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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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Jay Z, “99 Problems” (2004)

Jay Z was coming out of retirement and asking different producers that he liked to each do a track. We went in several times. He had started something that was more rooted in the old Def Jam sound. He suggested using 808s, so we came up with a polyrhythmic beat that functions in a similar way to "Going Back to Cali."

The idea for the song was Chris Rock's idea. He said, "Ice-T has a song called '99 Problems.' It's a great title: 'I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one.' It's a great phrase. Jay Z could make a great record out of that." I told that to Jay, and he wrote the song based on the title. The idea was, it's the opposite song. In the Ice-T original song, it's all about the girls. Our idea was, "OK, this will be a song with the same hook about the problems."

He took the track in the back of the room and played it over and over again and wrote whole complicated verses in his head. It took him about half an hour. And he'd run in the other room and just do it several times, and each time he did it, the inflection and flow would be different. It would fit the beat differently, or he'd emphasize different words. Each one was its own unique performance. He did that for each of the verses: He'd listen, write and record. I'd played him the beat at night, and the next day he came in with a page of lyrics. He said it was the first time he had ever physically wrote anything down before for any record. He was just very inspired by that beat, and it was a miraculous thing to behold.

After he did the vocals, we did some more scratching and drops and just kind of made it into the record that it is. The guitars were a combination of old records that were sped up or slowed down, scratched in, or in some cases, we played guitars and then made a disc and scratched them in with a digital turntable. It was all processed and made new.

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The Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice” (2006)

We did this at a very emotional time for them. They had gone from being the biggest female group in the world, in history actually, to being completely, in one fell swoop, blacklisted [after Natalie Maines said she was "ashamed" President Bush was from Texas]. All country radio stations just turned them off. In one day, they went from being everywhere to being nowhere. People were burning their records, making death threats. It really shook them up.

They didn't write much of their previous records; they used songs by songwriters. When we got together to make the album, the premise was they were going to write all the songs. They would work with songwriters to help make them as good as they could be, but the content had to be rooted in their real experience. So "Not ready to make nice/Not ready to back down … I'm mad as hell" was really how they were feeling. And it was a very bold of Natalie in particular to want to say those words in such a heated environment. It was a very inflammatory song. They were sticking to their guns, like, "We didn't do anything wrong. We believe in what we say, and we're free to say what we believe."

So it was a very empowering moment, creating that song. The way it starts, "Forgive, sounds good/Forget, I don't think I could," and it's somber, then builds this grand statement, I love the way the song works.

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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.

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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 their lyrics that does that.

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Adele, “Lovesong” (2011)

Adele said that she wanted to do a cover, in addition to the songs that she had written. There was a demo that I had done of the Cure's "Lovesong" in a bossa nova style, originally because Barbra Streisand wanted to make a bossa nova record, so I came up with modern songs that would work in that style and made a demo. And I made the demo for that purpose but didn't end up working with Barbra Streisand. I played it for Adele, and she loved it. She was like, "Let's definitely do that."

She sang it so beautifully as well. I mean, she sings everything so beautifully. You don't have to do anything to get her to sing great. You just have to set up a mic and let her sing it. She sang it so much, when we worked on it; when the band was playing it, she sang. She must have sung the song, I don't know, 30 times in a row. And every time was astounding.

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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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