It’s a bitterly cold November evening and I’m meeting Louis to go up to Mark Ronson’s Kings Cross studio to hang out, chat and shoot some photos.
We’re late. We totally mis-timed the walk from the station to the studio and while we’re not quite bordering on rude, we’re later than we wanted to be, especially for a man who has very little free time these days. We arrive and our photographer Anna has already very much made herself at home, she’s regaling him with stories of her upbringing on a farm in Northumberland – her and Mark are already best friends.
The studio is a fantastic little spot, tucked away in King’s Cross. Mark built out the once bare space to his exact specifications, pouring over every sonic detail right down to the mics and speakers in every room (even the bathroom to test reverb). The result is a comfortable and practical space that acts not only as a recording studio haven, but also it seems, to house a portion of his vast record collection.
Mark gives us a quick tour, and we get a brief lesson on the set up, the different instruments hanging in the session room and the 8 and 16 track recorders he had the studio built around.
Our purpose of this interview was not to dwell on Mark Ronson the famed producer or Mark Ronson the guy who basically sonically created Amy Winehouse’s career, but rather the younger, less-talked about Mark Ronson. The Mark who cut his teeth DJing to New Yorks burgeoning 90s hip hop scene in grimy Lower East Side bars. The Mark who toiled and worked away for almost a decade before finally releasing ‘Ooh Wee’, a certified smash that announced the arrival of his first album ‘Here Comes The Fuzz’.
It’s easy to forget that Mark is an accomplished DJ, I mean when you mention his name any basic member of the UK population will blurt out something about horns. Is that really his only legacy? I’d hope not, because even now Mark is still probably the best DJ I’ve ever seen play out. Not just technically, but in maybe the most important way – in his selections.
Basically we wanted to catch up with Mark to learn more about this period of his life. How did the skinny white Jewish kid from the upper west side end up as Jay-Z’s favourite DJ and coming out of nowhere to release a debut track with Ghostface and Nate Dogg?
So when did you start DJing?
I started DJing at the end of 93, which was the end of my high school senior year in New York. I started DJing because there were these three kids that rapped in my class, these three black kids. I went to this kinda uptight preppy school so they were the only three black kids in the school.
They were in this talent show and they needed someone to make beats. I’d kind played in bands and my step Dad had a little 8-track machine and I decided I’d teach myself how to make a beat with his Akai sampler. I didn’t know how to use it that well then, I didn’t know how to make the drum loop and the music loop going at the same time. He had two samplers so I put a loop on each and I had to hit start at the same time and getting the tempos going at the same time. This kid Michael that was in the rap group that I was producing beats for told me well thats pretty much the same concept as DJing, you’re playing two things at the same time and getting the tempos right.
I got into DJing from that, pretty soon after I started DJing anywhere, like you do when you start, playing anywhere or for anyone that was having a house party – any excuse to haul your equipment into a bar or whatever. I went off to Uni and I was DJing there which was good because I got a lot of practice and was playing on the Uni radio.
Were you at Uni in New York?
I was like, an hour and a half upstate out of New York. I don’t how it happened but I was constantly just trying to get in the mix where I was giving my demo tapes to different promotors and I got a spot opening up for Stretch Armstrong at this club night called the Honey Pot, that was my first time paying at a legit hip hop club downtown where you’d see rap celebrities and Supreme skateboard kids and people you’d recognise from the movie Kids.
I was playing there and I used to come back to England, sorry I’m all every which way ‘cos I haven’t thought about this stuff in a while and it was 20 years ago… But I went back to England twice a year to visit my Dad as he still lived here. I’d go to Berwick Street and go to those record stores and pick up all the rare groove and all the soul stuff. It was really the brand new heavies and the acid jazz scene that made me discover soul music, it’s kinda backwards but thats how I found it.
I knew a little bit more about rave groove then my New York DJ contemporaries, cos I really loved this shit and knew it inside out, and if there was a hip hop record I really liked then I became obsessed about going out and finding the original sample, before it was easy to find those records. Thats why people really liked when I played, the mix of hop hop and rave groove and RnB and these kinda beats – I guess the original breaks, was how I sort of made my name. I started to get quite a lot of work and then in the late 90s, like 97, 98, thats when Puffy and Jay Z and Biggie and Big Pun are coming down to the clubs that I was DJing at. They used to go to clubs like the tunnel which was the big ghetto kinda club where you had to go through metal detectors to get in and I think they liked our spot because it was such an alternative in that it was quite mellow. I mean, there was still fights breaking out all the time, I remember they’d always be some cute bar tender and before you know it she’d be on top of the bar with a fire extinguisher beating someone on the head with it to break up a fight. New York was definitely a lot more dangerous back then.
Did New York feel a lot more volatile back then?
It wasn’t like New York is right now, Downtown it wasn’t like going to the Tunnel or parties Uptown, but there was always the feeling that it could go down and I think that maybe that was part of the reason people liked my parties. I played a good balance of RnB and soul there was always tons of girls there. The fights always broke out at places where it was 80% dudes, when you walk into a club and see the dance floor like that you’d almost be counting down until it kicked off. Everyone’s mad at each other ‘cos there are no girls and no one wants to stare at a bunch of dudes so the whole thing becomes a bit of a powder keg.
It was a great time to be in New York because a) it was a great time to be a DJ, because there’s very few times where the music that was commercially the most popular and the music that was the most exciting actually dovetailed into the same thing. If you think about Biggie and Snoop and Wu Tang, those were the biggest records. It wasn’t like those were good records and then you had a bunch of commercial bullshit.
And b) it was just all those people would be in the club, I just couldn’t believe it. I think one time it was either Jay Z or Biggies birthday and they both came down to the club together wearing matching white pimp outfits with the hats. This was before they got the taste of more of the ‘trendy’ couture cool I guess, like rappers dress now. It was much more harking back to the Atlanta players style, like the way you see Outkast on their first album cover.
You got any more stories about Puffy in those days?
Puffy came down one night when I was DJing at a club called El Flamingo, I was playing and he came up and he tried to give me a $100 bill. I don’t like taking money from anyone cos it means that you’re kinda beholding them for something or it makes you look like a prostitute. I just said, “nah it’s cool man” and he was like “take the money”, I’m in the middle of a mix and I was like, its cool but at the time Puffy was putting out Biggie, the best shit, he was a hero to me. I was like “nah it’s enough you put out such great music” and he got more forceful – “Take the fucking money”.
I took the $100 bill and at the end of the night he came up to me and said “I can tell by the way you DJ that you’re a producer right?” I don’t know if he was buttering me up at this point, he was telling me everything I wanted hear. He wrote down his number and I remember I had it for so long, I put the bill in the frame with his number and had it hanging it over my turntables for a year until one time I literally didn’t have enough change to buy a slice of pizza, it was sunday night and I was starving and I took it and broke the $100.
Was this when you were still charging $50 a gig, or was this point you were playing more well known gigs? Or the point where you break the point of being a resident at a well known club to being the named DJ at a club, if that makes sense?
I think that happened early on cos I was playing in so many scenes. First off I started off playing in shitty bars and wherever you can get your practice in, and I got a year in and got my first break opening for Stretch [armstrong] and this other dude DJ Jules who was this English guy who was kinda extended family of a club night in London called ‘Rotation’. So that was the downtown groovy New York scene. You had drug dealers and rappers in there but it was definitely mixed with skateboard kids, some hipsters (this is obviously pre-hipster) and fashion people, it was a real melting pot, almost what you’d imagine a much less significant version of the Roxy to be in the early Blondie days. it was the typical downtown mix of everything.
Then I also started to play the much more hood parties where I opened for Funkmaster Flex which was usually at the big clubs like the Palladium. There was kinda like the downtown groovy hip hop scene, the hood hip hop scene I was playing then there was a bunch of random shit that could be anywhere between those two. I was trying to get booked for the more ‘fashion’ scene, New York hip hop has always set the trend for the fashion world and they would come down and hear me and they’d be like “oh we like that kid”.
I was playing at this club called Life which was really one of those decadent massive scenes, one of the first in that late 90s in New York that had that VIP thing that you picture in New York where you imagine Leonardo DiCapriro at one table and Puffy at another and Chris Rock next to them, it was nuts.
But whats funny is all those clubs, outside of the really more girl hip hop scene at the time is that everyone was playing house. This is 97/98 so I would always bug the owner of this club to let me play there. I was just a scrappy annoying kid to him but one time the DJ who usually played in the room was pregnant so she couldn’t play. I got my records together in 30 minutes and ran over to this place and I killed it that night, you could tell that nobody had really heard an amazing DJ in that scene for a long time you know, cos they were used to listening to house or trendy ambient or whatever it was.
They let me play and all of a sudden this place went from a Euro-y model hang out to being a spot for Jay Z and Rick Rubin, but because there were suddenly black people and famous rappers coming down all of a sudden the racist dickhead guys that ran the club hated it as they liked their all white euro-crowd. They’d have these meetings on Tuesdays that I’d always hear about where they’d say things like “Mark Ronson and his brand of music is ruining the vibe of our VIP room” – all this shit, and everyone else would just tell them to shut the fuck up and that it was great in there. So that was kind how I made my name, in the fashion world at least, from playing at that club.
So how did the transition go from there to ‘Hear Comes The Fuzz’ coming out?
I got that album deal because I produced a record for this girl Nikka Costa in 2001 and that was on this label that my friend had with D’angelo, and from DJing in clubs. I think me and Stretch Armstrong and DJ AM were the first DJs to mix in select rock records in our set.
I started mixing some of these other genres and styles of records in the mix so I’d be known as this guy that kinda played everything from Biggie to EPMD to AC/DC and Dancehall and Earth Wind and Fire. This guy who’d signed Nikka Costa, this guy from Virgin said “I don’t know if you produce or what you do but I want her record to sound like how you DJ and to be a mix of all these things”, things like Chaka Khan and AC/DC, biggie all this shit. I wasn’t very good when we started, it took about a year and a half to make the record and it turned out well and she had a hit song that was on MTV all the time.
DJ Premier who was my hero and idol, and still is in a lot of ways, was in the booth one time at the album release party for D’Angelo ‘Voodoo’ and I had a test pressing of this song I’d just made for Nikka Costa and in my head it was a complete bite of a Primo beat, course usually in your head when you think you’re ripping something off you’re usually not. You’ve usually got it wrong enough that it comes across as it’s own thing but Premier was in the booth as I’m playing this track and he’s like “who made this beat”? I hadn’t really met him before and I was so nervous cos he was there and I was all stuttering, and I thought he was going to be all “who the fuck is this ripping off my whole shit” he was just like “this shit is haaard”. That was definitely a career highlight at that point, Premier being in the booth saying that.
I was DJing for Jay Z at the ‘The Dynasty: Roc La Familia’ album launch in 2001 and I was playing it and he came right up to me and said “is this your song, is this the girl you produced?”, and he’d only talked to me maybe once in my life up to then so even with that I was still pretty star-struck. “Promise me you’ll let me by the dude that rhymes over the remix”, which is crazy. Needless to say Jay Z never returned the phone calls at the time to do it but it was still a big deal after 8 years of DJing these clubs for these people to have a record that they knew and liked. And thats how I got my record deal with Elektra, the guy who signed me loved that Nikka Costa record and he signed me and let me make my own album.
Here Comes The Fuzz, really was a super concentrated way of getting the feeling of one of my DJ sets onto an album. Of course when you’re DJing three hours the chance to build the night into something amazing and you can play the best music of the last four years but on an album you’ve just got 45mins to try get in a little bit of reggae, a little bit of Hip Hop a little bit of disco. I think it was pretty much all over the place, just trying so hard to be a three hour nightclub set in 40 minutes. But there’s some good stuff on it, if it wasn’t for ‘Ooh Wee’ we wouldn’t even be here taking, ‘Ooh Wee’ is the thing that made people from Seb Chew to Zane Lowe to whoever actually care about me. It’s definitely the thing that opened the door for all the other shit.
Obviously you jumped at the chance to produce for Nikka Costa, did you have to learn everything quite quickly or did you already know your way around producing?
For me producing just meant, because my heroes were people like DJ Premier, producing to me just meant having an MPC and making beats, I didn’t understand about mic-ing drums or any of that shit I just knew producing meant making a beat and hooking a mic up. So I had to learn a lot of stuff quite quick.
I co-produced the record with her husband, he came form a more analogue world and understood that live recording side so I kinda learnt by staring at the back of his head and at his pro tools screen and if you stare for long enough you kinda pick it up. I didn’t really learn or really understand about live recording in the way I do now until I started with the Daptone guys, thats when I really learned how to make drums kinda sound like a drum break and this and that.
I learnt a lot from the Nikka Album, definitely, we were really lucky as we were on the same label we had a lot of the same musicians as D’Angelo playing on our record. We had ?uestlove, James Poyser and Pino Palladino which was such a treat and we were so spoilt to have that on the record.
I kinda want to finish up by making a giant jump over from the period we’ve talked about to the future. We’re in this fantastic studio and you’re working on your new album, how’s that going? And how’s it going to differ from your previous work? Or don’t you want to talk about that yet?
I can’t really talk too much about it because it’s always constantly morphing when you’re working on a record, so whatever I tell you now could be really obsolete and stupid in a few months from now. But the thing thats pretty tough for me is that I’m not really like most other DJs and they go out and they play most of the records that they made and thats the bracket they fit into, so for me making music and DJing has always been two separate things that I very much love and I can go out and DJ and play Ooh Wee or Bang Bang Bang in a club set but I can’t suddenly go to YoYo and throw on the new McCartney record, it’s not really going to happen [laughs].
I don’t mind that though because it’s two things that I love equally. I love the New York club rocking style of DJing, thats what I came from and also when I’m making music it’s kinda goes to another thing. I wish I’d maybe thought of this and had two different entities like for when I’m DJing festivals and stuff like that. I don’t really care though and when I go out and play I just like to play stuff that I love.
With my own records with my name on it, as I get just a bit older I want to challenge myself musically and make things that are a bit more complex and a bit more rich. Sometimes all those things don’t have a place on the dance-floor so I have to make the music that comes out of me, I can’t really be thinking “is this going to work between at a festival”.