It’s hard to think of a music producer with a résumé anywhere near comparable to the one compiled by Rick Rubin. As co-founder of Def Jam Recordings he helped usher in the golden age of hip hop in the late 1980s and had a hand in the careers of Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC. But while many of his peers disappeared or stayed in their lane, he expanded, and went on to work with Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, ZZ Top, AC/DC, Adele, Lady Gaga and dozens more. Occasionally he dips his toes back into rap music, as on Jay Z’s huge "99 Problems." As Eminem says: “I’m a huge fan of Rick and how he’s able to dip in and out of different genres of music and master all of them.”
From Punk to Rap
Born in New York's Long Beach on March 10, 1963, to parents Linda and Michael, Frederick Jay Rubin first showed his musical abilities at Long Beach High School when he started learning the guitar. That led to him forming a garage band with school friends and, eventually, a punk band called the Pricks. With Rubin on guitar, they played the legendary NY music venue CBGB, but were ejected after getting into a fight with the audience. His next group, Hose, toured extensively with other punk and straight-edge groups and released the first single on a new label founded by Rubin while at New York University — Def Jam.
While Hose made little impact outside of their scene, Rubin became fascinated with the hip-hop world. In 1984 he met the concert promoter and artist manager Russell Simmons, who was six years older and had extensive connections — he was involved with Run DMC, Whodini and others. “Even before Def Jam, he was the face of hip hop," Rubin told NPR’s Audie Cornish. The admiration was mutual. Simmons told the same interviewer: “[Rubin] was a smart kid and he was a great producer. It was the sound of the records that inspired me to be his partner.”
The Def Jam Era
Def Jam’s first proper hip-hop release was the classic "It’s Yours" by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay in 1984, produced by Rubin. The same year also saw the release of LL Cool J’s debut single, "I Need a Beat," and the Beastie Boys’ "Rock Hard." Like Rubin, The Beastie Boys were punks who’d been turned on to rap, and Rubin had been a DJ at some of their live shows. He was pivotal in creating their new sound.
The early years at Def Jam were glorious. Nearly every release found an audience; the label was seen as the home of some of the most essential new artists — LL, Public Enemy, Slick Rick — and their iconic logo was taking off on T-shirts worldwide. With Columbia Records they released The Beastie Boys’ Rubin-produced debut LP Licensed to Ill at the close of 1986, which would go on to sell more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. Rubin, however, was happiest when cross-pollinating artists and genres. He signed thrash-metal band Slayer to Def Jam in 1986, released R&B records by Tashan and Oran "Juice" Jones and then came up with a commercial masterstroke, pairing Run DMC with Aerosmith.
Run DMC and Aerosmith's 'Walk This Way'
Run DMC were initially hesitant to work on a cover of Aerosmith’s 1975 song "Walk This Way," but Rubin felt that their new album, Raising Hell, was missing something that would get them over to a wider audience. He managed to persuade Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry first, but according to Darryl "DMC" Matthews, the rappers' response was: “Hell no, this ain’t going to happen. This is hillbilly gibberish,” he told the Washington Post.
The band's DJ, Jam Master Jay, was more enthusiastic and eventually persuaded both Run and DMC to give it a try — something they did without much passion. Not only was "Walk This Way" a huge global hit, it got Run DMC onto MTV for the first time. Many pop radio stations made it the first rap record they ever played. Rubin’s genius had been to see the opportunity; and in many ways the wall that’s broken down between Aerosmith and Run DMC in the video for "Walk This Way" was a metaphor for the walls that the record sent tumbling, pushing hip-hop into the stratosphere. It also gave Aerosmith’s career a much-needed shot in the arm.
Departing Def Jam, Reviving Johnny Cash's Career
The success of Slayer and Rubin’s work giving hard rock a fresh 1980s twist was partly the reason that the British group the Cult hired Rubin to produce their 1987 album Electric, a further sign of Rubin’s eclecticism. Another was the 1988 film Tougher Than Leather, starring Run DMC and directed by Rubin. It was, however, a rare misstep, a critical and commercial flop.
The two founders of Def Jam went their separate ways in 1988. Simmons remained at Def Jam, while Rubin relocated to Los Angeles and founded Def American Recordings. In 1993 Rubin renamed the label American Recordings, holding a symbolic funeral for the word "Def" because he had seen it in a dictionary and concluded that it had completed its journey from the underground to the mainstream — and lost its potency as a result.
Rubin took Slayer with him to American Recordings and also signed the metal bands Danzig and Wolfsbane. But there was also room for the Black Crowes, Stereolab, Geto Boys, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Andrew Dice Clay’s stand-up comedy.
While many of those artists were commercially successful, it was Rubin's work with Johnny Cash on his 1994 album, American Recordings, that perhaps most exemplifies his ability to get the best out of seemingly disparate artists. Cash’s long career had tailed off somewhat when they collaborated on this, Cash’s 81st album, and Rubin simply encouraged Cash to take a stripped-back, austere musical approach. He later prompted Cash to cover songs outside of the country and folk canon, leading to stunning takes on Depeche Mode’s "Personal Jesus" and Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt" on the 2002 album The Man Comes Around. The Nine Inch Nails frontman, Trent Reznor, told Alternative Press’ Geoff Rickly in 2004 that Cash’s version had reduced him to tears and covered him in goosebumps: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”
Collecting Grammys & More Musical Collaborations
The seemingly tireless Rubin also produced six albums for Red Hot Chili Peppers, powering them to fame, alongside work for AC/DC, Metallica and Mick Jagger. He was co-head of Columbia Records from 2007 to 2012, winning a Grammy in 2007 for his diverse output for Cash, U2, Green Day and Dixie Chicks. He won another in 2009, after taking a similar approach to Neil Diamond’s sound that he did to Cash’s, forcing Diamond to record acoustically for the first time in 40 years.
Rubin received yet another Grammy in 2012 after Rubin produced four tracks for Adele’s 21, one of the biggest-selling albums of the millennium. After leaving Columbia the same year, he went on to revive the American Recordings imprint, working again with ZZ Top, and elsewhere with James Blake, Ed Sheeran, Black Sabbath and Lady Gaga.
He works without a desk or phone, holding meetings at a villa rather than in an office. He meditates to relax and carries with him the air of a wise music guru. Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, told Time that he “exudes confidence without arrogance. He has a natural intuition when it comes to music. An opinion coming from someone else is simply fact when Rick says it. He has the ability and the patience to let music be discovered, not manufactured.” It’s that ability that is the reason for Rubin’s ongoing influence on popular music, and why Kanye West called on him to help him fix Yeezus when that album’s release date was looming and West couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
Rubin now lives in Malibu with his partner, Amanda Santos. He bought Shangri-La studios in 2012, a place with a history that takes in Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, right up to Adele and Muse. In many ways it’s the perfect place for this legendary producer to put down roots and keep working his unique magic.
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