Few if any in the music industry can boast of a resume — or a beard — as impressive as that belonging to Rick Rubin. Besides co-founding (with Russell Simmons) seminal rap label Def Jam Records in 1984, presently owning star-stocked American Recordings and engineering countless careers (the Black Crowes, the Jayhawks, the Beastie Boys) and comebacks (Johnny Cash), he’s personally produced a preponderance of the greater records made in the past two decades.
Were NASA to launch another Voyager into orbit, this time hoping only to show aliens how earthlings rap and rock, a bunch of Rubin’s work would likely make the trip: Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill, Slayer’s Reign in Blood, the Cult’s Electric, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and so on.
However, Rubin’s fortune and prestige have not come without controversy. Lawsuits, insults and claims of bulldog tactics have surrounded the enigmatic board wizard. Most recently, the Black Crowes, on VH1’s bio-show Behind the Music, claimed Rubin tried to strong-arm creative aspects of their career (including a forced name and image makeover) and take artistic credit for projects he wasn’t immediately involved in.
Rubin, thirty-seven, recently completed System of Down’s critically acclaimed (and Number One debuting) second album, Toxicity, and has since gone to work on the debut from that still-nameless new band consisting of Chris Cornell and three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine. (Rubin says the well-guarded album sounds “phenomenal.”)
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Beyond that, he’ll helm the Black Sabbath reunion album and the next Chili Peppers joint.
With his Grizzly Adams facial wool and permanently attached dark glasses, Rubin’s among the most instantly recognizable characters in the business, yet he rarely speaks at length with media folk.
Sometimes Anthony Kiedis has a tough time, you know, staying in key when the Chilis play live. Is recording his vocals difficult?
I don’t think so. He’s a great singer. We make sure his monitoring is good and he can hear himself well, and he does a great job.
So you don’t have to sort of meticulously piece together his vocal tracks?
No more than anyone else. With any singer I work with, we always go for greatness. They always sing a lot, and we’re always constantly improving upon the performances, forever. Anthony is a pleasure to work with and a great singer.
Did you see the Black Crowes’ Behind the Music, and were you pissed?
I did see it. It didn’t make me feel good, but knowing who was saying what and what they’re like and what they’ve said about other people, it’s almost like there’s nobody safe. So I didn’t feel like I was singled out. I’ve heard the brothers say things about each other that were as unpleasant or worse than what they said about me.
Was what they said true?
I don’t believe a lot of what they said was true. I can’t say they don’t believe it’s true.
Not too long ago, [the Beastie Boys’] Ad-Rock apologized for what he called “shitty, ignorant things we said on our first album” [1986’s Licensed to Ill, originally titled Don’t Be a Faggot]. Do you regret your role in that album? Do you think his apology was necessary?
I have no regrets at all. Listening back to it, you can be horrified by some of the things that were said, but in the spirit it was done in at the time, it was just fun. Nothing was done with any malice or negative intent. There was a certain amount of locker-room humor, guys trying to make each other laugh. Whatever got a rise, made it to the record.
Obviously he felt the need to [apologize], and I could never judge him on that. If he felt a sense of freedom by doing that, all the power to him. People should do whatever they need to do to feel good. I hope that by doing that, it gave him some solace.
When college-age white kids heavily associate themselves with hip-hop and its surrounding culture — as both yourself and the Beasties did — there’s typically this assumption of deep-seeded guilt about being part of the white race. Did you feel that way and did you feel you could purge that guilt by being into something more ethnic or “down”?
Not at all. That wasn’t the case at all for me. I liked punk rock music and for me, hip-hop was black punk, and I like white punk and black punk equally. I like fringe music. It just seemed like, at the moment in time while I was at NYU, the punk scene was kind of waning and the hip-hop scene was thriving. If it had been five years before, I probably would have produced punk rock first.
Did you know right away that working with Limp Bizkit wasn’t gonna work [Rubin’s was initially announced as producer for the band’s third album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water]? Who made the decision to terminate the sessions?
I don’t know what happened. We never really got started. We sat in a rehearsal room for a couple of days. They were just starting to write songs, and I then got a call saying, “I think we wanna make the record ourselves.” That’s it.
Which guitarist that you’ve recorded is the biggest tone freak?
I would say that [AC/DC’s] Malcolm Young (Rubin handled 1995’s Ballbreaker) is very concerned with his guitar tone. I remember the first day we worked together he told me that before he came to the studio he tested 100 different Marshall heads before he selected the one that was right for him.
I know you meditated with Serj [System of a Down singer Tankian] while making their new album. Did you ever pump iron with Danzig while making any of his albums?
Never did. It probably would’ve benefited me now.
Did you ever wanna tell [Cult singer] Ian Astbury, “Enough with the American- Indian imagery already!”
To be honest, until you just said that, I never even made that connection that some of those songs were about Indian stuff. I know that Ian is obsessed with American Indians, but I also know he’s obsessed with U-Boats and a lot of different stuff so I never pigeonholed that as being his big trip.
How has the advent of [cut-and-paste, computerized production software] ProTools aided or hindered the recording process?
I think it’s a really good tool. If you use it as a supportive tool, you can get a lot of stuff done that you couldn’t before, and you can get some stuff done quicker than before. It makes a lot of things, editing, very easy. I think there’s an over-reliance on it to a point where a lot of the human element is being taken out of music, but that’s the choice of the people who are using it. You don’t have to use it that way.
Browsing through your credits, the association that seems oddest is Sir Mix-A-Lot [1991’s Mack Daddy, 1994’s Chief Boot Knocka, 1996’s Return of the Bumpasaurus]. Were you, or are you still, a proponent of booty-rap? Do you like big butts?
I like great music, and I think Mix-A-Lot is a tremendous artist. He’s a great entertainer. From the first time I ever heard him, I just loved him.
Has anyone ever gotten violent with you during recording sessions? What’s the most heated things have become?
I worked with one artist, who I won’t name, who was frustrated with themselves to the point of throwing down their guitar and storming out of the room, but that’s as much I’ve ever seen.
Is being a celebrity producer odd? Should the focus always be on the artist or band themselves? Are you comfortable with your level of notoriety?
It’s weird, a little unusual. But I’m obviously pleased that people recognize the work I’ve done. It makes me feel good. I work hard. It’s nice when people come up to me and say, “I love your records.”
You’re driven around L.A. in a Bentley, right? One would think if you’ve got enough cheese to buy one of those things, you’d want to drive it as well.
I like to either meditate in the car or talk on the phone, make notes and stuff. I’m also, to be honest, pretty distracted mentally most of the time, and I’m not the greatest driver.
Was your decision to work with Johnny Cash [1994’s American Recordings], the sort of thing where you thought, “I, Rick Rubin, can bring Johnny Cash back!”
Not at all. It was really a feeling of, “This guy is a true American legend, and it feels like he’s in a place where he’s not really being taken care of or cared about.” It was an ugly thing to me. I felt like he deserved to be treated better than he was being treated.
How big of a part does your beard play in the production of any given album?
I would say it looms heavy over projects.
Does it give you some kind of security? Do you feel you’d be naked without it?
I’ve grown very attached to it over the years. It’s funny you bring this up because the other day I had a dream that I cut my beard off — by mistake! I was in the dissociated state in the dream. I didn’t know what I was doing and part of that included cutting my beard off.
Did you wake up afraid?
I don’t know if I was afraid, but I felt weird.