Mark Ronson has been producing since the turn of the millennium, and in that time he has worked with everyone from Amy Winehouse to Lady Gaga to Dua Lipa to Bruno Mars, with whom he created “Uptown Funk,” one of the highest-selling singles of all time. He is also the presenter of an excellent TED Talk on the history of sampling and has continued that journey of musical curiosity with the Apple TV show Watch the Sound, which explores the untold stories behind music creation and the lengths producers and creators are willing to go to find the perfect sound. Between all that, he finds time to host the FADER Uncovered podcast, on which he interviews artists ranging from David Byrne to Haim. Busy guy.
Recently, Ronson’s dance card also included appearing on Switched on Pop for another one of our Modern Classics discussions. The song he chose for our talk is an iconic ’90s jam: Ginuwine’s “Pony,” produced by Timbaland and Static Major, which continues to serve as an example of the ways that innovation and radical experimentation undergird even the biggest of pop smashes.
Nate Sloan: What do you think makes “Pony” endure? After 30 years, it still slaps. It still just explodes out of the speakers.
When you asked me to pick a modern classic, the first place my brain went was, What was a record that was a full paradigm shift? Like, when that record came out, nothing was the same? I remember the song from a purely DJ standpoint. I’d been DJ-ing for a couple of years in hip-hop clubs in New York, and there was a tempo that your set had to follow. There was old-school hip-hop that tended to be faster, like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim and fun things from the ’80s. Hip-hop in the ’90s got kind of slower and moody. Then you had Puffy and Biggie, a little more shiny but all in this 90 or 110 beats-per-minute range, and that’s where your set resided.
And then “Pony” came in.
You just had to stop all the other songs that you were playing because there was nothing to mix this into. It was 60 beats per minute. It was like nothing else. And if you stop the song in a hip-hop club, you’re in danger of a bottle being thrown at you in the DJ booth — this was not something that you would do unless you really knew that what you were about to play was going to be an event. So not only was it sonically so inventive, but from a DJ perspective, it was like, Oh shit. After that, Timbaland became influential, and you had the Dirty South movement and all the Atlanta hip-hop and stuff from Texas that was around that tempo. But at that initial moment, it was just an island. You couldn’t mix it with anything, and it sounded like it came from outer space.
Charlie Harding: A lot of people know “Pony” as a slow, sexy jam — the tempo is compelling in that way. What else in the song’s sonics make it a modern classic?
It just sounds incredible. There’s a lot of mythology around how Timbaland came up with that sound. Apparently, he was playing with his drum machine, and, by accident, he turned the tempo knob down from 120 to 60 and invented this new sound.
It’s actually funny listening to it now. I only ever listened to it at like 200 decibels in a nightclub. To hear it quietly in headphones, there’s a lot of weird shit going on in the background. You can hear his breath. We forget, because he had so many hits, just how eccentric Timbaland’s brain actually is. He’s a weirdo disguised as this handsome, built dude — like a lot of great producers. Pharrell’s a weirdo. Chad’s [Hugo, Pharrell’s partner in the Neptunes] a weirdo. You don’t make music like that without being odd.
And because I’m a beat guy, I haven’t even spoken about the vocals. “Pony” is so instant and naughty enough that it feels dirty in the club, but then it’s PG enough that you could get it on daytime radio and kids think it’s fun to sing.
N.S.: I found an interview with Timbaland where he describes a certain level of accident with this song. He was scrolling through a rack mount and then found this particular effect, and it just suddenly clicked. It made me wonder if you’ve had similar moments — like, just something accidental happens and all of a sudden, you’re like, Oh, that’s it.
That’s the entire theme of the TV show Watch the Sound. It’s these accidents — like, Roger Linn made the LinnDrum to sound as much like a real drummer and a real snare drum as he could. That’s why his machine was so coveted. And then Prince tunes the snare drum by accident one day, and it goes from like ch-ch-ch to, like, BOOOOOSH. Suddenly, that’s the fucking coolest sound ever. And then you get drummers tuning their drum to sound like a LinnDrum. The main tenets that we think of are the song and the melody, but all the other shit is definitely accidents — even plunking your hand down on a piano keyboard and getting a weird voicing or a cluster chord that you wouldn’t think to play. That can sometimes just set you off and running. So much of it are those happy accidents.
N.S.: One episode of Watch the Sound is about Auto-Tune and vocal processing. We related to it because we wrote a book called Switched on Pop, and the epilogue was about Paul McCartney’s 2019 song “Get Enough.” We were surprised that he uses synthesizers and Auto-Tune and drum programming. And in that episode of Watch the Sound, you talk to Sir Paul, and he didn’t seem to have a lot of hesitation about embracing new techniques.
Everybody forgets, because we’re so warm and fuzzy when we think of the Beatles, that not only was their stuff more badass than we maybe remember, but they were always on the cutting edge of technology. That’s why, at that moment, they were always pushing the engineers in Abbey Road. Paul was always on the cutting edge of everything.
I remember when I worked with him on his New album. At that point in my career, I had gotten … not lazy, but I think … well, yeah, fuck it. I got lazy. I’d worked so hard for 12 years to establish myself that after Version [Ronson’s 2007 album] and Back to Black [Winehouse’s 2007 album, produced by Ronson], I was like, Oh, cool, everyone likes it when I’m the retro guy. I guess I’ll just fucking latch on to that. And I watched people around me, Diplo and others who I was friendly with, really learning the new technology while I was just falling back on what I had. I remember going in with Sir Paul and thinking like, Okay, I’ll do my thing where I make classic, great recorded band arrangements, a couple of little hip elements. And he came in with a CD he had been listening to and played me “Climax,” by Usher. I was like, Oh my God. Produced by Diplo and Ariel Rechtshaid with Nico Muhly arrangements on it. And I was honest, like, “This is great. What do you like about this? ’Cause I’m not very good at this.” He said, “I just like the space.”
Since then, from working closely with Diplo or BloodPop or Kevin Parker from Tame Impala, I have internalized the idea that “I don’t want to just lean on someone else to do the cool tricks and the programming. I want to learn how to do it myself.” So Sir Paul always seems to be pushing you, and wants to push his own stuff, and it’s amazing.