“Can’t you just hear Ringo on this?”
Rick Rubin is sitting at the back of Luna Park, a hip Los Angeles nightclub, drumming along on his table as the ’60s British folk demigod Donovan tries out new material. As he listens, Rubin jots down notes, pondering how best to frame the Hurdy Gurdy Man’s music in 1995. After the show, Donovan comes over to Rubin’s table for a critique. When Rubin mentions getting Starr to drum on the singer’s comeback album, which Rubin is producing, Donovan delights his mystically minded producer with tales of hanging with the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Rick Rubin and Donovan. Once, the match might have seemed unthinkable. A punk-loving upper-middle-class Jewish boy from New York’s Long Island, Rubin was one of the first white kids in America to catch the rap bug. Setting up operations in his New York University dorm room in the early ’80s, he soon became a hip-hop tycoon as co-owner, with Russell Simmons, of Def Jam Records. Rubin also produced Run-D.M.C.’s influential Raising Hell album and the Beastie Boys’ groundbreaking Licensed to Ill. In 1987 he split with Simmons, moved to L.A. and formed his own label, Def American. At American – he dropped the Def in 1992 – he’s brought you Slayer, Andrew Dice Clay, Sir Mix-a-Lot, the Black Crowes, Danzig, Johnny Cash, the Jayhawks and singer/songwriter Pete Droge. As a producer, he worked on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1991 breakthrough, BloodSugarSexMagik; Johnny : Cash’s American Recordings; and Tom Petty’s Wildflowers. In addition to producing Donovan for American, he recently wrapped up the the new Chili Peppers album, One Hot Minute.
“He’s extremely open-minded in his tastes,” Petty says of Rubin. “It’s almost unbelievable he could dig Slayer so much and also be into the Mamas and the Papas. I never realized the 70s had any music until I started hanging out with Rick. I’d written this song ‘Whatever Happened to Lonesome Dave,’ about the guy from Foghat, and Rick got all excited. He said, ‘Wow, I love Foghat.’ And I had to tell him I’d never : listened to Foghat. So, of course, the next day he came over with a whole video of Foghat, and there I was watching an entire Foghat concert. The funny thing is, I came out with a slight appreciation for Foghat.”
The 32-year-old Rubin has also become a legendary figure around his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. He’s often seen driving a black Rolls-Royce around town, music blasting from its open windows. A likable bundle of contradictions, he talks freely about everything from New Age philosophy to the pro-wrestling federation he owns. “Rick’s a great businessman because he’s selling music,” says producer George Drakoulias (Black Crowes, Jayhawks), who’s watched Rubin wheel and deal since their days together at NYU. “If Rick were selling shoes, I’m not sure the whole thing would work.”
How would you define what you do as a producer?
Serve the song, and help the artist get across. It’s helping the artist pick the material, arranging the material as best you can and getting it over performance-wise in a way that feels right.
Unlike Phil Spector, you’re not thought of as someone who comes into the studio to give an artist “the Rick Rubin sound.” Is that intentional?
I guess so. There’s a certain consistency to most of the records, a thread that runs through them that may not necessarily be a “sound.” I think there is. I hope there is.
Do you ever try to re-create the sound of another era?
Not re-create, but there are tricks you can adopt – like Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was a straight-ahead folk thing. I thought we should give it the feel of an old Steve Miller song. I don’t think it sounds like Steve Miller, but the whole history of music is a catalog to look through and say, “That’s a good feel.”
As an old school punk fan, do you relate to younger bands like Green Day and Offspring?
Not really. Then again, I never thought any of the Seattle bands or the latter-day punk bands would mean that much, just because they were all things I’d heard before and seemed to be better the first time around – like industrial music. That’s been around for, like, 12 years, and it wasn’t until Nine Inch Nails came along that Trent [Reznor] has been able to transcend the genre. Maybe the same thing goes for punk. Maybe it took Kurt Cobain to break down the wall and bring punk rock to the mainstream. But – to a degree – the Beastie Boys did that, too. Even though they did it in the form of rap, it was really punk energy. Rap to me was always the black punk rock. Maybe that’s why I’m less interested in rap now – because it’s grown away from that.
When did you lose interest in rap?
Probably between the first and second Public Enemy albums. But I don’t feel so much like I lost interest in rap as much as rap abandoned me. What I liked about rap – that sense of community with people trying to make the best records, either for artistic or competitive reasons – became a way to make money. When I started, nobody had really made any money doing it, so that wasn’t the goal. As it got bigger, it got less interesting. The new stuff began to sound like people capitalizing on what someone else had done. The intentions seemed wrong.
Why did your relationship with the Beastie Boys sour?
Eventually it turned into a money thing, but I think it started more from [my] getting credit for the music, and people making them look like they were my puppets.
What do you think of their records since then?
I like every record they’ve made, but I don’t think it’s been until these last two records that we’ve really heard the Beastie Boys. I think I had a big influence on the first record, and Matt Dike had a big influence on the second one [Paul’s Boutique], which I loved. I think the last two records have really been the Beastie Boys, and they’re amazing.
What other rap records have connected with you lately?
They are few and far between. I think the best new rap artist is Beck. He’s my favorite. He’s amazing. I like everything he’s put out.
You arranged for Beck to open for Johnny Cash a while back. How did that work out?
It was amazing to see Beck teetering on the brink of brilliance and total destruction. Half the people were young and ready to be blown away. Half were grown-up Cash fans who wanted nothing to do with him. Interesting mob psychology. I sent Cash a tape of Beck in advance, and he hated it. But backstage after Beck’s set, he said, “You know, he’s good.”
As someone who’s enjoyed a lot of success doing things that were once considered alternative, are you surprised at how things have turned around?
It’s strange. What was left of center is now the center. I guess that’s why it’s time for folk records again. The most punk-rock thing you could do now is make a folk record.
Some people have credited you with masterminding the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ breakthrough. Did you persuade them to do ”Under the Bridge”?
Not at all. I was at Anthony [Kiedis’] house looking through his book of lyrics and asked him, “What is this one?” He sang it to me, and I thought it was great and we should record it. He said, “Really? Do you think it’s OK?” It was just a matter of saying that anything you do that’s good is OK. You don’t have to think about whether it fits into the context of the Chili Peppers.
Do you talk records out with the artist before you make them?
Very much so, just to make sure we’re on the same wavelength. Otherwise it would be frustrating for everybody.
And does the album usually end up following the plan?
They take off in their own directions. It’s never exact. With Petty we wanted to keep the integrity of the songs. Full Moon Fever was the record that turned me on to Tom. Before that, I was into more extreme things. We talked about having songs as good as that but to make it more of a rock record, less of a pop record, with more interaction among the players. And it came out kind of like that.
With projects like Cash and Donovan, do you worry about getting pegged as a saver of aging legends?
I’ve always just made the records I wanted to make and not given the rest of it too much thought. That approach has worked for me. The fact that I’m making a Donovan record and a Chili Peppers record at the same time just makes it a little more fun.
Do you ever get intimidated trying to tell someone like Johnny Cash what to do?
Not at all. The way I look at my job, it’s not so much a matter of telling anyone anything, it’s more a matter of making suggestions. It rarely gets to the point of being difficult.
Tom Petty told me you get out of bed in the morning for music. Do you agree?
I stay in bed in the morning for music [laughs]. That’s interesting. It really does engulf me. Not long ago I was driving in my car, listening to “I Believe in You,” by Neil Young, and it was like this magical moment where I was, like, inside the music. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I’d love to do anything with Neil Young. If there’s anyone to be intimidated by, it’s him.
Anyone else on your wish list?
I would really like to make a Nine Inch Nails record. I think I could help [Reznor] make a really good record, one different than he could make on his own.
Tell me about Infinite Zero, the reissue label you started with Henry Rollins. How did it come about?
I went to lunch with Henry, and he was telling me someone ought to be doing something like this. We decided to just do it ourselves. I don’t think there will be much money in it, but there are records that really deserve to be out that weren’t – like the first Gang of Four album, James White and the Blacks, the Contortions. We’re putting out Trouble Funk’s live album, the best go-go record there is.
You’ve been a harsh critic of censorship. Do you regret anything you’ve put out?
I think everything deserves to exist. The censorship issues of the moment evaporate and go away. Good things, different things, are always pushed down, pushed away. There were a lot of times when people questioned what I’ve done. When I stopped making rap records and started making rock records – I’d just left Def Jam and started working with Geffen – people thought I was wasting my time. But I just kept on trying to do things that interest me.
With your edgier acts like Danzig and Slayer — could either of them write a song that offends you?
Nothing really outrages me that much. I’m more offended by bad work than I am by politically incorrect work. When someone makes a bad record, that offends me.
Is that why you put out all those Andrew Dice Clay albums?
I’m a fan. I think he’s really funny.
Did controversy wreck his career?
No, I think what hurt his career most was making a movie [The Adventures of Ford Fairlane] that wasn’t very good. I think that hurt him bad.
How did your relationship with Russell Simmons work?
Our relationship never ceased to work. We’ve been good friends since the day we met. The reason our partnership split had to do with us having different business and creative opinions, but we always liked each other. He’s a great promotion man. The reason our partnership worked was that he made it real. He was an established person in the rap community, and I was a kid in a dorm. He gave me credibility.
Now that you’re a rich guy, how do you keep your street sensibility?
I don’t try to. Luckily, because I’ve made what people consider credible records, a lot of new artists came up listening to my stuff. That’s a good place to start from.
Meditating is an important part of your life. Do you think that the Beatles were really on to something with the maharishi?
They definitely were. I don’t want to say it’s not for everyone, because I think it is. George Harrison’s still actively involved. Last time he was in town, I went with him to the Bodhi Tree bookstore, and he showed me a book that inspired him to write “My Sweet Lord.”
Do you find a meditative quality to the aural assault of bands like Slayer?
Yes. If you’re a 14-year-old kid, you put on a Slayer record, and it takes you over in the way that meditation can. You can’t really think of anything else.
Do you worry about the message Slayer send out to alienated and disenfranchised 14-year-olds?
The alienated and the disenfranchised audience is the history of rock & roll. Rock is based on alienation and disenfranchisement and hating your parents and the Man – whatever you choose. It’s a rebellious form of music The envelope always gets pushed. A new Slayer record probably brings more joy to a disenfranchised kid than anything else. I’ve seen a lot of really unhappy people at Slayer shows, people who have nothing to live for. Music’s always a reflection of where we are.