Rick Rubin, music’s rock
He has a boyish laugh and a mountain-man burliness, a taste for demonic speed-metal and angelic doo-wop harmonies. He has amplified the vilest spewing by shock artists, from the Geto Boys to Andrew “Dice” Clay, then coaxed choirboy delicacy from Roy Orbison and rekindled the wholesome singer/ songwriter craft of Neil Diamond.
Rick Rubin may be as impossible to pigeonhole as the starry and swollen catalog of music he has produced.
Declared by Rolling Stone the most successful producer in any genre, Rubin is the oracle of audio, a studio savant whose highly sought services launch trends and resuscitate icons. He’s having a banner year as the knob-twirler behind a trio of hot albums. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium bowed at No. 1 in May, followed two weeks later by the chart-topping debut of the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way. This week, Johnny Cash’s posthumous American V: A Hundred Highways, the fifth collaboration between Rubin and the country giant, hit shelves.
More is in the pipeline. Rubin is producing music by Linkin Park, Metallica and Justin Timberlake and is executive producer of Slayer’s Christ Illusion, out Aug. 8.
The barefoot Buddha with the woolly salt-and-pepper beard seems out of sync in the courtyard of his hilltop English Tudor home, where best buddy actor Owen Wilson is steering his blue scooter out the driveway after a visit. Rubin heads for the backyard garden overlooking Zuma beach. He opens a bottle of passion-fruit green tea and sits lotus style in a deck chair, his tiny Yorkie Henry in his lap and a black Hungarian puli, Chompa, at his feet.
Highways, recorded in the last months of Cash’s life, is cause for bittersweet celebration. Their collaboration represents another incongruity. Rubin initially struck Cash as a hobo. As their friendship deepened, they took daily communion together.
“We had a surprising amount of common ground, although on the face I can see it looked odd,” Rubin, 43, says. “We both loved music and the history of music. We were interested in spirituality.”
They met in 1993, when Cash was at a low ebb creatively. He felt burned out, and public interest had cooled after Columbia dumped him in 1986.
“I thought it would be a challenge to find a true legend who wasn’t doing his best and see if we could change that,” Rubin says. “Johnny was the first person I thought of, someone without peer, still capable of good work. He felt lost artistically.”
Their first outing, 1994’s American Recordings, reignited his career and drew young fans. Rubin persuaded him to overhaul such unlikely rock tunes as Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt, Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage and Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus. On Highways, his frail vocals bring a profound sadness to Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind. It’s one of 60 tracks the pair recorded after American IV and before Cash died Sept. 12, 2003. Highways holds a dozen, and others will forge an American VI.
Highways “transcended record-making,” Rubin says. “There was a dual purpose, a therapeutic benefit. It was important for his life, and I wasn’t looking at the end result.”
Devastated by Cash’s death, Rubin channeled energies elsewhere, teaming with Slipknot, Jay-Z, Rage Against the Machine and The Jayhawks in 2004 and producing key 2005 releases: Weezer’s Make Believe, System of a Down’s Mesmerize and Hypnotize, Audioslave’s Out of Exile and Diamond’s 12 Songs.
Arguably the best in the American series, Highways and its sly wisdom, vulnerability and steely sense of acceptance defy conventional wisdom in the music industry, where artists normally peak early and fade. “It shows he was a true, honest artist and a great legendary hero from beginning to end,” Rubin says.
Cash is the warmest chapter in Rubin’s career, launched in 1984 when the Long Island native and Russell Simmons co-founded the Def Jam label, “a fun hobby that ended up being my job.” The New York University film student had intended to enter law school (his needle phobia nixed med school plans) but detoured into production as a way to acquire music he couldn’t find in stores.
“I’d buy 12-inch singles that didn’t really reflect what hip-hop culture felt like,” he says. “So as a fan, I started making records I wanted to hear. I didn’t know it was a viable job.”
A rap fanatic, Rubin soaked up “aggressive sounds and outlaw music” after growing up on heavy metal, punk, James Brown, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, oldies radio and doo-wop. He played guitar, joined punk bands and worked as a club DJ but never considered himself a musician.
As a producer, he made an immediate impact, playing a key role in rap’s rise with such pivotal works as LL Cool J’s Radio, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill and Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show. He pioneered rap-metal with his Walk This Way fusion by Aerosmith and Run-DMC.
In the early ’90s, he left Def Jam and founded the rock-freighted Def American (later dropping the “Def”), expanding his palette with Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and Mick Jagger’s Wandering Spirit. Eclectic and adaptable, he has less a signature than a sonic diary, taking on diverse acts from Danzig to Donovan. In 1991, he delivered the Peppers’ breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik plus parental nightmares by Slayer and Dice.
Why does this meditating vegan delight in music’s wicked fringes?
“I like things that are unique and extreme,” he says. Steeped in the edgier realms of metal and rap, Rubin retained his Zen vibe. He never tried drugs. “It’s the combination of meditating and always being deeply into something. When I was young, I was into magic. Kids I knew did drugs or got drunk out of boredom. I didn’t want to give up my time.”
Music’s a constant, yet he finds time for reading, movies and a serious girlfriend. An only child, Rubin never considered parenthood an appealing option until recently.
Owen Wilson says laughter bonds their eight-year friendship, along with Vespas and body surfing.
“He’s also a fan of professional wrestling, and if you need a good yoga person, go to Rick,” he says. “I’m not connected to his music stuff, though I might get a CD from him before people can buy it at Tower. We just have a good time laughing. He has a funny take on stuff. A lot of lines in my movies came directly from Rick. I can see him doing something outside music. We even talked about working on a comedy idea for HBO.”
Nominated three times for a Grammy producer of the year award, he isn’t driven by hits or honors. It’s the journey. His role is “to inspire and challenge artists to do their best work, and to do it for the sake of the work as opposed to the ends,” Rubin says. “So much is about the process and pleasing ourselves, not thinking, ‘Can it get on the radio, will it be done in time?’ I try to erase all the restrictions that I’ve seen impede great art over and over. If the album is great, everything else will follow.”
Such was the plan for 12 Songs. Rubin says Diamond, whom he ranks alongside Paul Simon, created a cabaret image by drifting from his emotional core as a singer/songwriter.
Diamond agrees: “I was one of those radio stars killed by videos. It was hard to get back on track. With Rick, I found the right path. He picked up on the vibe of acoustic guitar and understatement, something I haven’t done in years and wasn’t able to replicate until this album.”
“He has an inner peace,” Diamond says of Rubin’s studio manner. “He’s a throwback to the ’60s, a big lovable bear of a man. The only problem I had was his habit of hugging. At first, I was taken aback. After a while, I got to like it. He’s like Father Earth taking you to his bosom.”
Diamond was delighted when 12 Songs generated his strongest reviews since 1980’s The Jazz Singer.
“It’s been a long wait,” he says.
Today’s surplus of lousy albums results largely from the twisted agendas of labels and managers who fixate on deadlines and marketing rather than nurturing talent, says Rubin, adding, “I try to run interference and refocus everything on the art and the artist’s truth. But I’m not a babysitter. I don’t do hand-holding.”
Veteran musicians are less rigid than insecure beginners, he says, noting, “Grown-up artists are usually more open to experimentation because they know who they are. When I did a song with Roy Orbison for a soundtrack, he knew I wouldn’t make him less Roy Orbison.”
Rubin plucks a broad assortment as favorites from his canon: Petty’s Wildflowers, the Peppers’ Californication, System of a Down’s Toxicity, the Red Devils’ live King King, Slayer’s Reign in Blood and the new Cash. He’d love to produce a U2 disc.
He’s dismayed by recent hip-hop’s bling-oriented lyrics and derivative metal and blames much of pop’s slump on a singles-oriented sensibility that regards artists as disposable. And he’s offended by the industry’s treatment of fans. “No other business could survive such an incredible arrogance against the consumer,” Rubin says. “They don’t seem to care about giving consumers what they want or giving value for their money.”
Hailed as a song swami with sterling ears, Rubin says that he has never stopped learning and that every project has been an educational swap meet. He’s reminded of a symbiotic moment, when he visited Cash and the singer was too ill to collect a lifetime achievement award. So he and Rubin watched the ceremony on TV.
“I could see he was in pain and having trouble seeing,” Rubin says. “I didn’t know what to talk about. I said, ‘What have you been working on?’ And he said, ‘You probably don’t remember this, but about five years ago, I wrote a song and you looked at the lyrics and told me maybe we should take out some of the I’s and me’s. Ever since you said that, I’ve been working on using the words “I” and “me” less.’ Even at his worst, that depth of character came through.”
The lesson? “Aim to be like that.”
Rick Rubin, music’s rock