music / Hall Of Fame

411 Music Hall Of Fame Class of 2009: Rick Rubin

February 11, 2009 | Posted by 411Mania Staff


* Winner of ten Grammy Awards, in five different categories
* Nominated seven times for Grammy Producer of the Year, winning the award in 2007 & 2009
* Founder and head of the groundbreaking Def Jam Records and American Recordings
* Major force in the popularization of East Coast Hip-Hop
* Launched the careers of LL Cool J, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C
* Revitalized the careers of Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and Neil Diamond
* Co-Head of Columbia Records
* Listed in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People In The World”, 2007
* The greatest producer of the past 30 years

Imagine the scene.

Picture a wizened figure, hunched over a panel covered with buttons and readings. There is a certain quality that radiates from the individual and permeates everything that they touch. The quality somehow advertises absolute certainty, coupled with a mercurial wonder, a wait and see attitude that inspires you to achieve, whether you realize it or not. This individual is of indeterminate age, but, for the purposes of this description, he looks a little like you would imagine Jack Nicholson or Leonardo De Caprio to look, if they were allowed to grow a ZZ Top beard. The man in question is supervising, as another gentleman, infinitely older and infinitely more crumpled, sings a borrowed song, ostensibly about drug addiction but which, by the tone of his voice and the inflection of his words, we know to be an allegory for his own death. The bearded individual has saved the older man’s career and, in doing so, changed the way that we think about our icons and our legends. The older gent is Johnny Cash who is singing the song he was born to sing. The bearded fellow, needless to say, is Rick Rubin who, in signing Cash a decade earlier, not only carried a dying flame to glory, but also cemented his reputation as a visionary, a maverick and, ultimately, an off kilter genius.

Born Frederick Jay Rubin, in March 1963, the man we know as Rick has always been particularly careful to distance his private life from the face he shows the world and, as such, there has always been far more written about the bands that he produces than about the man himself. So what do we know about his life? We know that he was born on Long Island, New York and first demonstrated an interest in making music while in high school, where he formed his first band, The Pricks, after receiving encouragement and guitar lessons from a teacher. Later, he moved on to New York University, where he played guitar for an art band called Hose. When the time came to put out a single, Rubin produced it and distributed it in paper bags. He affectionately called the operation Def Jam.

Rubin’s career as a producer took a radical shift in the early eighties, when he met and befriended a member of the Zulu Nation rap collective, DJ Jazzy Jay, who introduced him to the New York Hip-Hop scene and to Russell Simmons, who helped Rubin transform a bedroom enterprise into the go-to label for New York hip-hop. The first recording to be released on the new Def Jam was the LL Cool J song “I Need A Beat”. Consisting mainly of vocals and drums, it was not necessarily a towering example of production, but it was enough to make the Def Jam name and, before long, the label began to pick up rappers from outside the Long Island area. Within a couple of years, Def Jam was an institution in New York.

Over the course of the 1980’s, Rubin’s work began to be noticed by those outside the traditional hip-hop scene. His first real crossover success was to be found with the Beastie Boys, a band with whom he used to DJ and who he subsequently signed in late 1983. The trio began life as a punk rock band but was beginning to show signs of diversifying into rap prior to being brought onto the Def Jam wagon. Under Rubin’s tutelage, they dumped the majority of their hardcore stylings and embraced hip-hop culture, changing their musical output, their lyrical focus and even their style of dress. Their first Def Jam EP, Rock Hard, was released in 1984 and this was followed, in 1986, by their debut and breakthrough album, Licensed To Ill.

Produced once again by Rubin, Licensed To Ill made the Beastie Boys name and contained the songs that still, 25 years later, are their most well known – “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)”. The album instantly launched the band into the public eye (though as much because of their on tour antics as their music). By channeling the band’s creative process, Rubin was able to fuse their current sound with their punk rock heritage. He built an album which enabled the Beasties to show that they were genuine and credible hip-hop artists while, at the same time, giving the early eighties hardcore kids enough familiarity to ensure that they jumped on board. There is no doubt that Rubin’s vision to fuse two usually unconnected styles of music made the globalization of the Beastie Boys a possibility. This fusion concept was something that particularly appealed to Rubin in the early days. It was a similar brainwave that caused him to suggest to another of Def Jam’s early adopters, Run-D.M.C that they might want to collaborate with Aerosmith, who were re-tooling an old song for re-release, giving us the now classic version of “Walk This Way”.

While the Beasties courted the press attention in the aftermath of the album’s release, Rubin stayed back in his New York heartland. Even though he was still almost anonymous to the world at large, the work he did on Licensed To Ill began to pique the interest of the music industry. In the event, this would be his last dealing with the Beasties, who left Def Jam for Capitol shortly after the album was released.

The publicity generated by the Beastie Boys had gone a long way to draw attention both to Rubin as a producer and to Def Jam as a label. The roster of bands recording under Rubin began to grow at a rapid rate. Rap group Public Enemy signed up in 1986, after Rubin became fascinated with founding member Chuck D. The acquisition of the group, who already counted in-house producers The Bomb Squad among their members, demonstrated another facet of Rubin’s professional career – his ability to spot and sign brilliant bands.

Though Rubin never produced for Public Enemy, the success of their 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back was one of the significant factors in the growth of Def Jam as a label. Already on the cusp of being considered a major due to their successes in the mid 1980’s, Public Enemy’s onslaught on the tropes of pop culture catapulted the Def Jam name into the minds of the world at large. Even though Rubin had, by this point, left the label, it was his contribution in the early days that built the platform for Def Jam to grow into the powerhouse that it is today.

Even though Rubin was finding success signing and producing rap artists, he did not stray for long from his hardcore roots and persuaded thrash metal band Slayer to sign with Def Jam in 1985. He set about making subtle alterations to the band’s sound, tightening up their output, suggesting that they speed up their playing and cleaning up the previously murky production standards. The release of Reign in Blood in 1986 was a high water mark for the outfit. It was a departure from their previous albums inasmuch as the production values fed into the album’s overall aesthetic. It was, by popular recognition, the first thrash album to benefit from high production values and instantly set it several stories above its rivals. The band themselves have gone on record crediting the quality of Rubin’s production with the ultimate success of the album – thrash metal fans had never heard anything like it and it instantly resonated with them.

Despite founding Def Jam in his college bedroom ten years previously, Rubin found himself marginalized by the other members of the label’s upper echelon. The more mainstream and “major” the label became the more people had to be brought on board just to keep the machine functioning. As is often the case in situations such as this, a power struggle ensued and as a consequence of the restructuring at Def Jam, the label and Rubin parted ways in 1988. Fueled by the success of Slayer and excited about other heavy bands who were breaking through, Rubin relocated to Los Angeles and formed Def American, a label that would become synonymous with metal music.

Rubin set the trend for Def American early in its life. Slayer came cross-country, as did the rights for Reign in Blood, an album whose legal status was complicated by the decision of multiple distributors not to release it. Also in the early sweep of Def American bands were Danzig, the new metal project from former Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig. Their 1988 eponymous debut was Def American’s first release, and Rubin’s first production credit on the new label. Also that year came South Of Heaven, Slayer’s second album with the producer and a piece of work that was markedly and stylistically different to their ’86 opus. The band knew that they could not outdo the brilliance of Reign of Blood pound for pound, so rather than inviting comparison, they changed their approach, slowing their songs down and moving more towards a melodic feel. Again, Rubin was fingered as a key component in the transformation, giving the band the palette that such a stylistic transformation requires.

The late eighties and early nineties continued to be a flourishing period for Rubin, who produced albums by Run-D.M.C., Wolfsbane and the controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay, among others. Rubin’s next step to immortality though, would be taken in 1991, when he took hold of a band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Chili Peppers had recently emerged from the overproduced nightmare that was Mother’s Milk and were looking for a producer who could better represent the truth of their music. Being signed to Warner Brothers, who were, at this time, Def American’s distributors, Rubin was an obvious choice to man the booth for their next album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The band was immediately taken by his attitude towards making music. He was far more open to suggestion than the previous producers with whom the band had worked, who seemed to have their own idea how things should be done and would brook no intervention. They also liked Rubin because he was clearly knowledgeable and easily approachable and would be able to offer them advice on how to combat their shortfalls in the studio.

Rubin, for his part, felt that a change of scene would aid the band during the recording process and took them away to Harry Houdini’s house for the duration of the album sessions. A recording studio was set up within the confines of the mansion and everybody involved in the recording stayed onsite from start to finish. As a result, the crew spent over a month holed up in the creepy old house. This seemed to put some of the band at ease, Anthony Kiedis remarking later that the calm and peace generated by being self-contained during the recording process had aided him in completing the record’s lyrics, a task that he had previously found difficult.

The band and producer gelled instantly and the Chili’s initial suspicions proved to be absolutely correct. Rubin was invaluable during the recording process, helping the band arrange the drum parts and suggesting instrumental arrangements, as well as contributing guitar parts and acting as a sounding board for Kiedis’ lyrics. This contribution is particularly apparent in “The Greeting Song”, where the producer suggested that Kiedis go away and write a lyric focusing solely around girls and cars. Rubin also encouraged Kiedis to transform a verse he happened across in his notebook into a song, as he believed that it was far too good not to be included on the album. Kiedis was reluctant as he felt it was too personal and too dissimilar to the bands sound, but Rubin insisted. The verse became “Under the Bridge”, which is now one of the Chili Peppers’ best-loved songs. The album did well in the charts and was happily received, by and large, by the critics, many of whom pointed to Rubin’s influence in the soaring quality of the band’s output.

1993 was, perhaps, Rubin’s defining year. It was the year that he signed Johnny Cash to his newly re-christened American Recordings. In retrospect, this might have been the most inspired signing ever made by a modern era label chief but, at the time, it was greeted with curiosity at best and outright derision at worst. Cash had been dropped by Columbia in 1987, despite having built their Nashville division practically single-handed and, as a result, many believed that his career was, for all intents and purposes, over. He was the wrong side of fifty and, when a stint with Mercury records failed to bear fruit, was as good as washed out. He was seen as an annoying irrelevance by the music industry at large, since he was deemed to be too outmoded to appeal to the youth of the day. He would be signing with a producer and label head that had made his career out of hard rock and rap. What on earth would they be able to do with a country singer? Rubin, however, had faith that he was best placed to make the Man in Black relevant again and signed Cash to a contract.

The Cash recordings would change the way that both men worked. Believing that Cash’s age old bugbear – that he sounded better stripped down – was true, Rubin ditched the recording studio setup entirely and upped sticks to Cash’s front room, where he recorded the singer and his guitar and nothing else. Cash performed some new compositions, but also re-imagined older songs and performed cover versions of acclaimed modern artists, many of whom were brought on board by Rubin. Label mate Glenn Danzig wrote the song “Thirteen”, in almost as many minutes and, at Rubin’s behest, Tom Waits composed one of his greatest modern numbers, “Down There by The Train” specifically with Cash in mind.

The product of those first few sessions, American Recordings, was instantly praised by critics, who warmed to Rubin’s stark, stripped down production and Cash’s back to basics performance. Cash and Rubin followed the album in 1996 with Unchained, which despite featuring Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, maintained the sparse feel of the previous release, and in 2000 recorded American III: Solitary Man, which was an album of defiance against Cash’s worsening health.

In 2002, the pair would release American IV: The Man Comes Around, which was the absolute apex of their work together. Cash, by this point, had deteriorated significantly and Rubin was tasked with coaxing performances out of him, very often having to wait until he was physically able to provide his vocal and jumping on the opportunity. This adds a solemn air to the album, which, as I’ve said elsewhere on this site, sounds very much like a man coming to terms with his own mortality. Many would be tempted to compensate with sonic trickery. Cash’s voice sounds rickety and he is clearly struggling through his ailments at various points, and I doubt many would have the insight to let that vocal stand as a testament to itself. As far as this recording at least is concerned, Rubin’s willingness to do nothing exponentially lifts the value of the album. This is Cash’s masterpiece and, in some ways, perhaps it is Rubin’s also. Simply by sitting and recording, he saved Cash’s legacy. He made the coolest man in music cool again and allowed a new demographic, who would normally run from an aging country singer, to appreciate his brilliance.

Inspired by his experiences with Cash, Rubin began tackling work by more mainstream artists. Since the mid-nineties, he has overseen recordings by the Dixie Chicks, Tom Petty and Shakira, as well as revitalizing Neil Diamond’s career and introducing him to a new generation. Of course, he didn’t stray too far from his traditional fare, sitting behind the desk for System of a Down, Slipknot, Metallica and Audioslave.

As we enter 2009, there is still a huge future for the forty-two year old. Recently made head of Columbia records, he will be asked to divert more of his time to running a label and, presumably, will leave his duties as a producer, for the most part, behind. Unlike so many who leave their career behind them, he can do so safe in the knowledge that his legacy is absolutely secure. Who knows what the future holds – all we can say is that, for Frederick Jay Rubin, the past at least is glorious.

Why Rick Rubin Was Selected

Rubin is, quite simply, one of the most important figures in modern music. He is the first and, at present, only non-musician to be inducted into our Hall, and that accolade speaks for itself. As a producer, he has shaped the sound of so many bands and individuals, giving them the knowledge and encouragement to excel. He has proven to be almost superhuman in his ability to adapt across multiple genres and the versatility of his work is without parallel. Without Rick Rubin, it is quite possible that bands that have flourished and gone on to become mega stars would have been forgotten. Would the Red Hot Chili Peppers be a worldwide force had it not been for his work on Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication? Would Johnny Cash be so revered had it not been for the final run of albums on American? He has the ability to let you to make your own music in your own way and yet, in doing so, manages to draw out something otherworldly.

As an executive, he built up two labels from scratch, with an uncanny knack for catching the Zeitgeist and signing the right bands at the right time. With Def Jam, he gave New York Hip-Hop a home and brought the world Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C and the Beastie Boys. With American, he continued to offer an outlet for the displaced, the misunderstood and the forgotten. I suppose, bearing all this in mind, it is not fair to ask why Rick Rubin was selected. The more pertinent question is “how could we ever justify not selecting him?”


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411Mania Staff
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