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Strangely Insecure for a Cool Guy

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Ronson performing at the Wetlands, in 1991; working a party in October 2001  

Ronson is often called “the best-connected man in music,” which he resents, even though he clearly takes a lot of pride in his relationships. What bothers him is the implication that he owes his success to privilege, not talent, but his background is like his taste in clothes: rather hard to ignore. His father managed a couple of British pop acts when Ronson was growing up, and his mother, Ann Dexter-Jones, threw legendary parties attended by the likes of Keith Moon and Keith Richards. They divorced in 1981, and Dexter-Jones moved Mark and his younger twin sisters (Samantha, a D.J., and Charlotte, a fashion designer) to New York, where she soon married Mick Jones, the founder of Foreigner. They have since split up.

How does a stepson of one of the biggest rock stars of the eighties assert his independence? Rap. Although the Collegiate School wasn’t exactly a hotbed of hip-hop talent, Ronson was fortunate enough to have a few black classmates, and when he heard a song he liked on the radio, he’d “freak out” and play it for them the next day. “They’d be like, ‘Dude, it’s Black Moon, “Who Got Da Props” … It’s been out for six weeks. Get a clue.’ ”

This was the much-eulogized golden age of New York hip-hop: Nas was chronicling life in the Queensbridge projects, and turntables were replacing electric guitars as the instrument of choice among musically inclined white boys on the Upper East Side. For his 19th birthday, Ronson received a pair of Technics and began honing his craft in East Side bars with lax attitudes toward underage drinking. He wasn’t especially proficient at “scratching,” but what he lacked in manual dexterity he made up for with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop history (as a kid he’d memorized the liner notes of Police albums, and he had acquired the nickname “the Sponge” during his time as a Rolling Stone intern). He also had an unsurpassed diligence in the fundamental hip-hop discipline of “crate-digging.” Sean “Puffy” Combs, an early supporter, says, “A lot of D.J.’s that are white, they tend to play for the crowd and give them what they want.” Ronson, by contrast, turned the club into a history classroom. “He wouldn’t just play the regular DJ Red Alert James Brown set. He would go even deeper than that in the crate … He was educating people on good music and how good music is all related.”

Ronson quickly made himself into a New York archetype, a rich white D.J. in XL tees whose eclectic sets at downtown clubs like Cheetah and Life and uptown benefits at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art attracted the biggest names in the industry and helped usher in an age of even wider acceptance for the genre. His future as a star producer seemed all but assured—his first production job, for a young funk-soul singer named Nikka Costa, generated so much buzz that Elektra gave him a deal for a solo record before Costa’s album was even released. Then, in 2001, her single came out. It tanked. His solo album, Here Comes the Fuzz, was released two years later. “There was nothing in my mind that made me think the record was going to be a success,” he says. Not only was it not a success, but Elektra dropped him from its roster.

Ronson had by then lost interest in the New York nightlife scene, where he had ceded his place to a younger crop of D.J.’s, including his sister Samantha. He started his own label, Allido, and produced an album for an unheralded Chicago rapper named Rhymefest; it didn’t do any better than Here Comes the Fuzz. To cover the label’s overhead, he took a D.J. residency in Vegas. He hated it. Meanwhile, producers he knew from the party circuit—Kanye West, Chad Hugo, Danger Mouse—were turning out one hit after another. He began to wonder whether he’d picked the right career. “I was just thinking to myself, ‘You know what? I just turned 30, and maybe I’m just not that good at this. Everyone else has had a hit. I’ve never even had a song on the radio, so maybe I just need to find, like, a decent gig at an advertising house or something.’ ”

Ronson eventually resigned himself to the idea that he simply “lacked the hit-maker gene,” or whatever special quality the gods of pop had bestowed upon his stepfather. And then, in 2006, he was hired to produce some tracks by a young British singer named Amy Winehouse.

Winehouse’s album Back to Black sold more than 10 million copies. Of the six tracks that Ronson produced, four became hits in the U.K. Ronson also earned three Grammys for the album, including one for Producer of the Year. But even as the popularity of Back to Black and then Ronson’s Version led to production jobs for bands like Kaiser Chiefs and Duran Duran, he expected “the bubble to burst at any moment.” He told me that he often found himself thinking, This is the one where they’re going to find out I’m a fraud.


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