How Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars finished writing ‘Uptown Funk’ at Toronto’s Cherry Beach studios
|Toronto Star 29 Jul 2021 at 15:24|
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In July of 2014, Mark Ronson, the DJ, songwriter and producer behind hits for Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga and Adele, boarded a last-minute flight from New York to Toronto. At the time, Ronson had been working on and off for nearly nine months with the pop star Bruno Mars on a song he believed could be a smash. But despite his best efforts something was continually missing.
As fate would have it, when he called this time, Mars was headed to Toronto for a two-night stand. Ronson, who just two days earlier had passed out in a restaurant bathroom due to stress over finishing the track, grabbed his five-string bass and headed for the airport.
In Toronto, the pair set up shop at Cherry Beach studios, where Mars would show up after finishing his nightly set at the Air Canada Centre to work.
“That’s really where the song was finally finished,” Ronson says. “I think at that point we had the verse and we just really needed to just lock in the last little bit.
“I think we needed the magic of Toronto.”
The track, titled “Uptown Funk,” would go on to be the biggest song of Ronson’s career: a standard at weddings and perpetual musical touchstone of the 21st century.
Official Video for Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars
Earlier this month, Ronson was set to DJ for the first time in “510 days exactly” when the memory of his time in Toronto came back to him.
“At times during the pandemic, my ego and confidence took a bit of a beating and I was terrified,” he says. This insecurity reached a boiling point when he queued up “Uptown Funk.”
“I just pictured, like, the crowd looking at me and, like, being like ‘Really bro, like in 2021 you’re still playing this song?’ And sure enough, I put on the track and everybody kind of rushed the dance floor.”
Acting like a modern Leonard Bernstein, Ronson uses examples from his own Grammy- and Oscar-winning catalogue as well as guest appearances by friends and colleagues including Paul McCartney, Questlove, Dave Grohl and the Beastie Boys, to illustrate just how each technology revolutionized modern music.
“There’s not one piece of exciting music from the past 60 years that doesn’t incorporate one of those things in certain ways,” he says. “So we just started writing a dream list of people to speak to.”
Most of the guests he found in his own Rolodex, including McCartney, who appears several times throughout the program, including discussing his pioneering work in sampling and the use of the synthesizer on the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “If you have Sir Paul McCartney, you’re going to obviously try and get him in as many episodes as possible,” Ronson laughs.
One guest that surprisingly wasn’t on his speed dial was Grohl, whose rock remix of Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About the Benjamins” has been a staple of Ronson’s DJ set for over two decades. “So I went on the internet and printed up a very cheesy gift certificate-like template and I just wrote, ‘Good for one remix for any Foo Fighters song’ and I sent it through a friend,” Ronson recalls. Grohl found it funny enough that he agreed to appear in the series, but not funny enough not to cash it in for a remix of “Making a Fire” on the Foos’ latest album.
Foo Fighters // Making A Fire (Mark Ronson Re-Version)
Getting to hang with his friends aside, Ronson says it’s the moments of explaining the roots of the technological innovation that he found most rewarding.
“I was constantly having my mind expanded,” he says of the experience. “Hosting this series activated the same part of my brain that would, like, sit around when I was 15 wondering what guitar does Hendrix use and, in my early 20s, when I was trying to figure out how Q-Tip or J Dilla or Pharrell got this swing that they did on the drum machine. That part of my brain is still very much alive.”
“Anytime you’re around brilliant people talking about what they do,” he says, deflecting the compliment, “you’re just sort of getting smarter.”
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