Jay-Z’s The Black Album — currently the Number One record in the country — marks Rick Rubin’s return to hip-hop after fifteen years. In 1984, the producer got his start by founding Def Jam Records in his dorm room with Russell Simmons. His work with Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Public Enemy shoved rap music into the mainstream. “I didn’t know anything about the music business and I didn’t know anything about record making,” Rubin says. “Music was the most important thing in my life, but it didn’t seem like a realistic career path.”
Rubin — who names the Beatles’ “White Album” as his all-time favorite — would pour his love of music into the works of such divergent artists as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, Rage Against the Machine, Slayer and Johnny Cash, whose landmark American Recordings albums were issued on Rubin’s label of the same name. In a rare interview, Rubin talks about getting back to his rap roots, his production secrets and his extended musical partnerships.
Jay-Z is the first hip-hop artist you’ve worked with in fifteen years. Why so long? Do you feel like hip-hop hit a dead spot?
It just felt like it changed. When I started there really was a community of people who were doing it for the art. With the success of our records I started hearing a lot of records that sounded like our records, and it didn’t really feel like being part of a creative community anymore. But since then there have been a lot of things that have been revolutionary and great in hip-hop. N.W.A would be a great example of a band that really radically took it to the next level in the time since I left hip-hop.
Had you ever thought about working with them?
I went and visited them in the studio when they were making Straight Outta Compton. I would have loved to have signed them, but they were already signed.
What do you feel made the difference for rap music? Why were you able to take it into the mainstream?
I think really what separated our music from the records that came before it were two things: One, if you went to a hip-hop club, there was a very specific energy in the room, a rock & roll kind of energy. But if you went out to a record store and bought any rap records — which were twelve-inch singles in those days — those records didn’t reflect what was truly going on in the hip-hop world. Our records were the first to really capture the essence, the true spirit of hip-hop. The other half of it was song structure, which really came naturally to me from growing up listening to the Beatles and rock bands. At the point we got involved in hip-hop, a song would be between six and nine minutes long, and it would be more like a Jamaican toasting record — it wouldn’t really have a chorus, it would just be rapping for nine minutes and telling a story. That format would be more difficult for a suburban audience to digest. We picked up strong songwriting from listening to the Beatles and applied it to this new form of music.
When you’re thinking about working with a band, what kind of research do you do, and how do you get yourself ready?
None. I like to start with as clean a slate as possible. The less I know about them the better. I don’t want any of the baggage. I want to find the best that the people in the band can be, without any preconceived idea of what it’s supposed to be. The Chili Peppers, for example, were a funk band with rap style vocals. I felt like that limited their work, that they were bigger and better than that. The goal with Blood Sugar Sex Magik in particular was to break them out of that mold and see where it went.
How receptive were they to that?
It happens kind of naturally. I don’t make that speech before we start an album — it just happens naturally in the process. If we come up with something great and somebody says, “That doesn’t really sound like us,” we can then talk about that idea. The band is the best of whatever the people in the band have to offer — not their original conception of what the band is.
I remember reading that Johnny Cash was a little surprised that you wanted to work with him. How soon in your work together did you realize that it would be an ongoing partnership?
There are certain pitfalls that I see happen where you get into a certain routine, where you tour for certain amounts of time, you take off for certain amounts of time, and then you record during that period and you go back out on the road. Your whole life is scheduled around touring, and record making becomes something that gets fitted in more than something that dictates what happens. Once we got past changing that pattern, so record making was the most important thing in Johnny’s world and he cared for it in that way, then I knew we were going to work together for a long time.
What made you want to work with him?
He wasn’t in the best place creatively, and I thought I could help. I thought we’d have fun together. The stuff at the beginning and the American Recordings stuff at the end really bookended [Cash’s recording career] beautifully, and I’m tremendously proud to have had the chance to work with him and to have him in my life. He enriched my life tremendously — he was such a beautiful person. I went to his funeral and two different people said something I’d never thought about before but really struck home as true. They said that he’s not important because he’s such a great singer, or because he’s such a great songwriter and such a great musician, but he’s important because he was such a great man. We’re lucky he chose music, but anything he’d done would have been just as great.
What band that you’ve worked with has shown the most growth, from when they started to where they are now?
The Red Hot Chili Peppers. When they started, they weren’t taken very seriously. I don’t think they took themselves very seriously. But they’ve grown into one of the most important bands in the world. People don’t know world-wide sales, but the last album sold over 10 million worldwide and the one before that sold over 14 million worldwide.
To what do you attribute that growth?
For one, they got healthy and they matured and grew up. Then, their commitment and dedication to their work — they’re not lazy about their job. We regularly record thirty-five songs for an album, knowing only twelve or fifteen are going to be on there. Not many bands are willing to commit to that level of work, but it really shows. Every album we put out is kind of like the greatest hits of two albums, because we make two albums every time.
You also worked on the Slayer box set this year. Do you remember how you first heard Slayer and realized they were a group you wanted to work with?
I was invited to see them play a show at the Ritz in New York by a friend, and I was blown away by them. I never saw such a young band have so much conviction and power. They were so confident and so professional and so together in a way you’d expect to see from a band that had been together for twenty years, not a young band. And the relationship they had with their audience — their audience would kill for them. It was really a powerful thing, and I hadn’t seen anything like it before. That was really what attracted me.
People point to Reign in Blood as their best album. Did you have the sense something special was happening when you were recording?
I never really thought about it. We just tried to do our best work. When they signed with us, the underground heavy metal community was nervous, because here’s Slayer, the most aggro indie band in metal, signing to a major label. Everyone was afraid they were going to sell out. So we purposely made the most extreme album that we possibly could. With Slayer there’s never been a nod towards anything commercial. It’s always been about being as pure as possible, being extreme as possible.
As a producer and Beatles fan, what’s your take on Let it Be . . . Naked?
The original Phil Spector Let It Be is one of my favorite Beatles albums. The new Let It Be . . . Naked is interesting to hear and there are some things I like about it, but something makes me uncomfortable. One of the things is that I know too much — I know how John Lennon felt about his own voice, and I know the way he treated his voice on every Beatles record and every solo record. To hear his voice naked in a way I know he would never want to hear it freaks me out a little bit, embarrasses me.
How did he want his voice treated?
He hated his voice. He would do all kinds of double tracking and different vocal effects. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is quintessential John Lennon, and if you listen to “Dig a Pony” on this, it sounds like a different person. This may be truer to what Lennon sounded like, but it’s like Elvis: If you listen to Elvis records, he’s got a specific slap effect that’s always on his voice, and you recognize that as what Elvis sounds like. I don’t know that you want to hear Elvis without it. Same with Robert Plant. There’s a very specific delay on Led Zeppelin records that makes his voice sound the way it does.
Is there anything on Naked that you regard as an improvement over the original?
Sonically, it’s great. “Two of Us” really shines. But some of Paul’s songs . . . I know he was adamant that he never liked Spector’s “Long and Winding Road,” but for me the Spector version really is the one.
I hear you are working on a peace-themed album.
It’s still in the works. We’re not doing it on any schedule — as I work with bands, we try to record songs for peace.
Who’s on it?
Sheryl Crow has done a song. System of a Down have written a song, and so have Weezer. I can’t remember if Audioslave wrote one yet, but they’re doing it, and the Chili Peppers are doing it. I feel like it’s a message that’s going to be as important in five years as it is today. I’m hoping it’s going to be soon, but it feels better that the first part of the war is not still going on — that felt too reactionary. I want it to be a general statement of peace, not tied to an event. I want it to be a timeless statement.