Rick Rubin, MTV’s “most important white boy in hip-hop,” has produced some of the most influential and creative albums of the past two decades with artists like The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slayer, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, Nine Inch Nails, Audioslave, Jay-Z, Saul Williams — and the list just keeps on going. Here Rick and Ken discuss why truly great music almost always transcends our concepts of genre, before waxing philosophic about rock, romance, and the potential perils of paternity….
Rick Rubin, audacious audiophile and hirsute cultural oracle, is the industry juggernaut responsible for almost single-handedly grafting rap and rock into the hybrid phenomenon that paved the way for contemporary hip-hop. The production colossus behind such revolutionary artists as LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine, System Of a Down, Audioslave, and Saul Williams, Rubin has been named by MTV as "the most important white boy in hip-hop."
Born in 1963, Rubin grew up an hour north of New York City and cites his exposure to The Beatles and his experience as an only child as critical in shaping his musical sensibilities, explaining that without the benefit of an older sibling to mentor him in the "secrets of cool," he was left to sift the sounds of his urban surroundings in search of what struck a chord with his preternatural sense of style.
While studying film at New York University, twenty-two year old Rubin met Russell Simmons at Danceteria—a club where the sounds of downtown rockers and uptown rappers comfortably collided—and together they co-founded Def Jam Records from their college dorm room. Their first release, LL Cool J’s "I Need A Beat, " cost around $700.00 to produce and sold over 100,000 copies. Inside of a year, with Rubin at the production helm, Def Jam negotiated a distribution deal with Columbia Records and was backing the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy, and signing on with the thrash band Slayer.
Refusing to be pigeonholed and dedicated to the preservation of a friendship under pressure, Rubin parted ways with Simmons to form Def American Records (which in 1993 assumed its current incarnation as American Recordings). Under this umbrella, Rubin went on to produce and executive produce an eclectic mix of artists including The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, and fittingly, Johnny Cash’s American Music.
Uncannily connected to the cultural zeitgeist, Rubin has served as a “strange attractor” in discerning evolutionary artistic emergents, and has long been regarded by the most astute minds in the business as an oracle in forecasting what’s to come. Asked about his reputation as an artistic divining rod and industry soothsayer, Rubin insists he goes with his gut and says that he chooses to produce what appeals to him personally, asserting, "There’s nothing better than telling the truth. It’s really about falling in love. I’m not looking for any type of anything or to fit any mold. It’s really about an emotional connection that transcends any genre. Just listen to your feelings. You just know."
This refreshingly fluid and flexible approach and commitment to truth-telling finds Rubin a rabid proponent of free-speech, which is only appropriate since he once produced albums considered so offensive that their labels refused to release them. It’s also rendered Rubin unusually egalitarian in his professional relationships, and his oft-repeated remark, "I always listen to what other people say. Sometimes they’re right and I learn something," has become a creed that’s allowed him to consistently free-flow with what others consider to be notoriously "difficult" artists.
Bringing a finely-honed aperspectival approach to his production efforts, Rubin credits the success of his work with an ability to birth the best in each member of a band by enabling them to transcend their own agenda in service of what he calls a "grander vision." It’s this vision that has kept his services in demand for two decades, the now 6 time Grammy award winning producer currently has been working under the Sony umbrella/Columbia Records, with artists such as the Dixie Chicks, Metallica, Neil Diamond and Slayer.
Rubin currently resides in the Hollywood Hills in an imposing estate whose grounds are populated with religious relics, shrines, and a library replete with books on Eastern mysticism, psychology, and Sufi poetry.