Unless you’ve been hibernating for the last two months, you’ve probably been getting funked up to the juggernaut pop sensation known as “Uptown Funk.”
Whether the infectious single blasts at your local bar, blares in your car, or even rocks the house of your hometown sports arena – Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ mega hit spread like wildfire since its early November release – emulating the kind of music virality we haven’t witnessed since Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
Ronson’s earworm already obtained double platinum status in Australia, streamed 2.49 million times in a single week in the UK, and garnered him his first number one hit here in the US. For the record (no pun intended), not even “Get Lucky” reached No.1 status in America.
So I ask myself, why is it that after once hearing the single on a local Chicago radio station, the disc jockey referred to the track as “the new Bruno Mars song” without a single mention of the 39-year-old producer, Mark Ronson?
And better yet, who is this ‘Mark Ronson’ character?
From the start, Ronson has exercised his unique ability for composition and direction, achieving the absolute best from the talent he works with. Propelling these artists towards the spotlight of commercial and critical success – Ronson has thrived in the role of the ‘relatively unknown.’ A quiet, cool genius in the booth – this trend has continued for Ronson leading up to the release of his brand-new album, Uptown Special.
The virtuoso producer initially dipped his toes into the music industry around 1993, making his name as a well-respected DJ in New York’s club scene. Known for spinning and cutting eclectic mixes of funk, rock and hip hop (and after gaining acclaim for his musical tastes) – Ronson was approached by Nikka Costa’s manager to help produce her new album, Everybody’s Got Their Something. In the process, he created his first top 100 track with the single, “Like A Feather.”
His days as a DJ were coming to an end, but his time as an exclusive producer was just beginning.
Costa and Ronson would later join forces again in 2003, this time for Ronson’s first solo effort, Here Comes the Fuzz. Much like his club sets, the album boasted an array of different artists and genres—with Jack White, Mos Def, Rivers Cuomo, Q-Tip and more rounding out the star-studded lineup along with Costa. Fuzz’s lead single, the hip-hop, dance floor friendly, “Ooh Wee,” featuring Ghostface Killah, Nate Dogg, Trife Diesel and Saigon (widely known for his appearance a year and a half later in HBO’s Entourage) broke the top twenty in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Listeners reacted with jubilance for Ghostface’s familiarly frenetic flow and Nate Dogg’s customarily smooth delivery over Ronson’s clanging backspin beat. All the while, the behind-the-scenes scientist was quietly establishing his successful solo career.
Over the next seven years, Ronson would continue his run of both obscure and all-star collaborations, putting out two more solo albums: Version, a playfully upbeat, horn-laden covers album and Record Collection, an 80’s infused assortment of hip hop and disco pop.
Version climaxed at No. 2 on the United Kingdom album chart. It featured three UK top 10 singles and thrusted Australian singer Daniel Merriweather to stardom with their hit cover, “Stop Me.” In 2009, Merriweather released his Ronson-produced debut studio album, Love & War. Once again, Mr. Ronson’s golden ear and incendiary production was paying dividends for his collaborators.
But before he linked up with Daniel Merriweather (or even released Version), Mark Ronson worked on a now higher profile project. Up to this point, his reputation preceded him, his connections and friendships within the industry flourished, and he was introduced to an English recording artist who went by the name Amy Winehouse.
After just ten days of working with each other, Ronson and Winehouse had the building blocks for what would be her only top ten hit in America, reaching No. 9 on Billboard’s Hot 100, “Rehab.” The super producer recollected on making the infamous classic with BBC Radio 1’s series Making It in July 2011.
[quote_center]“I was walking down the street with Amy. We were in New York and we’d been working together for about a week and we were walking to some store. She wanted to buy a present for her boyfriend and she was telling me about a specific time in her life that was…. I feel bad, like, talking about a friend like this, but I think I’ve told this story enough times…. but she hit, like, a certain low and her dad came over to try and talk some sense into her. And she was like, ‘He tried to make me go to rehab and I was like, “Pfft, no, no, no.”‘ And the first thing I was like, ‘ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.’ Like, I mean I’m supposed to be like, ‘How was that for you?’ and all I’m like is, ‘We’ve got to go back to the studio.’”[/quote_center]
Ronson provided production for 6 of the 11 tracks on Winehouse’s Back to Black, which debuted at number seven on the Billboard 200 and eventually peaked at number two. The success of the work persisted to the 50th Annual Grammy Awards where Winehouse won five Grammy’s, including Record of the Year for “Rehab.” Ronson shared the Grammy along with her award for Best Pop Vocal Album, but he took home his own trophy that year as well: Producer of the Year, Non-Classical.
Winehouse’s influence emanated throughout British music and female songwriters as Adele evoked upon her passing, “Amy paved the way for artists like me and made people excited about British music again.” Without Amy Winehouse, there may have never been an Adele. And without Mark Ronson, Amy may have never achieved the cultural impact she still holds today.
Finally, American households were starting to ask the question.
“Who is this Mark Ronson guy, anyways?”
Ronson’s trailblazing production path marched on, collaborating with Duran Duran, Black Lips, Lil Wayne and even Rufus Wainwright. Still, even years after working with Winehouse, the collaboration proved its artistic importance, provoking one of the most important meetings of his career, an encounter with Bruno Mars. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2012 before Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox set pop culture radio aflame, Ronson elaborated on their partnership,
[quote_center]“I was only kind of familiar with his music. But we met up in London (…), and the first thing he said was, ‘I want to sound exactly the opposite of what a Mark Ronson collaboration with Bruno Mars is supposed to sound like.’ That won me over – and then I found out what a phenomenal talent he is. This is the most progressive music I’ve worked on yet. It’s going to open up the arteries and change the sound of music.”[/quote_center]
Ronson, along with writer/producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Taylor Swift), worked on three tracks from Unorthodox Jukebox: “Gorilla,” “Moonshine,” and the Grammy nominated tour de force, “Locked out of Heaven.”
Ronson was right – there was something special about Bruno Mars. And once again, the production guru helped direct another collaborator onward to achieve, in this case, even more artistic and commercial success.
Little did Mark Ronson know, his relationship with Bruno and Bhasker would soon contribute to his best solo work yet, Uptown Special.
At first listen, Ronson knew there was something special lurking beneath the surface of the feel-good jam session that led to the smash-hit “Uptown Funk.” With Bhasker on keys, Bruno on drums and himself on bass, they took to the studio to get the basic groove and first verse down that night. According to Ronson, the rest took a lot longer. He chased Bruno Mars’ concert tour for weeks so he could continue to perfect the track. 82 guitar takes and a fainting spell later – Ronson’s tireless work came to fruition with the massive success of “Uptown Funk.”
His road-tripping days were just getting started, however. In order to find a “young Chaka Khan” type for the funkified disco jam, “I Can’t Lose,” at Bhasker’s behest, the two hit the road on their self-titled ‘Mississippi Mission’ – visiting different Southern gospel groups, nightclubs and churches, and leaving no creative stone unturned in their search for that perfect voice.
In Jackson, Ronson finally found his muse, Keyone Starr – a preacher’s daughter.
[quote_center]“She just looked so badass. I remember thinking: it would be awesome if this one could sing really great,” Ronson stated. “She just opened her mouth and she had it instantly. I’m so drawn to singers with rasp and something broken in their voice, where you really hear the rawness.”[/quote_center]
That rasp reminisces of another vocalist Ronson once worked with years ago. Let’s keep an eye on this one.
The Steely Dan, Earth, Wind, and Fire influenced record includes more well-known collaborators as well, featuring Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker on album highlights, “Daffodils,” “Leaving Los Feliz,” and “Summer Breaking.” Mystikal was plucked from pop-culture obscurity to go full-on James Brown for the contagious soul stomper, “Feel Right” and even Stevie Wonder lends a couple harmonica melodies, the latter being the self-proclaimed pinnacle of the producer’s career.
Each of the artists on the album reached success in their own right. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see an increase in popularity (commercial success) surrounding both Tame Impala and Mystikal in the near future.
After all, Mr. Ronson has a knack for bringing widespread acclaim to those he comes into contact with.
So who is the ‘Mark Ronson’ character, anyway?
A super producer? The man with the golden ear? The genius behind the glass?
Simply put, Mark Ronson is an avid music lover with excellent taste and even greater musical talent. He’s a team player, a coach, a director, a leader and a speaker that brings the most out of those around him while he pleasantly wades in the cusp of the spotlight, smiling sheepishly from ear to ear at the gold he’s helped create.
He’s the musical superstar you didn’t know you knew.
And in case you didn’t know, he’s just getting started.
(Featured image screenshot courtesy of Vevo)