"For better or worse, I'd started to get a connotation like, 'He's the retro guy who wears suits,' and all this shit," Mark Ronson says of the particular crux where he recently found himself. Today, the DJ, producer and bandleader is not, in fact, rocking his trademark tailored suits, or the retro pompadour. Instead, Ronson's hair is coiffed into a tight Caesar, and a letter jacket repping his beloved New York Knicks has replaced the expected tailored sport coat. He looks like the New York City b-boy who's at the core of his musical roots.
Recently, Ronson's musical direction has featured a return to his first love: DJing. Last week he came to Los Angeles to spin a special guest set at the Red Bull Thre3style National Finals, a battle competition for upcoming party DJs like Miami's Konflikt and Chicago's Trentino, judged by Ronson's wheels-of-steel compadres Z-Trip, Jazzy Jeff and A-Trak (with whom Ronson will be touring soon).
"I've found myself practicing with cutting between two records," he explains. "I've reverted back to where I started when I was 23, 24. Then again, playing good records on vinyl is what got me into this in the first place." That evolution stemmed from a moment of introspection last year, which found Ronson questioning "where I fit in. The four-on-the-floor stuff had become popular, and DJing became more about standing in front of an LED screen at a festival, playing your big tunes."
In contrast, stylistic dissonance has proved to be Ronson's signature. Born into a well-bred English family, he was raised in Manhattan since the age of eight. There, his passion for hip-hop turned him into a fixture DJ in the city's clubs and a fledgling producer for the Nineties East Coast underground rap scene, remixing tracks for De La Soul and crafting funkified, sampladelic beats for indie MCs like J-Live.
While his 2003 debut album featured verses from lyrical legends such as Ghostface Killah and Q-Tip, it also featured Rivers Cuomo's alt angst and Jack White screaming into his pickups on the title track. His reputation as a versatile visionary was cemented when Ronson produced Amy Winehouse's multi-platinum 2006 breakthrough Back to Black, surrounding her vocals with soulful live instrumentation that was as contemporary as it was classic. Ronson would go on to work with chart toppers like Adele and Lily Allen; he recently collaborated on three songs for Bruno Mars' 2012 smash album Unorthodox Jukebox, including its Number One single, "Locked Out of Heaven."
But his pop productions have alternated with creating bangers for Wale and Lil Wayne and albums for iconoclastic artists spanning from Black Lips to Rufus Wainwright. Ronson's solo releases have been equally as varied: 2007's Version featured idiosyncratic covers of songs by the Smiths, Britney Spears and Ryan Adams, while 2010's Record Collection alternated contributions from Boy George and D'Angelo with hardcore rappers like Pill. Despite his commercial successes, Ronson claims he's "thought of as the guy that makes fringe, left field shit. I'm seen as an outsider, which is nicer than being judged against people who make massive hits."
His weekly Internet show Authentic Shit on East Village Radio was renowned for a genre-elastic playlist. "You know, a little bit of indie, a little bit of dance," he notes. "It's easy to take the best of everything." That focus changed, though, when he became inspired by the current breed of artistic hip-hop MCs, from Joey Bada$$ and Kendrick Lamar to Cali rappers Pac Div and British rhymesmith Giggs (for whose upcoming album Ronson is producing the first single).
"My radio show used to be all over the place," Ronson says. "Now I can fill two hours with incredible underground hip-hop that not everyone is playing. It reminds me of the era where I fell in love with hip-hop. Joey Bada$$'s Pro Era crew sounds like a Stretch and Bobbito show from the early Nineties. That means I have at least a five-year lease on my career!"
That's not to say Ronson isn't maintaining a diverse slate: he's recently worked on projects with Angel Haze, Cee Lo Green, Duran Duran and Paul McCartney (whose wedding he DJed in 2011). "With Paul, you learn to not ask too many questions and just do your best work," Ronson says. "He came in one day playing some post-Bonde do Role baile funk-moombahton thing, asking, 'How do we get this kind of energy?' And then he played me 'Climax' by Usher, and he was like, 'I love where all the sonics sit in this.'"
For Ronson's next solo effort, though, he plans to continue his recent interest in back-to-basics. "I'm focusing on getting my album done," he says. "It's going to be closer to my first record than any I've made since. At the base, it's more hip-hop – just me in a room making beats on an MPC. I just really feel a little more like staking an identity again, making clear what I'm about. I'm 37 – I've got eight more years to make angry-youth music, so I just feel like doing that now."