Rick Rubin – the man behind-the-scenes
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (AP) – Rick Rubin is a healthy reminder of the danger of relying on superficial impressions.
He’s a bearish man with long, flowing hair, a bushy beard and ever-present dark sunglasses. See him at a club and you might be tempted to slip out, taking care not to tip over any motorcycles on the way.
Then you would have lost the chance to meet one of the top producers in the music business, who is up for a Grammy award next week in that category. He produced two of the five discs nominated for album of the year and contributed to another, each in completely different styles. He captured the country-pop of the Dixie Chicks and funky rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and produced one track of Justin Timberlake’s state-of-the-art dance-pop.
Each of those discs landed in the top 10 of the Rolling Stone magazine reader’s poll of favourites from 2006, along with Rubin’s fifth album with Johnny Cash, whose late-career resurgence will likely be remembered as one of the producer’s most important achievements.
Oh, and that tough guy look? The gentle, soft-spoken Rubin wouldn’t let a stranger leave one of his three Los Angeles-area homes recently without wrapping him in a warm hug.
“He’s the exact opposite of what you would think he would be,” said Emily Robinson of the Dixie Chicks. “With the hard rock and rap background, this guy with the long hair and big beard, everyone was a little intimidated by him at first. But when you realize what he’s like, he’s just a big teddy bear.”
If that weren’t enough influence, Rubin has been offered a job as co-chairman of Columbia Records and is in talks with executives there, according to a report in the New York Times, confirmed by a close associate of Rubin’s who requested anonymity.
Rubin made his name – and fortune – at the intersection of rock and rap in the 1980s. He founded the Def Jam label with partner Russell Simmons while a student at New York University and helped make music by Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. He loves the aggressiveness of metal and rap and was behind Run-DMC’s influential cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”
Simmons moved on and Rubin headed West, where his production credits continued to diversify. Slayer, Mick Jagger, AC/DC, Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, Jay-Z and U2 are on the lengthening list of clients.
Unlike Timbaland’s jittery beats and synthesizers, Pharrell’s spacy soundscapes or Phil Spector’s famed “wall of sound,” Rubin has no sonic signature.
“I love music and I love bands and my goal, always, working with them is to help them be their best, whatever that is,” Rubin said.
The Dixie Chicks were intrigued by Rubin because they noticed his name on a lot of the albums they were listening to. They were sold on him because he didn’t come into their first meeting with an agenda, saying how he would make them sound, Robinson said.
Most music producers are technical masters, able to manipulate sounds with the twist of a knob, and obsessed about doing so. Rubin freely admits to having little such expertise. He’s a fan.
When musicians express an interest in working with him, Rubin’s first step is usually to invite them to one of his homes. His place tucked in the West Hollywood hills has intricately-restored woodwork, a statue of Buddha, art from the “Help!”-era Beatles and a kickin’ sound system.
They’ll talk music. He probes into their history, what made them become artists in the first place, and whether he feels a personal connection.
That’s the level on which he bonded with Cash, despite the appearance – to outside eyes – that they’d be the least likely of collaborators. Cash was easy to talk to, Rubin recalled, and “had a million songs at his fingertips.” They became very close friends.
Rubin had sought out Cash because he was interested in working with an established artist creatively adrift and neglected by the industry. Cash, by the early 1990s, had nearly given up recording. The deceptively simple approach they set upon of having Cash sing a wide swath of songs to sparse accompaniment yielded five albums (with a sixth posthumously to come) that energized his career.
Cash sang songs he remembered from growing up and unlikely ones fed by Rubin, most memorably Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
He’s not a producer who spends much time creating in the studio. Rubin has his artists rehearse and experiment extensively ahead of time, so when they enter the studio they know the songs well.
“There’s a humanity to a great performance,” he said. “It’s more like jazz. It could be a pop song or a rock song or a country song, but we approach it more from the standpoint of jazz, and try to get this special interactive moment. We know the tunes, we know the songs, now we’re trying to get that special magic moment.”
He may be an affable man, but he isn’t afraid to tell artists what he thinks. One major star looked at Rubin, mouth agape, when told his songs weren’t good enough. Nobody had ever told him that before.
Rubin pushed another artist, Diamond, particularly hard. He made Diamond sing with his acoustic guitar, something he hadn’t done since the 1960s. Diamond told The Associated Press upon release of his 2005 disc “12 Songs” that Rubin made him realize that throughout his career the recordings had become more important than the songs, and that was a backwards way of looking at things.
He was grateful when it was done. But he fought every day while working with Rubin.
“Guess what?” Diamond said. “He was right.”
Rubin said he believes the artists know that everything he does is to try to make the best music possible.
“A lot of artists really like having someone to bounce things off of, because it’s hard to know,” he said. “Most of them, especially the ones that are established and have had success, tend to be in a little bit of a vacuum, because most people tell them what they do is great. But there’s a lack of reality in that world and it’s not beneficial to the artist to be in that world.”
He had seen the Dixie Chicks before they became famous and was impressed. Working with them on the “Taking the Long Way” disc interested him because here was a sassy, country-crossover act forced to become serious in the aftermath of the political storm created when singer Natalie Maines criticized President George W. Bush. He was curious how they’d react.
The Dixie Chicks had plenty of ideas but lacked a sense of direction, Robinson said. They were also somewhat sensitive to being dictated to, given the experience they’d just been through.
“I think he knows when it’s right and he’s very decisive, which is refreshing,” she said. “But he’s also a very good listener. You just respect his ears and his taste so much. That’s an earned trust. We knew the legend but we didn’t know the actual reason . . . We came to learn that it’s just that he has great ears.”
Rubin just finished a new disc with Linkin Park, and he’s working now with Metallica. His dream job is to make a full album with U2 and he produced two new songs for their greatest hits disc.
Working so much has its drawbacks, as Rubin learned recently when a friend came over with a mixtape and they listened to the music together. That’s kind of cool, Rubin said about one song. Who’s singing that?
His friend looked at him incredulously. “You produced it!” he replied.
“I literally had no recollection of it at all,” Rubin said, “and I’m a sober person.”
Rick Rubin – the man behind-the-scenes