Strangely Insecure for a Cool Guy

Photo: Rennio Maifredi

T hree years ago, Mark Ronson opened up the annual “Cool List” issue of the NME, the influential British music magazine, and saw that his friend Santi White had made the list. “And I’m like, ‘Awesome,’ ” he says. “And the No. 2 coolest guy in music is my friend Jamie Reynolds from Klaxons. And then the sidebar is ‘Least Cool,’ and here’s my face, No. 1. And I’m like, ‘How did I get so uncool so quickly?’ ”

Ronson has a mild demeanor, but when it comes to assessing his own work and others’ reactions to it, he describes himself as “on the cusp of insecure or paranoid.” Just a few months before the NME putdown, he was widely seen as one of the coolest record producers on the planet. He’d collaborated with stars like Robbie Williams and Lily Allen, and his second solo album, Version, a collection of mostly British-indie-rock covers—from the Smiths’ “Stop Me” to Radiohead’s “Just”—that Ronson had arranged to sound like “dirty James Brown by way of the RZA funk,” had reached No. 2 on the U.K. charts. He’d also produced six tracks on Amy Winehouse’s breakout album, Back to Black—including the song for which she is most famous, “Rehab.”

But all this success had come at a cost to Ronson’s reputation, and Ronson knew it. His decision to devote a solo album to other people’s songs had aroused the indignation of music nerds, like the reviewer at Pitchfork who wrote that “the Pygmalion treatment smacks of indie blasphemy.” Version is a sort of museum of pop, with a different singer or rapper (or sometimes both) performing on each track, and this approach left him vulnerable to the charge that he was a “wide boy,” as the Londoners say—a smooth, well-connected operator; his greatest talent, some claimed, was passing off his friends’ talents as his own. Ronson says he had to put “a six-month embargo on reading certain publications.” That wasn’t easy. An unregenerate record nerd himself, he’d been subscribing to the NME since he was 6.

Pop is a notoriously fickle business, and Ronson knew he couldn’t follow Version with another cover album and expect to retain any respect among those whose opinions mattered to him most. Still, he recognized that his strength was as a producer, not as a songwriter or performer. He doesn’t like to sing—he thinks his voice sounds “nasal and grating”—and although he plays several instruments well, he often points out that he’s “the least accomplished musician” onstage at his concerts. Even when he’s holding an electric guitar, he exudes all the rock-and-roll swagger of a bassoonist.

Despite these limitations—and his acute awareness of them—Ronson sees himself as a creator, not just a facilitator. So when he went into the studio last year to make his new album, Record Collection, he conscripted a group of talented musicians to jam with him, in the hopes that somehow a solution would present itself.

“A re you afraid of dogs?” Ronson asked me one evening when I showed up at his father’s flat in West London. I stepped inside and into the living room, where a small bear with the head of a German shepherd made for my lap. “That’s Snoop,” said Ronson. His father, Laurence, a real-estate developer with shoulder-length seventies hair, was leaning back in a recliner in front of the television, smoking a cigarette. “He’s named after the rapper,” Laurence said.

Ronson, who is 35, did some stints as a model in his late teens, and he continues to dress like one, in tailored suits inspired by sixties icons like Bob Dylan and Serge Gainsbourg. He has a tattoo on the inside of his bicep that says JOSEPHINE, for his girlfriend, Josephine de la Baume, an immaculately cool French actress who, as more than one observer has pointed out, looks and sounds like she just stepped off the set of Breathless. At his father’s house, where he sometimes stays when he’s in London, he was wearing a seersucker suit, and his hair was swept back in a triumphant V, giving him what the funk bassist Stuart Zender once referred to as a Jewish Dracula look. Leaning over a small desk in a spare bedroom, he wrote a single word at the top of a large envelope: ME.

An hour later, both sides of the envelope were covered with a diagram of famous and not-famous and famous-only-because-Ronson-made-them-famous names. In one area, bunched together in the circle labeled HIP-HOP CLUBS, were Jay-Z and Puffy and Mos Def. In another, the British rapper Wiley was paired with Duran Duran. Earlier that week, I’d confessed to Ronson that I was having trouble keeping track of his multifarious musical connections, so he’d offered to draw me a chart. Now I could see that the Rumble Strips, an English indie-rock band whose second album Ronson had produced, had covered a song by Amy Winehouse, who had covered a song by the Zutons, whose lead singer, Dave McCabe, had contributed a song to Record Collection. All the names on the chart were connected by lines, and all of the lines led back to the top of the page.

Ronson performing at the Wetlands, in 1991; working a party in October 2001Photo: Courtesy of Mark Ronson; Jeff Vespa Archive/WireImage/Getty Images

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.

With his sister Samantha, the other D.J. in the family, in 2005; with his mother, Ann Dexter-Jones, at the September fashion show of his sister Charlotte. The dyed-white hair was, it seems, just a phase.Photo: Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images; Patrick McMullan

Ronson’s worries could be partly explained by a problem familiar to all producers. As Quincy Jones pointed out when I spoke to him recently, the role of the producer is hard for outsiders to understand—which may be one reason so many producers and artists have quarreled over authorship. Recalling his collaboration with Michael Jackson on 1979’s Off the Wall, Jones said, “Michael, he didn’t know what the hell I did, man. He didn’t understand the process of how I arranged and orchestrated things or had been trained.”

This summer, in an episode reminiscent of that dispute, Winehouse lambasted Ronson on Twitter over a comment he’d made on a BBC music show: “Ronson, you’re dead to me; one album I write and you take half the credit—make a career out of it? Don’t think so BRUV.”

The remark in question had actually been pretty vague: “Amy Winehouse would come to me with just a song on an acoustic guitar,” Ronson had said, “and you’d kind of dream up the rhythm arrangements and track around it, all sorts of things.”

In an earlier conversation, he’d been more specific. When Winehouse showed him a draft of “Rehab,” he told me, “all the chords were very blues-based, because that’s how she writes, and so I decided to make the verse a bit more jangly and Beatles-y by putting a little A-minor to C in there.” Most significantly, he’d hired the Dap-Kings, a Brooklyn band that employs antiquated equipment to re-create the sound of old soul and funk 45s—the sort of records that hip-hop beat-makers had been appropriating since rap’s South Bronx inception. By connecting Winehouse to that legacy, Ronson, the quintessential record nerd, invested the newcomer’s songs with a classic sound.

When Ronson entered the studio last year, he was looking for a way to establish himself as an artist in his own right. The jam sessions went on for months. “I didn’t know what I was trying to do,” Ronson remembers. “I was afraid to do anything really brash that brought attention to myself.” A moment of clarity came when a friend persuaded him to watch a clip of his performance at the Brit Awards from 2008. At the show, he wore a custom-made bright-blue suit and played a double-neck guitar, while Winehouse shimmied next to him in six-inch heels. This was not the performance of someone who was afraid of attracting attention to himself, and it occurred to Ronson that the music he’d recorded for the new album “was a little timid, like I was repressing the side of myself that wanted to go ‘gang gang gang gang gang!’ ” In a burst of self-confidence, Ronson recorded the album’s first single, “Bang Bang Bang,” a brash blast of summer pop.

“Bang Bang Bang” opens with a volley of synthesizer and snare hits and has a beat that slides back and forth between New Orleans and a mosh pit. Featuring performances by both Q-Tip and MNDR—a lovable oddball of a singer-songwriter who just last year was playing Brooklyn basement shows with single-digit attendance figures—it spans the gap between what Ronson calls “progressive shit” and commercial pop. In writing it, Ronson had help from several people, but he provided the initial seed of inspiration, a stuttering chord progression played on a vintage synthesizer. “The chords just wrote themselves,” he told me. “That never happens to me.”

This summer, Ronson played a series of London shows in anticipation of the album’s release. He was so anxious that he temporarily swore off getting drunk. To soothe his nerves, he’d sneak cigarettes between doses of Nicorette. Nothing seemed to help. When he wasn’t touting the album on TV or reminding band members to show up for practice on time, he was checking the iTunes website to see whether “Bang Bang Bang” had climbed from its good but not stellar No. 6 position in the U.K. charts (it hadn’t) or talking to label executives on one of his two cell phones. Once, in the back seat of a hired car, I caught him staring blankly at the screen of his iPhone. “I’d throw it out the window and smash it into a million pieces,” he said, “but my album is on it, and I’m afraid someone will listen to it and be prank-calling Busta Rhymes at the same time.”

Ronson’s first show, at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, was a disaster. The night before, he’d asked Winehouse to make a cameo, and although she’d agreed (this was before the Twitter incident), he only half-expected her to follow through. As it happened, she arrived at the club exactly on time, but instead of waiting for her turn to sing, she ambled onto the stage wearing a sleeveless black top cut so low her entire bra was showing.

A chart Ronson drew when asked to diagram his various connections.

As the band played, she tried bantering with the drummer, then made her way over to Ronson’s keyboard and began fiddling with the keys. Ronson stood there helplessly, smiling at her as if he could think of nothing more amusing than this adventure in public humiliation. The finale couldn’t have come soon enough. “We’ve got one last song, and I don’t think it’s a big surprise who’s going to sing it,” Ronson remarked drily. It quickly became clear that Winehouse had forgotten the lyrics.

Ronson is courteous to everyone. At the hotel after the show, while Winehouse and her people crowded into an elevator, he waited outside. “I’ll take the next elevator,” he said. The doors closed, and he contemplated them silently for a second. “Or maybe the one after that.” A few weeks later, he told me, “I’ve never been so depressed after a gig.”

He might have stayed that way, were it not for the fact that the album, released last week, has been very well received. The Fader deemed the record its “favorite thing Mark Ronson has ever done”; the Washington Post declared it “sneakily good”; and the Guardian insisted that Boy George, who makes a comeback appearance on the album’s most soulful track, “Somebody to Love Me,” has “never sounded more majestic.”

Billed as Ronson’s songwriting debut, Record Collection channels the wide-ranging formative influences of his early years. It sounds a little like synth pop and a little like hip-hop—and hardly anything like Version. Ronson has traded the pervasive trumpets of Version and Back to Black for Prophet-5s, Jupiter-4s, and other outmoded synthesizers, an obsession he picked up from working with Duran Duran. He bought thirteen of them, mostly off eBay, and together with the elastic, muscular drum work of the Dap-Kings’ Homer Steinweiss, they give the album a warmth and vitality rarely found in today’s pop music, the majority of which is made on computers and sounds like it. Ronson even sings on a pair of tracks—an achievement made possible by more than a year of lessons with Lady Gaga’s vocal coach.

Like everything else he’s done, Record Collection brims with talent from across the pop spectrum: Boy George, Ghostface Killah, two members of Duran Duran, the enigmatic R&B star D’Angelo, and a host of lesser-known songwriters and performers. Yes, Ronson splits the songwriting credits a hundred different ways, and no, Record Collection doesn’t free Ronson from charges that he leans heavily on other artists, but it’s a bright, appealing album, and it’s hard to think of anyone other than Ronson who could have made it. “I’ve definitely relaxed a little,” Ronson told me, which perhaps explains why he’s produced some of his best work yet. Even the NME approves: “Mark Ronson, you can stop beating yourself up now.”

Strangely Insecure for a Cool Guy