Soul music dominates the patchwork ensemble of 2016’s Record of the Year Grammy nominees: Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars for “Uptown Special,” “Really Love” by D’Angelo & The Vanguard, “Thinking out Loud” by Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.”
In 2016 what’s old is new again, with producers dusting off analog circuits for modern digital reinvention. Even Drake’s “Hotline Bling” producer crate-digs through the ‘70s: Nineteen85 mined the 1974 Shuggie Otis album Inspiration Information for samples.
No one was holding their breath for a Mark Ronson record in 2015
In the case of Uptown Special, Mark Ronson’s retro-future, pan-global production delivers tonal warmth. The sound is full, analog and natural, not over-produced. It’s difficult to estimate which century or location most informs the music — not surprising, as it was produced between Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Memphis, and London and spotlights Australian musicians Tame Impala, New Orleans rapper Mystikal, Antibalas percussionists, The Dap Kings, Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder, and lyrics penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. The album was recorded in numerous famed studios (a total of 10), including Royal Studios of Memphis (where Bobby Blue Bland, Al Green, Chuck Berry and Keith Richards have recorded) and Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios.
Whenever a DJ tells me, ‘Uptown Funk’ gets everyone on the floor, it’s like: Yes! I am a DJ doing service to other DJs
Perhaps four-track ghosts of musicians past haunt this multi-track production. Ronson’s methods have rendered a palpable dimensionality to the sound of Uptown Special. “I absolutely record with everybody in the room,” Ronson toldEsquire. “The way the drums bleed into the piano and the bass bleeds back into the drums… when you listen, it sounds like a room, you know? As music goes more and more ‘single-track recording’ and people do their parts separately, it’s starting to get antiseptic and clinical. It’s the molecules in the room… you can tell the difference. That’s the way I want my music to sound.”
The difference is apparent. The single “Uptown Funk” dominated Billboard charts, spending 14 weeks in the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100, while the video topped one billion global views. Critics drew comparisons to Chic and Nile Rodgers, The Police, T. Rex, Funkadelic, Zapp and Mantronix.
Yet while the album may be derivative, it traverses uncharted territory for today’s modern pop music. The familiar terrain may be the formula: white Brit discovering the music of the black American South à la Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones.
The musical legacy of Mark Ronson precedes him. The British-American son of guitarist Mick Ronson and socialite Ann Dexter-Jones, stepson of Foreigner’s Mick Jones and brother of DJ Samantha Ronson labored in relative obscurity for years. He began DJing in downtown New York hip-hop clubs at age 16 before producing Adele, Amy Winehouse, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Black Lips, Ghostface Killah, Lily Allen and Duran Duran.
It is perhaps Ronson’ self-deprecatory nature that primes him for something of an underdog Grammy win
Ronson didn’t begin producing music under his name until 2003, an anticlimactic event wherein Elektra swiftly dumped him following lackluster sales of his first album. It wasn’t until recently that Ronson felt a sense of pride in his solo work. “No one was holding their breath for a Mark Ronson record in 2015,” he toldBillboard. “I’m sure I wasn’t on any Sony sales projection.”
Ronson takes pride in the earworm nature and infectious basslines of the album — especially in “Uptown Funk.” Ronson toldNew York Times last year, “whenever a DJ tweets or tells me, ‘Uptown Funk’ gets everyone on the floor,’ it’s like: Yes! I am a DJ doing service to other DJs.”
It is perhaps this self-deprecatory nature that primes Ronson for something of an underdog Grammy win. Ronson is relatable in spite of the celebrity, model wife, dramatic coiffure, suede shoes and jet-set ways. His musical history meanders from fame to mediocrity to infamy and failure — and back to acclaim. He has been set atop a pedestal, toppled from it, and again ascended. All while being of service to dance floors everywhere.