“There’s this funny English website called Jewtastic,” says Mark Ronson, seated in the booth at his lower Manhattan recording studio/label office. “They write about all these new heroes, like Sacha Baron Cohen and Amy Winehouse and people like that. And when I was working with Amy on her record, I kind of got upset that I wasn’t in there — I was like, ‘Don’t they know?’”
It’s hard to imagine there are any secrets left about thirty-one-year-old Ronson, who at this moment is recovering from a late-night rehearsal for the U.S. debut of his new band. Ronson has been in the public eye since growing up as the son of British real estate mogul Laurence Ronson and social fixture Ann Dexter (and then, when Dexter remarried, as the stepson of Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones). He worked as a Tommy Hilfiger model as a teenager and became an internationally known, brand-name DJ, controlling the dance floor at Puff Daddy’s birthday parties and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s wedding.
But in the last year, Ronson has managed to shift his focus from spinning other people’s grooves to creating his own. He produced tracks for British songstresses Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, and recently released his own second album, Version, on RCA/Allido Records. Version contains reconceived, full-band renditions of hits by the likes of Britney Spears, Radiohead, and Ryan Adams; “Stop Me,” a cover of the Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” reached No. 2 on the British singles chart.
These projects share a sensibility that led to The New York Times recently identifying “the emerging Ronson sound: old-school black music (Motown or reggae or funk) meets new-school black music (hip-hop beats and rhymes) meets retro Brit-pop.” Most recently, he applied that style to a remix of Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)” for inclusion on a new greatest-hits package from the legendary rocker; it’s the first time Dylan has ever sanctioned such a treatment, even turning over the original master tapes for Ronson’s manipulation.
Despite his constant presence on the global party circuit, it took a while for Ronson to attain success away from the turntables. His debut album, 2003’s Here Comes the Fuzz, was a flop, and albums he produced for singer Nikka Costa and rapper Rhymefest were also disappointments. But he used his DJ gigs to finance the Allido label, which he runs with partner Rich Kleiman — and now it seems as if Mark Ronson’s moment has truly arrived.
One thing that has stayed relatively private, though, is Ronson’s religion. Though other Jewish artists in the hip-hop community seem to find their heritage in the foreground whether they want it there or not (just ask the Beastie Boys), and many Jewish music fans have a Trainspotter-style obsession with identifying rockers who are members of the tribe, Ronson’s Judaism has been lost in his celebrated personal backstory. But as his music gets taken more seriously, this part of his identity is starting to get more attention.
Even Jewtastic finally took notice. “I got my first little piece on there about two months ago, when my single got big in England,” he says. “I was so psyched, it was unbelievable. Now I’ve become a regular fixture on there.” Of course, Ronson adds, “I guess there aren’t many Jews with top-ten hits in the U.K. right now.”
AL: Is the relationship between your Jewish identity and your music something that’s interesting to you? Is it anything you ever think about?
MR: I don’t think specifically of my Jewish identity when I’m creating music. But I grew up fairly religious. In England, I’d go to Sunday school and to Hebrew school two or three days a week. I had a serious bar mitzvah. I remember moving to New York and realizing that all the kids I knew were reading the stuff phonetically off the page, and I was just dumbfounded that they let kids do that.
It’s always weird to talk about religion because as soon as you do, you feel like a fraud or something if you’re not completely devout, but I have kept a lot of those things. I still go to synagogue on the holidays. I like two things about it: the traditional aspect — I think the traditions are good things and you want to stick by them — and also the spirituality. I do feel better when I’m in the synagogue than when I’m not. And I think that’s partly because you feel like you’re putting in your time, but also because of this feeling of reverence or whatever. But as far as relating it specifically to music, I think there’s always been this thing where you get a kick out of finding out that David Lee Roth is Jewish or whoever.
AL: Marc Bolan is my own favorite Jewish rock star.
MR: Marc Bolan was Jewish? That’s incredible! Well, I know a lot of Jews who wear giant diamond Stars of David but don’t go to synagogue — like “I’m Jewish and I love Larry David,” but without the religious side of it. You’re allowed to like whatever you like, I can’t say it’s wrong, but if you go around trumpeting that you have a link to your religion but you don’t practice that religion at all — I don’t have a problem with that, I guess I just find it a bit hollow.
And then I don’t have to tell you about the correlation between blacks and Jews in the music industry. There obviously is a bond there, or maybe it’s just a matter of New York City being heavily populated by both.
AL: What do you think about the connection between Jews and black music? Of course there’s the business opportunity it represented, and, as you say, the physical proximity, but is there more to it than that?
MR: I think it’s one of the most interesting things in the world, at least in the entertainment world. I don’t know if there’s some kind of bond between these two people who have been persecuted through history, or if because minorities have always heavily populated urban areas that there’s bound to be attraction. But it’s certainly not the WASPs who founded Priority Records or Profile Records. But I hate to hazard a guess on those kinds of things, because it seems like any time you talk about racial stuff, I feel like I would say something that someone would find completely offensive.
AL: Well, how about just in your own experience?
MR: My own experience was that my dad listened to tons of funk and soul around the house, like he used to play Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “New York, New York” for me and my sisters, and we’d jump on the bed. He just loved soul music and had good taste, and that obviously shaped the fact that I liked beats and loved bands like the Meters.
But there have been these pillars of hip-hop from the beginning, people like Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen. I’ve never encountered a rapper who was like, “Oh, you’re Jewish? What’s that like?” Rhymefest will make funny jokes because it’s his nature to be controversial, so he’ll say something about being a Jew and obviously I’m not returning the favor. But I’ve never encountered any sort of combative stuff. I think it’s just kind of accepted that there’s this kind of mutual respect between blacks and Jews in the music industry. I think if Rhymefest was working with somebody in the industry who wasn’t Jewish, he’d be a bit more disturbed or suspicious. It just seems to be how it goes.
AL: Tell me more about your own Jewish upbringing.
MR: In England, the Jewish community is a bit more insular — not that they keep to themselves, but they’re a bit more devout. I would say a larger percentage of the Jewish population practices and keeps the traditions. So I came from a family that was fairly religious. I went to Sunday school and all that stuff. Had Friday night dinner at my grandmother’s. And then we moved to New York when I was eight and my mother remarried my stepdad, Mick, who wasn’t Jewish, so it got a bit more relaxed. But we still did all the holidays, went to Sunday school, had a bar mitzvah with a circumcision as the opening act.
AL: How has your relationship to religion changed over time?
MR: I think it’s a little different; it’s not like I have to go to synagogue because I live at home and I have to go with my mother or whatever. When you go now, you know that you’re doing it for yourself. I am into the tradition of it, even as it extends to time that I spend with my family on Yom Kippur. We’re all pretty close, but there’s something different when everybody is in the house starving together. I also find that when I don’t go for a little while, I feel like I’m getting too self-involved, like I can’t even make time to go to synagogue, and then I get wracked with guilt. But when I do go, it’s not really out of duty. I actually do enjoy it and enjoy being there.
AL: When people write about you, they pile on a bunch of descriptions: “transatlantic,” “socialite mother and rock star stepdad,” “former model.” They seem to identify you from the same menu of biographical details but seldom mention your religion.
MR: Yeah, it is weird that they throw every other modifier in there except that one. But I don’t know, maybe they think it’s just assumed that if you’re in New York and you have something to do with hip-hop then you’re Jewish. Have there been any important non-Jewish people in the hip-hop industry? I guess it’s not really the other way around, like you wouldn’t know the religion of Jessica Simpson — well, with Jessica Simpson it would be the whole God Squad thing. So I don’t know.
AL: Was Judaism something you and Amy Winehouse talked about when you were working on her record?
MR: Yeah, we definitely talked about it. Her dad is Mitch Winehouse, cab driver from north London — you don’t get any more blue-collar London Jewish than that. But with Amy you can’t miss it, when you see that name “Amy Winehouse,” whether she likes it or not, she’s riding hard for the tribe. I think she didn’t really grow up that religious, but like I said before, the people who identify with the cultural aspects of Judaism without the other stuff — there is this shared sense of humor, self-deprecation and things. She’s kind of one of those. I wouldn’t have to know her last name to figure out that she’s Jewish after talking to her for ten minutes.
AL: What do you think about you and Amy both having these hits at the same time? It kind of makes me think of the game a few years ago when the Boston Red Sox had three Jewish players on the field at the same time.
MR: If I was fifteen, and I was starting producing, and there was a Jewish guy or girl making hit records, or a singer like Amy with an amazing voice, me and my friends would have found that cool and kind of looked up to that or found it slightly inspirational because it’s like with the ballplayers — you’re not really used to it because there are other stereotypes, that Jews aren’t supposed to be strong or athletic or whatever. There’s a lot of Jews on the business side, but not so many on the performing side. So that’s why you get excited when you find out about David Lee Roth or MC Serch, that these people are cultural heroes and you share something in common with them. And also, it is kind of an underdog thing in a way; we’re still a minority outside the entertainment world. I don’t know that I really look up to Adam Sandler more than I look up to Christopher Guest, but there is still some kind of pride that’s instilled in you.
AL: Were the Beastie Boys important as an inspiration to you? You would have been growing up in New York when Licensed to Ill was taking over the world.
MR: You know what’s funny is that Licensed to Ill was kind of too much for me. “Fight for Your Right” and that stuff, I just thought it was a bit too aggressive. But all my friends loved it, and they’d all sing “Girls” on the bus. “Paul Revere” I loved, that was amazing, but then when Paul’s Boutique came out, I was blown away, because I already liked stuff with grooves at that age, not so much just guitars and that kind of sound. And I loved 3rd Bass as well, and I also remember being a huge fan of Fear of a Black Planet, and feeling slightly guilty over the Chuck D line [in “Welcome to the Terrordome”] “Apology made to who ever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus.” I remember thinking it was so amazing sonically, it was like heavy metal to me but it was hip-hop, and then I remember listening to that line and thinking I was a bad Jew for listening to it over and over.
Even though they were so incredibly talented, there was something about the Beasties that made you feel like they could be you and your friends — because they did look like me and my friends, who mostly were, like, middle-class Jewish New Yorkers. They were quite obviously never that religious, or at least they definitely didn’t wear their religion on their sleeves; they just wore it heavily on their last names. But I remember meeting [manager/executive] Guy Oseary one time when I was like sixteen — and he’s heavily into it, he did the Jews Who Rock book, he’s into having big seders in Hollywood and all that — and he told me no, they aren’t
really religious at all. And I remember I got really upset for like two days. I don’t know why I got upset about that.
AL: If your Jewish identity is as important to you as you say, there must be some way in which that affects the work. Directly or not, doesn’t it have to have some sort of impact on your music?
MR: There are definitely personality traits that I can trace between both — like the sense of duty in the religion also translates to an over-diligent work ethic. But I’m not sure if one is influenced by the other, or if it’s just something in my brain that affects both of those things in the same way.
It’s not like I have a problem with rappers using blasphemy over my beats, and it’s not like when I’m sitting here in the studio that I feel some kind of higher power going through me, divine inspiration or whatever.
I do think there’s certainly something very egoless in the religion, and I think that’s something that’s a part of my music. The fact that when I’m working with an artist, when I was working with Amy, it was like “what do you want your record to sound like?” I love the Neptunes and producers like that, but it’s not like I’ve got to have my signature snare in the sound, like it’s a Mark Ronson record so I’ve got to try to get my thing in there. What I’m doing is more like that classic sixties sense of the producer, where you’re there to facilitate and arrange and make the songs sound the best they can, as opposed to modern production, which has become about making sure that you put your stamp on it.
AL: My own feeling has always been that if you’re raised with an awareness of slavery and oppression, it’s a lot easier to accept the sentiments of hip-hop. Not to make it a suffering contest, but it’s a big hurdle to be able to say, “OK, I get it, so tell me more.”
MR: It is, but that also goes against this very English trait that if there’s any struggle, all right, so what, we’ve all had struggles, let’s just move on. There’s this English and Australian mentality of, we’ve all been through a lot of shit and so what? So I don’t know if that’s something that’s different about American Judaism.
But it is always easier to relate to someone else’s struggle when you don’t feel like a complete bystander, if you can see something of yourself in it or relate, even though the two experiences are so completely different.
AL: A feeling of empathy.
MR: Beyond even empathy, that kind of thing like “I deserve to be able to listen to this” — like when you’re thirteen and you want to be able to listen to “rebel music,” whether it’s Bob Marley or hip-hop or whatever, if you feel like, well I’ve been wronged, too, it makes you feel like you’re a little bit more in the music as opposed to just listening to the beat or the melody. You feel a bit like you deserve to share in the anger. It makes you feel a little bit more badass. &