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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.

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Eminem, “Berzerk” (2013)

That was a case where Eminem said, "Let's make one of those old records that we grew up on." We recorded it around a sample he made of someone on the news saying "go berserk." We built the beat first, and he wrote to the beat, all starting with that little clip of "go berserk." [Laughs] That was his inspiration. Then we programmed it on an 808 drum machine and used [Billy Squier's] "The Stroke" sample liberally. I played guitar, and we programmed everything else. It was a good one.

It was another one where he did the vocals by himself with no one watching in the room. Once he raps to a beat, you can't change anything. It's almost like all the drops, all the moves in the song have to happen before he writes to it because he writes into the music in a way that makes it hard to change anything after he raps. He uses his voice as another instrument that plays off of all the different rhythms going on in the track.

He's a real, unbelievable student of hip-hop. He's maybe the most obsessive artist I've ever worked with in terms of someone who just full-time is writing rhymes. It's what he does.

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Black Sabbath, “God Is Dead?” (2013)

I got together with them originally in 2001, and they went off to do some jamming and for whatever reason, nothing really came together. They called and said, "It's not really happening." The muse didn't arrive for them. 

This time, I tried to get them to work in the way they used to work, where a lot of material would happen through jamming. So they would have a part to start from like a jazz band, so Tony [Iommi] would have one or two main riffs and then take it into different directions. I sort of picked the main riffs for them to start with together, and then they'd just jam and see what direction they went into. So the songs are very intuitive, not organized like regular songs. They really move more based on just improvisational principles, and that comes through on this song.

People think of them as heavy metal, but they're really a rock band, and they're really a progressive rock band in the same way that Led Zeppelin is. So much of it is rooted in blues and improvisation. The people who have come in their wake don't have the skill set that they have. It's much more like jazz the way Black Sabbath play.

There were always antics, and they would always sort of make fun of each other and make each other laugh, and clearly Ozzy is very, very funny all the time and just great to be around. They're really nice people. We laughed a lot. That whole record was so much fun. How do these guys just start a riff and it falls right into that sound? It's in them [laughs]. It's unbelievable.

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Kanye West, “Bound 2” (2013)

That's a good one. The whole song was written without that main sample; it was a last-minute thing. The song had kind of a lot of R&B music in it. And Kanye gave marching orders of "Take out anything you want, but don't add. Just take away." Like, "OK." And before that, we listened to the sample together and thought, "Hmm, maybe there's a way to integrate this into the song." So we started by getting the sample to work in the song, and then taking out as much stuff as we could, and then in the chorus reducing what was this whole musical thing, just this sort of one ugly, distorted bass note. I was thinking like Alan Vega and Suicide, that kind of noise-synth minimal vibe. So that was the idea behind the chorus: Take it from this sort of R&B thing and turn it into this kind of post-punk, edge thing. And the lyrics he wrote were so good and funny. It just turned into a really good record [laughs]. The sample is so good.

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