Mark Ronson And The Producer As Rock Star A studio tinkerer with a perfectionist streak, Ronson himself admits he can't sing. Instead, he built a reputation on instinct and good taste.
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Uptown Boy: Mark Ronson And The Producer As Rock Star

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Uptown Boy: Mark Ronson And The Producer As Rock Star

Uptown Boy: Mark Ronson And The Producer As Rock Star

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is the song that bumped Taylor Swift from the number one spot on the Billboard charts - "Uptown Funk." Bruno Mars provides the lead vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")

BRUNO MARS: (Singing) This hit, that ice cold. Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold. This one for them hood girls, them good girls -straight masterpieces. Styling, while in...

RATH: "Uptown Funk" is the first single from a new album by British producer, songwriter and musician Mark Ronson. That album, "Uptown Special," is out Tuesday. It pulses with vintage R&B, funk, hip-hop and pop vibes, a mix Ronson has been known for since his days as a New York club DJ in the '90s. Over the years, he's produced Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Naz, the Black Lips and many others. "Uptown Special" is Mark Ronson's fourth album. He joins me from London. Welcome to the program.

MARK RONSON: Hi.

RATH: So I wanted to start off talking about "Uptown Funk," and not just because it's so popular at the moment. I know that Prince used uptown to refer not to a place, but a kind of idea. I'm wondering what uptown means to you.

RONSON: I guess because I came up DJing in hip-hop clubs in New York, uptown had a very specific meaning that was kind of - it was the Bronx, it was Harlem. And uptown is like the hipster neighborhood, like, kind of coming up in Oakland. Uptown is where Mystikal is from, like, you know, the housing area he was from in New Orleans - uptown, as you know, Prince, Minneapolis. It's kind of just means so many cool things and absolutely nothing at the same time. It makes it kind of like the perfect thing to put into a song title.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")

MARS: (Singing) I'm too hot, call the police and the fireman. I'm too hot.

RATH: But why do you think this tune has really hit a chord with people?

RONSON: Maybe there's something about hearing dance music played by live humanoid people that's just something that's been missing a bit in music. There were so many times we thought it was good enough, but one of us is like no, it can be better. And we were pushing it, you know, every riff at the bass, every drum fill. I try not to think about it because it's just, like, great, lucky us, amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")

MARS: (Singing) Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up.

RATH: You write these great songs, and you've worked with and produced amazing singers - you know, Bruno Mars, who we were just speaking about, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen. On this new album, you also have some great new vocal talent. You took a trip through the American South.

RONSON: Yeah, so we wrote this song called "I Can't Lose."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T LOSE")

RONSON: I love all the Chaka Khan records from the late '70s. We were thinking, who around would sing that? And Jeff...

RATH: That's Jeff Bhasker you're talking about.

RONSON: Yes. Jeff Bhasker is an amazing producer. He was just, like man, let's just get in the car and drive through the South, and we'll find singers and, we'll call it Mississippi Mission or Church Idol. I mean, this was like a 3:00 a.m. conversation after a few whiskeys, so it sounded, like, a bit ludicrous. So we got to New Orleans, and we rented a van. And we drove up through the South. And we heard this girl Keyone. And it was - as soon as we heard her sing, it really just felt like wow, that's the voice that we are looking for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T LOSE")

KEYONE STARR: (Singing) When I met you last night, baby, and you let me roll the dice. You said I think you're lucky, lady. I hit those numbers all night. I can't lose. I can't lose when I'm around you.

RATH: You have a song on this album with another performer from the American South, although not as much of a kind of in-church feel. I'm talking about the song with Mystikal, "Feel Right."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL RIGHT")

MYSTIKAL: (Rapping) Come on. Come on. I feel right in this mother. I feel good in this mother. My whole hood in this mother. And we going to ride this mother for you.

RATH: How did you get to work with him?

RONSON: So we got to New Orleans, Jeff and I, and we ran into Trombone Shorty, who I know, this incredible jazz musician. So he knew Mystikal, and he said oh, when you all get to Baton Rouge, you should look up Mystikal. I've just called him up. Bruno happened to be there at that time because we were working on "Uptown Funk." I think I must've left Bruno and Mystikal alone for maybe two hours. And they came back with the first verse and the chorus of that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL RIGHT")

MYSTIKAL: (Rapping) Don't believe it 'cause I'm saying it. Believe it 'cause I'm telling you. I'm doing the rapping and bussing. Ronson on the scratching and cuttin'. Come on.

RATH: I'm talking with musician and producer Mark Ronson. His new album "Uptown Special" is out on Tuesday. You know, is it my imagination or are producers coming stars these days? I'm thinking about you, Pharrell, AVICII. And then there are, you know, people making electronic dance music who are stars basically for producing. What do you make of that?

RONSON: I'm not sure what happened - that somewhere along the way I get to make these records with my own name, even though I'm not really a singer. You know, when I first put out my song "Valerie" with Amy Winehouse, it really wasn't a hit at all in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VALERIE")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Valerie...

RONSON: Somebody at the label explained to me listen, no one will ever understand in America the Mark Ronson featuring Amy Winehouse thing. Like, it's just never going to fly. And then I think Calvin Harris and these guys kind of broke down the door, even though they're doing such different music than I'm doing. I think it suddenly became a thing that I guess commercial radio was ready for this thing. And so it's great. I make these records because, like, I have a concept and a bunch of song ideas and things. But I need great vocalists, and I need people to help me carry that vision. I couldn't do it all by myself.

RATH: I want to ask you about another song that features a credit that kind of jumped out at me, that's "Crack In The Pearl." It's a song that has lyrics from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon.

RONSON: Yes. Well, Michael wrote kind of my favorite piece of modern fiction - "Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay." I found out he was doing a book signing a few years ago, so I showed up. He told me that he had liked a piece of music from my last record, and I was so thrilled. When Jeff and I started working on the record last year, I said what do you think if we write - if I write a letter to Michael Chabon and see if he'd be interested in contributing lyrics to this album because, you know, for some reason, clever lyrics only get to be like the domain of, like, the kind of tortured singer with the acoustic guitar that you picture. Like, why can't we put these stories over the groove?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRACK IN THE PEARL")

ANDREW WYATT: (Singing) In the back room of the El Mago casino under a portrait of Doris Day. You and I and a pair of C-notes, soft candy betting hard eight.

RONSON: "Crack In The Pearl" was the first lyrics that he actually just sent us over the Internet. And it completely inspired a melody that I never would've written had I not been reading those lyrics off the page. It's an amazing turn of events that, like - it's just - it's something that you could never plan for. You couldn't even dream about.

RATH: That's Mark Ronson. His new album "Uptown Special" is out on Tuesday. Really nice speaking with you. And man, album is just - it's a blast.

RONSON: Thank you so much.

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