For a time in the late nineties, you could hardly go out at night without stumbling onto, or out of, a Mark Ronson party. “I would get the call for every single thing,” says Ronson, “whether it was a fashion house, a Martha Stewart Christmas party. I was pretty ubiquitous.” His true canvas, though, was his Friday-night D.J. residency at the now-defunct Life, which helped pioneer the scene that would shape downtown in the years to come: models, rappers, socialites, boring guys in expensive suits. This was just after hip-hop’s Puffy moment, when old money and new money were sniffing around each other with mutual interest. So why wouldn’t one of the most high-profile D.J.’s be a British-born prep-schooler, son of a socialite (Ann Dexter-Jones) and stepson of a rock star (Mick Jones of Foreigner)?
By 2001, though, after umpteen parties, multiple dalliances with pretty girls, and modeling gigs for Tommy Jeans, Ronson had the good sense to reject the limelight before it inevitably rejected him. It wasn’t all that hard to do, he says: “You have to not just say yes to anyone who waves a wad of cash in your face.”
The smaller life Ronson carved out for himself is not an unproductive one. Of late, the 31-year-old has reemerged as the architect of a new white-soul movement. No—not Justin Timberlake. Instead, Ronson’s fingerprints are all over the recent breakthrough albums by Lily Allen (Alright, Still) and Amy Winehouse (Back to Black), two highly acclaimed British singers with hip-hop influences. He also gave the delightfully caddish Robbie Williams some soul on last year’s Rudebox. Last month, he was named Producer of the Year at the U.K.’s Music Week Awards.
“There’s a way that white singers with really good, ‘comparable’-to-black voices, soulful voices, definitely interpret soul in their own way,” he says with characteristic directness. “[Winehouse], with ‘Rehab,’ starts with a real belting kind of Ray Charles–ish blues, but then when it goes into the verse, she goes into this sort of Beatles minor-y chords, you know? I like both of those things. Stevie Wonder doing ‘We Can Work It Out’ by the Beatles is one of my favorite records of all time.”
And so goes his sound, a marriage of sixties soul music with hip-hop pacing and texture. Horns are everywhere, and increasingly, so are strings. “At the moment, it’s very a retro thing going on,” says Allen of Ronson’s style. “That’ll probably change. He gets bored quite easily.”
Ronson’s future as a Quincy Jones–style orchestrator wasn’t always certain. After a brief run playing guitar in a band during his high-school years at Collegiate (“Bad New York Wetlands funk—we opened for the Spin Doctors”), Ronson took to the turntables, continuing through tenures at Vassar and NYU. Though never flashy, he became a nightclub fixture, D.J.-ing for Puffy, steering lavish, frankly ridiculous parties with his then-novel blend of street hip-hop and dance-floor-oriented rock. His first production work was Nikka Costa’s 2001 debut, Everybody Got Their Something, which might best be described as hippie music for the urban set. It was something less than a hit, but a good learning experience, as was his own largely overlooked debut, 2003’s Here Comes the Fuzz. Behind the board, Ronson discovered, he felt most at home. “He was always a person who was locked up in the studio,” says his sister Samantha. “Mark’s just a nerdy kid.” And though he’s got famous friends, he says he prefers “working with people that are either new or not huge yet. I like taking that kind of trip with somebody.” Ronson flew Allen in on his frequent-flier miles and put her up at a Howard Johnson. With Winehouse, for whom he produced several songs, he was similarly humble, bringing in Brooklyn’s soul traditionalists the Dap-Kings and hoping for the best: “If someone had played me Amy’s record a year ago, I probably would have gone, ‘That’s really good, but I would never be able to do something like that.’ ”
The idea for Version, his second album, came about after he reworked Radiohead’s “Just” as a funk jam for last year’s covers album Exit Music: Songs With Radio Heads. “I was like, This is so much fun to do shit like this,” he recalls; soon, he was dismantling and rebuilding everything from Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” with verses from the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and, excellently, Ryan Adams’ “Amy,” with vocal help from Kenna.
Version was released last week in England and will come out here in early June on Ronson’s own label, Allido, which will also soon release the debut of another blue-eyed soul man, Australia’s Daniel Merriweather, whose reworking of the Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” is one of Version’s standout tracks.