Rick Rubin: My Life in 21 Songs – Rolling Stone
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Rick Rubin: My Life in 21 Songs

From LL Cool J to Kanye West, Slayer to Tom Petty, Johnny Cash to Dixie Chicks, producer reflects on more than three decades of challenging music’s status quo

Rick Rubin; My life 21 songs

Rick Rubin reflects on more than three decades of pushing the boundaries of rap, rock, metal and country

Annabel Mehran

Rick Rubin's discography reads like a who's who of popular music over the past three decades: Eminem, Metallica, Dixie Chicks. The producer has stood at the vanguards of hip-hop and thrash metal, co-founding Def Jam while still in his NYU dorm room and later his own American Recordings, and he would later use his inquisitive, "what if?" approach to inspiring country, rock and pop artists to create chart-topping recordings. He gave LL Cool J a beat, urged Run-DMC and Aerosmith to "Walk This Way," convinced Johnny Cash to love "Hurt" and brought Adele a perfect "Lovesong." He's won eight Grammys and two CMAs along the way.

"I don't really have any control over what's going to happen with a recording," Rubin tells Rolling Stone. "It's more just experimentation and waiting for that moment when your breath gets taken away. It's an exciting, exhilarating thing when it happens. But it's not anything to master. You just have to recognize it when it happens and protect it evaporating. It takes luck, patience, a strong work ethic and being willing to do whatever it takes for it to be great. It's a bit of a process we have to go through to get there."

When the producer, now age 52, reflects on his career, he speaks with confidence and gentleness, perhaps a side effect of practicing transcendental meditation since he was a teenager. He grew up in Long Island, New York, and still sports the beard he started growing around the start of his career.

He will be honored tonight by the Recording Academy Producers and Engineers Wing in Los Angeles as part of Grammy Week. Past producers whom the Recording Academy has honored in this way include Quincy Jones, Ahmet Ertegun, Jimmy Iovine and Nile Rodgers, among others. When asked what the honor will mean to him, he says it's difficult to put into words.

What's easy for him talk about, though, is his history. Going back to the first record he produced, T La Rock and Jazzy Jay's syncopated 1984 single, "It's Yours," through his minimalist approach on Kanye West's 2013 LP, Yeezus, Rubin can deftly articulate how he worked with artists to help them make career-defining (and sometimes career-redefining) records.

"I don't really think that much about how I got here," he says. "I just show up and try to make music that excites me. Sometimes there will be an idea that'll make a record great, sometimes it'll just be patiently waiting for a magic occurrence to happen or setting the stage to allow it to happen."

Here, he tells the stories behind 21 of his most remarkable recordings, as well as the story of how he left his New York dorm for California and how he realized that producing albums could actually be a career.

metallica

Metallica, “The Day That Never Comes” (2008)

They had made that movie, Some Kind of Monster, which I thought was really bold of them to make, because it showed them lost. The main goal of our work together was to get them to re-embrace being Metallica, feeling OK to be a heavy metal band. In some ways, they had already done that, but before that, they had tried to reinvent themselves in different ways. I tried to get them to re-engage with everything everybody fell in love with, with Metallica, in the first place. I got them to listen to the music that they were listening to at the time that they made Master of Puppets, those influences. I asked them to live with those influences and spend more time playing together as a band.

They'd fallen into a trap of using the studio more as an instrument and punching in parts to get the perfection they were looking for than they were getting through raw performance power. It was about getting them to not try ideas by editing them together with a machine, but to try playing them in different orders to see what they felt like. And they really ended up getting back to being a band.

Anytime Lars would want to sit at the computer and try and write, I would insist that he and the band would all play together [laughs]. Some of it was just a habit for them. It's easy to try a lot of ideas if you don't have to play them. But if you're playing one part and it's going to go into the next part, you might play the first part or the second part slightly differently, and the way that they bleed into each other or oppose each other can happen in a way that's musical. You can hear that here. That doesn't happen when you randomly click pieces together.

The other writing experiment I challenged them with was, "Imagine there was no such band as Metallica. Imagine you guys are in the band that you are in, this band, and you're going to play in a Battle of the Bands. You want to blow people away. What does that sound like? Without the baggage of thinking it needs to be any certain thing, what is the thing that you feel like will tear the heads off of the audience?" It really worked out good. I love that whole Death Magnetic album.

Rick Rubin; My life 21 songs

Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You” (2009)

"I and Love and You" is the first song on the first album we worked on together. I found early on that the Avett Brothers wrote these great parts but then put them together into songs where the individual parts didn't sound the best where they were placed. So a lot of our work together was simplifying and distilling the songs down to the essence of them. Once the essence was established, we expanded on that instead of making a left turn. 

"I and Love and You" is a really beautiful example of a song that builds on a theme in a coherent way. We all worked on the arrangement together, and I would usually talk about it in a more architectural way, thinking, "OK, an event needs to happen at this point." Then they would say, "Oh, what about backup vocals?" And they would come up with a part to go there. Or I'd say, "This section needs to grow more and sound fuller." And they would say, "We could try strings, we could try piano." They would try different things to fill it out and make it build the way that it does.

I love the way that song works; it's a beautiful song. And every time I hear it, it hits me in an emotional way. It's the beauty of thei