PHOTOGRAPHY MARK ROMANEK
THE LEGENDARY MUSIC PRODUCER WHO FOUNDED DEF JAM OUT OF A DORM ROOM TALKS TO AUTHOR TOURÉ ABOUT HIS CREATIVE PROCESS, HIS DEAR FRIEND MCA, AND THE ALBUM THAT GOT AWAY
Rick Rubin is a man who’s shaped the sound of America. Over 30 years he’s placed a unique imprint on important artists like the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Johnny Cash, AC/DC, Tom Petty, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many others. He has a keen ear and a way with people, which is why many call him a guru. He comes across as very calm and Zen and thoughtful, all of which you can tell is helpful in getting recording artists to be more instinctive and reveal their essence. That, as much as his sonic taste, is behind his massive success.
If I was a new artist, what would it take to get a Rick Rubin production on my album? What’s gonna make you say yes to me when you say no to another hundred who ask?
RICK RUBIN Just a feeling. A feeling of connection. If I have a personal connection with it or if I see something in it, or see an angle into it that I think I can help make it better than it is. A lot of times it comes down to the people. I just meet the artist and like the artist. It’s about that connection more than anything.
One of the things that you’ve been great at doing is bringing something new out of people. How do you accomplish that?
RR I try to help an artist get closer to who they are. So we take away all of the thoughts of what the radio sounds like or what they think they’re supposed to do or what their label thinks they’re supposed to do or what anybody thinks they’re supposed to do and get into the roots of who they are and create a safe environment for them to be themselves and let their guard down and just expose who they are. Help them find what that magic thing is about them, why they do what they do in the first place.
I’ve heard that you get people to move quickly. And that’s part of trying to get to that instinctive stuff, right?
RR That’s true, but we spend a great deal of time preparing. Like it may be two years of work just working on songs before we go into the studio, and then we go in and it happens very quickly.
Have the problems of the record business changed anything for you professionally?
RR Not really. We do it to where we love it. We can never predict or guess what anyone else is going to like. The industry’s gone through a lot of changes but from the making music standpoint it’s pretty similar. We care about it as much as we always did and want it to be as good as it can possibly be and are willing to do whatever it takes for it to be as good as it can possibly be. We don’t let the industry issues affect the creative process.
Let’s go back to the beginning of your career and working on Licensed To Ill and what you were trying to do sonically. How much fun did you have doing that record?
RR Yeah, it was very new territory then. There weren’t even samplers yet, so we had tape loops going around the room, around mic stands, and programming was in the early days of 808s and drum machines. A lot of the programming was done on the fly, played by hand, or it’d be something where we’d play beat A and then stop it and play beat B and then stop it and then play beat A and then play a fill. It was more live. The way things are done today where tracks are created by taking a piece of music and repeating it over and over in ProTools, nothing could’ve been done like that. It had to be just based on the technology we had at that time. And because of that it sounds different than the way things sound now.
Yeah, it had a live sound and energy and an electricity that’s hard to capture when you have a different way of making it.
RR Yeah, it was more of a performance, capturing a moment. That’s how it was done even down to the mixing. We’d all stand over the console and each person would either man eight faders or mute buttons and we’d all learn as the song would go. It was almost like playing piano on the console. We’d rehearse the first verse and then the next piece of the song and then we’d try to get the whole thing as a song and break it up in pieces and try to get to the point of doing it all as one performance. There would be three or four of us at the console to be able to get through the song.
Can you talk about MCA, your friend Adam Yauch, who recently passed away?
RR Adam Yauch was…it’s hard for me to talk about him because it’s so emotional with him not being here. He’s the first person from our immediate group to pass away and it’s a bizarre feeling. He had the coolest voice and wrote the coolest rhymes and was probably the strongest torchbearer for the band throughout the creative process. After we didn’t work together anymore he really carried the flag for the band and was the driving force for them.
Questlove says he doesn’t love or hate music anymore. He just listens to what the person is doing, but he can’t get superhigh or superlow about anything anymore. Do you still have that emotional attachment you had 20 years ago?
RR It’s both things. I can still get emotionally attached and swept away, but there’s another part of me with the producer hat on who’s listening to how it’s done and thinking what I’d do different or what I wish I would’ve thought of. You can listen with two different ears—the professional ears and the fan ears. And it happens very naturally, just going back and forth. But it’s a really nice feeling to just get taken away as a fan. And just hear something that’s like, Wow, how cool is that?
Can you tell me something you heard that you were like, Wow, I wish I’d thought of that?
RR D’Angelo’s Voodoo album. I don’t think a better album’s been made since then. That’s as good as it gets.
Can you say how you’ve grown as a producer from those early NYU dorm days to now, as a legendary figure?
RR I would say it’s different. It’s still me inside, so the sensibility is similar. It’s gone from a naïve, not really knowing what I’m doing energy to a still not knowing what I’m doing energy, but with a tremendous amount of experience. And with that experience comes wisdom, because each project I do I learn new stuff, every single time. But all that new stuff I’ve learned from doing a lot of albums, you learn a lot of ways. There’s been a lot of examples in my life of when I hear a musical problem, or an issue with a song and I have a big Rolodex of options of things to try, whereas before it might’ve been more frustrating and hunting. Now I kinda have a better idea of how to fix the problem. I’ve also learned what’s important and what’s not… I know what things I fix will make a difference and what things are just my taste and no one else is gonna care.