In the studio, Rick Rubin usually exudes a Zen-like calm; in recent years, you might have seen him adopting a modified Lotus position during the Yeezus sessions, or going full supine (sans shoes) while Jay Z was making Magna Carta. In his daily life, he’s an avid practitioner of transcendental mediation – a fact that, when coupled with his flowing beard and penchant for being photographed mid-pose, helps creates a rather convenient narrative: He is the “Rock & Roll Buddha“, the man too decompressed to be stressed.
But here’s something that’ll shake your chakras: Rubin is also a massive pro-wrestling fan, a lifelong obsessive who grew up idolizing “Superstar” Billy Graham and Ivan Putski, once backed a “blood and guts” Southern wrestling federation and now sits ringside at seemingly every WWE event on the West Coast. There have even been moments when his fandom bled into his business – what were the Beastie Boys, if not Def Jam’s first heel stable?
Still buzzing from the events of last month’s WrestleMania (of course he was there), Rubin spoke with Rolling Stone about growing up a grappling fanatic, embracing the sheer ridiculousness of Ric Flair, the worst part of funding a federation and how “Rowdy” Roddy Piper helped turn the Beastie Boys heel.
When did you first become obsessed with professional wrestling?
I was very young. The very first promotion I ever saw was called the IWA, a short-lived New York independent that was kind of competition for the WWWF, and it had guys like Tex McKenzie and Mil Máscaras. Then I started watching the WWWF, they had an hour-long show – I think it was on Saturday nights – and I watched that for several years. And then I started watching lucha libre in Spanish, coming from the Olympic Auditorium, and there I would have seen Roddy Piper for the first time, Chavo Guerrero Sr.; it was very exciting, there were more masked guys and more acrobatics. It felt like outsider entertainment, like it was on the fringes of society.
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I would go see wrestling all the time, too. I went to Nassau Coliseum, Madison Square Garden every month – I had a subscription to wrestling at the Garden, so I had a pair of tickets for every match, same seats, for my whole high-school life. And I remember going to Sunnyside, Queens. There was an arena there, more like a gym, but with bleachers, and there was something interesting about seeing wrestling on that scale. And as a kid, I remember going to Disney World with my parents, and I was really insistent that we figured out how far Disney was from wrestling, so we could see Dusty Rhodes! I used to watch Championship Wrestling from Florida with Gordon Solie, and the NWA on TBS, which was really my favorite – the Four Horsemen, Ric Flair, Jim Cornette. That was great; it was during a time when the WWE had kind of gone soft, and that felt like real rasslin’. The WWE wanted to appeal to kids, and there were more wrestlers like Koko B. Ware. It was kind of cartoon-y, less blood and guts and fighting for what’s right. I’ve always liked that outlaw aspect of wrestling.
It seems that “outlaw aspect” also influenced your career in music, especially during the early Def Jam/Def American days. Would you agree?
For sure. There’s no question that, early on, the Beastie Boys were very influenced by pro wrestling. One-hundred percent. The idea of being bad-guy rappers, saying really outlandish things in interviews, that all came from a love of pro wrestling. We didn’t say it because it was true – we said it because it was entertaining. To me, it was performance art; we were as inspired by pro wrestling and Monty Python as we were music. I remember showing them videotapes of old matches, because I was the fan, and we’d laugh about the stuff on there. And at that time, there was a wrestling hotline, and we’d call and listen to prerecorded messages from Roddy Piper and get inspired by the crazy things he’d say. Kerry King [from Slayer] was really into wrestling, too. Later, I worked with Andrew Dice Clay, and he was a perfect heel.
Eventually, you even got into the wrestling business, putting up the money to launch Smoky Mountain Wrestling in 1991. Would it be fair to say you enjoyed being a fan more than a financial backer?
When I met Jim Cornette, it was at a low point in wrestling, where WWE was really appealing to kids, and the NWA, which had previously been great, had been bought by Ted Turner and was starting to follow the WWE’s model. So, as a real wrestling fan, nobody was programming to me, and I felt there were probably other people who weren’t getting their real wrestling fix either. So that was the idea behind Smoky Mountain Wrestling. Cornette was really cool and he had the vision to do it, and I just supported it. Turns out, it’s a really difficult business; it’s not a fun business to be in if you don’t know about it. I only went to one house show. I remember that the culture was different, and a lot of the guys were great workers, but they weren’t in that top tier in terms of recognition, so we had to make up for that with wild action.
My comments to Jim were mainly, “Just make the storylines more extreme; less believable and more radically offensive.” I’ll say pretty much any time a man hits a woman with a chair, that’s really offensive, that gets heat. That’s really bad. Any time anyone takes advantage of anyone who can’t defend themselves, oh my God, you hate that person, and that builds that tension – you want to see the good guy conquer the bad guy, or at least you want to see how the bad guy will weasel their way out of it.
I’m always rooting for the heel. I get the feeling you are too…
I just think it’s funny when somebody is acting so bad, and it’s obviously so wrong. A great example is Ric Flair; you’d see him just getting destroyed in a match, begging, really acting un-champion like, getting beaten up for 20 minutes, and then he’d hit a low-blow and steal the victory. And then they’d interview him in the back and he’d have this big smile on his face, bragging about how he destroyed the guy. It’s unbelievable. Flair’s the ultimate. He’s the greatest character, says the funniest things; he’s incredible in the ring – the idea of him giving his five best shots to his opponent, and it having no effect on them, and his reaction to that, when it hits him that he’s done his best and it has no effect, and the way he runs away and the way he gets caught. It’s funny every time it happens, and as soon as he gets the upper hand, the arrogance kicks in. Plus, his falls, the delayed reactions, he takes three-or-four steps, as if everything is fine, and then the complete face-plant, he’s like a cartoon character. It’s so surreal. I love it when it’s surreal.
I love the commentators, too. Like, we’re watching this supposed sport, and we have a commentator calling the action, but then we also have a bad-guy commentator, who’s going to comment from the heel perspective; every time the bad guy does something horrible, the bad-guy commentator defends his actions. “He’s cheating!” “No, it’s gamesmanship!” It’s so funny. I don’t watch any other sports, because they’re never as entertaining – you can’t watch a baseball game and have the same emotional roller-coaster ride that you can watching pro wrestling. It’s not possible.
But do you feel that sometimes – especially recently – WWE relies too heavily on that heel dynamic? I’m thinking specifically of the big, bad McMahons and the “Authority” storyline. As a fan, it’s becoming a bit stale.
I think the writing is pretty good and I actually like the Authority. Did you watch WrestleMania? I thought Stephanie McMahon and Triple H’s speech was fantastic. Stephanie’s giving this heartfelt speech about all the people that were there, and seeing the growth of wrestling and then she goes, “Everyone has to thank me, because it couldn’t have happened without me and my husband Triple H” [laughs]. And then Triple H’s speech about, “Not only did I beat Sting tonight, but I beat everyone who ever came up against us. I beat 76,969 of you tonight.” It’s unbelievable! That’s so funny to me. I couldn’t write it! That extreme insanity is really appealing to me.
Speaking of “extreme,” you mentioned loving the “blood and guts” aspect of Southern wrestling, but were you also a fan of the stuff Paul Heyman was doing in ECW?
I honestly never really watched ECW, but I’ve seen some of the “Best Of” shows, and they had that guy Sabu who seemed really good. But I have to say, the idea of having somebody just bring a giant bag of tacks into the ring and spreading them everywhere, I don’t know if I necessarily like that – the idea of, “How far can we go?” I’m more drawn to the storyline; the emotional aspect of a match is what gets me, although I will say when a guy does a high spot, jumps off a 20-foot ladder through a table, it definitely reads. Even now, a wrestler like Luke Harper, he does a boot to the face, and every time he does it, it’s unbelievable that guys aren’t torn in half. Or when he threw Dean Ambrose through that ladder at WrestleMania? That was amazing.
Who are some other current wrestlers you enjoy watching?
I think Bray Wyatt’s really entertaining, I look forward to his matches. Randy Orton can create that drama; when something’s on the line, he can be really good. Seth Rollins, obviously. Dean Ambrose. I will say Daniel Bryan’s matches are exciting, you always know his matches are going to be really good. Brock Lesnar is unbelievable, he seems genuinely terrifying; the combo of him and Paul Heyman is unbeatable. It really seems like that guy could be champion for as long as he wants, if that’s how it worked. Cesaro’s great. Rusev is great. The flag, all of it, it’s so inflammatory. CM Punk, when he was doing the whole “pipe bomb” thing, that’s really when I started liking him. Before that, when he was “the Straight Edge wrestler,” it wasn’t speaking to me, but once the pipe-bomb era started, and he was with Paul Heyman, I was a fan. Also, Heyman’s fantastic; so funny, really easy to hate. He’s great.
Speaking of hatred, is there anyone on the roster you can’t stand?
Not really, it’s more the idea of the babyface; how they book them. It’s always interesting to me when they choose to keep something in a babyface that I would say nobody likes. John Cena, for example – I would say the main reason people don’t like him is the Five Knuckle Shuffle [laughs]. But they keep working it into his matches! That’s another interesting thing in wrestling; it’s like a Jerry Lewis movie, where he’ll do something, and it’s funny, and he’ll keep doing it and it’s not funny anymore. They seem to do that in wrestling. I’m frustrated by it, but maybe that’s one of the great things about wrestling. My friend Vincent Gallo had a great line – he came with me to Raw at Staples Center, right before WrestleMania, and he loved it. One time, he told me, “The obvious can never be re-stated too often.” And I feel like that’s wrestling.
You’re always in the front row when WWE comes through California, but do you ever watch NXT, or any of the competition?
I have not watched NXT. There’s so much to watch as is – there’s five hours of WWE a week, and then usually a three-hour pay-per-view every month, so I’m usually backed up with that. And of course, I subscribed to the WWE Network the first day it was possible. I think it’s great; I mean, I used to buy all the pay-per-views, and now I’m getting them for $9.99 a month and I’m getting all this other content, too, so it’s a win-win for everybody involved. I record TNA wrestling, too, but I never really get to watch it. I’m pretty busy [laughs].