Mark Ronson: Arresting development

Born into rock royalty, Mark Ronson is rewriting the rules of hip hop. As he tells Chris Mugan, them's the breaks
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The Independent Culture

Despite desperate attempts, Top of the Pops rarely surprises but one exception came last October when a DJ and a rapper performed shoulder-to-shoulder on the same stage. It sounds mundane, I know, but "old-skool" aficionados would have seen the significance: in the very early days of hip hop, that is how Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc would have appeared with their MCs.

Swimming against the tide of superstar rappers and megalomaniac producers, the DJ and producer Mark Ronson is quietly rewriting hip hop's rules. Puff Diddy's DJ of choice has supported Justin Timberlake on tour. Moreover, the son of the legendary David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson - and the stepson of plod-rock band Foreigner's guitarist Mick Jones - is engaged to the daughter of soul music's number one producer Quincy Jones.

In spite of this, Ronson keeps ostentatious consumption at arm's length. Especially today as he has caught a cold. Overwork is the prime suspect, for while performing on Justin Trousersnake's last tour, Ronson and his in-house MC sought out tiny venues that carried a torch for hip hop, so they often played two venues a night. "Man, I can't turn down gigs, especially places I've never been before," he says ruefully. "And it's always those small, remote places like Brighton, Portsmouth and Coventry that have the best atmosphere, where they're die hard about their music."

Despite his showbiz connections, Ronson's DJing career started at the bottom, at underground bars on New York's Lower East Side in the mid-Nineties, "where fights were broken up with fire extinguishers. It wasn't blinging at all, then one day Puffy started coming down. He brought Biggy, then it was Jay-Z, all these people that usually go to the full-on glamour parties."

This diverse crowd allowed Ronson to develop his trademark DJing style that mixed hip hop with funk, soul and reggae. As he gained confidence, he learnt to drop in the music for Joan Jett or The Clash. The hot gigs starting coming in and by 2000, Ronson was making waves.

Ronson had grown up in a musical household with access to any instruments he wanted and a home studio. He had played in rock bands before gravitating to hip hop, so whereas his rivals had to search out increasingly obscure records for new breaks, he could make his own on drums and bass. This idiosyncratic sound is what the "fuzz" in the title of his album, Here Comes the Fuzz, refers to - rather than Seventies cops shows. Ronson has a diverse musical heritage that explains the unique sound he has created, with its collision of thumping beats and raw guitars. "I have a big soft spot for mid- to late-70s AM rock, the progression from Zeppelin to Bad Company to Foreigner, those heavy riff and harmony bands. My dad was the first person to play me Grandmaster Flash and De La Soul, so it was hard to rebel against. I just absorbed the best of those worlds. I'd always walk round record shops in London and pick up mix tapes with old funk records on them. Then when I started DJing, my Dad had all these old records from the Seventies - Grand Central Station, Earth, Wind And Fire and Roy Ayers.

"I must have that Lenny Kravitz disease, where whatever you say or do, it sounds old - though he's got it in a big way. Here Comes the Fuzz was just a throwaway title for a track on the album, but it came to sum up what we were doing."

Is he rebelling against the polished, r'n'b-style production of today's hip hop? "Some people do it really well, like The Neptunes. They understand the groove really well, but then you have everybody else doing their best impression of that. This is more organic with a lot of live instruments and dirty sounds. I have to ask what can I do to fuck things up."

By the time he came to record Here Comes the Fuzz, Ronson had already built up relationships with the likes of Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip, Mos Def and M.O.P. (who sampled one of his stepdad's records on "Cold as Ice"). Then he was able to approach people whom he had not met, such as Wu Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah and Sean Paul, who provided him with "International Affair" just before he signed a major deal in the States.

Although Ronson's label loved "International Affair", those higher up thought he should get someone other than the rising dancehall star to sing it. "They thought Sean would only have one hit, because that's what tended to happen to reggae guys like Shaggy, so they said I should I approach Beenie Man or Supercat."

Paul's Atlantic Records got their revenge by demanding a version of "International Affair" for their protégé's Dutty Rock album, preventing Ronson from releasing his own as a single. Ronson had to rush a version that lacks the contribution of soul diva Tweet on Here Comes the Fuzz and his slightly anarchic production.

I wonder what Quincy Jones makes of his raw style. "He loves hip hop, but he wishes it was more musical. He wants all the guys to study music theory a bit more, so he appreciated I was trying to incorporate a lot of music into what I do. He seemed pleasantly surprised, rather than being diplomatic."

So will he be duetting with his fiancée, Sheeba? "She's a really talented singer-songwriter, but I don't know if we're ready to do that Sonny and Cher thing yet. I think we'll wait for Gwyneth and Chris to kinda lead the way on that one. What is it you guys call them? 'The most miserable couple in the world?'"

Ronson's mirth lets slip that he is a fan of gossip magazines, which sums up his ability to brush with celebrity yet, so far, keep it at arm's length.

'Here Comes the Fuzz' is out on Elektra; the single 'On the Run' will be out next month