How Mark Ronson’s No. 1 hit Uptown Funk got made — and why it caused him to vomit and faint
JANUARY 13, 2015
FOR a groove that sounds effortless, vomit-inducing effort created Mark Ronson’s global No. 1 anthem Uptown Funk.
“You definitely never want the funk to sound laboured,” Ronson admits, “but a lot of serious hard work went into that song.”
Uptown Funk started life as a keyboard riff Bruno Mars, who sings the track, would jam with his band at soundcheck while touring Unorthodox Jukebox, the 2012 album Ronson helped produce for Mars that went on to sell over six million copies.
Mars and his band had got the hook ‘Don’t believe me just watch’ from Trinidad James’ 2012 song All Gold Everything.
“They were doing this loose jam slightly inspired by that Trinidad James record,” Ronson says.
His ear sensing it was something special, Ronson got in a studio with Mars on drums, producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Fun) on keyboards and himself on bass.
“We got the basic groove and the first verse that first night, the rest took a lot longer.”
Finishing Uptown Funk would become an ongoing saga, based around Mars’ tour schedule.
“We’re all perfectionists in our own way,” Ronson says. “We kept feeling the song could be better. Just when we thought we’d finished it someone would call someone else in the middle of the night and go ‘Man it ain’t it yet, it ain’t it’. OK, f---, so I’d have to chase the boy wonder (Mars) on tour and get him in a studio and try and finish it.”
Ronson, who has self-produced his material himself in the past, lost his lunch when pushed to breaking point by the man he got on board to better the record, Bhasker.
At one point Ronson counted doing 82 takes of a guitar part on Uptown Funk.
“I know that’s what a producer is supposed to do, I do it all the time, you build people’s confidences up to the point where they can do something they couldn’t do the day before. Jeff did that with the guitar take on this, I wouldn’t have been able to get it by myself. It took us a good 80 takes to get there. But the pressure of finishing the song, it got to me. I keeled over briefly.”
Ronson’s Uptown upchuck happened in a restaurant, taking a mental break from trying to perfect the Funk, when he “threw up and fainted” in a bathroom.
The cheeky vomit is long forgotten since the rapid, upward trajectory of Uptown Funk.
Within days of release in November it had hit No. 1 in Australia (“Australia is always the trailblazer”), was rush-released in the UK after being covered on the X Factor and last week became not only Ronson’s first No. 1 in America, but the first time he’s ever been in the US Top 100.
It broke records in the UK when it was streamed 2.49 million times in a single week, is already double platinum in Australia and has already 1.75 million copies in the US.
“I’ve had success before but the way this record is is on such another level it’s hard to comprehend or put it in perspective,” Ronson says. “It’s a million times whatever happened to my other songs. I spoke to Bruno last night, this is his sixth (American) No. 1 or something, I asked him if it still has that insane feeling and he said ‘Man, you don’t understand, for what we do, this is the hardest thing you could possibly achieve, America is such a mammoth country’.
“(Daft Punk’s) Get Lucky didn’t go to No. 1 in America. Get Lucky was the biggest song in the world. You just can’t control it if there’s some other song in front of you. Obviously it’s not the testament of how good a record is if it gets to No. 1 but it’s really wild. It’s why you make the song.
“You always hear stories about people saying ‘Oh we wrote that song in three minutes, we hated it but the label made us put it out and it went to No. 1’ and Uptown Funk is the total opposite of that. I made a song with some dudes I love and respect and this is the song that’s gone and done it.”
Since Uptown Funk’s release, there’s been a near forensic attempt to figure out what influenced the song — with early ‘80s songs by the likes of Cameo, Prince and Prince’s mates The Time singled out, as well as The Gap Band, Earth Wind and Fire, Zapp, Sugarhill Gang and James Brown.
“It’s funny, everyone hears something different,” Ronson says. “We weren’t trying to ape any specific thing, there’s just a feel and an energy in it. All those groups, as a DJ I loved playing The Time and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Prince records and playing them in hip hop clubs. Those records might not have been straight up sampled in rap records but they’re very much the DNA of black electronic music. The Time and Roger Troutman and Zapp, we heard them a whole lot in our formative years. You can’t help hide those things that are your influence, but at the same time the goal is to do something new.”
Ronson’s a realist. Despite a CV that included producing Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black and work on early Lily Allen and Adele albums, he’d worried that his moment may had passed. Record Collection, the ‘80s influenced album he made as a reaction to his covers album Version, had only been a radio success in Australia. “Australia was easily the high point of the last tour,” Ronson admits.
“Coming to Future (Music Festival), having Bang Bang Bang, Somebody to Love Me and The Bike Song played on Triple J ... coming from England where shit was not really popping really saved our whole vibe of the whole tour.”
He’d produced the Bruno Mars album and collaborated with Paul McCartney on his album New.
However Ronson knew his fourth album, Uptown Special, was a test for his supportive US record label, rewarded for their patience, finally, with a No. 1 hit.
“I knew if I gave the head of my American record label another curiosity from across the pond he wouldn’t know what to do with it and I may as well just put it out myself on Mark Ronson Records online,” the producer says.
“I got excited working with Bruno and Jeff on the last record. I got an insight into writing those monster songs, Jeff had a big part in the Fun album and Bruno has this freak of nature thing for great hooks. So I thought ‘F--- it’. I feel like swinging for the fences a bit.”
He’s uncharacteristically chilled about how to follow up one of the biggest songs of recent years, an instant classic floor-filler for DJs like himself the world over.
“Uptown Funk is a monster of a song. I’m not going to lie and say there’s another song on the record that’s just as much of a smash. But that’s the thing, you have to open the door and then you can let people discover all the other things going on. I think this record has depth to it. There’s stuff that’s going to be great for young fans who’ve come to it for Bruno to hear Kevin (Parker from Tame Impala) or Stevie Wonder.”
That Future Music Festival tour in 2011 gave Ronson a few weeks to bond with Parker, whose band he’d loved from their first EP.
“When Kevin would come to London and play with Tame Impala we’d get together and talk about doing a side project or something. He’s one of the most talented dudes out there, hands down.
“I knew whatever way he wanted to be involved in a record would be great. When we were working in Memphis I emailed him and asked him to come down, he came and helped finish write Summer Breaking and Leaving Los Filaz. He had this incredible funk riff he was always playing me and asking if I wanted it for the album, which obviously I did, and that is what became Daffodils.”
Uptown Special is strange beast of a record, with rapper Mystikal on the James Brown-esque Feel Right (tipped to be the next single, after a heavy language edit) to Ronson reuniting with Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt on Cracks In the Pearl and three tracks sung by Parker.
The lyrics for the tracks (bar Uptown Special) were written by author Michael Chabon, while one singer, Keytone Starr, was discovered by visiting churches across America.
“On one level this album has heavy grooves like Uptown Funk and Feel Right, and on another level this record musically has some of the most left field and interesting things I’ve done. The thing was to push the songwriting. Even though Kevin from Tame Impala and Bruno are not on the same song, when I talk to those guys individually we’re all obsessed with the sound of drums. That’s the thread that always runs through my records, or one of them. Uptown Funk and Daffodils aren’t so different, it’s all music.”
For Ronson though, who has worked with some of the biggest names in music, there was one holy grail — Stevie Wonder, whose harmonica work bookends Uptown Special.
“I never go into a record with a checklist of people to work on it,’’ Ronson says. “But I wrote a song and it had this melody and I got fixated and I kept hearing Stevie Wonder’s harmonica on it. It was a fantasy pipedream but all I could do was ask.
“So I sent a letter to his manager with the track. I’m not that known in America but I get the feeling Stevie is a music fans so maybe he’d heard something I’d done. Four months later I got this email with the title ‘Stevie harmonica recording’.
“I couldn’t listen to it for about an hour because it was so overwhelming, the thought of hearing it and having it and having my favourite musician and songwriter and harmonica player and singer on my song.
“The fact he took the time out of his life to play this song for me. It’s really beautiful. I listened to it and it’s the most musically important thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s certainly the most humbling and flooring.”
Ronson isn’t sure how he could tour Uptown Special, but has upcoming production work for Action Bronson and co-scored the new Johnny Depp movie Mortdecai.
He has also returned to work with his favourite band of his youth, Duran Duran, after steering their return to form All You Need is Now four years ago.
Duran are working with Nile Rodgers for the first time since The Reflex, The Wild Boys and Notorious.
“The stuff we did with Nile was really exciting,” Ronson says. “One of the songs we worked on definitely has a Notorious vibe.”http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/mu ... 7184495164