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Interview with Musician, Producer, and DJ, Mark Ronson

Aired May 31, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voiceover): It's midnight in Seoul, and partygoers are ready to rock with this gig's headline act. Meet Mark Ronson - freeform DJ, producer, and musician. You may not recognize his name, but you've likely heard his work.

AMY WINEHOUSE, SINGER (singing): They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, "No, no, no".

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voiceover): He produced the hit song, "Rehab" - the late singer, Amy Winehouse, which tore up the charts to reach the top 10 in the U.S. and U.K. Ronson then shared a Grammy for Record of the Year in 2008 with Winehouse. And snapped up a title of Producer of the Year for himself.

He was also sought out by the multiple award-winning artist, Adele, to produce the single, "Cold Shoulder" one her first studio album. For Ronson, though, his rise to fame started here. The 2003 song, "Ooh Wee", featuring Ghostface Killah and Nate Dogg snagged a spot on both the U.S. and U.K. charts, firmly fixing the spotlight on the then, New York DJ. And turning the heads of who's who in the music world.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voiceover): Today, he's among the most sought after musical minds in the industry. And after making three albums, forming a band, and producing internationally renowned acts from Christina Aguilera to Bruno Mars, Ronson is back behind the decks.

This week, the mastermind collaborator joins CNN's Monita Rajpal in Seoul to talk about his upcoming project with Sir Paul McCartney. And tell us what he thinks Psy's secret to success is. Coming up, on "Talk Asia".


MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL: Mark Ronson, welcome to "Talk Asia". Thank you so much for spending some time with us.

RONSON: Thank you.

RAJPAL: You're here in Seoul to DJ. When you're deciding what kind of set to put together, do you take the country into consideration as well? Or is it just something that you're - that's part of the creative process for you?

RONSON: I think when you're coming somewhere for the first time and somewhere that you don't necessarily get to go a lot - you know, you put a lot of thought into it. Because you're like, "OK, I have 90 minutes, two hours, to really give these people, like, a full representation of what I'm about. You know, have an amazing time with the crowd and all these sort of things.

The DJing I come from is - it's about a personal kind of interaction with the crowd and reading the crowd and taking them on a bit of a journey, as opposed to just, like, hitting them in the head with bangers and songs that they know. So it just changes, every room that you go into, whatever the country is.

RAJPAL: Do you prefer DJing, performing live, or do you prefer being in the studio, producing?

RONSON: Well, actually all three of those things are pretty different. I mean, probably, listen, if it wasn't for being in the studio making great records - or hopefully great records - you wouldn't have anything to go play. You wouldn't have any reason that people actually want to come see you. So that's the most important part of it. And then DJing is amazing because, you know, I love other people's music. I don't want to just play my own music all night. And then playing live is amazing because you're on stage with eight or nine of your friends - these musicians - and you're kind of creating together at the same time.

RAJPAL: Take me back to those days - early days of DJing in the small clubs on the Lower East Side of New York.

RONSON: Yes, I guess I started out DJing in New York in the mid '90s and you just would go around to all these clubs and bother every bar owner, club owner, promoter with your demo tape. It was a really exciting time for New York and Hip Hop because you had Puffy and Biggie and they see Jay Z just coming out and really being massive. And all these people kind of inventing Hip Hop in the Bronx and how those scenes came together in places like The Roxy in the '80s in New York.

RAJPAL: How ambitious were you back then?

RONSON: It was probably less about ambition and more that I just stopped doing it so much. And, you know, my first gig, I remember literally taking my turntables - all my equipment, the PA - in the back of a taxi to a bar in New York called "Jungle Jim's". And it was in a snowstorm. And the guy paid me $30. I could barely cover the cab. So I just wanted to be playing music out as much as possible.

And I still think that is the thing that drives me. I mean, you have to have some level of ambition and you have to have work ethic. But it's really the music that makes me want to go out and do it.

RAJPAL: Where do you think that came from? That real interest in mixing genres and also the real ear for arrangements as well?

RONSON: Well, probably the thing about mixing genres was more because I grew up loving every type of music. Not every single type of music, but a lot of different types. When I was DJing, I would always get a little bit bored if I could only play one thing. And I would try and figure out how to introduce, you know, a classic rock tune - whether it was White Stripes or AC/DC - into my set. And if you're playing in a Hip Hop club and a fairly thugged out Hip Hop club, and you throw on a rock record at the wrong time, like, you're going to get something thrown at you in the booth. Or whatever it is, so I would always be thinking of these ways of, "How could I introduce this?" It was almost like you were planting these little things as, like, Trojan Horses. Like sneaking them through the door and then people are still dancing and like, "Oh, wait, I like this and I am not going to kill the DJ".

RAJPAL: And then you moved into producing?

RONSON: Right.

RAJPAL: Tell me about how producing Nikka Costa came about.

RONSON: I was DJing in a New York club at the time called, "Life", and this guy came up to me and he said, "Listen, I've signed this girl, Nikka Costa, to my label. I don't know what she should sound like, musically. But I know it's supposed to sound like one of your DJ sets. Like, it's supposed to be Biggie, White Stripes, AC/DC, Chaka Khan - all the things you mix together. Like, can you produce?" Was basically what he said.

And I said, "Well, I do. I mean, I have a little studio at my house. Send her over". So we started working together with me, her, and then her husband. That was my first real production as an album.


NIKKA COSTA, SINGER (singing): And when I set it free like a feather it will be/ And when I rise to see it done like whatever it will be.


RONSON: When "Like a Feather", her first single, came out and it was playing on MTV and I was DJing in clubs and hit had a different sound to it. It was a really good, I guess, first thing to have out.

RAJPAL: What did you learn about the industry? Was it kind of like a baptism by fire?

RONSON: It was actually kind of an amazing first lesson, because the song was on MTV. I'm DJing in clubs and Busta Rhymes and Jay Z all come out to me, being like, "Whoa, like, promise me you're going to let me rhyme over the remix of this song". Like, and obviously then I called Jay Z a hundred times and he didn't return my call. But just the fact that these guys were into the song and everyone was saying that it was going to be massive.

And then it came out and it really didn't do that well. So it was a great first lesson of sort of don't believe the hype, you know. It's whenever anyone tells you, "Oh, this is going to be the biggest thing ever". Like, there's so many other factors in it.


RAJPAL: How did working with Amy change your life?

RONSON: I don't think I probably even know all the ways that she's probably affected me.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ooh Wee. When I step into the party, all the ladies want to know/ I'm hanging with the ballers, yeah, all my niggers roll/ I can tell you what they say, haters, if you want to know/ They say ooh wee.


RAJPAL: You've produced three studio albums. And I'd like for you to describe what each of them meant for you and what kind of a place you were in at the time. So let's begin with "Here Comes the Fuzz". Now, you worked with some pretty hardcore gangster rappers with a member "Wu-Tang Clan" - Ghostface Killah.


RAJPAL: And Nate Dogg.

RONSON: Right.

RAJPAL: Tell me about where you were - what kind of a place you were in when you produced that.

RONSON: Well, I was mostly DJing in Hip Hop clubs in New York and I made a little bit of a name for myself that I could, you know, to call Ghostface Killah.


RONSON: And I just wanted to make an album that - it was a little bit overambitious in a way, because in 40 minutes, I wanted to, like, represent what a three hour Mark Ronson club DJ set would be. And instead of drawing from all the greatest music of all time, I was going to try and make it myself or at least represent each of these genres. Yes. And that's kind of what that record was to me. It was really at the peak of my, like, New York City just DJing clubs five nights a week. Just like, that's what that record kind of sounds like to me.

RAJPAL: And then, "Version" with the massive hit --


RAJPAL: -- "Valerie".


WINEHOUSE (singing): Won't you come on over/ Stop making a fool out of me/ Why don't you come on over Valerie?


RAJPAL: After "Here Comes the Fuzz" came out, I got dropped by my label, Electric, because the album didn't really do that well. So then I just kind of went back to just making music by myself in my studio again. And, at the same time as I was working on "Version", I met Amy Winehouse and I met Lily Allen and I was working on their albums. So they kind of came and collaborate with me. Lily did "Oh My God" on my album and Amy did "Valerie".


LILY ALLEN, SINGER (singing): And oh my God I can't believe it/ I've never been this far away from home/ And oh my God I can't believe it/ I've never been this far away from home.


RONSON: Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse's careers just took off. You know, that's even an understatement. They just became superstars. And I was quite lucky on the back of it to be sitting on this album with them on it. And this kind of sound that -- you know, to come up with. And that's what "Version" was.

RAJPAL: That said, you've worked with some amazing people. How do you, as a producer, get the best - not just the best, but extraordinary - the extraordinary - out of an artist who's so talented?

RONSON: The thing that happens first - it's the most important thing between a producer and a singer is there has to be a level of trust there. Because you're saying, "All right, now you go in that booth". And you're basically - they're naked. Especially when it's a song that's like really personal, you know. And I think it's, you know - being a producer is part sound engineer, part arranger, but a lot of it is sort of diplomacy and a slight bit of, like, being a therapist that goes into it. And you just - everyone has different traits.

RAJPAL: Working with Amy Winehouse - someone you worked with very closely - and as a result, a critically acclaimed album, "Back to Black", with the single, "Rehab".


WINEHOUSE, SINGER (singing): They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, "No, no, no". / Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you know, know, now.


RAJPAL: You talked about diplomacy. I read that Amy wasn't someone who ever did diplomacy. She didn't like something, she would just tell you right away, straight out.


RAJPAL: Straight off the bat, "Don't like it". What did you learn from her - working with her?

RONSON: I learned a lot, but that's the one that I remember the most. I remember the first time, with Amy, when I played her something she didn't like - and we'd been on a roll, because I'd played three things and I was like, "Oh this girl must like everything I do". And I was like, "What do you think of this track?" She goes, "I don't like it". And I was like, "OK, if I fix this? What if I take this thing out or the percussions?" And she's like, "No. Why are you going to try and fix it?" And I was like - at the time I was incredibly wounded and my ego was, like, on the floor. But it's such a good MO in the end of the day, because it's like - are you going to spend all this time trying to, yes, trying to force something that somebody doesn't feel right away?

RAJPAL: I love what you wrote about her in the Guardian newspaper in 2011, after her death. You wrote, "There are people on this earth that are just a bit more magical than the rest of us. And you want to be around them, because the magic rubs off a bit and you feel a bit more special when they're around". How did working with Amy change your life?

RONSON: We just - I guess we just sort of found a sound together and she inspired me to find it, you know. I only knew Amy for about three years until she passed. And obviously I wish I'd spent way more time with her, because I loved being around her. I loved hanging out with her. I don't think I probably even know all the ways that she's probably affected me. But I think definitely the brutal honesty was a good one.


ADELE, SINGER (singing): You grace me with your could shoulder/ Whenever you look at me I wish I was her/ You shower me with words make of knives/ Whenever you look at me I wish I was her.


RAJPAL: And then Adele comes along. In 2008, you produce "Cold Shoulder". How do you know, when you're in the studio and you're hearing a massive talent like hers - that voice - what do you feel, instinctively, at that time, when you hear that voice and you know that this could potentially be huge?

RONSON: I kind of got that sense from her the first time I met her, to be honest. I went into Richard Russell's office at XL - you know, that label she's on - and it's like a cool little office in West London. It's not like a big fancy corporate office. And she was just like sitting with her feet up on the couch chain-smoking Marlboro Lights, watching Jerry Springer. She was, like 18. And she said, "I've got this song I want you to produce.

And she played me the demo of "Could Shoulder". It was just her and the [UNCLEAR]. And I was instantly blown away by her voice. And I'm thinking, like, here I am, hotshot producer and, "Is there any other songs you want me to produce or play for me or anything else?" Thinking like, maybe, is there a better one lying around or something. She's like, "No. That's the one. Just want you to do that one". And I was kind of like, also, a bit in awe of her. Like, just the ballsiness of that. And, yes, that was it. I just - I remember there was this show that we played at Montreux Jazz Festival in 2009 or 2008, maybe. And it was Adele, then us, then Jill Scott. And Adele just came out by herself with an acoustic bass and played it.


ADELE (singing): You grace me with your could shoulder/ Whenever you look at me I wish I was her.


RONSON: I remember just turning to the girl standing next to me and I was like, "She's the one". And it was just - the way she shut down a room was just like - it was pretty obvious to me.


RONSON: Why are you yelling? I'm sitting right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voiceover): Coming up, we get exclusive backstage access to Mark Ronson's first gig in Seoul.




RONSON: CNN? I thought this was I must be in the wrong room.


RONSON: What? Why are you yelling? I'm sitting right here.


RAJPAL: What do you think, being here in Asia, this huge phenomenon known as K-Pop?


RAJPAL: It's - from what I understand, it's also becoming huge in the United States as well. But it's also these manufactured bands, too, aren't they? These are people that have been put together and told, "You are now a band".


RAJPAL: What do you think of this phenomenon?

RONSON: Well, I think it's been going on in Western music since, you know -


RONSON: -- the 50s. So there's certainly nothing new there. I'm aware of how massive the phenomenon is. I think, basically, as well - I think the Psy record was a big deal, because it showed that he was doing the production that all the Western pop dance stuff was, but it was actually better. It was actually hokier - it was slightly more interesting, even a little bit more subversive than, like, the straight up middle, you know, American and Euro dance stuff.

I always catch a video here or there. I'm always amazed by the visuals of it. But I'm not that clued up on the music.

RAJPAL: The London Olympics - you were asked to produce the - what became the theme song, "Anywhere in the World". You'd sampled sounds from athletes?

RONSON: Yes, yes.

RAJPAL: Seen by - this would have been heard by an estimated audience of five billion people.

RONSON: Right.

RAJPAL: Tell me about that.

RONSON: That's more than certainly listened to my last album. But that's the power of Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola said that, "We want you to do our theme for the Olympics and we want you to travel around the world and record all these Olympic athletes training. Would you like to do that?"

And once again, a kind of scientific nerdy producer side of my brain said, "Oh, that would be amazing". And just the thought of going to Singapore and recording archery. And these sounds - you're thinking to yourself like, "Well, how the hell am I going to make a sound out of Archery?"


KATY B, SINGER (singing): Follow me, follow me/ To the river where on these streets/ You can discover every part of me.


RONSON: Yes, I just - it was a great experience. And then making the song with Katy and getting to be in London around the time that the Olympics were going on was good.

RAJPAL: You couldn't buy that kind of attention and that kind of marketing, I should say.


RAJPAL: For you.

RONSON: It was good.

RAJPAL: Let's go back to you being a kid. Is it true that you used to play with a Fisher Price record player - a little toy one?

RONSON: Yes, and I remember that, you know, you get your 75 p. allowance from your parents. And kids would go buy comic books and that stuff. And I liked comic books fine. But I was always much more excited to go to the, you know, get a single or 45 and, like, sort of watch it being put on. Which now seems so obvious that I would end up becoming a DJ. But it's the first time I've actually ever put it together. And that's - yes, I was always obsessed with reading liner notes to albums.

Like, I would hang out with - my stepdad was a musician in the band, Foreigner. And he would have musician friends over. And I would say things to them like, "Oh yes, who was the sound recording engineer on that song you did, like "Owner of a Lonely Heart"?" You know, to the bass player from Yes. And he would be like, "Does this kid get outside at all? Like, what's going on?"

RAJPAL: And that was - what kind of influence was that on you, do you think? Did that make you less in awe or do you think you just still --?

RONSON: No, I think that - I don't really think so. I mean, it's hard to say, because that's just how I grew up. But I still get star struck when I see a musician or somebody whose work that I like. I like that. I would never want that to go away, because that means music still excites me the way it did when I was 15.

RAJPAL: What was it like, meeting Duran Duran?

RONSON: That was definitely one of those experiences. You know, I'd met, like, individual members of their - but the first day we actually went in the studio to work on "All You Need is Now". You know, it did take a day or so to, like, come down off this, like, "Holy crap, I'm working with Duran Duran". Because, if I don't get over this pretty soon, we're going to make a crap album, because I'm going to be staring lovingly into Simon Le Bon's eyes for the next six months.


RONSON: Instead of telling him to go and re-sing that better.

RAJPAL: Is there someone you really want to work with but haven't yet?

RONSON: I think I've done a lot of my favorite work. I don't know if I could say most - yes, maybe most of my favorite work with kind of unknowns, you know. Daniel Merriweather, Adele, Wale. There's something exciting about it. And I don't know if it's because I'm a bit - I'm not so into the pressure of working with someone who is massive.

You know, because there's thing of like following up. Even working with Bruno Mars on his new album - even though he's young, it's like he has to follow up this massive thing. And he's like looking at me to help him do that. Like, that's pressure, but that's amazing when you rise to that and you do something good. But I do like the atmosphere and what happens when you're working with someone for the first time. Because they're so excited and wide-eyed about everything.

RAJPAL: What are you working on right now?

RONSON: I just finished working on the new Paul McCartney album. So we did three songs together. And I've just started working on my own next album. And I've been working with CeLo on his album. And DJing.

RAJPAL: Around the world.


RAJPAL: What keeps you hungry?

RONSON: Tiny salads from Whole Foods.


RONSON: I think the weird thing is, that if you had told me 10 years ago, when I was making my first record, that one day I would win Grammys or these kind of things, I would be like, "No way. Wow, if I ever got there, I could just stop". And there's so many things that you tell yourself, "If I get there, I'll just stop". But it never happens like that. And it's not like I'm thinking to myself, like, "OK, now I need to win more awards" or that. It's just like, I just need to keep making things that were better than what was before it. You have to constantly be feeling like you can challenge yourself and just be getting better, you know?

RAJPAL: Mark Ronson, thank you so much.

RONSON: Thank you.

RAJPAL: Such a pleasure.

RONSON: Thanks.