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.