For: The Warehouse Project
One of pop’s most innovative figures, Mark Ronson has reinvented the Motown, soul and hip-hop influences of his childhood into a unique and recognizable sound. The inimitable horn sections that have characterized his releases to date have become a calling card like no other, and have their roots in Ronson’s regular DJ gigs in New York’s hip-hop clubs since his late teens.
Will Orchard spoke to Mark about the five albums that have proven most inspirational in his musical career to date, both in making up his DJ sets and influencing his work as a producer.
What sort of thing are you up to at the moment? Are you in the studio?
Yeah, I’ve been in the studio most of this past year working on other people’s albums. So I did a bunch of songs on the new Bruno Mars album that’s coming out in December and then I have been in the studio with Paul McCartney working on what I think is his new album and then I was in the studio on a track with Giggs on XL. A couple of things but I guess they’re just kind of finishing up so I’m going to start working on my next record next month some time.
So is it the plan for that to be your next full project?
Yeah, I think. Rufus Wainwright, The Black Keys, Bruno, Alicia Keys… I’ve spent most of the past eighteen months just working on other people’s stuff. But that’s usually how it goes for me; I’m not the kind of person… I don’t have the gift of just sitting in a room with a piano writing songs. It takes me a while for the idea to come and then I start to realize “Ok, I know what my next record is.” With ‘Version’ I basically was making those covers to play in my DJ sets… and then I had seven or eight of these records so it made sense, it seemed like an album. With ‘Record Collection’, after ‘Version’ we’d toured a long time and I’d produced a few albums and it took two years until I had some ideas. It’s almost like working with all these artists, singers, bands on their own albums is what gradually keeps filling the gas tank until one day I wake up and it’s fill and I’m like “Cool, I’m ready to do my own shit now.” And it’s the inspiration that I get from those people that I’m working with that I suck up like a vampire and take into my own thing. It’s like filling an inspirational gas tank, I think.
Creating new versions of tracks you loved in order to make them appropriate to DJ with, that’s a real echo of your early musical roots DJing hip-hop in New York
Right, that’s where I came from. Mid-90’s in New York, it was an amazing era. New York was on top of its game and also it was great because it was a really rare time that you don’t get in music a lot, where the music commercially successful stuff was also the best stuff. Things like Gangstarr, Wu Tang, Biggie, Jay Z, Dre, those were actually the biggest things and arguably the best. It was an amazing time to be playing music in those clubs with people like Jay and Biggie and Puffy and D’Angelo coming down to these places I was playing at. And also people like Armand van Helden and Roger Sanchez, because they loved the little scene that we had because it was a complete polar opposite… we were playing in these little, dark, slightly scary clubs and those guys were playing in Europe to 5,000 people. It was a great scene and it was great to come up during that time. You had to be fucking good to be hold your own in those clubs because you were DJing on the same turntables as a Funkmaster Flex or a Stretch Armstrong or a Kid Capri on any given night, whether you were opening for them or playing alongside them. So basically that part of the way I play has never left.
If you come from a hip-hop background, someone like A-Trak or Diplo, there’s just an energy to the way you play, the way you put it together, the way you cut mixes and with ‘Version’, I was very much in love with a lot of British indie guitar music that I could never get away with playing in clubs. I’d sometimes be playing a hip-hop club and play arguably a hip-hop record, with a breakbeat like AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ and someone would come over like “Whiteboy, what are you playing?” You could get in trouble because these guys were spending a lot of money buying champagne impressing their girls and drug dealers. You play the wrong record… there were DJs that got smashed over the head with a bottle of champagne. For the most part, when I made ‘Version’ it was so I could have these songs that I loved like Radiohead, The Smiths, and reinterpret them so I could play them for my crowd. Everyone knows Radiohead’s ‘Just’ is an impeccable song, but the way the arrangement is on the Radiohead album would have got me killed if I’d DJ’d it in half the clubs I was playing at. I just thought “Cool, well if I take a James Brown-influenced arrangement.” Because funk and classic soul was very much the blueprint of those sets as well, you had to be really well versed in all that and reggae to be able to play in those clubs at that time. So even with ‘Version’, I wasn’t straying much from my roots.
And that shows in the five albums you have chosen, which represent an almost 50/50 split between classic hip-hop and contemporary guitar indie…
That’s right, definitely.
‘Paul’s Boutique’ is such an influential album for so many producers. What is it about that album that’s made a difference for you?
It wasn’t important for me when it came out; I think I was 10 or 11. I was too young to get it. It was too intricate, with all the samples. All the funk shit that was in there, I didn’t really come round to until about five years later. But now, I think as far as being a sound collage it’s a masterpiece. I wish I was more versed in art so I could compare to someone who makes absolutely intricate, perfect assemblances of collage. I’m not going to try and sound pretentious! Every single sample fits so perfectly and it’s a record that you couldn’t even make nowadays because you couldn’t afford to. It was before you had to start paying for samples and clearances. It’s just a perfect record. A lot of rap from certain eras can just date because of the flow but it just doesn’t because as a whole, their energy in that music is just incredible. I’m still hunting down some of the samples in that record. For the most part I’ve tracked them all done now but there’s a couple in there that I’m still like “One day…”
And that has all but died out now, that obsessive hunting down of samples and trying to identify every different element of a record, and from a producer’s perspective it doesn’t work like that anymore either.Definitely and you wouldn’t even be able to afford to have all the samples. The closest we have is the Radio Soulwax compilation and The Avalanches. Now if you were going to do that you’d just have to do it as a mixtape and release it free online, ‘Grey Album’ style.
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
What do you think the comparison is between ‘Paul’s Boutique’ and an album like ‘Midnight Marauders’?
I think ‘Midnight Marauders’ is another completely marked sonic progression, where the sound of hip-hop has changed. I think the Beastie Boys record was flawless but maybe not as influential as this was because ‘Paul’s Boutique’ is a classic unto its own whereas each Tribe album changed the course of hip-hop. The second album was the first thing to have half-bar or one bar drum loops. Just things that nobody was doing at the time. The third album sounded like… well, it was basically the difference with how Quincy Jones’ ‘Off The Wall’ sounded against all other disco, that was the way ‘Midnight Marauders’ sounded against all other hip-hop. The choice of samples and music in there, the interplay between Q-Tip and Phife, it was such an awesome, special thing. And girls love Tribe… all those other Native Tongues groups (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers) were great but it was mainly my guy friends who liked those bands. I guess it’s because Q-Tip was such a ladies man. But the music included a lot more sex; ‘Electric Relaxation’ off that record is one of the only tolerable sex ballad hip-hop records that I can think of from that era.
Have Tribe always been a staple of your DJ sets?
Of course. I don’t think I’ve ever played a DJ set that’s had more than three minutes of hip-hop in it that hasn’t included a Q-Tip or a Tribe Called Quest record. I used to DJ with Q-Tip all the time in New York all the time, especially when I started coming back after my first album. When ‘Here Comes The Fuzz’ came out, New York had started to get a bit boring because it went from being a specialized thing in the clubs I was DJing at to the point where you’d kicked out of some clubs for playing hip-hop. Everything got really commercial. So I came back from London after DJing around the UK and told Q-Tip. I was like “In England it’s fucking amazing, you can play whatever you want whether it’s James Brown, O.C. or Busta Rhymes and they go nuts! We should just do a party where we play the shit we want to play and just call it Authentic Shit.” And that’s what we did. But for the most part, anytime I’ve ever DJ’d with Q-Tip it’s always really hard because I’m always too embarrassed to play his records because it looks a bit strange. If you take all the Tribe or Q-Tip out of your set it’s definitely harder to fill a night.
I don’t even know if I can remember a time where England has created a genre and America has spat it back bigger and had the bigger artists. House music and techno were created by Americans.
FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET
‘Fear of a Black Planet’ is the most politically-orientated album you’ve suggested as an influence. Coming out when you were that age, what effect did it have on you?
For me, being a kid in bands, it was always about the production and the sound of Chuck D’s voice that drew me in first. Of course, all throughout history white kids love to listen to music that makes them feel rebellious so of course the lyrical subject matter and knowing that you’re listening to something that kind of wasn’t meant for you… like Public Enemy’s highly politicized message, and even as a Jewish kid growing up in New York there were traces of anti-Semitic stuff in there that makes you feel even more conflicted listening to this shit. But I loved the music so much, and the production. I think around that time, still playing guitar in my rock band, I would say I was definitely a rock and roll and heavy metal fan that flirted with hip-hop rather than the other way around. Then there was the era of Def Jam where you had LL Cool J’s ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’, you had ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, you’re about to have the whole Biggie and Wu Tang thing, and I didn’t want to hear anything other than rap music.
How does this album differ to ‘Paul’s Boutique’, do you think?‘Fear of a Black Planet’ just had this furious energy to it, these incredible breakbeats. It was not too dissimilar DNA-wise from ‘Paul’s Boutique’ in a production aspect, but completely fierce whereas with the Beastie Boys there was something playful and ‘funky’ about it. If there was a James Brown break, they’d find the most fierce part of it with the gnarliest trumpet sound squeaking out. Things weren’t pretty or groovy. It’s been such a huge influence on me, so much of that album.
The rebellion you found attractive in acts like Public Enemy is one of the prevailing themes in ‘The Suburbs’; that teenage need to establish an identity, to escape the stifling nature of the suburbs.
I think what it is about that album, it’s the songs and the pervading melancholy that just washes over the whole record. Like even the song ‘The Suburbs’, which sounds quite misleadingly playful with a shuffle groove to it, the line where he says ‘I want a daughter while I’m still young/Want to show her some beauty before the damage is done/But if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask/Send me a son’… that line relates more to the grown-up in me. But I do understand the whole thing about the suburbs is that it’s where you grow up.
What does it for me with that record is the songs, the arrangements, the lyrics. The overall sound. It’s so rich, it’s just a perfect album. It didn’t really have the same bombastical, anthemic ‘rise up’ aspect of the second album. On the first listen, I found it a little underwhelming. I was like ‘Oh, they’ve gone for this really organic production, I’m not sure how I feel about it.’ But I found myself having withdrawal from it and I’d wake up finding myself needing to play a song from it. I don’t think I’ve ever had that with an album before.
‘Innerspeaker’ is the most rock-orientated record here. How does this fit in with your listening habits?
Kevin writes and plays everything, he has an incredible voice, and I just think he’s an incredible talent. I discovered this album maybe about two and a half years ago and then we found out we were going on tour together. I was like “Oh, please don’t let these guys be dicks!” because I really loved the album. I didn’t want it ruined by a bunch of snot-nosed indie rocker kids. They’re actually really awesome dudes and it turned out they were really into Todd Rundgren and were kind of obsessed with my song ‘Bang, Bang, Bang’ which was out at the time and was quite big in Australia, and they were saying to me “Have you ever heard this Todd Rundgren song ‘International Feel’? It really sounds like ‘Bang, Bang, Bang’”. We just got on really well talking about music.
‘Innerspeaker’ just combines everything I love about music; these awesome powerhouse drums, incredibly clever chord progressions, and then these Britpop-influenced classic British melodies over the top. It was kind of what I was trying to do with ‘Version’, except they were covers; taking hard drums and interesting arrangements, great chord progressions, melodies that were kind of Britpoppy and then twisting them around a bit. But that he did that by writing entirely original material, that’s even more exciting.
It always makes you think a bit differently about the music when you meet the people that have created it, too.
Yeah. Sometimes you meet them and they’re just horrible people. In this case they were sweet, so it was great!