Last Sunday, ‘Uptown Funk’, remained static at number one in the UK Singles Chart for a seventh consecutive week. On the charts listing, you will see that the song is credited to Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, yet if you open Mark Ronson’s Vevo channel on YouTube, you will see that the top comment, with 147 up-votes reads: “Shouldn’t it be Bruno Mars – ‘Uptown Funk’ with Mark Ronson somewhere in the background?” The answer to this is ‘no’. ‘Uptown Funk’ is certainly Ronson’s, and the critical and commercial success it has received will hopefully pave the way for music fans generally, to look beyond the lead vocalist, and appreciate the rise of the producer-rock star.
Whilst Mars’ presence in ‘Uptown Funk’ steals centre stage, the reason that the track has become the most commercially successful funk tune for around 30 years extends well beyond the remarkably well co-ordinated Hawaiian’s eccentric shape throwing and soulful vocals. The single provides a master class in sampling, horn line arrangement, and production, and there is no doubting the mastermind behind it.
To give a short biography, Ronson spent most of the 1990s as a DJ in the downtown New York hip-hop scene, before branching out into funk and soul. He worked on RnB singer Macy Gray’s album The Trouble With Being Myself and produced Amy Winehouse’s commercial breakthrough Back to Black, before reaching personal success with his own LP, Version – a series of horn loaded covers of pop tunes – in 2006. It is this eclectic set of influences and experiences, unique to Ronson, that contributes to the sound of ‘Uptown Funk’, and is why it could only be created by him. The tune’s hook line “don’t believe me just watch” is sampled from hip hop artist Trinidad James’ 2012 single ‘All Gold Everything’; its rhythmically percussive opening guitar vamp echoes the technique of funk and disco artist Nile Rodgers (of Chic and Daft Punk fame), whilst the drums bear a similarity to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’. The horn figures are trademark Ronson, noticeable throughout Version.
The point proven in that previous paragraph is that the product and sound of ‘Uptown Funk’ is unmistakably Ronson’s, yet the public’s obsession with lead vocalists has led some ill-informed listeners to give all credit to Mars. If this has happened to Ronson – perhaps the best-established producer on the planet at the moment – then one can imagine the negative vibes this sends to lesser-known names.
In order to avoid the dumbing down of mainstream music, a cultural transition is needed, which appreciates and idolises talents such as Ronson’s on an equivalent footing to how we view frontmen and women such as Mars. This will hopefully promote the breadth of the industry to younger people, and let them realise that there is more to music than just being the face, on the video on MTV, that produces the melody line through his or her mouth.
Of course, many may point to the likes of Calvin Harris and Avicii, and suggest that the producer-rock star already exists, but in reality, these producers have a distinct difference from Ronson, in that an aspect to their performance makes them a more obvious centrepiece. Harris can, and often does, double up as a vocalist, whilst Avicii is a DJ; he usually performs on a comparatively bare stage, mixing previously produced vocals, and thus, is more visible to his audience.
The fact that Ronson has attained music stardom despite his comparatively back-seat role is testament to his talent and completeness as a producer. Whilst Avicii often takes previously released music and reworks it into another song, Ronson writes and arranges his music, usually plays a majority of the instruments, and then completes the post-production. He is in control over the entire creative process, and therefore truly ‘produces’ his tunes from nothing.
However, Ronson is not a complete anomaly. His talent is incredibly rare, yes, but he is not a freak. There are others out there that possess comparable abilities. Without taking anything away from Ronson, he has been very lucky. The son, and stepson of two prominent figures within the music industry, and the beneficiary of conventional good looks and a fashionable hipster vibe have undoubtedly all contributed to Ronson’s ability to stick his head out beyond the parapet, and become the ultimate producer-rock star. Hopefully, he is the first of many.