradley stuff and Menahan Street Band. And he's - he's a dude, that's for sure.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so let's hear "Lose It In The End," a song co-written by my guest, Mark Ronson, who also sings on this track. And it's from one of his earlier albums, which is called "Record Collection."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST IT IN THE END")
GHOSTFACE KILLAH: (Singing) Can't let you go.
RONSON: (Singing) Yeah, I said too much again. Yeah, I pushed too hard again. And then I want to stop, but when I always lose it in the end. Stupid once again, you want to be my friend. And I'll push too hard again, always lose it in the end. I don't know how I can let you go. How will I let you go?
GHOSTFACE KILLAH: (Singing) Yo, yo...
GROSS: That's, my guess, Mark Ronson singing, which he doesn't do very often. He's usually the producer and maybe guitarist or bass player or, you know, doing electronic stuff. But he's singing on that track. It's called "Lost It In The End" and it's from his album 'Record Collection." And his latest album, "Uptown Special," has that really big hit, "Uptown Funk," which features guest star, Bruno Mars. So what has been the impact for you on your life and your career of having a really big hit again, "Uptown Funk?"
RONSON: You know, it's weird. It's - it hasn't really changed my life in any kind of way that I can measure. I mean, it's obviously such an insanely amazing thing. You know, none of my other records I've ever had before even broke into the top 100. You know, like, there's songs like "Valerie" and "Bang Bang Bang" that I was so proud of. And, you know, the level of success that they had - if they were little cult hits meant that, you know, I could sellout Webster Hall or Williamsburg Musical Hall or the El Rey theater in LA. Like, that was having made it to me. So the thought of having a number one song in my own career, like, never even registered. And it's insane. And, you know, I know that music is kind of a - it's like a finicky industry to be in of course. Like, tastes change. You're hot one minute; you're not - you know, I've been through it quite a few times, like, on both sides of it. And I guess the best thing about having a successful record like this is, like, I know I'm at least good for another five years, like, before everyone starts to like - all the haters start to come out again. And that's really what it is. It's like every time you have one of these, you're sort of - your lease is renewed another five years. And that's kind of great for me 'cause that's all I really want to be doing still at this point, like just making records and getting to work with, like, artists that I think are exciting.
GROSS: Well, Mark Ronson, it's been great to talk with you, thank you so much and congratulations.
RONSON: Thank you for having me, thank you.
GROSS: Mark Ronson's latest album, "Uptown Special," includes the hit, "Uptown Funk," with guest artist, Bruno Mars. If you'd like to catch up on recent interviews you missed with people like Adam Driver, Philip Glass, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, check out our podcast. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The video-sharing website YouTube was founded 10 years ago. It's changed a lot since then, growing from a scrappy startup to a massive, globe-spanning news and entertainment platform. What was once a repository for "America's Funniest Home Videos"-style bloopers is now dominated by high-end videos produced by professionals. But as tech contributor Alexis Madrigal found, it's also a global archive of daily life, both humble and transcendent.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL, BYLINE: For me, it all started with seagulls. Seagulls were the first animal that my little son began to identify in the world around him. And being over-excitable new parents, we fed his interests with delight. We showed him seagulls at the Berkeley Pier and at San Francisco's Embarcadero - dirty seagulls, majestic seagulls and seagulls that liked french fries. But then, that rare California rain came, and we were cooped up inside. He kept demanding to see seagulls, but we couldn't go out to find them. In an act of desperation, I pulled up YouTube and started searching for videos of these birds. There were thousands of results from all over the world. People from Tuscany to Tokyo to Texas all took the time to capture a few semi-precious moments with these ubiquitous birds and post them to YouTube. This felt like a new type of tourism. We could trot the globe via search term, and we found ourselves seeing not just seagulls but the world's beaches and bridges and ferries and forgotten harbors. After a few months though, seagulls lost their hold on our son's attention. Whales took center stage. And where seagull videos are humble but satisfying, whale watching videos are like watching a religious conversion. You can huff the fumes of transcendence. The reactions that people have to seeing a whale nearby are astonishingly similar. The person holding the camera shakily tends to scream and then exclaim, oh, my or, oh, my gosh or, oh, my God. Sometimes, they laugh hysterically, as if only peals of laughter can reset their neural circuitry to normal functioning. Just listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, my God, look at that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get that picture.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Oh, my goodness.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Oh, oh.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oh, my God.
MADRIGAL: YouTube turned 10 years old earlier this year. Over that decade, the Google-owned service has become the dominant video platform on the web outside of Facebook. And increasingly, the most popular videos posted on the service are made by famous musicians, professional video producers, or people who are trying to become famous musicians or professionals. Early predictions for video sharing focused on everyday people sharing home videos and a crowd of amateur teen creators making clips for fun. But YouTube increasingly looks like TV, a select handful of well-paid people making stuff for the masses. In this, YouTube tracks with most of the rest of the Internet. What was once a wild and largely amateur place has become professionalized. There is money to be made on YouTube now for traditional or self-made stars who can command attention. Companies large and small now pay more than a billion dollars per year to advertise on YouTube, according to the research firm eMarketer. The decentralizing force of cheap content creation tools has been more than countered by the centralization of distribution in the hands of big media and technology companies. As I write this, 14 of the 15 videos YouTube says are the most popular right now are made by professionals, not at-home amateurs. And let's be honest; the pros are good. And their production budgets usually yield better video than the stuff made on smartphones. But that other YouTube, the common, the weird, the snapshots of daily life - they haven't gone away, even if they have been eclipsed at the top of the rankings. And the people making videos of whales and seagulls and all the other corners of the platform are a salve for most of what ails the Internet. No one posts shaky, low-resolution footage of dirty seagulls or themselves laughing hysterically during a whale encounter to become a social media star. These videos are veritable verity. And step back, too, and look at what YouTube has become as an archive. From the humblest video of a seagull pecking Doritos to the most awe-inspiring encounters with nature's most stunning creatures, so much video gets uploaded to YouTube. Each day, YouTube estimates that 432,000 hours of video gets posted on the service. It's become a stunning record of our current civilization, global in scope but intimate and personal at the same time. Future historians could have unprecedented access to the daily lives of all kinds of people. Of course, that's if Google commits to preserving this incredible record; and that's a big if. There are reasons to believe that such a massive digital archive will not be profitable for Google to save for future generations. As my friend Dan Cohen, head of the Digital Public Library of America, likes to say, Google is not in the forever business. But we can hope they'll save the whales. And in the meantime, we can listen to the ecstasy of the whale watchers.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Whoa.
(WHALE SPRAYING WATER)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Oh, my gosh.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Oh, my goodness.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Oh, wow. Wow.
GROSS: Alexis Madrigal is a visiting scholar at Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society and is the Silicon Valley bureau chief for the Fusion Cable and Digital Network.
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