Rubin, Rick (Contemporary Musicians)
Producer, record company executive
The Village Voice once dubbed Rick Rubin "Satan's Record Producer" and the highly successful and iconoclastic Rubin has been tagged with a bevy of similar epithets. His production and support of such controversial recording artists as horror-rappers the Geto Boys, satanic speed-metalists Slayer, and deliberately offensive comedian Andrew Dice Clay early in his career placed him at odds with parents groups, political activists, and nervous record distributors; but Rubin has remained an unwavering proponent of absolute free speech. Nonetheless, Rubin's instincts about pop music talent and his approach to production have assured his status as a major player in the music business.
Founder of the groundbreaking record label Def Jam, which blazed new trails for rap and stunned the major labels, Rubin has since moved on to start Def American Records, signing only acts he himself enjoys. Unlike major label executives who scramble to sign acts that sound like current hits, Rubin told BAM 's Bill Holdship, "I just fall in love. It's just magic. I never think in terms of whether it can or can't sell. I never think in terms of how it fits into somebody else's market. It's just a personal thing. I always hope that somebody else will like it, but if they don't that's alright too. At least I'll be able to hold my head up and be proud of what I've done. I'm proud of all the records I've made." Regardless of Rubin's indifference to the market, he has signed and produced a number of highly successful acts. His production work aided the rise to fame of white punk-rappers the Beastie Boys and political hip-hoppers Public Enemy, and his innovative recording ideas and encouragement were an impetus for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' smash album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. As Rubin's Def Jam partner Russell Simmons told Rolling Stone, "Rick was one of the most talented producers I ever met. He could walk in and make a very different-sounding, special rap record that would set a trend. He wasn't just listening to other people's records and copying them."
Early Promoter of Punk and Rap
According to Music Express, "Rubin is essentially a middle-class artist who is fascinated with street culture." Rubin's background is certainly a cultural universe away from the hardcore rap and metal scenes he has influenced so profoundly. He was born Frederick Jay Rubin in the early 1960s in the Lido Beach neighborhood of Long Island, New York. Raised by affluent parents, he discovered the liberating bombast of hard rock while in his teens. AC/DC's monster album Highway to Hell would remain one of his all-time favorite records, as would early Aerosmith discs like Rocks and Toys in the Attic. And though Rubin's love for raunchy arena rock would not subside, he gravitated in his late teenage years to the even more intense and far angrier sound of punk rock. Soon he was playing guitar in a punk band called the Pricks. Even so, he noticed that the black students at his high school were listening to a new and vital music called rap.
"The high school I attended was about seventy percent white and thirty percent black," Rubin told Havelock Nelson of Musician. "The white scene was into Led Zeppelin, Yes, Pink Floydll groups that were completely overhereas the black kids were always waiting for the latest rap or scratch record to come out." Rubin found it "exciting that people could be so progressive musically that they'd want the newest thing, love it and forget everything else. Rap was like the hardcore punk movement, the only difference being the white teenagers rejected the new music and the black teenagers accepted the new music. And I did too." Although he went on to play in another punk band, Hose, Rubin was becoming increasingly fascinated by rap.
Formed Def Jam in His Dorm Room
After high school Rubin attended New York University, where he studied philosophy. But his music hobby was about to blossom into a huge business. After hanging around the burgeoning New York hip-hop scene, Rubin paired rapper T. LaRock and D.J. Jazzy Jay, producing their single "It's Yours." The record was a club smash, and one of its admirers was influential rap producer Russell Simmons. When Simmons told Rubin that "It's Yours" was his favorite rap record, the fledgling producer replieds he later told Musician/that "the inspiration for it was all of the records you've ever made." The two teamed up to form Def Jam. Rubin found in Simmons a fellow believer in a hard, edgy sound far different from the disco-derived party grooves that characterized rap's first wave.
Def Jam began in Rubin's NYU dorm room in 1984. The label's first record was a single called "I Need a Beat" by a sixteen-year-old calling himself L. L. Cool J. "Freight trucks would roll up to my dorm from the pressing plant with 40,000 12-inch singles," Rubin told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. "We then shipped [the records] to distributors across the country," he elaborated to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, "I Need a Beat" cost $400 and sold 120,000 copies. Then 20 years old, Rubin would quickly attract the attention of the major labels with his fledgling enterprise. His innovative production and independent-minded talent were selling a lot of records, and in 1985 Def Jam made a lucrative distribution deal with Columbia Records. Realizing that he wouldn't be going to law school as he'd planned, Rubin broke the news to his parents by mailing them a xerox of his first advance: a check for $600,000.
In a 1987 interview with Musician, Rubin called Def Jam "unique in that we're in the music business; other record companies are in the banking business. They loan money, you make a record, you pay it back with your sales, and they take a piece from then on. It's really disgusting. We're not into fast money; we're into developing artists." Among the artists Def Jam developed were the Beastie Boys, a white punk-rap trio who enlisted Rubin as "DJ Double R." Rubin produced the group's smash 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill. Part of his pioneering contribution to the Beasties' sound was his use of hard-rock samples; this helped give the Beastie Boys crossover appeal. During his work with the Beasties Rubin was also pursuing rapper Chuck D. to assemble what would eventually become the hard-hitting political rap act Public Enemy.
Part of Rap's First Crossover Hit
In 1986 Rubin contributed to the first giant rap crossover hit, Run-D.M.C.'s reworking of the Aerosmith song "Walk This Way." Rubin selected the song, produced it, and recruited members of Aerosmith to guarantee the track's success. He proved to skeptics that rap was no passing fad and did so with a rock chestnut the lyrical cadences of which sounded perfectly apt coming from a rap group. Another of Rubin's feats at Def Jam was the coordination of the successful soundtrack album to the film Less Than Zero, for which he brought together artists from the rock and rap worlds. 1987 also saw Rubin direct the feature film Tougher Than Leather, which starred Run-D.M.C. The film flopped, hinting that the Def Jam Films enterprise Rubin and Simmons envisioned would not live up to their expectations.
Of his rap production technique, Rubin told Musician 's Nelson that he bypassed the nonstop disco-groove approach, using different drum partsith a rock backbeat rather than a disco-style pulseo create tension and differentiate song parts. "I use beats to achieve the dynamics of melodies without melodies. Drum machines are the parts of the song; one beat happens during the verse, different pauses bring you into the chorus, then the chorus gets filled outomething is added or taken away. I create a song structure. This is the thing I might have brought to rap music."
The glamour of Def Jam's Columbia distribution arrangement wore somewhat thin in 1986 when Rubin first encountered resistance to a controversial recording. Columbia declined to release Reign in Blood, brainchild of the heavy metal band Slayer, no doubt fearing negative publicity from parents groups concerning the band's preoccupation with satanism and suicide. "Who said rock 'n' roll was supposed to be nice?" Rubin asked rhetorically in a Los Angeles Times interview. "Rock 'n' roll is about going against the rules." He got the record distributed by Geffen and then decided to part ways with Simmons and start a new company. "In leaving Def Jam," he explained to Music Express, "my vision was always to start again. Part of that decision meant knowing I was giving up a really successful part of my past." He added that despite the temptation to stay with a successful outfit, he felt the attraction of "building a label from scratch." Rubin deemed it necessary to change locations, moving to Los Angeles to realize his new vision: Def American Records.
Rubin engineered a distribution deal between Geffen and Def American and began assembling a roster of talent. As usual, he followed his instincts entirely, signing Slayer, the metal group Danzig, outrageous comedian Andrew Dice Clay, hardcore rappers the Geto Boys, and bluesy rockers the Black Crowes. "This label represents my tastes 100 percent," he asserted in Hits. Except for the Geto Boys, Rubin had mostly lost interest in rap. "I got tired of the genre," he told BAM. "There was a time when I looked forward to every new rap record that came out. That stopped happening a long time ago." Rubin added that he blamed indiscriminate signings by major labels eager to cash in for the homogenization of the form. In any case, Rubin took a fully hands-on approach to the records put out by his company, coaching bands at rehearsals and keeping his hand in as producer. Structurally, Rubin committed himself to gradual growth, hiring a small staff and few artists and letting the company take shape without indulging in the rapid expansion typical of some successful music ventures.
Soon Rubin was, in the words of Los Angeles Times music writer Hilburn, "one of the pop world's pivotal players for the '90s." The Black Crowes' debut album sold four million copies; most of Def American's other acts sold impressively as well. Rubin also maintained his career as a freelance producer. He installed the hitherto cult-status band the Red Hot Chili Peppers in an old house reportedly haunted by rockers gone by to record their 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik and convinced the group to record a ballad they hadn't planned to use. The song, "Under the Bridge," was the beginning of their mainstream success and sent the album shooting up the rock charts. "One of the great things about working with Rick is that he makes you feel comfortable," Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis told Hilburn. "He is very up-front and makes you feel you can trust him, which is a key to getting someone to express your creative feelings." In 1990 Rubin's commitment to his artists earned him the Joel Webber Award for Excellence in Music and Business. "I put out quality records by quality acts," he told NMS Today. "They're not fictitious groups and I don't believe in hiring the newest guy to do the remix for the next pop single."
Controversy continued to follow Rubin's acts. The violent fantasies depicted by the Geto Boys and Andrew Dice Clay's objectionable remarks about women and gays angered many activists. Rubin, as usual, stood by the artists. The producer-executive was at one time also menaced by right-wing Jewish agitators who objected to sentiments expressed on some Public Enemy tracks. In BAM, Rubin answered all his critics the same way: "You have to put out records that you don't believe in politically just as much as records you do believe in, because that's freedom of speech." He responded in the Los Angels Times to those who objected to specific messages or images in rap or rock songs, saying "When you start being scared to let art reflect society, then something's wrong in the world, not in the music."
Eventually, however, even Geffen balked at the Geto Boys record, and Rubin had to put together an independent distribution package for the group. Soon thereafter Rubin found his company bounced by Geffen. In 1992 Def American made a distribution deal with Warner/Elektra/Atlantic Corp. "They paid me well for their involvement," Rubin admitted to Hits. "But the best thing about it is there's funding for me to build a really full-scale, free-standing company to rival any in the business."
1992 also saw another Def American artist sail to the top of the chartsapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, whose single "Baby Got Back" became a summer radio staple. Mix-a-Lot was the first hip-hop act Rubin had shepherded since the Geto Boys and once again, his instincts had paid off. He then signed a number of untested acts, trusting what he saw as their potential. Rubin also continued producing for other labels, working with such artists as English rockers The Cult. In early 1993 Spin magazine reported that Rubin was embarking on yet another venture: to produce beat-heavy, synthesizer-laden "techno" and industrial dance music, signing acts from Belgium's Antler-Subway label, including Lords of Acid. To facilitate this pursuit, Rubin was reportedly establishing a spin-off of Def American called Whte Lbls. This off-shoot would in turn complement Def American's other new label, III Labels, which initially seemed a launching pad for new rap music.
Partnered with Johnny Cash
In 1993 Rubin staged a mock funeral to bury the "Def" portion of Def American and re-christened his company, American Recordings. While he continued to sign and develop contemporary artists in multiple genres, his greatest achievement on the new label would be his work with the legendary country singer, Johnny Cash. While well known in country circles, Cash's recording catalog had been erratic since the late 1960s. Rubin turned this around on American Recordings in 1994, a critically well-received album that re-introduced Cash to a new generation. "Clearly, the work with Johnny Cash was inspirational and really changed my life," Rubin told Wes Orshoski in Billboard. "The depth of our friendship and the amount of work that we did in the time we worked together was really staggering." Rubin continued his work with Cash on Unchained in 1996, American III: Solitary Man in 2000, and on American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002. During this time Rubin also worked with rocker Tom Petty on Wildflowers and English folk-rocker Donovan on Sutras.
While Rubin's reputation remains high within the music business, many found it ironic that the man who had produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys now turned toward the quieter music of Cash, Petty, and Donovan. Rubin has always maintained, however, that he chooses American Recordings' artists for more personal reasons. "It's an emotional connection," he told Orshoski. "It usually happens through a combination of listening to an artist's work and then meeting them and just getting to see who they are Rubin's toughest obstacle in the music business, however, has been his own success. As Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt remarked to the Los Angeles Times, "He has created an incredibly [high-level] benchmark for himself with the success he has had in the past. It doesn't mean he is going to [match that level] on every record, but with someone who has this much talent and vision at such a young age, there is no reason he won't do even better." Rubin himself acknowledged in the Times, "My success has always been based on making records that I like. The bottom line has to be flipping in a cassette, turning it up and loving it and counting on enough other people to think the same way I do."
T. LaRock and D.J. Jazzy Jay, "It's Yours," 1982.
L. L. Cool J., "I Need a Beat," Def Jam, 1984.
Run-D.M.C., "Walk This Way," Def Jam, 1986.
The Cult, "The Witch" (from the Cool World soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1992.
Queen, "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions" (rap version), 1992.
L. L. Cool J., Radio, Def Jam, 1985.
Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell, Def Jam, 1986.
Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill, Def Jam, 1986.
Slayer, Reign in Blood, Def Jam, 1986.
Various artists, Less Than Zero (soundtrack), Def Jam, 1987.
Slayer, South of Heaven, Def Jam, 1987.
Slayer, Seasons in the Abyss, Def American, 1990.
Geto Boys, Geto Boys, Def American, 1990.
Geto Boys, We Can't Be Stopped, Def American, 1991.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Warner Bros., 1991.
(Co-producer) Mick Jagger, Wandering Spirit, Atlantic, 1993.
Johnny Cash, American Recordings, American/Sony, 1994.
Tom Petty, Wallflowers, Warner Brothers, 1994.
Johnny Cash, Unchained, Warner Brothers, 1996.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication, Warner Brothers, 1999.
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man, American, 2000.
Rage Against the Machine, Renegades, Epic, 2000.
System of a Down, Toxicity, American, 2001.
Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around, Universal, 2002.
Limp Bizkit, Results May Vary, Flip/Interscope, 2003.
Jay-Z, The Black Album ("99 Problems"), Roc-a-Fella, 2004.
BAM, September 7, 1990.
Billboard, July 27, 1991.
Billboard, November 29, 2003, p. 70.
Hits, February 3, 1992.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner, March 24, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1989; May 10, 1992.
Melody Maker, January 3, 1987.
Music Express, March 1992.
Musician, May 1987.
NMS Today, July 16, 1990.
Rolling Stone, May 21, 1987; November 15, 1990; October 1, 1992.
Spin, November 1990; January 1993.
Village Voice, November 30, 1990.
imon Glickman and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.