We’re just over halfway through 2013 and already Rick Rubin’s made an indelible mark on the year’s musical landscape, producing two chart-topping albums, Black Sabbath’s ‘13’ and Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’, teaming up with Jake Bugg, and even playing a supporting role in Dave Grohl’s film ‘Sound City’. All this should come as no surprise: arguably he’s made more of a mark on the last 30 years of music than any other individual. This is a man with a killer CV. From Adele to Mr. Hanky The Christmas Poo, Slayer to Sir Mix-A-Lot and Lords Of Acid to Melanie C, the Rubinator’s got game.
Here’s 12 reasons why he’s a total badass.
While you may have spent your university years going to shit comedy nights and drinking 80p beers in the student union, Rick Rubin was founding Def Jam, the label basically responsible for breaking hip-hop into the mainstream. Its first release was a 12-inch EP from Rubin’s own ‘artcore’ punk band Hose, which NME gave a positive review at the time. Unfortunately I can’t find their cover of Rick James’ ‘Superfreak’.
At high school at Long Beach, Rubin played in another band The Pricks who were famously thrown out of CBGBs for a ruckus with the audience. Not too shabby a claim to fame, although members of the audience claimed Rubin and his band manipulated the brawl for publicity. Rubin also played with Hüsker Dü, Minor Threat and Butthole Surfers.
One of Rick Rubin’s room mates at NYU was Adam Horovitz. According to Dan Charnas, in his fantastic book ‘The Big Payback’, the two wrote songs designed to make each other laugh while Rubin experimented with song structure. During that time Rubin’s interests turned towards hip-hop, and he started going to club nights in Greenwich Village to watch Jazzy Jay and The Treacherous Three. Eventually Rubin ushered Beastie Boys from punk to a rap sound, losing drummer Kate Schellenbach, and becoming their DJ and producer. After a few smaller releases, ‘Licensed to Ill’ came out. It was the first rap album to go to number one on the Billboard charts and sold 5 millions copies. My biggest achievement at uni was reading Beowulf in the original Olde English so, back at you, Rubin.
Rubin’s technique of stripping down and denuding tracks to their bare essentials – vocals and raw instrumentation – was already becoming his signature sound when Def Jam recorded the debut album from a young 16-year-old from Bay Shore, New York. Rubin brought the aggressive simplicity of punk rock and combined it with beatbox energy, scratching and brief samples. LL Cool J’s machismo posturing and Rubin’s skeletal noise influenced numerous future albums.
Rubin went into the studio after ‘Radio’ with Run DMC to work on their third album ‘Raising Hell’. Without what happened next, there would be no Limp Bizkit. No Linkin Park. No Papa Roach. But don’t hold that against him. Rubin decided the group should collaborate with Aerosmith on a new version of their song ‘Walk This Way’. I’d say it was worth the rap rock monster he spawned.
Pretty soon, Rubin began to work increasingly with heavy metal and rock acts including Slayer, Danzig and Wolfsbane. He produced The Cult’s third album ‘Electric’ and this blinding anthem, ‘The Witch’.
Doing WTF he wants
In his school year book, Rubin’s parting message was ‘I wanna play loud, I wanna be heard, I want all to know, I’m not one of the herd’. A prophecy of the future, most clearly illustrated, perhaps, in his fight to release the lyrically controversial Geto Boys album. After Geffen Records refused to release it, Rubin persuaded Warner Bros to make a stand against censorship. Whether you think it’s a work of pop art or not – the rape scene in ‘Mind Of A Lunatic’ is certainly hard to stomach – Rubin’s resilience to societal norms and corporate obstacles is impressive. Unlike many of the big dogs in the music industry, then and now, Rubin seems to driven by art not money. We’ll brush over his stint with Melanie C.
Also, the man refuses to work in an office. He agreed to take the top job at Columbia as long as he didn’t have a phone or a desk.
In the mid 90s, Johnny Cash’s career hit an impasse. Over the course of making six albums with Rubin, from ’American Recordings’ to two records released posthumously, Cash’s music was revived for a new generation. Rubin has talked about why he wanted to work with an artist who wasn’t brand new:
I really felt like it would be an exciting challenge to work with an established artist, or a legendary artist who might not be in the best place in his career at the moment. The first person who came to mind was Johnny, in terms of greatness and in terms of maybe, at that moment, not doing his best work
It’s tricky to pick out one of the many songs they worked on together, and Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ has been overplayed, but it’s too remarkable to ignore.
Rubin also recommended a kinesiologist, Dr. Phil Maffetone, who Cash credited with extending his life.
When the word ‘def’, meaning excellent, made the dictionary, Rubin decided to hold a traditional funeral mourning its death-by-mainstream. Tom Petty, Flea from Red Hot Chill Peppers and Trent Reznor attended. One of many examples of Rubin’s ruthlessness, his old friend and business partner Russell Simmons who still ran Def Jam, did not attend.
When Rubin approached Chuck D about signing Public Enemy, the rapper protested that he was too old to rap. Rubin called him every day for six months until he changed his mind.
Rubin’s a multiple-trick pony. Not just rock, metal and hip-hop for the 50-year-old maestro. His most high profile pop album is Adele’s ’21’, otherwise known as ‘the biggest selling album in recent history’. Rubin’s also been writing for the radio-friendly Jake Bugg.
A brilliant NYT profile of Rubin featured some fascinating details about his production style. He hardly knows how to work equipment. He told the interviewer:
I do not know how to work a board. I don’t turn knobs. I have no technical ability whatsoever. But I’m there when they need me to be there. My primary asset is I know when I like something or not. It always comes down to taste. I’m not there to hold their hands and baby-sit, but I’m there for any key creative decisions