The Story Behind Mark Ronson's Hit Song 'Uptown Funk'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The song "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson was one of the biggest hits of the year. Today, we hear from Ronson as we continue our series of some of our favorite interviews of the year. Later, we'll feature my interview with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, co-creators of the Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." "Uptown Funk" is featured on Mark Ronson's album "Uptown Special," but the lead vocal is by Bruno Mars, who co-wrote the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Ronson is a musician, producer and DJ. He's put out four albums under his own name and they all feature other artists singing the songs he co-wrote and produced. Ronson's production work on the Amy Winehouse album "Back To Black" helped to make international hits out of her songs "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good." Mark Ronson grew up in the music world. His stepfather is Mick Jones, the co-founder of the band Foreigner. He was born in London, but his family moved to New York when he was 8. He's now a much sought-after producer and has done recordings with Adele, Paul McCartney, Ghostface Killah and Duran Duran. I spoke with Ronson in April just after "Uptown Funk" ended its 14-week run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
(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 master pieces. Stylin', wilin, livin' in up in the city. Got chucks on with Saint Laurent. Gotta kiss myself I'm so pretty. I'm too hot, hot damn. Call the police and the fireman. I'm too hot, hot damn. Make a dragon want to retire man. I'm too hot, hot damn. Say my name, you know who I am. I'm too hot, hot damn. And my band about that money. Break it down. Girls hit your hallelujah, ooh. Girls hit your hallelujah, ooh. Girls hit your hallelujah, ooh. 'Cause Uptown Funk gon' give it to ya. 'Cause Uptown Funk gon' give it to ya. 'Cause Uptown Funk gon' give it to ya. Saturday night and we in the spot, don't believe me just watch. Come on. Don't believe me just watch. Don't believe me just watch. Don't believe me just watch. Don't believe me just watch. Don't believe me just watch. Hey, hey, hey, oh. Stop, wait a minute.
GROSS: That's Bruno Mars's "Uptown Funk" produced by my guest, Mark Ronson. Mark Ronson, welcome to FRESH AIR. What a great track (laughter).
MARK RONSON: Thank you.
GROSS: So you've said that that started as a jam, but it's so heavy with hooks. And it's so kind of produced and filled with references to other recordings, so it seems so not like a jam (laughter).
RONSON: I think that...
RONSON: ...that where it came from and the initial birth of it - it did come out of a jam at Bruno's studio, you know? He was playing drums. And Jeff Bhasker, who co-produced the record with us, is on synths, and I was playing bass. And I think that that spirit, or at least the raucousness of maybe that, is in there. And then yeah, like, along the way, you fine tune it 'cause you're thinking, like, OK, we need to now turn this into a song.
And then, also, when you're doing something that doesn't sound like anything else on the radio at the time, you almost need to, like, ironclad it to make sure it gets through, you know? You have to put these hooks in it, you know? You've got to make sure you got all that ear candy in it to get it through the gate.
GROSS: What does it mean to be a producer? I think a lot of people don't really know. And what does it mean for you to be a - I mean, like, you're a real hands-on producer, so what does it mean when you're producing something?
RONSON: I think, you know, for me, whatever I need to slot into to make that music the best it can be or help the artists, or whoever I'm working with, achieve whatever vision they have in their head for a song.
So sometimes if I'm working with a rapper, like Ghostface Killah or Nas, producing usually means, in hip-hop, that you make the music. You make the beat, and you give it to them. And they write the rhymes. Then, you know, the other more-traditional role of the producer in, like, the kind of Quincy Jones sense is kind of part arranger. So you're coming up with, like, these - you hear these songs that are quite bare-bones, and you dream up what's the band doing? What's the rhythm section doing? What's the guitars, strings, pianos - that sort of thing. It's almost like a little toolbox. You just pick up a little bit of whatever the ones you think are appropriate, and you try and, you know, combine them. And then you bring in other people that are great for the things that you're not so good at.
So when I was working with Amy Winehouse on "Back To Black," you know, she had all these beautiful songs, incredibly well-written and just her on an acoustic, nylon-string guitar. And she'd play them for me, and then I would kind of drum up my idea of what I thought - make a demo with what I thought the drums should be doing, the guitars - like, quite a crude demo. And then I'd play it for her. And if she liked it, we'd run with it. And then eventually, we got the Dap-Kings in to record, and that was that.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned Amy Winehouse. So let's talk about the huge hit album that you had with her, "Back To Black." I know you produced most but not all the tracks on that album. You produced "You Know I'm No Good," right?
GROSS: Good. Let's hear that one. And I'm choosing that because it's a great recording, and also, the horns stand out so well on it. And that was all your doing - getting the Dap-Kings to perform with her. So why don't we hear that, and then we'll talk about it. So this is the late Amy Winehouse. The song is "You Know I'm No Good," and it's from her album "Back To Black" which was largely produced by my guest, Mark Ronson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")
AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Meet you downstairs in the bar and heard your rolled-up sleeves in your skull T-shirt. You said, what did you do with him today and sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray 'cause you're my fellow, my guy. Hand me your Stella and fly. By the time I'm out the door, you tear me down like Roger Moore. I cheated myself like I knew I would. I told you I was trouble. You know that I'm no good. Upstairs in bed with my ex-boy...
GROSS: That was the late Amy Winehouse, her song "You Know I'm No Good." That track was produced by my guest, Mark Ronson, who produced most of that album, "Back To Black," which was a huge hit. So the way you were describing it, it sounds like she played you, maybe, a demo of the song. What did you hear in your mind, and how did you put that together for what became the final recording?
RONSON: Well, on this song, this is really one of the best examples of one of the songs that the Dap-Kings, you know, the musicians who played on this stuff, really brought to life. Because of the chords and the way Amy had played the song, I had always thought of it almost as, like, a kind of Latin, like, Samba. What is it? But it was originally like, (imitating rhythm), and that's how I had the demo. And I kind of got in, and I just told the band - I was like, here's my arrangement, but I'm not really feeling it. So why don't you guys just, like, hit on a groove or how you would play this chord chart.
And Homer and Nick, the drummer and the bass player from the Dap-Kings, one of the most incredible rhythm sections - probably the most incredible rhythm section I've ever worked with - just came up with that (imitating rhythm), and that - it just instantly changed the song. And then Dave Guy and then Neal came up with that horn line. And that was when I really discovered the magic of the Dap-Kings and how, you know, very much like The Wrecking Crew in LA and, you know, The Funk Brothers, like, are a special group of musicians that really just bring you something that nobody else does.
GROSS: I think that baritone saxophone works so well because Amy Winehouse has such a deep voice. To have an instrument that's going to be way beneath her, it just even adds more deepness (laughter) to the recording.
RONSON: Yeah, I agree. You know, that was the first time that I probably ever used a baritone sax. And it's certainly the texture that, you know - it's all over the record 'cause it's a nice compliment to her tone.
GROSS: So how had you first heard the Dap-Kings? You must have heard them before deciding to bring them on for this album.
RONSON: Yeah. I had started to use - Dave Guy, the trumpet player, is an incredible musician. He came into the studio one day, and they had just cut a cover of "Sign, Seal, Deliver" for something with Sharon Jones, and I just was blown away by how they got that sonic. I mean, it was just so much the real deal.
And at the time, Amy and I was working on demos for "Back To Black," and I was probably using, you know, like, whatever computer trick I could that - they have plug-ins, you know, for your computer that make things sound old or whatever it is. And I played Amy this recording of Sharon Jones, and I said, like, how good is this? We should get these guys to play these demos. And she's like, yeah, yeah. She would say, like, it's the nuts. If she thought something was really good, it was the nuts. So she said it was the nuts, and we got the whole band, not just the horn section.
GROSS: So how did you get to work with Amy Winehouse? How did - did she approach you? Were you matched up by someone else?
RONSON: Basically, there's a good friend of mine who works at EMI Publishing, a publishing company. He had asked me - he was like, you know, do you know this girl, Amy Winehouse? She's in New York for a day. She's kind of meeting people to maybe work with on her second album. And I remember that about three years before that, her first record had come out. And I just remember really liking this one song off it called "In My Bed" and being a little bit enamored. This, you know, this young kind of Jewish girl from North London, you know, I have the same thing - from a Jewish family from North London - with this incredible voice. And so I said, yeah, I'll meet her. And, you know, to be honest, it wasn't, like, I was some big shot. Like at that point, you know, I was meeting with anybody that might want to work on music, you know 'cause you never know where chemistry's going to come or your break or whatever it is.
So she came to my studio one day. And I was on Mercer Street - Mercer and Canal in downtown New York - and we hung out, talked about music, you know. She was so magnetic. And I guess her energy, like, I just instantly liked her. And I wanted to impress her basically. Like, I wanted to have a piece of music that would make her be like, wow, I want to work with this guy, you know, for lack of better words. And so I said, well, why don't you go home back to the hotel and I'll work on something tonight and see, you know, come back tomorrow and I'll play you a little piece of music and see if you're into it?
So she had played me all this stuff of the Shangri-La's, and it was all this '60s girl-group pop that she was into, and I was kind of inspired. And she came back, and I had, the next morning, the piano chords for "Back To Black" and the kind of little skeleton beat with a tambourine. And I just put a bunch of cheap reverb on it 'cause I thought, like, that's what that sound was supposed to be like. And she really dug it. And that's how we ended up - she ended up staying in New York another week. So we worked on, you know, the rest of the songs that she had.
GROSS: Was it odd for her - for you when she had the hit of "Rehab," knowing that she really did have drug and alcohol problems, that rehab really was an issue in her life?
RONSON: I guess because at the point that I met her, she was pretty much sober and, you know, the most together she had been maybe, like, in years. So it was strange 'cause everyone was telling me these stories like, you know, oh, you're working with Amy Winehouse? Oh, good luck. Like I heard she's been working on this record for three years and blah, blah, blah. And I just had no idea what everyone was talking about 'cause she came into New York. She had these songs. She seemed to be creatively on fire. She wrote "Black To Black" and "Rehab" while we were there in the studio in, like, you know, kind of a matter of hours. And - so yeah, so she was good.
So when she was telling me this story about rehab, we were actually walking down the street. And she was saying, you know, there was this time like a couple years ago and I was in this dark place. And my family came over and some friends and they tried to make me go to rehab, and I was like no, no, no, and she put up her hand. And I just thought, like, that's such a catchy, kind of turn of phrase. And, you know, should we go back and just maybe do you want to try and write a song with that? 'Cause it just instantly sounded like a hook to me. So it very much sounded like something that had happened in her life and she had kind of moved past. So there was never kind of any weird like - yes, if she was like - if she had terrible problems and was drinking every day in the studio, there's no way I would've said, like, oh, that's a great idea for a song. But because it felt like something that she kind of, you know, just overcome, it didn't seem like a bad idea.
GROSS: Why don't we hear a little bit of that? And this is Amy Winehouse and the track is "Rehab." It's produced by my guest, Mark Ronson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")
WINEHOUSE: (Signing) They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, no, no, no. Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you'll know, know, know. I ain't got the time, and if my daddy thinks I'm fine. He's tried to make me go to rehab, but I won't go, go, go. I'd rather be at home with Ray. I ain't got 70 days 'cause there's nothing, there's nothing you can teach me that I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway. I didn't get a lot in class. But I know it don't come in a shot glass. They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, no, no, no.
GROSS: That's Amy Winehouse’s recording "Rehab," produced by my guest, Mark Ronson, who also had this year’s big hit “Uptown Funk.” We’ll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is record producer and musician Mark Ronson and his latest album, which is called "Uptown Special," has that huge number one hit "Uptown Funk" in which Bruno Mars is the guest star.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So, Mark, you come from a really musical family. Your stepfather is Mick Jones, who was - who is the guitarist in the band Foreigner and wrote one of their biggest hits, "I Want To Know What Love Is." So let's just hear a few seconds of that song to refresh people's memory.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO KNOW WHAT LOVE IS")
FOREIGNER: (Singing) In my life there's been heartache and pain. I don't know if I can face it again. Can't stop now, I've traveled so far to change this lonely life. I want to know what love is...
GROSS: So that's Foreigner, a song written by my guest Mark Ronson's stepfather, Mick Jones. So how old were you when that song was released?
RONSON: I think I was about maybe 10 years old. You know, that’s - he met my mom when I was about 7. And then we moved to New York. We were living in London at the time when she got married to him. And then he wrote that song for her. So it's kind of amazing. I mean, my wife is always like - I don't write lyrics. So I couldn't, like, really technically write a song for anyone. I could write a very nice instrumental. So she always sort of gives me a hard time because it's just such a ridiculously impossible standard to live up to, that your step-dad wrote that song for your mom. But yeah...
GROSS: You can understand how incomprehensible it is to me to have parents where (laughter) your stepfather wrote a song for your mother that becomes this, like, huge international hit. I can't grasp what that would be like (laughter). Did you like the track when you were 10?
RONSON: Yeah, I think I did. I loved it then. I think I love it now. You know, I really love something about being around the recording studios - you know, like, those days in the '80s they’d be, like, in the studio 'til 4, 5, 6 in the morning working on these songs. And sometimes, I'd be allowed to be hanging out in the studio, which I just loved kind of, like, being in the room with these big recording desks, with all these, like, buttons and knobs and watching the guys use them. Or sometimes, he'd come home - you know, I was getting up to go to school in the morning. He'd be coming home at the same time. And I'd - he'd play me, like, the most recent mix of the song from the studio and ask for my input.
And I don't remember any of this happening. But he would always tell me that I'd be like - you know, in my little-English-schoolboy voice way - well, I remember that the bass was turned up slightly more on the mix from last week, and I thought that was good - or whatever. Like, there were some little things in there that he said that he came to, like, really enjoy my opinion or at least, like, my little comments on the songs. So I was kind of destined to probably be a studio rat.
GROSS: What has been the impact for you on your life and your career of having a really big hit again, "Uptown Funk?"
RONSON: You know, it's weird. It's - it hasn't really changed my life in any kind of way that I can measure. I mean, it's obviously such an insanely amazing thing. You know, none of my other records I've ever had before even broke into the top 100. You know, like, there's songs like "Valerie" and "Bang Bang Bang" that I was so proud of. And, you know, the level of success that they had - if they were little cult hits meant that, you know, I could sellout Webster Hall or Williamsburg Musical Hall or the El Rey theater in LA. Like, that was having made it to me. So the thought of having a number one song in my own career, like, never even registered.
And music is kind of a - it's like a finicky industry to be in of course. Like, tastes change. You're hot one minute; you're not - you know, I've been through it quite a few times, like, on both sides of it. And I guess the best thing about having a successful record like this is, like, I know I'm at least good for another five years, like, before everyone starts to like - all the haters start to come out again. And that's really what it is. It's like every time you have one of these, you're sort of - your lease is renewed another five years. And that's kind of great for me 'cause that's all I really want to be doing still at this point, like just making records and getting to work with, like, artists that I think are exciting.
GROSS: Well, Mark Ronson, it's been great to talk with you, thank you so much and congratulations.
RONSON: Thank you for having me, thank you.
GROSS: My interview with Mark Ronson was recorded in April. His single, "Uptown Funk," featuring Bruno Mars, was one of this year's biggest hits. One of the best new TV shows of the year, according to our TV critic David Bianculli, was "Master Of None." We'll hear from one of - we'll hear from the co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")
MARS: (Singing) Don't believe me just watch. Don't believe me just watch. Don't believe me just watch. Don't believe me just watch. Hey, hey, hey, oh. Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up. Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up. Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up. Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.