Rick Rubin’s history in the music industry is long and storied and, as of recent times, rap heavyweights have pegged him as the man to sort through their art and help perfect it. Jay Z, Eminem, Kanye West and more have turned to the 51-year-old in the past few years when it was album-making time.
Rick linked up with annotation/lyrics site Genius this week to talk about his experiences in the engineer/producer chair for these legends and more.
On the frenetic process around Kanye’s latest single, “Only One”:
“I was in St. Barths two days before the single came out. Kanye said, “I’m thinking about putting out ‘Only One’ tomorrow at midnight.” I said, ‘Should we mix it?’ He was like, ‘It hasn’t really changed — it’s pretty much what it was.’ I hadn’t heard it in almost two months, so I asked him to send it to me, and he did. And I said, ‘I think this can sound better than it does.’ We never really finished it finished it.
“So we called all the engineers — and I’m trying to get all this to happen all remotely — and we got maybe three different engineers. This is the day before New Year’s Eve, and we’re all finding studio time, getting the files. Then they all start sending me mixes. I thought one was better than the others, and Kanye agreed. One guy mastered it, because it was due, and they turned it in. I had another guy master it, and it was better, but it was already too late. I think it switched the following morning. It was in real time! Like as soon as it was better, we had to switch it.
“That’s how it works in Kanye world. It used to really give me anxiety, but now I just know that’s what it is. That’s how he likes to work.”
After being the emergency help for Yeezy’s last album, Yeezus, Rubin has become familiar with the Kanye process.
“When he played Yeezus for me, it was like, three hours of stuff. We just went through it and figured out what was essential and what wasn’t. It was like deciding a point of view, and it was really his decision to make it minimal.
“He kept saying it about tracks that he thought weren’t good enough and needed work. If he was going to leave me to work on stuff, he’d say, ‘Anything you can do to take stuff out instead of put stuff in, let’s do that.'”
Ever the perfectionist, it turns out Kanye actually likes the insanely polarizing album.
“Kanye told me Yeezus was the first album where he was happy with the way it came out.”
And if you did, too, there’s more Yeezus where that came from.
“Something we talked about with Kanye was doing an alternate version of Yeezus, because there are so many versions of songs, great versions. There are versions just as good as what’s on the album, just different. I know as a fan of the album, I’d like to hear that. Maybe some day, whenever he wants. But it exists! That shit exists.”
Then, there’s Rubin’s famous first collaboration with Hov, the classic “99 Problems”.
“Jay came into my studio every day for like a week, I kept trying things that I thought would sound like a Jay record, and after like three or four days he said, ‘I want to do something more like one of your old records, Beastie Boys-style.’ Originally that’s not what I was thinking for him, but he requested that vibe, and we just started working on some tracks.”
On the first verse:
“Jay wrote the first verse in about twenty minutes, sitting in the back of the control room. He would just be kind of humming, and we’d keep looping the track, and maybe after thirty minutes he jumped up and was like ‘We got it!’ And he did it ten times, and every time he did it, it was different. Most of the words were the same, but the phrasing was different. He’d written and memorized the words and then was playing with different ways of doing it. It was incredible.”
And the second verse:
“This is the one verse that he wrote down. It’s the first time I ever saw him write anything down.
“He read it off his laptop. He wrote it the night of.”
And more on Jay’s “writing”:
“I think Jay literally makes lyrics up. He may have concepts in his head, like I don’t know, but I’m guessing there will be ideas for songs in his head, subject matter-wise. I don’t think it’s just a blank.”
Oh, and he’s never listened to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
“I never really listened to The Chronic. I guess I never liked smooth? Same with Puff, who really brought R&B into it. I preferred hip-hop when it was nothing like R&B. I love breakbeats and B-boy style drum machines. I never liked the slick stuff”
His entire set of annotations on Genius are worth sifting through. Rick discusses Yeezus and “99 Problems” in much more detail. He also drops plenty of Bestie Boys and LL Cool J anecdotes along with stories of recording with Tom Petty, Slayer and many many more.