Rick Rubin on Wrestling and How Roddy Piper Turned the Beastie Boys Bad
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.
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.
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