Don’t let the shy smile and self-deprecating wit fool you: Mark Ronson will funk you up—in 11 tracks or less. Today marks the release of Uptown Special, the super-producer’s superstar-laden venture, destined to become the official party soundtrack of 2015. Don’t believe us? Just check the Billboard charts. “Uptown Funk,” the album’s irresistible lead single with Bruno Mars, just strutted past Taylor Swift to the Number One spot. The song is celebrated for injecting a badly needed shot of soul into the Top 40, and has been voted by many as one of 2014’s best cuts. Now Ronson has his eyes on the ’Best Record Of 2015’ title.
The full-length disc boasts more hooks than a fishing shop and packs some major firepower, including additional appearances from Stevie Wonder, Mystikal, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, not to mention lyrics from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. Did we mention that it’ll make you dance? It’s no surprise when you consider that Ronson got his start as a DJ in the downtown New York club scene of the ’90s. He’s logged time studying exactly what gets people out on the floor, and he channels it into making Uptown Special a collection of flawless floor-fillers. Flecks of Nile Rodgers, Jimmy Nolen, Quincy Jones, Steely Dan and even Walter Murphy shine throughout this summery collection, but the overall sound is unique, unexpected, and alive.
Though he has long tired of the “Retro Guy” tag, the 39-year-old is indeed an analog man in a digital world. He’s spent his career mastering musical styles of the past and updating them with unerring contemporary flare, most notably in his work with Amy Winehouse. Ronson recently sat down with VH1 to explain how an old soul managed to create a perfect 21st century party record and got the world dancing to the beat of his own drum section.
The song started at Bruno’s studio out in LA and we were just kind of jamming. Bruno had this drum beat that they would play during soundcheck at his shows, just a call and response thing. Bruno was on drums, I was playing guitar, and Jeff Bhasker —who co-produced the song— was playing keys. We were just hanging out and we had the idea the first time we left the studio. We had the verse, but we didn’t have a chorus yet. And then we were thinking, “The thing about all the funk songs is you don’t have a chorus.” You think about “Hollywood Swinging” by Kool and The Gang and you just think of, “Hey, hey, hey!” They just go to the chord change. So we needed to make this song so full of great hooks and ear candy that we could actually get away with not having a chorus, because that’s what a funk song is. It’s the horn line and the drumbeat, you know?
It took about 7 months to get the song to a place where we really felt [good]. Bruno is kind an ultra perfectionist. I’m a perfectionist, too, and we wanted this song to be great. I guess the last significant thing that happened was that Bruno came up with the bass line that gelled everything together. Then I flew out to meet him in Toronto (where he was on tour) to record the bass line and all that stuff. It was the most work I ever experienced putting out one song, but at the same time, it was worth it.
All of your solo albums feature an incredible array of artists. Do you cast specific songs almost like it’s a movie, or do you have a list of people you want to work with before you even start a project?
Usually when I’m making my album, it’s a little bit of both. The song “Uptown Funk” came out of a jam with Bruno, so it was really obvious he’s gonna sing that song. With some of the songs on the album, I kind of had an idea that Kevin [Parker’s] voice would sound great on them, so I sent him the songs and it was great that he was into them. One of the singers on the album is this young singer named Keyone Starr, who we discovered in Jackson, Mississippi. Jeff [Bhasker] had this idea to drive through the South and find an incredible young and talented new female vocalist. So that was one of the examples where we wrote the songs first, imagining this voice in our head. We were like “OK, there’s this voice in my head, let’s go find her. Let’s go find that singer!”
And then sometimes a person just happens to be around and it’s kind of magical how it happens. It’s a lot of good coincidences and good luck. When I started to write some of the music on this album, I knew that I wanted the stories to be a bit deeper and a bit more ambitious than some of the other lyrics I’ve had in the past. That’s why I wrote a letter to Michael Chabon, who’s my favorite author. I didn’t really know him that well, I met him once at a book signing, and then he ended up writing a lot of the lyrics for the album. You want it to be organic, because that’s how you want the music to feel. Sometimes you just throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
Is it hard working with a personal hero like Michael Chabon, or Paul McCartney, or the number of other legends you’ve recorded? Is it difficult to stand your creative ground when you’re collaborating with someone who means so much to you?
Yeah, it is definitely is at first. When Michael Chabon sent us the first batch of lyrics, the first thing he sent us was this song called “Crack in the Pearl,” which is on the album but in a slightly different form. The lyrics were, “In the back room of the El Mago casino/under a portrait of Kolar the Great/between an ex-whale and a paradox of Zeno/soft candy betting hard eight.” And we were like, “What the hell do we do with these lyrics?” But at the same time, you’re like “OK, Michael Chabon sent it to us, we might as well try something.” It’s cool because even though we simplified the lyrics, it did inspire a melody and chord thing that I never would have come up with if I’d never seen those lyrics.
Jeff’s an incredible songwriter. He’s written massive hits with Drake and Alicia Keys and fun. So he’s very adamant about certain rules in songwriting—these words sing good, these don’t sing good, don’t say that, repeat this. It takes a few days to get everyone comfortable with each other so you can be a little bit more honest. Then once that happens it’s really great. It’s hard in the studio to tell someone you don’t like their ideas because really an idea is like an extension of how you’re feeling. So you’re saying, “I don’t really like you or your feelings,” in a way. It’s tough. That’s why you establish the trust so you can kind of do that.
What were the challenges of using live instrumentation instead of sampling for this record?
It’s much harder when you’re up against David Guetta-levels of like compression. The whole point with the song “Uptown Funk,” and the album [Uptown Special] was to make dance music that was played by people. There are nuances, there’s something special in the human field. I’m not saying it’s better than what’s going on in EDM, but it’s just what appeals to me. That’s why we layered the drums with this old LinnDrum clap and all these kinds of things to make sure it sounds modern, punchy, and aggressive.
You know, you could throw on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” in the club and it won’t have the same low end in the kick drum as something modern. But no record sounds better than that in the club. The balance of it, the way it comes out of the speakers, you hear everything. It’s so beautifully recorded and mixed. And you look at what Daft Punk did with “Get Lucky.” They purposefully mixed it in a way that wasn’t overly compressed, because they wanted it to feel alive and breathing. It’s good, there has to be an alternative to the crazy steroid-sounding music that’s also out there.
Does having such a vast musical knowledge make it difficult to compose new songs? Do you ever write four notes in and think “Oh no, I’ve re-written ’Apache’,” or some other song?
I think I’m so aware of those records when I’m writing that I’m able to steer away from it a bit. What was so great about this record is that seeing Michael’s lyrics on a page really inspired things that I wouldn’t have come up with by myself, because I don’t write lyrics. The words that he wrote would jump off the page and I would start hearing these melodies. So that was really amazing because it definitely led me to write some stuff I never would have done.
I don’t know how I manage to stay away from going to the well and ripping off those sacred recordings, but somehow I try and do it.
In your recent Ted Talk, you discussed the danger of simply taking something old for nostalgia sake and not adding anything to it— it leaves people feeing sickly and doesn’t last. Can you elaborate on how to successfully straddle that line between pastiche and building on music of the past?
With a record like “Uptown Funk,” me and Bruno are never going to be able to hide the fact that we’re obsessed with ‘70s and ‘80s black R&B dance music—things like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis records, and Rick James, and James Brown. But even if we tried to do it exactly [like them], we’d get it wrong. That’s not what we are, that’s not the era we live in. We didn’t come up like those people did. We’re not trying to channel anything, it’s just that’s the music that we love and when we sit down and get behind a drum kit and a guitar, those are the things that come out.
So it’s Bruno’s delivery and the production choices and the lyrical content that makes it “now.” I guess in the same way with [Amy Winehouse’s] “Rehab,” or how on “You Know I’m No Good” Amy’s lyrics are talking about, “Tear men down like Roger Moore,” and Nas on “Me and Mr. Jones.” That’s what makes it of it’s own era. Otherwise, if she was just singing 1940s style lyrics over that, it just becomes fully pastiche and has no kind of relevance for now.
What do you think are the most important skills for a producer?
You think of someone like George Martin, who did The Beatles, who was an amazing arranger. [And then there’s] somebody like Rick Rubin who’s not necessarily a recording engineer who knows what the buttons on the desk do, but he gets incredible vocal performances and has great ideas. And then you have somebody like Nigel Godrich who’s a little bit of all of those things, and someone like the RZA or Dre who are beat-making geniuses. All of those things are pretty great in their own way. I think that the most important thing is you have to have the trust of the artist you’re working with and be able to get a great performance out of them. Because all those other jobs, as important as they are, could probably be done with somebody else, or can be fixed. But if you don’t get a great performance out of the person that you’re working with, that’s something that you can’t really fix in the mix.