If you saw the Jay-Z/Samsung promo that ran during the NBA Finals last night, you saw what appeared to be a bare-footed, aging white hippie with a ZZ Top-esque beard kicking it in a studio with the likes of Pharrell, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and, of course, Jay-Z. The visual contrast between the men was, well, striking, as the aforementioned aging white hippie dude, let’s face it, didn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of the crew. However, he definitely belonged there: that man was legendary producer Rick Rubin.
I’ve found myself sort of fascinated with Rubin of late. It started when I saw Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City back in February, a documentary Rubin was featured prominently in. At the time I knew Rick Rubin by name and knew that he was a music producer of significant note, but I didn’t know much about him beyond that. (For some random reason, I also knew that he was once in a punk band called The Pricks and got kicked out of CBGB’s for getting into a fight with audience members, but that’s neither here nor there.) I did not know, for instance, that the reach of this “guru” extended far beyond hip-hop, which is where he made his name early in career as the co-founder (along with Russell Simmons) of Def Jam records, and had touched virtually every modern genre of music imaginable. I also had no idea what he looked like and didn’t really expect him to look like at all an aging white hippie with a ZZ Top-esque beard.
But dig around a bit and you’ll find, as I did, that Rubin — who, in his own words, is a man with “no training, no technical skill” — is arguably the greatest hitmaker in music today. I was reminded of this again over the weekend when, in a podcast followup to the much-discussed interview he did with Kanye West, Jon Caramanica of the New York Times talked at length about how much the egomaniacal Kanye revered Rubin — who grew up on Long Island — and how big of an influence Rubin had on the recently leaked Yeezus. I was reminded of Rubin’s influence yet again when I saw him in the Jay-Z spot last night, and later, after the game, I found myself venturing down into a Rick Rubin wormhole, eager to learn everything I could about the guy.
In such, I devoured a 2007 New York Times Magazine profile of Rubin, the former co-president of Columbia Records, the most comprehensive piece on him I could find that’s been done in the past few years. It’s filled with interesting tidbits about Rubin’s life and career, and since I figured some of you out there might have also found yourself recently wondering, “Who the hell is this Rick Rubin guy?” I decided to collect a few of my favorite nuggets from the profile in the hopes that they might enlighten and entertain you as much as they did me. So, enjoy…
1. Rick Rubin does not report to an office. Ever.
Beginning in 1984, when he started Def Jam Recordings, until his more recent occupation as a career-transforming, chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning producer for dozens of artists, as diverse as the Dixie Chicks, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond, Rubin, who is 44, has never gone to an office of any kind. One of his conditions for taking the job at Sony, which owns Columbia, was that he wouldn’t be required to have a desk or a phone in any of the corporate outposts.
2. Rubin forced Columbia to become the first record label to go green and abolish plastic packaging for the CDs it puts out.
“They thought about it and agreed,” Rubin said. “And that made me think they would listen to me. It was also a turning point in terms of how big my reach could be. In the past, I would not normally have access to that kind of sweeping change. At Columbia, I’m able to operate on a much larger scale.”
3. Rubin’s career has been heavily influenced by his obsession with magic.
“From the time I was 9 years old, I loved magic,” Rubin recalled as he walked around the cavernous loftlike space. “I was an only child, and I think that had a big impact on me. I always had grown-up friends even though I was a little kid. I would take the train from Lido Beach into Manhattan, and I’d hang out in magic shops. When I was 14, I had magician friends who were 60. I learned a lot from them — I still think about magic all the time. I always think about how things work, the mechanics of a situation — that’s the nature of being a magician.”
4. Rubin started Def Jam records in his NYU dorm room in 1984 with $5000 he borrowed from his parents, and when he first started putting out hip-hop records, many assumed he was black.
In 1983, while he was attending N.Y.U., he borrowed $5,000 from his parents and recorded “It’s Yours” by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, a 12-inch single that became a local dance hit. Rubin then invented a label, calling his company Def Jam (“Def” meaning great, and “Jam” meaning music), and ran the business out of his dorm room. “The clerk at the front desk handled all the shipping,” Rubin recalled.
Russell Simmons, who was then a hip-hop producer, loved “It’s Yours” when he heard it on the radio. “I thought for sure that Rick was black,” Simmons said. In 1984, a 16-year-old named L L Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James) sent a demo tape to Rubin’s dorm room/Def Jam. “He was much better than anything else I heard,” Rubin recalled. “And he still is. ‘I Need a Beat,’ L L’s first single, was the real birth of Def Jam.” Rubin did not release the track right away — he tightened up the structure, editing the rhymes so they more closely resembled verses in a song. The result is a spare, clean sound, rather than the endless repetitions of most early rap. “I thought the record would do well, and I asked Russell to be my partner at Def Jam. I did all the work from my dorm, and he did the promotion. Russell was five years older, and he was established. By myself, I was just a kid making records. He gave me credibility.”
5. When doing his job, Rubin consumes music in an almost meditative state.
Rubin closes his eyes and gently rocks back and forth. His hands are resting on his stomach, and he seems to be almost meditating.
With that said, check out Rubin in this still from the Jay-Z/Samsung announcement video…
6. Rubin was still working from his NYU dorm room when he produced the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, the first rap album to top the Billboard chart.
By 1987, Rubin had already discovered the Beastie Boys, three upper-middle-class guys from New York City who could rap. The trio’s anthemic hit, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!),” which was produced by Rubin, was an instant classic: the rhythms of the words form a hook that circles and loops around your brain and will not leave. The Beasties’ debut album, “Licensed to Ill,” was the first rap album to go to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. “And we were still in the dorms,” George Drakoulias, a successful producer who worked with Rubin for a decade, told me. “Rick didn’t want to leave. He got college credits for running the record company. He stayed until he graduated. And by then, he and Russell were fighting over the direction of the company.”
7. After his Def Jam partnership with Russell Simmons went south, Rubin decided he was going to do whatever the f*ck he wanted to do.
He lived in the Chateau Marmont for nine months and started a new record company, Def American. Rubin changed gears: he signed the hard rock bands Slayer and Danzig and gave a record deal to the misogynist comic Andrew Dice Clay. “At every stage of my career, there have always been people telling me not to do whatever it is that I’m doing,” Rubin said. “After my initial success in rap, I started making rock records, and people said, ‘Why would you do this?’ I made a comedy album, and they said, ‘Why this?’ Now people ask me, ‘Why do you want to do this Columbia job?’ It’s always the same answer: ‘I’ve always liked doing the stuff that I like.’ I just like good music or comedy or whatever it is, and now I have the chance to bring that to a big record company. 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.”
8. Rubin once held a funeral for the word “def” once he believed it had become overused in pop culture.
In 1993, Rubin saw that the word “def” was now in dictionaries, and he decided to change the name of his company. Inspired by a documentary he’d seen about the hippie movement, Rubin held a formal funeral for Def. “When advertisers and the fashion world co-opted the image of hippies, a group of the original hippies in San Francisco literally buried the image of the hippie,” Rubin explained. “When ‘def’ went from street lingo to mainstream, it defeated its purpose.”
The funeral was lavish. The Rev. Al Sharpton was flown in from New York to deliver the eulogy, the Amazing Kreskin performed and Rubin purchased a cemetery plot and engraved headstone.
9. Rubin is a music producer who has no idea how to work a sound board.
“I do not know how to work a board. I don’t turn knobs. I have no technical ability whatsoever,” he said. “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.”
10. Rubin, a Jew, took communion with Johnny Cash — whose career Rubin revitalized — daily during the final months of Cash’s life.
Rubin and Cash also had a deep spiritual kinship: during the final months of Cash’s life, they took communion together every day, even though Rubin, who was born Jewish and now sees himself as not having any specific religious orientation, should not be eligible for the holy sacraments. Even after Cash’s death, Rubin would close his eyes and hear Cash’s voice as he said the benediction. “It was like hearing a song that you love,” Rubin said. “He was there with me.”
As an added bonus, watch this fascinating and hilarious clip from Fade to Black of Rubin and Jay-Z working on “99 Problems” in the studio together.
“When was the last time you seen a bison in a n*gga’s studio?”
Apologies to the Dos Equis guy, but Rick Rubin may very well be the most interesting man in the world.
(GIF via Roboshark)