“I don’t really have any control over what’s going to happen with a recording,” Rubin tells Rolling Stone. “It’s more just experimentation and waiting for that moment when your breath gets taken away. It’s an exciting, exhilarating thing when it happens. But it’s not anything to master. You just have to recognize it when it happens and protect it evaporating. It takes luck, patience, a strong work ethic and being willing to do whatever it takes for it to be great. It’s a bit of a process we have to go through to get there.”
When the producer, now age 52, reflects on his career, he speaks with confidence and gentleness, perhaps a side effect of practicing transcendental meditation since he was a teenager. He grew up in Long Island, New York, and still sports the beard he started growing around the start of his career.
He will be honored tonight by the Recording Academy Producers and Engineers Wing in Los Angeles as part of Grammy Week. Past producers whom the Recording Academy has honored in this way include Quincy Jones, Ahmet Ertegun, Jimmy Iovine and Nile Rodgers, among others. When asked what the honor will mean to him, he says it’s difficult to put into words.
What’s easy for him talk about, though, is his history. Going back to the first record he produced, T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s syncopated 1984 single, “It’s Yours,” through his minimalist approach on Kanye West’s 2013 LP, Yeezus, Rubin can deftly articulate how he worked with artists to help them make career-defining (and sometimes career-redefining) records.
“I don’t really think that much about how I got here,” he says. “I just show up and try to make music that excites me. Sometimes there will be an idea that’ll make a record great, sometimes it’ll just be patiently waiting for a magic occurrence to happen or setting the stage to allow it to happen.”
Here, he tells the stories behind 21 of his most remarkable recordings, as well as the story of how he left his New York dorm for California and how he realized that producing albums could actually be a career.
T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, “It’s Yours” (1984)
I used to go to a reggae club called Negril on Second Avenue in New York City, when I was still a student at NYU. On Tuesdays, they had a hip-hop night. It was one of the first times you could hear hip-hop music without going to the Bronx or Harlem. There weren’t really clubs or parties in lower Manhattan so much. Jazzy Jay was my favorite DJ of all the DJs, and he was one of the DJs who would play at Negril. I just loved, loved his DJ’ing ability, and his taste. I learned so much about music from just hanging out with him. At the club, I loved the music and recognized that the records that were coming out at this time — there were no albums in rap yet, just 12-inch singles — and the ones that were coming out didn’t sound like what the club felt like. So “It’s Yours” was almost a documentary-style attempt at what it felt like going to a hip-hop club and experiencing real hip-hop music. That’s what it is.
LL Cool J, “I Need a Beat” (1985)
It was a beat that I programmed at the dorm room on a DX drum machine. I think that was the first one that we ever recorded with LL. He came over with lots of lyrics, just pages and pages of lyrics, though not necessarily arranged into songs. I helped pick some of the lyrics and arranged them into a song.
Back then, I would say LL was kind of a nerdy 16-year-old kid. He was really smart, well read. He came to the dorm room and was very motivated. He’s one of the more hardworking artists I’ve worked with, even from then. And I felt like he really kept to himself. He was friendly with the other artists, but I felt like he was a little bit of a loner type guy. He was in his head a lot. It was different than so many artists that were much more outgoing.
We did the recording at Chung King, a studio whose real name was Secret Society — I decided to call it “Chung King” just because it was in Chinatown. The owner’s name was John King, and it was a really crummy studio and I wanted it to be recorded in this mystical place, so we made up this Chung King place. I can’t remember much about the actual making of the song. We had it all arranged before we went into the studio. The lyrics were all written, the beat was already there; then in the studio it was just plugging in and documenting what we had already figured out in the dorm room.
Beastie Boys, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” (1986)
The title came from Adam Yauch. He had a punk-rock, alternative band beyond the Beastie Boys, and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” was a title that he had in that band. I thought it was a really good title and suggested that we use that for a Beastie Boys song.
All four of us always wrote lyrics and then kind of pooled ideas, and we hung out a lot. We would go out to Danceteria pretty much every night and hang out and come up with lines to make each other laugh. Usually we’d only be working on one song at a time, so let’s say that song was the song of that month. So for that month, every time we’d go out, we write rhymes and collect them all. Then eventually, we’d put them all together and try to figure out the best order for it to happen in. I remember there were a lot of really funny lines in that one. It definitely entertained us at the time. Usually, the way it worked was I would make the tracks first, then the guys would come in and do vocals. So I played the guitar on it in the room by myself.
Kerry King from Slayer did the guitar solo. I don’t think he liked the song. I think he just thought it was bizarre. He’s a real, serious metalhead. He really loves metal, and I don’t think he listens to much music outside of metal. At least then he didn’t. I don’t think it spoke to his aesthetic. And honestly, in retrospect, I don’t think he really spoke to the Beasties’ aesthetic. They didn’t really like him either [laughs]. It was kind of mutual.
Slayer, “Angel of Death” (1986)
That was the first record I ever made in California. We recorded it at this little studio. It’s no longer there; it’s now a flower shop on Vine in Los Angeles.
The technical things about recording that song stand out to me now. They played so fast. If you listen to any of the really fast recordings before Slayer, they sounded like rock records. There are certain things you do to make a rock record. But because Slayer played so fast, those things that you would normally do didn’t work so well. If you listened to any other speed-metal, thrash-metal music that was being made at that time — and there wasn’t so much of it — it’s not clear. The reason is, technologically, people were recording it more like it was traditional rock music, which it really wasn’t. It was this new form. People didn’t look at it as its own thing that had to be handled differently. So that was my mission: How do you get across the clarity and articulation and speed and energy?
Dave Lombardo is this incredible, unbelievably great drummer. One thing that we did was make the drums louder. The nature of distorted electric guitars is that they sound loud regardless of how loud they are. Whereas drums, because it’s a natural instrument, depending on how loud they are in the mix really changes that feeling of how hard they’re being hit. If you’re in a room with the drums and somebody’s hitting them hard, they’re much louder. So, psychologically, by making the drums louder, it made everything seem louder.
I also did away with reverb. With their super-fast articulation in a big room, the whole thing just turns into a blur. So you don’t get that crystal clarity. So much of what Slayer was about was this precision machinery.
This was clearly a controversial song. Slayer were kind of the first death-metal or thrash band. I don’t know what the right title is. Metallica and they were going on at the same time, but Metallica were so different lyrically than them. Slayer were more blood and guts and Satan. Anyway, this was a song where the record company refused to put out the record. So we had to find a new distributor. It was the first record I did with Geffen Records instead of Columbia Records.
Run-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way” (1986)
The rest of the Run-DMC album [Raising Hell] had already been finished. I just had a feeling that there was something more that we could do that would help it. It was a funny time in rap music in that the majority of people didn’t understand what it was at all. People didn’t think it was music. And I thought that if there was a reference point that could both feel honest as hip-hop and be familiar outside of hip-hop, it would help bridge that gap of explaining that this was actual music.
I was just listening through my record collection, and the fact that the breakbeat of “Walk This Way” was already a familiar staple in the live hip-hop world just added to that message. We could take something that was familiar and not change it so much, just through the rappers’ delivery, reframe the song. And unbelievably, it happened. It’s amazing.
Getting Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to participate was easy. It was a funny time for them. They had just reformed, and they put out their reunion record [Done With Mirrors], and it was a flop. So they were kind of at a low point, and it just worked out. Also, they have always have loved urban music. So they were really excited to participate in real, urban street music.
I remember when we discussed the idea of having Aerosmith come in with the Run-DMC guys, and they were really against it. They didn’t want to say words that they didn’t write. They thought they were kind of like, country. It didn’t relate to their mentality. And I remember Russell [Simmons] called them and said, “Just do what Rick says.”
Danzig, “Mother” (1988)
James Hetfield and Cliff Burton from Metallica were the ones who told me about Glenn Danzig’s previous band, Samhain. I’d seen the Misfits earlier in the punk days, but they said, “You’ve got to check out Samhain. They’re the coolest band now.”
I loved Glenn Danzig’s songwriting. I sat in on a rehearsal with Samhain, and I realized the guys couldn’t really play. It felt like it would be hard to record them and make it all it could be. So I asked Glenn who his two favorite drummers were, and he said Phil [Taylor] from Motörhead and Chuck Biscuits. So we called both, and Chuck wanted to do it. So we got Glenn’s favorite drummer, but when he played with the other members of Samhain, it became more apparent that we needed more than a new drummer. So we held auditions and ended up finding John Christ, the guitar player. This became Danzig.
Glenn wrote all the songs, including the majority of the parts, other than maybe the guitar solos. Although sometimes he even wrote those. He had a very clear picture of the songwriting. I remember Glenn being really excited about the song “Mother” and telling me that, content-wise, it’s one that he’d been wanting to do for years and just never really found the way to do it. For him, it was a breakthrough in writing. I remember when we were recording, Glenn had laser-beam focus on all the parts. It was so much fun hearing him sing it. It was a trip. That song has got such a great vibe, and he’s such a great singer.
LL Cool J, “Going Back to Cali” (1989)
LL sometimes likes to say, “Give me concepts,” because he can write about anything. “Going Back to Cali” was more of a personal story for me, because I had been spending time in California and going back and forth. I think that was the last record we made together. He’s still super solid and has a super work ethic.
I like that song because it was a different kind of funk. There’s a slower beat and a faster beat working together to create a counter beat. It created a new feel. I played kalimba on it, too.
I don’t know what the inspiration for the horns was, but that was the first time we used them. Maybe it’s because we would scratch in horn stabs often and thought it would be interesting to do them ourselves. That part was all improvised. I would just say what to play and the musicians would play them. We had a horn solo in it, too, which is an odd choice because it’s typically not something I like. But for some reason we did it.
I can’t think of the song without thinking about the video. It’s was such a quintessential moment in time in our lives. And it was directed by a man named Ric Menello, who was the guy who ran the front desk at the dorm. He was a film-buff friend of ours. The video is one of his great pieces of art.
Andrew Dice Clay, “Hour Back … Get It?” (1990)
That album, The Day the Laughter Died, was at a time when he was the most popular comedian in the United States, selling out Madison Square Garden, and his fans were rabid. But when he was writing and rehearsing material, I would see him do these shows where he would get up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and there would be six people in an audience. It might be tourists who would come from out of town, thinking they were gonna see comedy and getting Dice and being horrified. For us — we worked with a guy named Hothead Johnny — we laughed the hardest at the shows where the audience didn’t like Dice. It was just so funny and combative, like performance art. He’d say these horrible, hateful things. And if you say something horrible and hateful and everybody laughs, it’s a joke. But if you say something horrible and hateful and nobody laughs, it’s kind of scary. It’s really a weird feeling.
So at the height of his popularity, we had the idea we’d put him in front of a small audience that just didn’t like him. It was really counter to what we did, so “anti” his real career. It was very bold of him to do it.
“Hour Back … Get It?” means nothing. It’s a routine he personally found very funny and nobody else found it funny. He had a friend named Auerbach, and it was sort of a play on his friend’s name. So maybe the whole joke might have just been to make one person laugh who wasn’t there. It couldn’t have been more of an inside joke. It wasn’t even a joke.
What you hear is a guy saying things that are sometimes funny, sometimes not. But his commitment to how funny he thinks it is, and how hard he’s selling it to nothing, to no response, is what’s so funny. It’s, like, he’s so convinced that this is funny. In a way, it’s got this existential quality. Of all the Dice albums, it’s my favorite.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Breaking the Girl” (1991)
I was living in California at the time, and it was really fun for me to work with the Chili Peppers, because I was new to Los Angeles, and the Chili Peppers were so ensconced in Los Angeles culture. It’s like after the Beach Boys, the next California band was the Chili Peppers. They really were theLos Angeles band. That was like my “Welcome to Los Angeles.” I loved just going out with them. I got to really experience Los Angeles in a local way being with them, and it was really a beautiful experience.
We recorded in this house that was amazing. It was just a beautiful place and a beautiful vibe. “Breaking the Girl” was the first record we made together, and it had a really beautiful John Frusciante guitar part.
Anthony [Kiedis] sang it in one of the bedrooms on the second floor of the house by himself. He didn’t ever want to have anybody see him when he was singing, so he was always kind of in a remote place. We were listening in the control room and speaking to him, and that idea for the rhythm breakdown — I can’t remember if it was Flea’s or John’s idea — but it came up, so everyone played together. So everybody picked their pots or pans or loud metallic instruments for this percussive jam session, and it worked out really cool. It just gave it an interesting flavor on the record and it really stood out.
Queen, “We Will Rock You (Ruined by Rick Rubin)” (1991)
Queen had got their masters back from the record company. They weren’t available for a little while, so they wanted to re-release them, and they wanted to do remixes to go on each of the albums. They reached out to different people that they thought could do something interesting.
I remember thinking, “Wow.” “We Will Rock You” is, like, this is a perfect record. I always had a weird feeling about remixes. We put so much time and effort into making the record that a remix seemed to be tainting what was good about the record. That was my thought then.
I loved Queen, so when they asked me, I thought, “Well, there’s no way I could make it better than theirs. It’s perfect as it is.” So the idea was to go the other way, and not try to make it great, but try to make it ridiculous and try to ruin it. On the real record, it breaks into a jam at the end and it seems so surreal. So because they’d sent all the multi-tracks, at the end of the remix, I played the solo from “Tie Your Mother Down” backwards.
The credit that I took on it was “Ruined by Rick Rubin,” for that reason. I was thinking, “What are the more surreal, bizarre choices I could make to play up the point that we’re not supposed to be remixing classic songs?” The message of it was, “Don’t do this.”
Tom Petty, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1994)
Tom gave me a demo tape of new songs he was writing. It had, like, five songs on it from the early stages of jamming. It wasn’t like, “These are the great new songs”; it was more like, “Listen to these, see if you hear anything.” None of the songs were particularly memorable, but the guitar riff for “Last Dance With Mary Jane” was between two of the songs, like, after someone tuned up, just the first chords they played. So I call Tom, and was like, “Hey, this whole phrase is really good. You may want to write this song.” And he did [laughs]. I don’t know how he felt about it. I couldn’t read him. Sometimes he would say things very clearly, and sometimes he would not, and feel strongly about something and I would never know [laughs].
System of a Down, “Chop Suey” (2001)
When I first saw System of a Down, I loved them so much, it just made me laugh. There was no point of reference. It was so unusual. It’s hard music, but a lot of hard music sounds very similar. This is hard, but it’s playful, and it’s really danceable and funky. And the emotion of the performances, it really reaches me. I love it.
This song was originally going to be called “Self-Righteous Suicide,” and the record company rebelled. It was Columbia again, like with Slayer. I remember wanting to go to the mat and keep the title, and the band decided, “Let’s call it ‘Chop Suey!'” which I thought was kind of funny.
It’s an unusual song because the verse is so frantic. The style is so broken up and unusual. It’s both difficult to sing and arguably difficult to listen to, but then the chorus is this big, soaring, emotional, surging, beautiful thing. And then it’s got this incredible bridge, “Father, father, father, do you commend my spirit?/Father, why have you forsaken me?” It’s just real heavy, biblical and grand. It’s so unusual that it goes between these crazy rhythmic explosive verses into this emotional, anthemic ending.
It’s just a very unusual song, and the fact that it became a hit is really unusual, because it’s such bizarre music. I was shocked when Serj [Tankian] first sang the verse to me. It’s like, “You really want this to be the verse?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” He loved it. And it holds up. You have no perspective on something like this the first time you hear it. But the thing that’s so exciting about that band is how they take these unusual ideas and execute them on a high level. They can take something that seems really awkward and convey it in a way where you can see it as beautiful. It forces you to open your mind.
Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (2003)
Johnny and I would make collections of songs as possible covers for him to sing, and we’d send them to each other. “Hurt” was one that I sent. There were maybe 20 songs including that one on the mix I made, and it wasn’t one that he responded to. But I had a strong feeling about it, so on the next compilation, I included that one again. Because of the way the Nine Inch Nails song sounds, I think it was hard for him to hear it. So I sent him the lyrics, and I said, “Just read the lyrics. If you like the lyrics, then we’ll find a way to do it that will suit you.”
He listened to it with the lyrics sheet and said, “If you feel strongly about this, we can try it.” We recorded at my house in Los Angeles. We built all of it from scratch. It’s an acoustic song, so it was recorded as a smaller acoustic song than it ended up becoming, and through overdubs, we built all the drama that’s in the song to support the power of the words and the way Johnny was delivering them.
He was at a time where his health was failing, and I tried to pick songs that made sense lyrically for the way his voice was sounding. There were times when his voice sounded broken. He tried to turn that into a positive in the selection of the music. He was awfully troubled by the way his voice was sounding. A lot of times during the process, he would be down on himself. He could always rely on his voice, and at this stage he couldn’t. It was a real struggle for him. But then, when we put everything together and it was done, he would love it.
This is another song where I can’t think of the song without seeing the video. The first time I saw it, I just cried. It really upset me. It’s a really beautiful piece of art and I’m proud of him for letting people see it. When his management first saw they were like, “Nobody can ever see this.” And it was really Rosanne [Cash], his daughter, that made the case to Johnny that, “You’re an artist — this is what you do, and you have to show this.” He was like, “You’re right.” He agreed. And the video came out. She was the one.