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Master of the Remix Turns Pop into Funk
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Master of the Remix Turns Pop into Funk
Master of the Remix Turns Pop into Funk
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ALISON STEWART, host:

The online music journal MP3.com called 2007 the year of Ronson, and looking back, it's easy to see why. Mark Ronson produced tracks for two of the most interesting singers in recent history: Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse - pop history, anyway. Don't write me.

He also put a record out of his own over the summer. "Version" is an all-covers album, featuring the above mentioned Allen and Winehouse, plus Robbie Williams, ODB. And the hooks, the beats, the master chef mixing it all, have made Ronson a star producer. And through all of this, he's kept his own radio show on a low-watt, high-energy, East Village radio station right here in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARK RONSON (Producer): It's a crime that this song is not bigger than it is.

Unidentified Man: That's (unintelligible).

Mr. RONSON: I'm taking my time with the new (unintelligible) album. What's wrong with you people? Not you, people. You people are amazing. Just other people that don't buy this record.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Mark Ronson visited our studios this week, and I asked him whether, you know what? He likes being on the radio.

Mr. RONSON: I do. I cower when I have to listen to that playback. I'm, like, oh my gosh, she's actually going to play me speaking. But it's fun because the East Village radio is set up in basically a bodega on the 2nd Avenue with turn tables in the window. And I just like the energy. No matter how cold it is, I always keep the door open so you can hear the music out on the street and people are walking by. And sometimes, like, during fleet week you get sailors who want to come in and freestyle, like in the, you know, the - that whole outfit. And I enjoy doing it. It feels very New York to me, and I enjoy that.

STEWART: Mark, how did you discover that you had this knack for mixing and matching all the right sounds? I mean, when you're a kid and you pick up a guitar, you have musical talent or you don't, right? You have a great singing voice or you don't. How did you find out that you have this skill? Did you have interest in just being a straight-up musician?

Mr. RONSON: Yeah, I used to play in bands when I was a kid, and play guitar in bands and play along to, like, go busking in the park, playing like Guns N' Roses and Lenny Kravitz, like, with the guys on my band. And then I remember thinking I was going to be like a rock star, like a guitar playing, and telling my best friend on the phone one night, like, yeah, it's going to be great. We're going to do a demo. And he was, like, really? I don't really see you as a guitar player. I see you more like a producer behind the music. And I was, like, you don't understand. I mean, I like hung up the phone on him because he shattered my illusions of being a rock star. But he was completely…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RONSON: …he was completely right. It was funny. I don't know if he is was psychic or whatever, but he - definitely, that's my role. I just realized I'm not supposed to be a guitar player in a rock band. Although, I just did read the Slash autobiography and…

STEWART: How was it? Did it rekindle something?

Mr. RONSON: No, you just realized he was the last rock star god to, like, live it and not die. I mean, he has a cardiac defibrillator in his heart because he's done so much damage, that if his heart rate goes too low or too high, it shocks him. So every time he's on the stage and he's having a good performance and he, like, gets into it, it feels like a baseball bat's, like, swinging inside his chest. But he has to deal with that for rest of his life.

STEWART: There's always that thing about rock stars. If they don't die, they're going to live forever. And then they're going to look kind of good. Like Anthony Kiedis has done everything you can do to your body, shoot in your body, and the guy looks great.

Mr. RONSON: And then you have Keith Richards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Well, I actually kind of think he was great…

Mr. RONSON: He does look amazing.

STEWART: …in his own Keith Richards kind of way.

Mr. RONSON: He looks amazing for 65. I mean, not to take anything - actually, there's a funny thing. I feel like I'm on a Slash book tour right now, but I'm going to talk about it. He - there's a scene in the book where he meets Keith Richards for the first time. He just sits down in front of him in some room at the Sunset Marquis, and Keith Richards just takes out a switch blade. And I was, like…

(Soundbite of whooshing sounds)

Mr. RONSON: …like, three times, opens it, close it, as if to say, like, I'm the boss, mate. And then that's it. He just leaves the room.

STEWART: He did the alpha male thing.

Mr. RONSON: So, yeah. He peed all over Slash's leather pants is what he did.

STEWART: I want to listen to one of the tracks from your album. This is a cover of Britney Spears' "Toxic," featuring the late ODB and Tiggers.

(Soundbite of song, "Toxic")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) There's no mistake. I can't wait. I need a hit. Baby, give me it. You're dangerous. I'm loving it.

TIGGERS: (Rapping) I know how to make (unintelligible). Shut down the Grammy, act a (unintelligible) who's dying for the kids, but (unintelligible) fill me. Who's dying for the kids, plus the whole of the family. Catch me on Jay-Z.

Unidentified Group: (Rapping) Mom, who is he?

TIGGERS: Down, dirty sneaky, grime and grizzly. All of them will go (unintelligible)…

STEWART: When you decided to go ahead and rework that song, did you know you were always going to slow it down like that?

Mr. RONSON: I think…

STEWART: Why did you come to that?

Mr. RONSON: I think so, because, like, that original song is, like, really fast, like, where only club music works. And that's kind of not really what I do star wise, like for the funk and groove stuff.

(Soundbite of song, "Toxic")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) With a taste of your lips I'm on a ride. You're toxic. I'm slipping under with a taste of the poison paradise. I'm addicted to you. Don't you know that you're toxic?

Mr. RONSON: Yeah, I just started messing around with it. The more I kind of, like, when you're a kid and you sit down with "Appetite for Destruction" and you figure out your favorite songs on guitar so you can impress your friends, it's still that way for me, like, not to impress girls, but I like to know the chords in a song like "Toxic." And figuring it out, I was really surprised that they're just chromatic blues chords, and so I thought, what would happen if we slow it down, put some horns in? And the more it started to sound like a Wu Tang sort of production, I realized I had this old version of Old Dirty lying around from when we worked together before he died, and I just try putting it on there. It seemed to come together nice.

STEWART: Of all your collaborations in all of your projects, is there one that you're really proud of? One that you think, yeah, I was supposed to do this for a living?

Mr. RONSON: I did a Hyundai commercial for Japan once. That was just remixing "Iko Iko." Now those are actually the kind of things I had to do to pay the bills before this year. But I think that Amy Winehouse record is one of the things I listen to and probably go, like, I don't know anyone else who would have made this record. And I think those are the main things. You can't really pat yourself on the back and go, man, that's amazing. I'm incredible, and, you know, that's just - that's not - doesn't appeal to me. And I don't think, you know, people like Johnny Greenwood and Tom York, like, high five each other after they write "Creep" or whatever. I think it's just music, but…

STEWART: But you know when you do something right.

Mr. RONSON: But you only know it's good because you feel good about it. You can never really think, like, oh, the - millions of people listening to this are going to think it's amazing, you know. But some music is so subjective that you just have to think, do I feel good about this? But even the first time that I played "Rehab" for Amy's (unintelligible), he's like, this is amazing. Like, blah, blah. And I was, like, really? Not because I didn't think it was good, but I was, like, why is this more commercial than anything else? It's as good? And - but that record I'm quite proud of, and this other song I did for this English singer named Candie Payne. I'm not sure that's going to come out here. That's a song called "One More Chance."

(Soundbite of song, "One More Chance")

Ms. CANDIE PAYNE (Singer): (Singing) Tomorrow brings a (unintelligible) snow. My broken heart, a heavy load. And then I cannot see a light. And you went down the line. One more chance is all I have. Darling, say it's not too late.

STEWART: Mark, you were kicking around awhile before everything started to click for you this year - in a big way. I mean, you'd obviously had some success. But now you kind of have that success that a lot of the producers who almost are at the level of celebrity like a Timbaland, like a Pharrell - why do you think producers are getting more recognition now?

Mr. RONSON: I think there's two reasons. I think part of it - not take anything away from Pharrell and Timbaland, who I really look up to and think amazing producers, but the substandard quality of the actual musicians and the singers. So you'll be, like, we've - Atlantic Records signed this big new singer. We know he's probably not that great and we can get a little bit of press buzz, but if we get a Pharrell song, then it'll be out at the park, you know. That happens a lot.

And then - I don't really know what else it is. Honestly, those guys are kind of different for me, because they have a really recognizable sound. From the minute you hear, you know, there's like a snare drum or something, you know that's a Pharrell beat. Whereas, I'm much more kind of, like, depending on whatever the artist is, that's which way the sound goes.

STEWART: Well, let's listen to another song, and maybe you can walk me through how you decided to choose the sound to work with. "Stop Me." It's a Smiths song, originally, performed here by Daniel Merriweather. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Stop Me")

Mr. DANIEL MERRIWEATHER (Singer): (Singing) Stop me, oh, oh, oh, stop me. Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before. Stop me, oh, oh, oh, stop me. Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before. If nothing's changed, I'll still love you. Oh, I still love you only slightly, only slightly less than I used to, my love.

STEWART: Okay, Mark, so breakdown for me the choices you made here.

Mr. RONSON: The reason I picked that song is because it's - basically it's one of my favorite songs since I was a kid. And I wasn't trying to win over Smiths fans or anything. I didn't have a deal at the time. I was just making records for these version of the songs I like, so I can play them in my DJ set because I'm just bored with all the music coming out. So I started to get the track together and put the chords over the beat, asked Daniel to sing it. He had never heard the Smiths before, but he heard the song. The lyrics are quite esoteric.

(Soundbite of song, "Stop Me")

Mr. MERRIWEATHER: (Singing) And plan a mass murder, yeah. Who said I'd lied to her? Who said I lied? Because I never, never - who said I lied? Because I never…

Mr. RONSON: All these songs are quite difficult, because I made a lot of indie, sort of, dark songs quite danceable. So the whole thing is to make sure it doesn't become of it too light. You're really trying to walk that line thinly between making it too groovy or, like, so that you forget that a "Just" by Radiohead is about, you know, doing yourself in. So I think that's the same thing with this song. And getting Dan to do the vocal in a way that wasn't too, like, funky or Prince-like but quite dark at the same time is really important.

(Soundbite of song, "Stop Me")

Mr. MERRIWEATHER: (Singing) Who said I lied to her? Who said I lied, because I never, never - who said I'd lied to her? So I drank one, it became four. And when I fell on the floor, I drank more.

Mr. RONSON: I only song I feel a bit guilty about is the Cold Play cover my album, because I kind of took the lyrics out so it just sounds like this fun sort of like '50s, Hawaii 5-0 jamboree. And really, the song is a bit more kind of subtle than that. But on the rest of this stuff, I really did try to keep the message, not just the melody, intact.

STEWART: Are you going to work with Daniel Merriweather again?

Mr. RONSON: Yeah, Daniel's on my label Allido, and we're working on his debut album right now. He's been writing some great songs. We've been recording a lot of stuff for the Dap-Kings as well that played on Amy's album and some - a little bit of mine. We're about halfway through it.

STEWART: So in the middle of this sort of whirlwind year, you had to do just a ton of press. I've seen a lot of press, I've read a lot of different interviews. Has it taken it out of you a little bit? I wonder if that gets hard after a while.

Mr. RONSON: You just feel like a bit of an idiot, like, if you realize that you've - you know, you're listening to some Brazilian woman on the phone thousands of miles away typing away on her thing, like, trying to catch up with you. How do you spell Merriweather?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RONSON: And wait, why (unintelligible). Anyway, a Brazilian woman, and you just - you've said the same thing 18 times about how you met Amy Winehouse. And you just feel like a bit of a fake, but that's pretty much the worst of it. I don't really care.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Well, sometimes I go out my town in a (unintelligible). And I think of all the things, what you're doing. And in my head play the beat…

STEWART: That's our interview with Mark Ronson earlier in the week. And, Luke, it's really funny. You know, we have all these buttons in the studio - cough buttons, so we could talk.

BURBANK: Uh-huh.

STEWART: He sat down, and he started playing with them right away, like, as a producer would have. if I touch this, can I cough? Can I cough over here? What about if I press this button? We had to threaten to move him.

BURBANK: I just - I have to say, like, every…

STEWART: He's a nice guy, though.

BURBANK: …well, with the exception of the Smiths song, which when he said I wasn't making it to try to please Smiths fans, I heard that because I was a Smiths fan. That was the only one I listen I'm totally in love, but everything else, I was, like, this is the best I've ever heard Amy Winehouse sound. That was the best I'd ever heard Britney sound, except it wasn't actually Britney. Like, he just seemed to take all these things and really sort of elevate them in my mind.

STEWART: Sure. He takes sort of a really simple pop song and then just gives it all kinds of texture and something you can actually hold onto, if you want to hold onto it.

BURBANK: I want to find out where that bodega is that he's like spinning at with that…

STEWART: Something tells me that wouldn't be too hard to do, because he does it on Friday nights. So…

BURBANK: I think I know what I'm doing this Friday.

STEWART: All right. Stalking Mark Ronson in the East Village.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Hey, that does it for this edition of THE BRYANT PARK - what it is it? Prodness?

BURBANK: PROJECT, sponsored by Prada.

STEWART: Oh, if only.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You'll see more of BPP goodness online. Head over to npr.org/bryantpark for all of the things that don't show up on the radio show, but are equally as fine.

BURBANK: Yeah, in fact, we've got the latest adventures from this Alaskan lady, Jill Homer. She's training for the human Iditarod. That's 350 miles of ice and snow, normally done with a dogsled. She's doing it on a bicycle. So we've got an update on her progress.

Hey, thank you so much for listening. This has been THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. We'll see you real soon.

STEWART: Anybody is listening at Prada, all right, just let them know.

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