Mark Ronson Puts a Spin on Some Classics
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 2:33 PM
NEW YORK -- It takes a certain audacity to cover a Radiohead song. It takes something close to lunacy to do it with a trumpet and two saxophones.
Mark Ronson seems to have a bit of both.
The British-born DJ and producer decided last year to turn the angst-ridden band's morose song "Just" into what can only be described as a funk jam.
"I hadn't been doing music that I really enjoyed for a long time," he says during an interview in his studio. "I'd just been kind of miserable for about a year. It was the first time I was like, 'Wow. This is really fun.'"
Other people seemed to agree _ the song was played both on indie rock and soul stations in England. But he worried about one thing: What did Radiohead think?
Ronson was naturally nervous when he approached Ed O'Brien, the band's guitarist, like a "crazed, stalker fan" after a recent show. O'Brien said he liked the cover.
"He was quizzically amused," recalls Ronson, 31. "Even for somebody who makes such progressive music, I had done something that had even stumped him a little bit."
Ronson's been doing a lot of that lately, shaking up the pop music scene with a whiff of Motown as he spearheads the blue-eyed soul movement.
He produced half of Amy Winehouse's critically acclaimed "Back to Black" album, two songs on Lily Allen's "Alright, Still" and added to new CDs by Christina Aguilera and Robbie Williams.
Want more? You can hear Ronson spin online on his East Village Radio show, and at the ultra-hot Las Vegas club Pure. And, if you have the bucks, you might even convince him to DJ your private event _ as Tom Cruise recently did for his wedding last year to Katie Holmes.
Now he's offering a new album born out of his joy at tweaking Radiohead. "Versions" is made up of covers of his favorite songs _ and he's brought along a few of his friends, including Allen and Winehouse.
Songs by Coldplay, The Jam and Britney Spears are among those that get the Ronson treatment. One standout track is a cover of The Smiths' "Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before," which blends in The Supremes' chorus from "You Keep Me Hangin' On."
"I guess some people who are less geeky and less maniacally involved would make mashups," he says. "I just had to go all the way and do a whole cover album from scratch."
Listening to it unprepared is a little like watching a David Blaine magic trick. "Version" can cause initial nervous giggles as familiar rock tunes emerge from within a brass-heavy, '60s soul treatment.
"Some people just hear horns and instantly think, 'Oh it's funky so it's not angry anymore.' But I tried to maintain the emotion. Even on The Smiths' song, with its pain and sadness, I tried to keep some of that heartache _ just a different translation."
Daniel Merriweather, the vocalist on The Smiths' song, compares Ronson to Quincy Jones. "He has this way of making great things happen organically," says Merriweather. "He's like a musical encyclopedia."
Although Ronson got permission from all the artists to remake their songs, he has been criticized by some fans less than pleased with the results. The most ire has been from Smiths' fans, many who are very protective of the legacies of bandmates Morrissey and Johnny Marr.
"All I can say is, 'If Morrissey and Marr like it, you kind of all need to get over it a little bit,'" Ronson says.
The son of British model and socialite Ann Dexter-Jones and stepson of Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones, Ronson moved to the United States from Britian at age 8.
When he was about 15, he began DJing _ purely by accident. He and some kids from school were preparing a song for a talent show and ended up experimenting in his stepfather's studio.
By 1993 had created a name for himself. His early exposure to soul, blues and hip-hop _ plus his connections in the music world _ turned him into a celebrity DJ. An early endorsement from Jay-Z also didn't hurt.
Ronson is known for blending, say, a Clash song into one by the Notorious B.I.G. or sneaking a White Stripes song into a set and having everyone stay on the dancefloor.
A watershed gig came in 1998 when Jennifer Lopez hired him to DJ her then-boyfriend Puff Daddy's 29th birthday party. He also DJed various high-profile gatherings, including a Martha Stewart Christmas party.
But being a celebrity DJ wasn't making him happy.
"After playing 'Groove is in the Heart' or Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough' for the umpteenth time, you start to feel like a pure parody," he says.
He produced Nikka Costa's 2001 debut "Everybody Got Their Something" and then offered his own debut in 2003, "Here Comes the Fuzz," laced with '70s funk samples and appearances from Ghostface Killah, Mos Def and Q-Tip.
About a year ago, he grew tired of hustling beats, feeling inadequate against his hip-hop heroes such as DJ Premier, the Bomb Squad and the RZA.
"I just got really down on it," he says. "I was like, 'Maybe I'm not just as good as these guys and I'm not supposed to be a producer. I'm 30 years old _ I don't want to be DJing in nightclubs when I'm 40. What am I going to do?'"
The first thing he did was stop making music he thought other people wanted to hear. Soon enough, Allen and Winehouse came calling, searching for his soulful magic.
He and partner Rich Kleiman also started their own label, Allido Records. They put out Rhymefest's "Blue Collar" last year and are working on a solo effort by Merriweather.
He also worked the TomKat wedding in Italy, even though he had labored hard to shed his celebrity DJ label. "I'm not just going to say no because it might put my musical credibility on hold," he says.
At the gig, he played Justin Timberlake and The Neptunes. He even sneaked in the "Top Gun Anthem" mixed with Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl." Then he got pretty drunk.
"This might have been really inappropriate, but I put on 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling,'" Ronson says, sheepishly. Cruise looked up and smiled. "He just took my bait. He was like, 'I've got you, wingman.'
"I felt like I could have gone, 'OK, Tom. Here's what we're going to do: I'm going to play Bob Seger. You're going to strip down to your underwear, come around the corner and slide in on your knees.'"
Then Ronson thinks better of it.
"He'd be like, 'Dude, you're fired.'"
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