Mark Ronson: The Great White Hype
A sky the color of bruised eggplant fades to black as Mark Ronson and I return to his apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. We’ve just finished a dinner of kale and gnocchi at Miranda in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and as we pass Bar Pitti, an Italian restaurant with a sizeable street-fronting patio, one of the waiters hollers, “Marco! Ooh wee—la-la-la-la,” the lyrics to a song from Ronson’s debut album, Here Comes the Fuzz. Another waiter walks out and, making pistols out of his two hands, yells in a soupy Spanish accent, “Bang, bang, bang!” the title of his latest single. Ronson smiles affectionately and, once out of earshot, says, “Can you believe those guys?” He seems pleased by the exchange.
A black border collie named Maude, after Ruth Gordon’s character in Harold and Maude, is waiting impatiently at the front door. Ronson’s high-ceilinged, one-bedroom apartment is not as lavish as one might expect, given his considerable achievements as a producer and musician. Suitcases clutter the hardwood floor of his dining room, its table littered with unopened envelopes that suggest Ronson might be too busy preparing for the release of his new album, Record Collection, to concern himself with electricity bills. In his den, a framed poster for Woody Allen’s Zelig hangs above the couch next to an antique jukebox. Chuck Palahniuk novels and Hip Hotels share shelf space in his vast library. François Truffaut’s French New Wave classic, The 400 Blows, tops a towering pile of DVDs. It’s not all that different from most apartments in Greenwich Village except for a crowded fireplace mantle overrun with awards: a Brit Award, an MTV Music Video award, a GQ Men of the Year award, a Glamour Man of the Year award, and three miniature golden gramophones—the Grammy awards he received for Version, his 2007 album of covers, and his production work on Back to Black, Amy Winehouse’s career-making record. A sober black-and-white photograph of his storied family sits next to them.
Ronson is the son of real estate entrepreneur Laurence Ronson and gregarious society dame Ann Dexter-Jones. (Dexter-Jones later married Foreigner founding member and guitarist Mick Jones, from whom she split in 2007.) At 35, he is two years older than his twin sisters, Charlotte, a New York fashion designer, and Samantha, a DJ based in Los Angeles. Anecdotes from his charmed childhood abound, most of them about decadent parties in London, where he was born and still keeps an apartment, with a rotating cast of boldface names from The Thin White Duke to The Boss. Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, was his best friend growing up, and together they had sleepovers with Michael Jackson and carpools with Roberta Flack.
Ronson’s silver-spoon upbringing has always been an easy target for critics, who are quick to attribute his success to his family’s Rolodex. His reaction to these charges alternates between incredulous and wounded. “I’m so tired of defending where I came from—I’ve spent my entire career trying to be taken seriously,” he says. “If you’re out for blood, it’s easy to discredit me by focusing on my family, but I certainly never asked my mom, ‘Hey, could you please call up DJ Premier and find out if I can play Gang Starr’s party next weekend?’”
When he was a senior at Collegiate, an elite high school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ronson started manning the turntables at trendy Lower East Side dives acrid with the stench of stale beer, giving equal play to the Smiths and Run-DMC. It wasn’t long before he became a regular on the downtown nightlife scene, where he was branded with the double-edged title of “celebrity DJ.” While acknowledging that there is some truth to the label—he was, after all, flown to Italy to provide the music for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ wedding reception—he’s also loathe to embrace it. “I might have even been the person for whom that term was invented, but to me it conjures the image of an it-girl at a party with two iPods,” he says. Unlike, say, Jessica Stam or Alexa Chung, Ronson earned his title, playing music for party-goers long before it meant having his picture taken.
The stigma against Ronson only worsened when Samantha earned her own loyal following on the dancefloor, which initially rubbed him the wrong way. “I was so irate when she decided to use the family name instead of Li’l Red [the stage moniker she used earlier in her career],” he says. “I was worried we’d put out CDs at the same time, they’d sit next to each other in music stores, and we’d look like the fucking Osmonds.” But during the height of her much-dissected, turbulent relationship with actor Lindsay Lohan in 2008, when Samantha was tarred and feathered on Hollywood gossip websites—blogger Perez Hilton, for example, still cattily refers to her as “SaMANtha”—the negative press brought out Ronson’s protective side. “Life in L.A. really is one big episode of Entourage,” he says, skirting a question about his sister’s love life. “If she’s happy in her relationships, then I’m psyched for her. When she’s not, I’m not.” Pausing for a minute, he adds, “It’s weird, because in England I’m Mark Ronson, record producer. But in America, I’m Mark Ronson, Samantha’s brother.”
On both sides of the Atlantic, 2007 was a huge year for Samantha’s brother. The records he produced for Winehouse and Lily Allen dominated international charts, and Version went double platinum in the U.K. He recorded that album on a tiny budget before signing with Columbia Records, and invited his friends—Winehouse, Allen, Daniel Merriweather, Santigold—to lend their vocals, which certainly didn’t do much to discourage his reputation as the most connected man in music. “I was almost embarrassed by Version’s success,” he says. “I wasn’t immune to its backlash, either. I have thin skin, as do most artists, and so it wasn’t easy—so immediately after the embrace of the album—being written off as the trumpet-y covers guy.”
This month’s Record Collection, Ronson’s followup to Version, will only exacerbate his reputation as pop music’s answer to Kevin Bacon—Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes, Boy George, Spank Rock, Q-Tip, and Ghostface Killah all make appearances on the album—but its overall sound couldn’t be further from his earlier work. Ronson was desperate to reinvent himself, and instead of Version’s horn-heavy neo-soul, Record Collection sounds like cosmic synth-disco. “I knew in my heart and in my head that I needed to record original material,” he says. “But I was so afraid that these 12 new songs would then be judged against the songs of Morrissey, Thom Yorke, and Paul Weller that appeared on Version.” It was perhaps because of this fear, and because of the overwhelming number of musicians who “spent days in my sweaty studio in Brooklyn” contributing to the album, that Ronson decided to attribute Record Collection to Mark Ronson and the Business Intl. “To do otherwise would have been disingenuous.”
Electro-pop musician Amanda “MNDR” Warner is the Business Intl.’s breakout act. On “Bang Bang Bang,” she turned a line from a French-Canadian children’s song—“Je te plumerai la tête”—into the anthem of the summer, and, like many of the artists featured on the album, she is effusive with praise for Ronson. “He’s an excellent keyboardist, a great drummer, and an amazing guitarist,” she says. “You can’t fake that kind of talent.”
Rapper Spank Rock, who lends his voice to “The Bike Song,” is slightly less reverent about his friend. “Mark’s kind of dorky, definitely not the coolest guy in the world,” he says. “It was in the studio where, for the first time, I saw a bit of insecurity in him, because he was working through his project and second-guessing himself. Whenever someone opens themselves up, they can either be complete douchebags—‘Listen to this, this is so good!’—or they can be like Mark, and you can watch them cringe.”
For the better part of July, Manhattan was crippled by heat. But earlier on the day of our meeting, a magnificent and furious storm brought with it a reprieve from the record-breaking highs. It’s a nice night for a walk, and Maude needs some exercise, so we relocate to Washington Square Park, which is thick with jazz musicians and the smell of cheap incense. Ronson, who left his polka-dot–patterned black blazer at home, is now wearing a red T-shirt, tight black jeans, and white loafers.
We run into Ronson’s girlfriend, French actor-musician Josephine de la Baume, with whom Ronson currently co-stars in a Zadig & Voltaire ad campaign. She is on her way to a Korean barbecue restaurant and has little patience for Ronson’s insistence that he’d like to stay in tonight. Small and fiery, she is like a character in a Godard film. When Ronson tells her that he’d rather not sit through Inception—“I just can’t do a three-hour Chris Nolan mind-fuck, baby”—she sighs dramatically, and, pouting, says, “You are so boring!” Rolling her eyes and her r’s, she storms off playfully into the night.
As we continue down the street, I remind Ronson of our first meeting a few years ago, when he was asked to interview the late Malcolm McLaren, a legendary producer-musician who once managed the Sex Pistols, for Thompson Hotels’ in-house magazine, Room 100. Their conversation was scheduled during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, for the morning after Charlotte’s first showing of her eponymous ready-to-wear collection under the Bryant Park tents. Ronson slept through his alarm, missing the whole thing. He managed to get on the phone with McLaren later that day, but the photographer, who was meant to take their portrait together, was forced to artfully combine their images in post-production. I stood in for Ronson in McLaren’s photo. “I really did miss that shoot because I overslept,” he says, revealing some lingering embarrassment at the memory. “But I can’t help thinking that if I hadn’t been out all night getting fucked up I wouldn’t have missed my chance to sit next to Malcolm.”
Ronson and his siblings—there are nine in total, when one factors in step-siblings and half-siblings—were introduced to excess at a young age, despite his insistence that his mother’s approach to child-rearing was almost draconian. When he was 6, Ronson was tucked into bed by actor Robin Williams, who was high on cocaine. One morning, he woke up early to find his father, still awake from the night before, playing chess with Hall & Oates’ Daryl Hall. “When we got to the age that partying became an issue for our parents, it was like, You can’t really talk because you’re getting 10 times as fucked up as I am. Knowing my dad’s struggles with addiction, though, my emotional hangover was often too much to enjoy the drunk.”
Despite glimpses into the rock-star lifestyle growing up, it wasn’t until the release of Version, when Ronson was expected to perform his songs live in front of huge audiences, that alcohol became a real crutch. “I remember my very first gig with Lily in 2006. Before we went on, I was sitting in a corner, shaking so badly that she was like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ I’d have a drink to ease the nerves and then my guitar tech would keep refilling my glass throughout the show. Before I knew it, I’d be asking for more whiskey and he’d be like, ‘You just finished the bottle.’” Although he has since tempered his alcohol consumption, Ronson says, “I’m not going to pretend I don’t enjoy going out. Now that I’m singing I just can’t do much beyond a bit of drinking or smoking the occasional touch of weed.”
Whereas he admits to “not being all there” while producing Kaiser Chiefs’ 2008 album, Off With Their Heads, he says his upcoming work on the new Duran Duran record has helped create some of the band’s best songs to date. “They have a lot to prove this time out,” says Ronson, alluding to the band’s tepidly received 12th album, Red Carpet Massacre, which was produced by Timbaland. “I think Timbaland pulled a bit of a Timbaland, where he shows up for a little bit and somebody else does all the work,” says Ronson. If the band is to be believed, Ronson’s contributions to the as-yet-untitled album are profound. “There was instant chemistry,” says keyboardist Nick Rhodes. “When we started playing, it was like there was electricity in the room. We’ve worked with some remarkable people, but Mark just gets it. Anyone who was foolish enough to question his talent was sorely mistaken.”
It’s late now, and Ronson is tired. He still has to pack for a week-long vacation starting tomorrow night, when he’ll travel to the house he recently purchased in Amagansett, next to East Hampton. But before he leaves, he’ll spend the better part of the day at the photo shoot for this story. Uninspired by his look that morning, the man who went from being a DJ and producer to a legitimate singer will make another drastic change: Mark Ronson will bleach his dark chestnut hair white.
A few days later, I randomly spot Ronson and his blanched pompadour on First Avenue, where he’s stationed behind a glass wall inside the headquarters of East Village Radio, a popular internet radio station. Back from the Hamptons, he looks rested as he introduces “The Bike Song,” which he’ll premiere in just a few minutes on Authentic Sh*t, his weekly show. A crowd has gathered on the sidewalk, dancing to the music while watching him work. Reminded of what Spank Rock told me earlier that week, I just stand there, watching him cringe.
Photography by Kai Z Feng. Styling by Christopher Campbell.