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Written by: Robbie Ettelson
When Rick Rubin is written about in the media, he is either portrayed as “the most important producer of the last 20 years” or as the shaggy ‘Wolfboy’ guru who carries lapis lazuli Buddhist prayer beads and dislikes footwear. While many of the startlingly broad range of musicians that have worked with Rick gush his praises, there seem to be just as many who were left disappointed by the experience. For every successful creative rebirth that Rubin has been involved in – such as reviving the careers of Metallica, Johnny Cash and The Dixie Chicks – there are also the aborted projects with groups like U2 and Muse.
Rubin’s approach seems to be all about making a connection with the artist he’s working with: “I have no training, no technical skill — it’s only this ability to listen and try to coach the artist to be the best they can from the perspective of a fan”. This approach doesn’t sit well with everyone, as bands such as Slipknot have complained that they didn’t enjoy working with him since he was barely present during the project he produced (but they were happy with the album), while shots were fired by British rockers Muse earlier this year when they thanked Rick for “showing us how not to produce” during an acceptance speech at the Music Producers Guild (amusingly, it turns out that Rubin won ‘International Producer of the Year’ that same evening).
But sour grapes seem to be the exception rather than the rule, as groups like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers can attest to after five albums with Rick’s involvement. “He basically goes into the engineer’s booth, removes everything in the room and has his people bring in the most comfortable couch-bed-type object that you’ll ever see. Then he’ll cover it with pillows and blankets, and that becomes his station.” Through this process, he often becomes ‘the fifth Beatle’, dating back to his stint as DJ Double R for the Beastie Boys first national exposure on Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ tour. Even though Jazzy Jay and Ad Rock did some the programming for some of Rick’s early Def Jam records, there’s no denying that he was able to bring a sorely-needed, stripped-down aesthetic to the rap records of the era.
“I was going to NYU [New York University] and I was into rap music at the time, but there weren’t a lot of rap records coming out; and the rap records that were coming out weren’t representative of what the rap scene really was. I used to go to the rap clubs in New York—I’d be the only white guy there—and they’d be playing rock ‘n roll records with guys rapping over them. Like ‘Walk This Way’. ‘Walk This Way’ was an original record that every rap DJ would have and use. Billy Squire‘s ‘Big Beat’ was another one. And the rap records that were coming out at the time were like Sugar Hill Records, which were essentially disco records with people rapping over them. Kids who liked rap bought them because there weren’t any records representative of their rap scene. So, I saw this void and starting making those records, just because I was a fan and wanted them to exist.”
The result? Radio, Licensed to Ill and Raising Hell – three of the most influential hip-hop albums of the 80’s – all of which combined abrasive, speaker-smashing drums with hard guitar stabs and traditional song structures. The last point being the most significant in terms of getting the music to a wider (read: white) audience who’d been raised on rock. He also championed the cause of Public Enemy: “I remember my old partner Russell Simmons, when I signed Public Enemy – I’d just made the Less Than Zero soundtrack and it was really good and The Bangles’ record was a hit – and Russell said, ‘You’re wasting your time. This is black punk rock. This is garbage. You could make pop records, why are you wasting your time on Public Enemy?’ I said, ‘Because they’re the greatest group in the world. Because the pop records are the ones that aren’t important. This is what’s important, you’ll see.’ And two years later, he saw”.
Rick directed his attention to heavy metal following his departure from Def Jam, but when he started the Def American label he proved that he still had an ear for great rap by re-recording the best of the Geto Boys for their self-titled third LP, as well as an under-appreciated EP from former Audio Two MC Milk D. It wasn’t until Jay-Z reached out to Rick that he would produced another rap track, but the result was another prime example of minimalist beat science at it’s best. Since being appointed as co-head of Columbia records in 2007, Rubin has only signed one rap act – The Clipse. Last year it was announced that the crew would be working with Rick on their new album, but Till The Casket Drops was eventually released without any Rubin beats. “We went out to Malibu man, busted out with him. He gave us a lot of insight on the album and gave us some gems man. We came back, sorta re-vamped a few things and uh, you know, made the album a lot better due to that talk, for real. Definitely, it’s the reason he’s sitting in that [executive] seat”.
Something that came as a shock to me was the discovery that Rubin doesn’t drink booze or get high. It seems that even in his college days, White Castle burgers and porn were his only vices. “I’m just not interested. I need to be in control” he told German magazine Shark, while in a USA Today profile, Rick explained, “It’s the combination of meditating and always being deeply into something. When I was young, I was into magic. Kids I knew did drugs or got drunk out of boredom. I didn’t want to give up my time.” Some of the projects that he’s chosen to take on board might also have fans scratching their heads. Linkin Park? Mars Volta? Mel C from the Spice Girls? I guess that trying to challenge yourself musically requires sacrificing good taste on occasion. But when you’re able to convince Johnny Cash to record a version of a Nine Inch Nails track – and in the process create one of the greatest cover songs ever made – it’s hard to complain. I think this 2007 piece in TIME sum him up best: “Rick Rubin enjoys long walks on the beach, sushi dinners and hugs that warm the corners of the soul. Behind the ZZ Top exterior lurks the soul of a Playmate”.
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