Mark Ronson made a name for himself by championing the voices of others.
At the tail end of 2014, Ronson collaborated with Bruno Mars on “UpTown Funk!,” the explosive leadoff single from Ronson’s latest album, January’s UpTown Special. The tune features Ronson on bass and Mars’s sassy, sky-high tenor, and serves as the most recent of the transatlantic producer, multi-instrumentalist, and DJ’s works to thrive on heavy bass, exultant, brassy blasts, and the unshakeable might of a vocal talent. Ronson’s collaborations with Amy Winehouse — her breakthrough triumph, 2006’s Back to Black, then “Valerie,” a Back to Black B side later included on Ronson’s own 2007 album, Version — didn’t just embrace the throwback vibe of Sixties girl groups and Motown, but worshipped at the altar of funk and soul and launched the career of one of the most formidable singers to break out of London in decades. He’s not big on sharing the spotlight, preferring to leave it to someone else almost entirely — and this appreciation took root in a rudimentary education pieced together spinning at a bunch of New York clubs in the Nineties and early Aughts.
“New York’s downtown culture that was so heavily comprised of all this great black r&b and funk and disco from the late Seventies and early Eighties — you really had a crash course in that,” he says, recalling his first gigs at establishments like the late 2i’s and Cheetah. “It wasn’t, like, Michael Jackson; it was Tom Browne and Frankie Beverly, things like that. It wasn’t just because I played those records and I liked them. Discovering that music, I was like, ‘This is my favorite shit. How did I not know about it?’ With [UpTown Special], I was just like, ‘I have to make what I love and what I’m good at that nobody else is really bothering to do,’ which I guess is what we set out to do.”
Since the first time Mars demanded we “just watch,” “UpTown Funk!” has secured its spot as the single with the longest run atop the Billboard Hot 100 since 2010. Ronson’s mission to make the music that he loves resonated with millions once more, so it’s no surprise that he’s met with imploring stares when he shows up at various gigs with his turntables and Serato to spin. They want to hear “UpTown Funk!” and “Valerie,” sure — but that doesn’t mean he’s super comfortable when it comes to blasting his own stuff over the speakers.
On the next page: Why Ronson’s record collection “reminds [him] of every apartment [he] ever lived in in New York”
“Before I made music, I started off as a DJ, and most of the time when you DJ, people are psyched if you do a good job — but nobody’s really giving a shit,” he says. “They came there to dance and have a good time. You’re there to service a crowd….I played in Tokyo last week, and I got on, and I just wanted to do what I always do: DJ and play the songs I like. Even though the crowd was cool and no one said anything, I could tell that there was this unspoken feeling of disappointment because I didn’t play my own tunes. It’s almost like, ‘This is great that I can hear a Kendrick Lamar song anywhere, but we paid money and want to hear your song.’ For me, it’s always a balance of the two: I can never just play my own songs, because it feels a little overindulgent and douchey, and because the reason I DJ is because I really love playing music that was made by other people. My own music is a separate thing. I guess out of all the records I made, this is certainly the one that seems to have enough to work into a dance floor set, whereas Record Collection was a little bit more eccentric. This record was influenced by coming up DJ’ing. It’s where I learned everything I know, and I feel that influence the most in this album.”
His upcoming DJ set at Verboten on April 30 is a full-circle homecoming in that regard, a chance for Ronson to address his contributions to the current pop landscape for an eager crowd while flipping through the crate in his comfort zone and second home. Ronson continues to spin on turntables, and one of his favorite attributes of his workspace is the wall of vinyl he built there. It largely has to do with the fact that it reminds him of New York, where everything started. He built that collection one black, ridged disc at a time, and even if he can’t cart it with him as he travels the world on the wings of “UpTown Funk!,” the beat finds him on the needle-drop.
“It’s like laundry. You always seem to lose a hundred [records] every time you move — you can’t help it,” he chuckles. “I had a lot of my stuff in storage in Queens, so when Sandy happened, I lost maybe a thousand records. I’ve got about 8,000 [now]. I have my studio in London, and I love just having them there. It reminds me of every apartment I ever lived in in New York. Before I’d get a couch, I would unpack the record shelves. I love the fact that I can stare at any individual shelf and recognize the record by the color of the spine, and probably even remember where I bought it, at a Salvation Army in Texas, or something. Just knowing that they’re there, it’s something tangible. It’s not some cheesy ‘Keep It Real’ reminder, it’s just — that’s what got me to here, and I like knowing it’s there, like a really wide totem pole.”
Mark Ronson DJs at Verboten April 30. Tickets are available here.