Uptown Guy: How ‘Uptown Funk’ Almost Destroyed Mark Ronson Before It Saved HimMonica Schipper/Getty Images
Last week, Mark Ronson’s collaboration with Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” did the seemingly impossible and unseated Taylor Swift at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Ronson had previously notched several top-10 songs in the U.K. and elsewhere, and he won two Grammys in 2008 for producing Amy Winehouse’s landmark breakthrough, Back to Black, and the album’s signature track, “Rehab.” But “Uptown Funk” undeniably represents a new high point in his Stateside solo career. Now, for the first time, Ronson has the no. 1 song in America, and he’s just released Uptown Special, his best album to date. More than a decade into his recording career, Ronson has conquered the most prestigious pop market on the planet.
Ronson received this news three minutes before taking my call. Naturally, he didn’t yet know how to react.
“I mean, what do you do? You don’t, like, go straight to Vegas to spend a night. You go on with life. You still have to go and have dinner tonight or whatever it is, you know?” he said in an easygoing, overgrown slacker’s drawl. “But it’s amazing. It’s, like, a milestone.”
Lest you think the British DJ/producer/guitarist is being falsely modest, he’s quick to add that “Uptown Funk” is “great and I love it and if I hadn’t made it I would have been jealous of whoever did.” He’s not wrong: Ronson’s song is the most charming (and shameless) slice of old-school dance-floor bait since Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” But where the animatronic French duo evoked Earth, Wind & Fire, Ronson and Mars nod to Prince’s irrepressibly boastful ’80s counterparts the Time on “Uptown Funk,” though Ronson insists this wasn’t deliberate. Ronson even claimed in a recent interview that he’d never seen Purple Rain, though he did cop to playing “Jungle Love” endlessly in his club DJ days.
Whether it occurred consciously or via osmosis, “Uptown Funk” is quintessentially Ronson — it instantly seems like a familiar favorite from the first time you hear it. Somehow, that splashy horn lick and Mars’s low-toned “doh-doh” vocal hook didn’t exist before Ronson and coproducer Jeff Bhasker put them down on wax, though you would swear they did. This feeling pervades Uptown Special, which, like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, is guided by a DJ attempting to replicate the feel of a transcendent night out at a club, where the emotional tenor of the music rises and falls dramatically with the mood of the crowd. Only instead of crate-digging for the right vinyl to create the perfect vibe, Ronson assembled some of the world’s finest musicians to conjure that elusive feeling out of their collective imaginations.
“Uptown Funk” proved to be the most difficult idea to translate into a song. Ronson literally chased it around the globe for six months, kicking it off in Bhasker’s L.A. studio, then moving on to Memphis while in the midst of a Southern road trip, then London, then Toronto.
“It nearly self-destructed, like, 18 times because, you know, you get the seed of something that seems so magical and every time you go in to try and finish it or write the second verse, it never feels genuine or like the way it worked when you were doing it the first time,” said Ronson, who lets his words meander lazily without any obvious commas, periods, or question marks. “And the song would have these kinds of sessions, like two days straight, and, man, I’m just exhausted. Bruno would be like, ‘Shit, man, it breaks my heart, but maybe this song just wasn’t meant to be.’”
And yet the principals pressed forward anyway, refusing to relent on a few core ideals: (1) “Uptown Funk” couldn’t have a chorus, because funk songs don’t have choruses. (Or else they end up sounding “disco-y,” Ronson explained.) And (2) the song had to have “funk” in the title, an oddly courageous choice considering how many terrible songs have “funk” in the title, a point Ronson readily concedes.
“We’re like, ‘Can we say that?’ Because I suddenly flashed to, like, every terrible jam band. Funk hasn’t really been cool since the G-Funk era. It’s been co-opted,” he said. “I remember loving the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first few records when I was a kid, but they were kids, too, so it was forgivable.”
During the making of Uptown Special, Ronson came to accept the conventional view of his work, which is that his strength is isolating elements from past eras and moribund genres and then synthesizing them into a thoroughly modern package. Born in London and raised in a musical Manhattan household from age 8 — his stepdad was Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones, when he was in the full flower of his power-ballad prime — Ronson spent his formative years in the late ’90s spinning records for predominantly black audiences, mixing jazzy pop like Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” with unbeatable bangers of the time like the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize.”
While Ronson disputes that this aesthetic was unique among the era’s New York DJs, he was pivotal in applying this ecumenical philosophy to pop production in the ’00s. The most notable example, of course, is Back to Black, which managed to sound like an “old” soul LP without ever coming off as retro. Winehouse’s autobiographical lyrics and singular voice are primarily responsible for anchoring Back to Black in the present, but Ronson’s instinctual knack for stitching together spare parts taken from every song he’s ever loved — from Zapp to Duran Duran to AC/DC — proved hugely influential. On his 2007 solo LP, Version, Ronson went further, making Coldplay’s “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” sound like a vintage Wilson Pickett jam and turning Kaiser Chiefs’ lad-rock anthem “Oh My God” into a coolly sassy showcase for Lily Allen. Nearly a decade later, countless pop records share Ronson’s synthesist sensibility.
With “Uptown Funk,” the elements in Ronson’s head didn’t initially cohere, and trying to make them fit was killing him. The stress got so bad (as Ronson later related to The Guardian) that “Uptown Funk” caused his hair to fall out. At one of the sessions, his failure to come up with a usable guitar part made him puke and pass out. He just couldn’t make “Uptown Funk” work. The track sounded sterile, corny, like too many other songs with “funk” in the title.
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So, what happened? Mars came to the rescue. He worked out the “doh-doh” vocal bass line that became the song’s spine. And like that, “Uptown Funk” fell into place. Flash-forward to November, when Ronson and Mars knocked “Uptown Funk” out of the park on Saturday Night Live, sending the song on a trajectory that has just begun to peak. And that’s how Ronson ended up with his first biggest hit.
“It definitely doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio, so I guess it had to be that much better to really break through,” Ronson said, his brief bout of modesty apparently cured.
Five years ago, when Back to Black and Version propelled Ronson to “party all night with models”–level stardom in the U.K., he never expected English smashes like “Valerie” and “Bang Bang Bang” to be hits in the U.S. He was right: They weren’t. Ronson instead became a cult favorite among critics and hipsters, which at the time was enough.
“I’d go into a club and they’d play [one of those] songs and 300 people would, like, rush the dance floor and have an incredible time for three and a half minutes,” he said. “That was the level of success I was sure I’d be getting [on the new album].”
“Uptown Funk” has been a whole different animal for Ronson because, yes, having a Super Bowl halftime headliner on your track tends to get you noticed. (Though Ronson’s production and songwriting assistance on Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven” played an important role in getting the latter to the big game in the first place.) But setting aside the obvious star power, perhaps “Uptown Funk” is an American hit because Ronson set out to make his most American-sounding music to date. Uptown Special is explicitly a valentine to those long-lost nights spent in New York City nightclubs, but Ronson wrote and recorded it all over America. The album belongs as much to L.A. or Memphis as it does to NYC.
To help him, Ronson enlisted Bhasker — collaborator of Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and basically every other world-beating pop star from the past five years — to act as his native sidekick. From there, Ronson accumulated a diverse group of co-conspirators like a DJ poring over his record collection in search of just the right snare and vocal samples. During his swing through the South, Ronson stopped in Jackson, Mississippi, to audition unknown gospel singers and discovered Keyone Starr, who strikes a Chaka Khan pose on “I Can’t Lose,” a Jimmy Jam–Terry Lewis–style production cut with laser-guided horn blasts courtesy of Trombone Shorty. For three of Uptown’s dreamier, more languid numbers, Ronson utilized Kevin Parker of the Australian psych-rock band Tame Impala, whose lysergic whine fits cozily between the fuzzy guitars and bossa nova rhythms of the standout “Summer Breaking.”
For the opening and closing cuts, “Uptown’s First Finale” and “Crack in the Pearl, Pt. 2,” Ronson heard Stevie Wonder’s unmistakably sweet harmonica tone in his head whenever he played the melody. He tried to find an impersonator to play it on the record, but such a thing doesn’t exist. So Ronson reached out instead to Wonder’s manager, and to his amazement the actual Stevie Wonder booked a studio session in Chicago on a day off from his tour.
Perhaps the least likely of all the contributors to Uptown Special was Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon, whom Ronson met at a book signing. Ronson wrote Chabon and asked if he’d write the album’s lyrics because Ronson figured Chabon would do a better job than he could, and Chabon agreed.
While effervescent musicality is paramount on Uptown Special, the lyrics do make their presence felt, particularly on the slower numbers. The awesomely seedy Royal Scam tribute “In Case of Fire” ticks off a lethal roll call: “Third Michelada / Second Adderall / To take the edge off the crazy / Jumped out the window / A human cannonball /Congratulations, baby.” If Ronson is the guitar-wielding, band-leading Walter Becker figure, Chabon plays Donald Fagen as a silent partner whose words cut through the technically virtuosic, coke-encrusted soundscapes.
Referencing other people’s records is unavoidable when talking about Uptown Special, just as it is when talking about pretty much anyone’s music these days. Pastiche is the foundation of modern pop. Much of the defining music of the ’10s, whether we’re talking albums (Adele’s 21, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Taylor Swift’s 1989) or singles (Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”), doesn’t seem specific to this decade or even this century. This is partly due to how easily casual listeners can deconstruct new songs into their composite influences. We’re all amateur musicologists who can trace the roots of any artist’s work with a simple Google search and follow up at the nearest streaming music service. Therefore, nothing ever seems truly new, even if “new” was only ever the sum total of cherry-picked sounds that were reassembled in a novel way and delivered with panache.
But even if contemporary listeners are inclined to perceive modern music as a grab bag of recycled references, does the actual music truly have any distinctive attributes that listeners 10 years from now will be able to identify as specific to this time, the way the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are associated with certain sounds?
“I think we definitely have sonic attributes, like everything sounds thin and plastic-y and computerized,” Ronson said. “I’m not specifically talking about Auto-Tune, just mainly the way music is made. It has enough of an identifiable thing that you’ll be able to play music from this era in 10 years [alongside] something from the ’80s and the ’70s. It’s like how the ’70s has this warmth and taste and amazing musicianship because you couldn’t cheat that. And it merged into the late ’70s, where things like Led Zeppelin that were raw and amazing gave birth to more of the arena-rock stuff. But then suddenly there’s this technology and multitrack recording to make things sound like cocaine. And that’s when albums started selling 12 million copies instead of 3 million copies, because it just appealed to so many people.
“But also, you know, when things get really good and pristine, they also lose some rawness,” Ronson continued. “The ’80s were amazing because it was really when there were all these revolutions in producing styles, drum machines, samplers, and you had all these awesome records. You pick any one of them and none of them could have been made even five years prior — thinking of things like ‘The Reflex’ by Duran Duran, or Cyndi Lauper. All those records were great pop records and fully immersed in the best technology of their time, whereas now when we make records, we only use technology as a crutch to fix things.”
While Ronson maintains that pop records in the ’10s have a unique sound, he doesn’t seem to think unique is the same as good. “Thin and plastic-y and computerized” sure doesn’t sound complimentary. Not that Ronson is anti-technology — the glistening sheen applied to Uptown Special is a technician’s dream. He’s merely wrestling with a familiar tension that exists in art as well as society in general, which is that technology can (and often does) advance at a rate that exceeds good taste. Creative humans are required to use the machines properly (or, if necessary, to hold them in check).
“I’m not saying that what I’m making sounds like Philip Glass next to these records, but when I use technology, it’s not to fix things or to rob anyone’s human experience of listening to music,” he said. “Maybe that’s why ‘Uptown Funk’ or ‘Rehab’ or any of these records jump out when you hear them at first, because something tells you that those are real people playing, and they’re the real musicians. Whatever it is, the human brain can hear that, whether you know what the difference is or not.”
Is Mark Ronson making records that the Mark Ronsons of the future will reference when they want to revive an early-21st-century sound? Or is Ronson reacting against the ephemeral gimmicks that have undermined the soul and personality inherent to great music? These questions seem more pertinent now that Ronson is no longer the young, hard-partying hotshot he once was. As he enjoys the greatest pop success of his career, Ronson is also eight months away from turning 40. You can go from hot hitmaker to stodgy traditionalist very quickly at this age. There are precious few steps in the pop world between “Real music by real musicians!” and “Get off of my lawn!” But for now, Ronson isn’t worried about losing his edge.
“Richard Russell, who started XL Recordings, once told me, ‘The only thing you don’t want to sound like is something that came out last year.’ Because any other thing before that is OK,” he said. “Quincy [Jones] was, like, well into his fifties when he did Thriller. I think I just want to be able to make good music. I don’t mind if I’m old or gray or bald or whatever it is. I went through a little bit of a musical identity crisis two or three years ago. I was DJing these festivals and I would always be put on the bill with A-Trak, HudMo, and Baauer. I loved it, but I can’t compete with that. I’m not a 24-year-old kid sitting at my drum machine anymore. I hope it’s just better to have good taste.”