Mark Ronson, producer prodigy and guest of Red Bull Music Academy London in 2010, talks Amy Winehouse and her aversion to strings, Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound and messing up behind the decks.
Mark on producing Amy Winehouse: In the ’60s, I guess, you could be a bit more attentive to arrangements and you get these classic pictures of everyone slaving over their score sheets. We don’t really have to do that much anymore. We recorded all the rhythm tracks of Back To Black in about five days, then we did the strings. Amy didn’t want to do strings. To her, every time I say strings she thinks of violins and: “Get that Mariah Carey bullshit out of my face.” I kept saying to her we should use a full orchestra and she was, “No, I hate it.” I said, “Well, all the songs you think are great, The Shangri-Las, the thing that makes them great is the orchestra.” She kept telling me till she was blue in the face: “I don’t fucking want it, get that shit out of my face.” I said: “I’ll pay for it then, if you don’t like it, we can take it off.”
So, I did the strings without telling her. I did the arrangement and it was the day we were mixing, the first song we mixed, Love Is A Losing Game. She didn’t come to the studio to hear it, she didn’t know I’d put the strings down until we’re mixing the final thing. She’s listening with her head down in the console, like [shows sitting with head down], and I couldn’t see the expression on her face and I’m like: “Oh, please, let her like it.” And she just jumps up at the end of the song and goes: “Come here Ronny-chops”, and gives me a hug. Then, without missing a beat she says: “Just take that Mariah Carey harp bullshit out at the end of the third breakdown,” and walks out of the room.
Mark Ronson ft. Amy Winehouse: Valerie (Baby J Remix)
Mark on getting praise from a hero: Primo is really famous for that kind of swing on the drums, the way he’d sample stabs and move them around. And then The Beatles guitar sound in the chorus and the Sly-ish stuff, I guess, that Nikka Costa record is a bit of an amalgam of all my influences. I remember DJing that Nikka Costa record for the first time, it was a party for an album release of D’Angelo’s Voodoo. I had never met him and DJ Premier came in the booth singing that record and I think I was already playing it. He’s just standing there like this [imitates nodding head] and I was like: “Oh, he’s gonna ask who’s this ripping him off. Shit!” And he looked up and said: “Who is this?” I said, “It’s Nikka Costa, sir,” just trying to be as polite as possible. “Who made the beat?” he says. “I did.” And for three minutes he’s just doing this in the booth [rocks back and forth]. I don’t know if he heard it as a tribute or he just didn’t hear the bite at all. But it was pretty cool, that was the first time I met him. I guess, he was digging that beat.
Mark Ronson & Business Intl (ft. Q-Tip): Bang, Bang, Bang
Mark on opulent sounds and good songs: A lot of the biggest pop recordings were like the Phil Spector Wall Of Sound, but he was such a genius and it was so real, it was perfect and it never seemed unreal or unmanageable. I think now there’s a tendency – just because you can, because technology allows it – to throw the kitchen sink in. I think that you just have to be careful. At the end of the day, the most important thing is the vocalist and the song, so you can add what you want as long as you’re not going to obscure the vocal performance.
The other thing is, when you add too many things to compensate for the lack of a good song, which I found myself doing sometimes: “Oh, the song’s not great, but if we get a good arrangement and bells and whistles…” But the listener’s not going to be thinking, "Oh, that was a cool part." They might for a second, but they’re just going to be: "That wasn’t a great song."
Mark Ronson DJ Set at Milk Studios - June 2010
Mark on DJ mishaps: The worst are always when I haven’t deejayed in a while and I’m rusty. The classic is to take the needle of the wrong turntable, the one that’s playing. One time, this is only three weeks ago, but it was deejaying in this club in New York and I hadn’t played vinyl in a while and I figured I’d bring some vinyl out and play with Serato, it’d be fun. It was on Q-Tip’s night and I think I turned the wrong fader down, it was a three-fader, and instead of turning it back up I just went into complete panic mode and was touching everything.
You know that guilty look when you look at the floor and everyone’s staring at you and you’re: “It’s not me, I just had a shot of tequila and now this mixer’s acting funny."