For Mark Ronson, his debut album on Elektra, Here Comes The Fuzz, is not so much about redemption as it is about evolution. The logical-next-step for the producer/songwriter/DJ who first made a name for himself as a genre-hopping DJ with an ear for culture-clashing mixes.
Ronson, with typical aplomb, steps it up on his first solo disk, inviting an eclectic batch of guest artists to rain down on his hip hop, pop, and alt rock flavored gems, the irony being that the talented and mercurial Ronson isn’t yet entirely comfortable with being called an ‘artist’ himself. I like to think of myself as more of the visionary behind this record. I’m not trying to be a star here, but the fore that stirs it up, that knows what sounds good by putting some pretty talented people together that otherwise might never step into a recording studio together.
Ronson’s resume is already propped up by some fairly weighty remixes for superstars such as Jay-Z, Outkast, Moby, Nelly Furtado and more. His stellar production work on the breakthrough Nikka Costa album turned the heads of record label A&R execs, who began to think of Ronson as an aural triple threat, someone who could write a song, produce it and remix it before he even went out for coffee in the morning. It was the A&R denizens at Elektra who foresaw the artist Ronson.
Their faith in the charismatic New Yorker (he was born in England but moved to NY at the age of eight, so call it an adoption) has been more than rewarded with an original and phosphorus first album. Joined by flexible and ferocious talents such as Sean Paul, White Stripes frontman Jack White, Rivers Cuomo, (on the deliciously Cuomo-esque I Suck) Nate Dogg, Q Tip, Mos Def and Nikka Costa, Ronson sparks each performance, melding rock, digital, and hip hop components into a sonic wonderland of sound. Tracks such as the title opus, Here Comes The Fuzz, featuring Freeway, Jack White and Costa, and the explosive On The Run, featuring Mos Def and hardcore hip hop stalwarts MOP, simultaneously converge and repel, with traffic controller Ronson displaying keen instincts for crunching smackdowns as well as punch-pulling melodies.
I made a list of people I wanted to work with and a lot of them came through, he says modestly. But it may surprise you to know Ronson himself is playing all the instruments. Schooled in a musical family, he learned drums, saxophone and piano at an early age, relying on such chops throughout his DJ’ing years to create the kind of dynamics that obviously serve him well on his debut disk. I often hark back to those great Quincy Jones records of the ’70’s and ’80’s. He didn’t sing on those albums but when you heard a song like One Hundred Ways, (featuring James Ingram) you heard it as a Quincy song. He was a genius at putting all the elements together and tightening the arrangements. Making sure the right people in the right room were singing the right song. The real secret is not to get in the way.
Ronson also has a knack for discovering new talent. The album’s final song, Tomorrow, features brand new Costa Rican artist Debbie Nova. Ronson’s faith in her abilities was so strong he teamed her with hip-hop icon Q Tip. It’s the first song we did for the album, he says. She’s so amazingly talented. She sings and plays the keys. We got in a room together to write and I had this Latin vibe and we just went with it. When I asked Q-tip to be on the album I played him some songs and he just loved this one the best.
Ronson says the ‘craziest’ collaboration on the album is the aforementioned title song, featuring Jack White, among others. I really wanted to do like a rock version of this Freeway song. Everyone from the Beatles on up has ripped off something they liked and snuck it in. I played it for Jack White and he was blown away. I got Freeway to rhyme on it, and knew that only Nikka could pull off the vocal. There’s all these different angles there, but it somehow works.
Another standout song is International Affair, featuring Sean Paul and Tweet, and co-written by Debbie Nova. I like to say I knew Sean Paul before he was a superstar, he laughs. I played him a couple things I was working on and the one he liked the best didn’t have as much of a dancehall vibe, more of a hip hop vibe. I’d written it with Debbie, and played it for Tweet and she loved it. One of the things I’m most excited about is the collaborations, they happened in a very organic way. People had to vibe on the music before I’d take it to the next level.
And what about Here Comes The Fuzz as a whole? Is Ronson’s Elektra debut the career upgrade of a musician who got his start DJ’ing? Or the culmination of a musical auteur’s pursuit of the ultimate blend? I don’t think it matters, he says. I’m a music fan. I’ve never been afraid to go out on a limb to create something new sounding. At the same time, I always knew I wasn’t going to win any originality awards playing classics. I think the magic is in what the result sounds like, whether it is in a club or in a studio or coming out of your speakers. I have a good sense of what sounds good where.