Street cred is probably the most valuable commodity in hip-hop, and Mark Ronson knows what it means to pay the dues to get it. After nearly five years of cutting his teeth — not to mention countless stacks of wax — on New York's downtown club scene, Ronson was finally “discovered” during his DJ residency at the ultrahip Bleecker Street hangout Life (now defunct). He soon hit the motherlode when he was recruited, along with Australian rocker Justin Stanley, to produce Nikka Costa's debut release, Everybody Got Their Something (Virgin, 2001). Since then, Ronson has worked on albums for reggae-hopper Sean Paul and comedian Jimmy Fallon.
This summer, Ronson strikes out on his own with Here Comes the Fuzz (Elektra, 2003), a sweeping catalog of his musical influences, replete with cameos from heavies Jack White of the White Stripes (dropping sludge guitar on the title track, with Costa singing backup), Mos Def and M.O.P. (rhyming rapid-fire over a Lenny Kravitz sample in “On the Run”), Ghostface and Nate Dogg (lending a Wu-Tang, G-Funk feel to the string-soaked “Ooh Wee”) and Q-Tip (laying back on “Tomorrow”). With so many different styles in the mix, Ronson's approach to production emulates the raw flavor of old-school hip-hop, rock and soul that he picked up in the clubs.
“Any forward-thinking hip-hop DJ has always been crossing genres,” Ronson says. “And that's really how I wanted to put this record together.” Building from sampled beat elements that are sequenced on an Akai MPC3000 and then routed to Digidesign Pro Tools running on a Mac G3 (with tube preamps such as the Manley Voxbox and the Avalon VT-737, as well as the Universal Audio LA-2A compressor, fattening up the signal path), Ronson coaxes a simple setup into giving him a warm, expansive and even dirty sound reminiscent of old-school funk or Def Jam classics like LL Cool J's Radio. (And wouldn't you know it, producer Rick Rubin is also a fan of Ronson's DJ sets from back in the day.)
“I like to ‘tube’ my samples,” Ronson explains, “which is why I try to run them as hot as possible through the preamps and then hit the Pro Tools meters just below the red. I'll usually start by running the kick and snare through the dynamic filter [on the MPC] and take the frequency down to about 94, which pulls some highs off the top and gives you a dirtier, punchier sound to work with.” Sometimes, live drums — courtesy of, in this case, The Roots' rhythm guru Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who plays over programmed beats on “She's Got Me” and “Bluegrass Staind” — are added later, as well as live horns and strings.
To create lush arrangements, Ronson uses Manley and Neumann mics (for vocals and overheads), analog pedals such as Electro-Harmonix's Big Muff (for fuzz bass) and Moog Music's Moogerfooger (for ring-modulated sounds) and Pro Tools plug-ins such as Line 6's Amp Farm (for overdriven guitar). “I'm not a total gearhead, but I do think that being a DJ and being such a fan of music has affected my style,” Ronson admits. “I can't just sit down and make one type of record. Everything that I'm trying to do has an inherent head-nodding, danceable vibe to it — even the more rocklike shit — and that's the common element I'm looking for.”