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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Mark Ronson, Music Producer

“Well, next week, I might be living in a trailer.”

I used to go to this place N.A.S.A. when I was 16, and they played really loud techno in the main room, which I really didn’t like. You just go because your friends are there, and everyone’s taking acid and whatever. But there was a Chill-Out Room, which was what the side room was called, and they would play hip-hop, soul, funk, disco. I remember DJ Dmitry from Deee-Lite would play in there, and he would always play things like Tom Browne, “Funkin’ for Jamaica,” these great late-’70s, early-’80s R&B disco records. And this other DJ — Ani like, wink, wink, on E — would play hip-hop, and I remember watching him cut up doubles of hip-hop records, going, “This is fucking amazing.” He was playing my favorite music, and I’d only heard it on the radio, so to see the DJs and how it worked? I was like, “This is what I want to do.”

I guess I was so sure that’s what I wanted to do that I think regardless of how good I might have thought that I was, I didn’t really care, because I was just going to keep doing it, until I got as good as I thought that I should be. There would be these incredible moments you’d have while DJing, like the way you’d drop a record and you’d feel an entire rush go through a room, or watching Method Man and Lil’ Kim standing on top of banquettes and pumping their fists in the air. Those are the little things that tell you, “Okay, I’m kind of on the right path. I’m getting better.” I don’t think there was ever a moment like, “Okay, I’m untouchable. I’m the best at this. I’m exactly where I want to be.” I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way. Even in the moment when I’ve had some of my biggest successes, you could feel like, “Well, next week, I might be living in a trailer.” Anybody who’s kind of successful in music has the same kind of self-doubt.

I was also a fledgling producer, but I was more known as a DJ. Kanye would hire me to DJ his parties, and he’d be on the mike, like, “Yo, this is my favorite party DJ!” And I was flattered, but at the same time, I was asking myself, “Where am I going?” Kanye sees me as a DJ, and all I want is to be a producer and looked at in the same spirit where he operates. These other producers, people like Pharrell and Chad from the Neptunes, and then Kanye, and then Danger Mouse, these were people that I knew at one time or another and were around the same level, but then they just shoot past you, and you start to think, “Fuck, maybe I’m not that good. Maybe I’m not supposed to be doing this. I’ve been doing this for seven, eight years, and nothing’s going on.” And then you have one little thing that happens. For me, it was the Nikka Costa record, and while it wasn’t a massive success, it was played on MTV. Jay Z came up to me in a club and told me he really loved the beat. So you take these little things, and you use that as inspiration to keep going. “Okay, okay, I think I’m on the right path. I should be doing this.”

Sometimes you produce a whole album, but maybe it’s the two songs that you’re so sure about, you feel so good about them. Until you’re playing it back for someone for the first time — it could be your best friend, your wife, someone from the label, another DJ — and you’re sitting there with your arms crossed through the whole shit. Because the minute someone comes in the room, it becomes the world’s most unflattering magnifying glass of everything. You suddenly hear every fault with it, and you’re like, “Oh, fuck.” “Uptown Funk,” we worked so hard on that, and it nearly went in the trash 15 times. There were so many times we would just rewrite everything, from the chorus to the bass line to the bridge, that by the time we were done, we’d put it through the wringer and we just knew that it worked. It wasn’t going out until it was absolutely perfect in all of our eyes. So that’s the kind of thing you put in your work. You know you have something special. You fight for it. You see it through. You can hear it and play it back and be like, “All right, we kind of got it right on this one. I can’t think of anything I could have done to make this any better.”

My first record was this song called “Ooh Wee,” with Nate Dogg and Ghostface. I was watching Boogie Nights when it first came out in ’97, and I heard a string sample from Boney M. It’s in the scene where Burt Reynolds goes to visit Mark Wahlberg when he’s the busboy in the kitchen. The strings just jumped out, and I’m like, “Holy shit! What is that? I got to sample that or do something with that.” Obviously, this is years before Shazam, so we had to wait until the end of the movie and write down every song on the credits and, by a process of elimination, figure out what it was. I always had the beat, and I tried it with a thousand different drum arrangements, different samples, different ways of chopping up drums, different tempos. I never got it where I wanted it. It never felt great. And then I found this old drum break from this song called “Son of Scorpio,” and it just kind of locked. So finally I had the beat where I liked it, and then I started trying some different rappers over, and then I realized it had to be Ghostface Killah. I didn’t know him personally but I was a massive fan, and I sent him the track. Our first phone conversation, I was geeking out because I’m talking to Ghostface Killah on the phone! And he’s just like, “Yeah, I get it, I get it. It’s like some Tony Manero, Saturday Night Fever shit, right?” It was just funny to hear Ghostface say Tony Manero. So he does it, and we try to get the hook, but it just sounds corny. It never sounds right. It’s going to ruin the song. So I have to put it on the back burner for a minute.

But I had this opportunity to have Nate Dogg in on the hook — we were on the same label — so I sent him the track. I didn’t know Nate Dogg either, but at least with Ghostface, we were both kind of New York. Nate Dogg is West Coast, and me with my still-slightly-weird hybrid accent of New York and London. I was just thinking he’s going to think I’m such a freak and weirdo. And I have to call him, because although he sent me the files, they’re missing, the chorus isn’t there, and I have to finish the song in two days. I remember he was not super-enthused that he had to go to his studio in the other room and check on his hard drive. I remember him saying, “I’m just trying to make it to the fight, man,” and then I realized he was literally trying to get off the phone with me so he could go to the fight in Vegas. So we finally find all the files, and I put them in place, and it’s still too busy. It doesn’t sound like a chorus, it just sounds like another verse. But there’s one little ad-lib in the thing where he goes, “Ooh-wee,” and he just sings it, and it’s really cool, so I was like, “Okay, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll take that and make it the chorus.” And the song just kind of locked. It ended up being the single of my record. It wasn’t a massive hit here, but it kind of started my career in England, and it’s the only thing back from that time that I still play when I DJ. Other stuff that I’ve done from back then just sounds super-dated, so it’s kind of weird that it holds up sonically. That one always works.