If Sunday’s Grammy’s performances left you hungry for more, then here’s “Re:Generation Music Project,” a new documentary from Amir Bar-Lev (“The Tillman Story”), produced in association with the Grammys, that follows five electronic DJs/producers as they work outside of their comfort zones to create tracks in genres foreign to them.
Skrillex works with members of The Doors to pen a rock track; The Crystal Method go R&B with Martha Reeves of The Vandellas and The Funk Brothers; DJ Premier comes up with a classical piece; Pretty Lights is tasked with the country genre; and Mark Ronson comes up with a southern brew of New Orleans jazz with Erykah Badu and Mos Def.
Indiewire caught up with Ronson — a London-born self-proclaimed hip-hop head, best known for his work with Amy Winehouse, Adele and Lily Allen — to discuss why he chose to take part in Re:Generation.
The film hits select theaters for one day on February 16, with an encore screening on February 23. Go here to get tickets and find screening locations.
The film’s more about the musical process rather than the end product. Did that play a big part in why you agreed to do this project?
I think the main reason I wanted to do it was because of the money… just kidding. It was because coming up in New York clubs and DJ’ing, I was DJ’ing primarily in hip-hop clubs, where in the spirit of hip-hop, you’re always mixing acapellas and breaks — like a Biggie acapella over an AC/DC instrumental. This was before the genre even had a term like “mash-up” to describe it. It was just what you did playing in clubs.
I guess DJs like Stretch Armstrong and AM from my era did that a lot and we tried to push the envelope and not to be obnoxious and be like, “Hey, look at us, we’re playing this crazy music you wouldn’t expect.” It’s all good music. If you kind of play it in a way where that’s not necessarily something they would listen to at home — like literally you’re playing it on the dance floor and everyone’s in a complete sweat and you manage to sneak a White Stripes or a Stones record in without batting an eyelid — before they know it they’re dancing and you’ve kind of won them over. That’s something that I was always excited about.
The mixing of genres is one of the main things that interested me with this project. That, and they told me that Premier was involved and he’s one of my favorite producers ever. He’s very rarely attached to anything that’s not real incredible. So I thought if he’s in it, that’s good enough for me.
About the film aspect of the project. What was it like having cameras track your creative process and that of your collaborators?
It was kind of strange, because at some point… I mean, I’m used to having film squads in the studio, but not that incessant. At some points I was like “OK, can you leave now?” But then you knew that they were never gonna leave. Also, as a producer you’re aware that it’s quite a vulnerable thing that when a vocalist goes into a booth or when you’re singing or writing a song. When you add that to the fact that you know you’re being watched on film, it makes you extra self-conscious. I was obviously worried at some point that we were gonna sacrifice a good performance because of it. It’s all well and good to go, “Well, that’s to be expected ’cause it’s for a documentary.” But some pieces of music you write are gonna be around after you finish this film, so you don’t wanna just make something subpar that you know could have been better just cause you can say, “Oh, it’s just ’cause there were cameras in the room.”
Listen, it wasn’t oppressive, but it’s definitely something you’re aware of and we had to kind of deal with anyway. When you’re in the studio and you’re coming up with your ideas and writing your lyrics or coming up with a horn line, that’s kind of an extension of who you are and if somebody says, “I don’t like that,” they’re kind of saying, “I don’t like your feelings” in a kind of way. It’s already a vulnerable thing to be in the studio.
The scene that caught me the most off guard was when Erykah Badu asked you to leave her alone in the recording studio. Funny things is, she kicks you out, but the cameras continue to record her every move.
You have to be overly aware when you’re working with an artist for the first time how they like to work, so sometimes you have to ask, “Do you want us to leave, do you want to be left alone?” Then at the same time, you don’t wanna leave for two hours, come back and not like it from the third line in. Problem is, you can’t really say anything because it’s finished. But obviously I’m so familiar with what Erykah does because I’ve been such a big fan of hers for such a long time that I didn’t really think that was gonna be the case. She hasn’t really made a record that I haven’t liked.
Compared to the majority of the producers who took part in this project, it didn’t seem like a huge stretch to ask you to produce a jazz track, given your work with Amy Winehouse and Adele. Pretty Lights, an electronic artist, had to come up with a country jam!
The stuff that me and Amy did, its sound has always been funk or should, but I’ve never actually really made a jazz record. Part of my thing is always one foot in the club because of coming up in DJ’ing. So I’m always thinking of how are people gonna move to this? So doing something like a New Orleans second line jazz rhythm is a bit counterintuitive to me, because I’m like, “How are people gonna dance to it, where’s the big drum break?”
Sometimes I have to shut off the omnipresent disco ball and flashing lights that are always in my head. It’s a part of maturing, I guess — just learning that it’s not just always about a quick, easy fix of getting people to dance. For this song, I had to make sure to do it in the spirit of New Orleans and jazz. I never studied jazz technically, I just know and love the music. I think that the things that are interesting sometimes, when you’re striving for a sound, you just get it wrong cause of your own limitations. That’s when you get something kind of original.
You know, me and Amy thought we were going for a Motown sound, but because of the limited resources and the size of the band and the way that we recorded it, it sounds sort of… I guess a little more amateurish, certainly not as polished as Motown. I think that’s why it’s special in that way. I think sometimes you wanna shoot for a certain thing and just miss it and you get something that’s a bit original.
Given your affinity for jazz, how nervous were you to take this on, if at all?
How nervous was I? I’m always nervous before starting a record because I can never sleep. I’m like, “I have no good ideas, everyone is gonna see through me.”
Listen to Ronson’s track “A La Modelist” below: