It is a good day to be Rick Rubin. For starters, Rubin, the cofounder of Def Jam Recordings and perhaps the most prominent record producer of the last 30 years, is working in Malibu, which isn’t a bad place to slave away. He’s in the midst of a session at the legendary Shangri-La Studios—the bucolic, residential recording complex set up by the Band in 1976 as “a clubhouse where we and our friends could record albums and cross-pollinate one another’s music,” according to the late drummer Levon Helm. Bob Dylan once lived in a tent in the rose garden; his tour bus is still parked in the backyard. The Band filmed much of The Last Waltz with Martin Scorsese here. Eric Clapton recorded here, too. So did Van Morrison.
On a recent Friday, Rubin is adding horns to a track from the debut solo album by Jennifer Nettles, the lead singer of the country-pop duo Sugarland. The song is a cover of an underappreciated 1980s classic-rock ballad (I’m not allowed to disclose which), and it sounds incredible. The sun is shining. Birds are chirping. The surf is breaking one block away on Zuma Beach. Rubin is padding around Shangri-La—which he is in the process of renovating, mostly by painting everything white—in a plain white T-shirt and pair of black board shorts with an orange stripe on the side. His girlfriend, actress Muriel Hurtado Herrera, is nearby; so is his Hungarian puli, Cielo. His feet are bare. His skin is a smooth golden tan, and what remains of his manic silver-brown hair has turned blond in places—the product of hundreds of hours spent paddle-boarding on the Pacific. He lives two minutes away, also in Malibu. His rabbinical beard is as abundant as ever. He looks like a heavy-metal surf bum, or perhaps the world’s wealthiest hobo.
‘For me the Beatles are proof of the existence of God.’
Business is good as well. Rubin is no stranger to the Billboard charts. Since the mid-1980s, he has been the industry’s very own burly, bearded version of Forrest Gump, appearing in the background, slightly blurry but ever present, at a remarkable number of key musical moments. Except that Rubin's ubiquity is not an accident. His production credits include LL Cool J’ Radio(which may have been the first real hip-hop album); The Beastie Boys’Licensed to Ill; “Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith; Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (as executive producer); the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik; Tom Petty’s Wildflowers; Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series; and various songs and albums by Justin Timberlake, System of a Down, Metallica, Slayer, Danzig, Weezer, AC/DC, Nine Inch Nails ... The list goes on.
Since purchasing Shangri-La in 2011—and since parting ways with Columbia Records, which he co-chaired from 2007 until 2012 or so—Rubin has recorded a string of hits right here in Malibu: the Chili Peppers’ I’m With You, the Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter, Kid Rock’s Born Free, Josh Groban’s Illuminations, Adele’s 21. “I always feel like there’s something magic in recording studios,” he says. “There’s a reason good music continues to be made in them. It’s just some mojo element.”
But now Rubin may have topped himself. As we sit down in the garden—he with an espresso-protein shake, me with a glass of water—Black Sabbath’s long-awaited reunion album, 13, which Rubin produced, is perched at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Another Rubin production, Kanye West’s Yeezus, will soon displace Black Sabbath in the top slot, giving Rubin two consecutive chart-topping records by two different acts. Few, if any, other producers have ever managed such a feat. It’s the perfect moment to explore how Rubin got here—from Long Island to Malibu, from New York University to Shangri-La.
How did you come to work on Yeezus?
Kanye called me. I’d just finished working at the studio for about two months on another album, and I was getting ready to go away on vacation for a couple weeks. Then he called up and said, “Can I just come play my album?” And I said, “Sure.” I always like to hear what he’s working on. So he came over to my house in Malibu. We listened. I thought I was going to hear a finished album, but actually we listened to probably three and a half hours of works in progress.
Rubin talks about seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a rehearsal—and wanting nothing to do with them.
What did the album sound like at that point?
Kind of meandering, unfocused, usually without his vocals. I assumed that the album was scheduled to come out next year. So I said, “When are you thinking of finishing up?” And he said, “It’s coming out in five weeks.” Like completely confident and fine.
He wasn’t stressed.
Not at all. I said, “I have a record coming out in November that’s a lot further along than this.” He said, “Really? What are you doing for the next five days?” I said I was going to go away. Then he said, “Please help me. Would you be open to fixing it and shaping it and finishing it off?”
Did he realize how much more work it needed?
To me it seemed impossible what he was asking. I remember I wasn’t feeling that well that day, and I was thinking, Is the music making me sick? I don’t feel good about this. We ended up working probably 15 days, 16 days, long hours, no days off, 15 hours a day. I was panicked the whole time.
What was the process like during those 15 days? How did you find a direction for the album?
There was so much material we could really pick which direction it was going to go. The idea of making it edgy and minimal and hard was Kanye’s. I’d say, “This song is not so good. Should I start messing with it? Can I make it better?” And he’d say, “Yes, but instead of adding stuff, try taking stuff away.” We talked a lot about minimalism. My house is basically an empty white box. When he walked in, he was like, “My house is an empty white box, too!”
It’s a good thing you were on the same wavelength, because the sheer logistics of finishing the album must have been daunting.
Three days before Kanye had to turn the record in he tells us, “I’m going to Milan tonight.” There are probably five songs that still need vocals at this point. Two still need words! So he says, “I have to go to this baby shower before I go to Milan. I’ll be back at 4 p.m., and from 4 to 6 I’ll do the vocals. Then I have to go.” I say, “OK,” thinking it’s not OK, and he says, “Don’t worry. I’ll score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.” Again it just seemed impossible, but that’s basically what he did. He didn’t come back until after 4, and we probably didn’t start until after 5. He said, “I have an hour and 10 minutes. Let’s go.” And then it was full-on NBA finals [laughs]. It probably ended up taking two hours. Five vocals. He wrote two lyrics on the spot.
When he came to you with the record, did you have a sense of what needed to be done?
Initially, he thought there were going to be 16 songs on the album. But that first day, before he even asked me to work on it, I said, “Maybe you should make it more concise. Maybe this is two albums. Maybe this is just the first half.” That was one of the first breakthroughs. Kanye was like, “That’s what I came here today to hear! It could be 10 songs!”
So there might be another Yeezus in the pipeline?
Cash said he would give up all other songs for “Redemption Day,” when making the American series.
Let’s rewind for a second and go back to the beginning. What was the first great song or sound that you can remember hearing?
The Beatles, “Rock ’n’ Roll Music,” the Chuck Berry cover. I was probably 4, and I can remember feeling electrified. That was the first real rock ’n’ roll I’d ever heard.
What is it about the Beatles? What made them work?
It transcends everything. It’s much bigger than four kids from Liverpool. For me the Beatles are proof of the existence of God. It’s so good and so far beyond everyone else that it’s not them.
How did you get from the Beatles to hip-hop?
I was the only punk rocker at my high school. And there were at least a handful of black kids who liked hip-hop. Both were kind of the new music of the day, and it was lonely being the only punk. If times were different and we’d had the Internet, I would have had punk-rock friends all over the world. I probably never would have gotten into hip-hop. But because of where I lived and because there was no community to be a punk with, I started hanging out with the kids who liked hip-hop. And I learned about it through them. They had cassettes of Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack, which was the one place where hip-hop was on the radio.
Just recorded from the radio?
Just recorded from the radio. It was an hour a week. And that was all the listening we had. Before college, I started going to Brad’s Record Den in the Bronx, where they sold hip-hop records, sort of working my way into the hip-hop community.
Was crossing over difficult for you?
More just a fish-out-of-water feeling. I went to a lot of places where I felt like I didn’t belong. But I think that the oddity of me being there made it OK. Like, something about it was so strange that I was in these places where there were no white people at all.
It’s interesting that you were bold enough to make that leap.
The thing is, when you’re a fan from the outside of something, you can embrace it in a different way than when you’re a fan from the inside. Run-D.M.C. could be sort of gangstery in their own way, pre-gangster rap, because they were suburban kids. Kurtis Blow, who was from Harlem and really around gangsters, he didn’t want to be a gangster. He wanted to look above it and wear leather boots and be more like a rock star. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were really inner-city, hard-life guys, and they wanted to be from outer space.
So you go to NYU. You start a little label called Def Jam out of your dorm room. Your first single, “It’s Yours” by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, is a big underground hit. Then Russell Simmons seeks you out and you team up.
When I met Russell, he was shocked that I was white. Shocked. Because I had made this single he really loved.
Your debut release together on Def Jam was “I Need a Beat” by LL Cool J. This was 1984. When you first heard LL, what was your reaction?
I laughed because he sounded really young. He was 16, and he was using all these big words. But he sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
When Rubin first heard Kanye's unfinished album, he thought it was going to be "impossible" to get it ready by the deadline.
Where was this?
In the dorm at NYU. It was a cassette he had sent us. Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys recognized it and was like, “You gotta hear this.” And he played it for me.
What was the next step? Did you say, “we have to sign this kid”?
No, I called LL and said we should meet. I remember being in the dorm and going through his notebook. This was before rap songs really had structure. Often they could be eight, nine minutes long—one entire side of a 12-inch. So I would go through LL’s lyric book and say, “Let’s use these eight bars as a verse, and let’s use these 16 bars as a verse, and this phrase here is going to be the hook, and that will be repeated.”
That was a fairly revolutionary approach.
It hadn’t really happened before in rap. And I think the reason I did it was really just my having grown up with the Beatles. That’s how I heard music—in a song format.
I know it’s an impossible question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, because you’ve helped create a lot of them: what makes a great song great?
I don’t think you can define what it is, but you know it when you hear it. It’s amazing that sometimes you might hear a song that, knowing what you know, won’t make sense—and yet it will still be great. There are songs that can transcend whatever genre limitations they have or style limitations they have.
So you don’t believe that, say, a great melody is necessarily part of a great song?
No, no. I think one of the things that really drew me to hip-hop was how you could get to this very minimal essence of a song—to a point where many people wouldn’t call it a song. My first credit was “Reduced by Rick Rubin.” That was on LL Cool J’s debut album, Radio. The goal was to be just vocals, a drum machine, and a little scratching. There’s very little going on.
Why was that so important to you?
There’s a tremendous power in using the least amount of information to get a point across.
Your next release was the Beastie Boys. How did that come about?
We worked on their debut album, Licensed to Ill, for a long time, two years in all, which is part of the reason the record is as good as it is. Each song really has a life of its own, because it might be a month between writing two songs. It wasn’t like “OK, we have six weeks to make an album.” It was natural—the natural flow of making a really good piece of work. I can remember at one point getting a call from Mike D really upset, like, “What’s going on? Why isn’t our record done yet?” I just said, “I don’t really have control over that. It comes when it comes.”
Usually young people are in a rush. Why did you feel like you could take so much time?
From the beginning, all I’ve ever cared about is things being great. I never cared about when they were done. Because I also feel like I want the music to last forever. And once you release it, you can’t go back and fix it, so you really have to get it right. And that takes time.
Before Rubin, rap songs didn't have much structure.
Time can’t be a factor.
The things that can’t be a factor are time, chart position, radio success, sales—none of those things can get in the way of something being great. All they do is cloud the picture.
Were the Beastie Boys similar to LL Cool J, or did they have a sense of rap as pop songs, with choruses and everything?
Not really. The majority of the music I did, and then we wrote a lot of the lyrics together. Often Adam and I would go out at night, to Danceteria, and just exchange ideas. I can remember we wrote the song “Girls” on the train to Washington, D.C. We started with the idea of what the song would be. It was rooted in the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” What would a rap version of “Shout” sound like? And if you listen to it now, you’ll see it’s really similar.
How did you discover Public Enemy, another one of the greatest rap groups ever?
D.M.C. from Run-D.M.C. played me a tape of Chuck D hosting a radio show. The show was called “Public Enemy Number One.” And the first minute of the song “Public Enemy” was his theme song. We listened to it over and over again. He sounded different. He had that deep voice, and there was a more intellectual side to him. He didn’t sound like a kid. He sounded more mature. And angry. So I called him, and he said that he had already done the rap thing. Now he had a regular job. He wasn’t interested. He felt like he was too old. He was probably 20. LL was 16. Chuck thought he’d missed his chance.
‘From the beginning, all I’ve cared about is things being great.’
Where was he working?
He worked at a record store. I called him every day for six months, probably. He would leave a message with whoever was there, like, “Tell Rick I’m not here.” And then eventually I got a message: Chuck wants to meet. And he comes in, and he’s like, “I’m willing to do it under these terms: it’s called Public Enemy. It’s a group. It’s more like the Clash than a rap group, and it’s me and Flavor Flav, and Griff and Hank are involved.” And I said, “Whatever you want to do is fine.”
Are there any artists you wanted to work with but didn’t get to?
I tried to sign N.W.A. I went to the studio when they were recording Straight Outta Compton. I was just a fan, but I developed a relationship with them. And the reason it didn’t work out was ... there have been a couple of cases in my life where I make some plan with the artist, but then they already have an existing relationship with a company and the company ends up doing something different. N.W.A was one of those.
What was it like being in the studio while they were making Straight Outta Compton?
I remember hearing the song “Straight Outta Compton” for the first time and I couldn’t believe it. Loved it. And I remember going to see them play. I think it was in Inglewood. It was the first time I saw a lot of guns in hip-hop. Before N.W.A went out on stage, a guy came around with towels, and he opened up the towels and there were loaded guns. And everybody got loaded up to go out on stage. It was unbelievable. And I remember Eazy-E walking around backstage watching a portable TV and holding a machine gun.
You also produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. It was a transitional moment for them. Tell me about the genesis of “Under the Bridge.”
Same as the LL story. I was at Anthony’s house, and he was showing me some books of writing he had done. And I was going through the notebooks and I found this “Under the Bridge” thing. And I was like, “This looks really good. What is this?” And Anthony’s like, “Well, it’s a poem, and a song, but it’s not a Chili Peppers song.” And I was like, “Why not?” And he’s like, “Well, that’s not what we do. We’re a funk band and I rap, and this isn’t that kind of song. This is more of a personal song.” But I pushed him. I said, “Let’s just explore where it goes.”
Why did you push?
My thinking was that the Chili Peppers were not limited to being a funk band with rapping. And I remember Anthony was embarrassed to show the song to the other guys in the band. But he sang it to John [Frusciante, the guitarist] and John came up with his part. Then he played it for Flea [the bassist] and Flea came up with his part. And it ended up being a really good song—even though they didn’t realize how good it was until people starting responding to it.
So how would you describe your role as a producer, in general?
Just as fan. Making music that I want to hear. You’re so close to something when you write it that it’s hard to have any perspective on how it hits someone else. My job is to be a professional version of the outside world—a listener who is not attached to any of it, who doesn’t know the story of how it was written, who doesn’t know how it works, who doesn’t know why this is important to you. Every record producer does something different. A lot of them are former engineers who come at it from the technical side.
But you’re not twiddling the knobs and positioning the mics ...
I come from more of the fan side. It’s not so much how we’re going to do it. Instead, I become a partner with the artist in trying to realize the best version of who they could be.
The artist I think of when you say that is Johnny Cash. You resurrected his career with the American series, and all those unlikely, contemporary songs you recorded together. How did you first connect with him?
I started the new label after leaving Def Jam. Up until that point most of the artists I’d worked with, at least on the label side, were new artists. But I thought it would be really cool to work with a significant known artist who hasn’t been doing their best work. It felt like it would be a different kind of challenge: a fun, stimulating, new set of problems.
What are those problems?
People who’ve made a lot of records tend not to make records as good as the ones they made when they’re younger. When you’re young and you get to make your first record, or your second record, it’s the most important thing in your life. When you’re making your 10th record, or your 50th record, it doesn’t have that same ...
Yeah. It’s not, like, it. That’s one piece. Another piece is that there’s a cycle that’s dictated by the reality of being a touring artist [when you only have eight weeks between tours to make a record]. At some point in time the cycle takes over, and even though you’re not really ready to make the record during that window, it’s the only window you have, so you put it out. Cracks in the foundation start. And slowly, over time, the creative process gets eroded, and it becomes something that’s just a window in the schedule instead of the most important thing that drives the whole train.
‘I’m very much of the school of recording more than less.’
So you thought of Johnny Cash.
The first person I thought of was Johnny Cash. He was playing a dinner theater in Orange County. I went to see the show. He was great. Met him after the show, and I said, “Look, maybe we can make music together.” And he said, “You really want to do that?” I think he felt like he had absolutely nothing to lose. He had been dropped by his label. In his mind, his best work was 25 years before. He’d really given up on himself as a recording artist.
He just thought of himself as a touring act.
Go out and play the hits.
Some of the songs that you recorded were way outside of people’s idea of Johnny Cash. What about his own idea of himself? Were there any songs that he needed convincing about, that you felt really strongly about?
I felt really strongly about “Hurt.” I probably sent him 30 songs to choose from and he was not like, “I want to do that one.”
How was he convinced?
I said, let’s just listen to this song. Read the lyrics. Imagine how it might make you feel singing it. Could you relate to it? And he loved it. It wouldn’t have been a natural choice. But he wasn’t opposed.
Were there any songs in particular that he felt really strongly about recording?
On the last album there’s a song by Sheryl Crow that he really felt strongly about. It’s called “Redemption Day.” At the time we recorded it, he said he would give up all the other songs just for this one.
What do you remember most vividly about working with Cash?
On our first album, there was a song he wrote, I can’t remember which one it was, but I listened to it and said, “Do you think you could take some of the ‘I’s and ‘me’s out of it?” And he thought about it and he was like, “Yeah, I think I can do that.” And he did. So 10 years later, I’m visiting him in Nashville. He’s in a wheelchair. He’s blind, pretty much. It felt so awkward. So I said, “What have you been working on lately?” And he said, “I’ve been working on using ‘I’ and ‘me’ less.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah. Remember? You gave me that comment on the song? That’s what I’ve been working on.” Incredible. He didn’t mean it in the context of songs. He meant it in the context of life.
How does your production process actually work?
I’m very much of the school of recording more than less. And I always request that artists overwrite. Write as much as possible—and then we can narrow down—because you never really know. The best song you write might be No. 25, not No. 12. For every System of a Down record, we’ve recorded probably 30 songs to get the 12 or 14 that are on the record. The same with Chili Peppers.
How do the artists respond to that? Writing songs isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
It depends. If it’s a new artist, they’re open to it because they’ve never done it before and they think that’s how it’s done—and it is how it is done when we work together. But an artist who has made a lot of records, sometimes they’re not really up for that. It was a little bit of a struggle with Black Sabbath, for example. We never got up to 30. But they probably wrote more than 20. We probably recorded 16. And there are eight on the album.
What was their reaction? “Damn it—I don’t want to write another song?”
I just think they’d never done it before. But it made sense to me because in the past they were on a roll from album to album, and now they haven’t been a band together in 35 years. The idea that after 35 years the first 10 songs you write are perfect is unrealistic.
Were they confident that they could do this? I imagine after so much time ...
It took two years, two years from the time we first met to the time the album was finished. Back in the day, Black Sabbath was essentially a jam band. That’s how they wrote. And they had gotten away from that. They were used to making demos: here’s a click track, here’s where the guitar riffs are. But what made Black Sabbath Black Sabbath was the way each of them interpreted what the others were playing. Those reactions create tension—they create the band’s sound.
But people don’t really record or write that way anymore.
Technology makes it easy to get everything “right.” But if you rely on technology to get it right, you’re removing all of the human drama. The way most music is made today is parts are created and then played perfectly and then copied and pasted. Everything’s in time, everything’s in tune, but it’s not a performance. My goal was to get Black Sabbath back to performing together—to jamming—because they are experts at it.
That brings up some larger questions about the state of the industry. If you had to deliver a diagnosis right now, what would you say is wrong with the record business?
People are willing to get short-term gains at the risk of long-term choices. So, if someone can do something to sell a few more records now at the expense of the artist, even if that artist will sell a lot less later, they’ll make that choice.
A lot of it has to do with structure, because the structure of the music industry is rooted in a corporate structure. It’s a quarterly business, but art is not a quarterly business. At Columbia, if Beyoncé didn’t deliver a record one year, for whatever reason, that really affected the whole economics of the company. And it’s impossible to build a music company as if you were selling shoes. It’s a different business. It has a different ebb and flow. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. You have to look at it as a longer-term game.
As co-chairman, you tried to change Columbia. How?
My basic, simple idea was to actually listen to the music we were putting out and see if it was as good as it could be. That was something that didn’t exist. It was just a conveyor belt putting stuff out. The day I got there they sent me a CD of maybe 40 upcoming releases by artists. At the end of that, only two of them survived. And then we signed all new artists. It’s a different company today. It’s night and day.
You said at the time that your job would be to protect the label from itself. Do you feel like that’s what you did?
Well, I tried [laughs].
Why don’t you work there anymore?
It was really a political thing. Eventually, after a few years, there were other people who worked there who just didn’t want me to be involved. And it was fine with me.
What’s the future of the music industry?
I don’t know. I feel like there will be a different version of it. It may not work the exact same way, but people are happy to pay for something good, whether it’s music or a music service or however it works. You can’t expect them to pay if you’re not giving them something of value.
You have to make better music to make a better business.
Do you see the Adele record, 21, which you co-produced and which was released on Columbia, as a case in point?
Absolutely. We recorded it here. There were no concessions made on that album. There was no sense of what the radio sounds like, or any pop considerations at all.
Your taste—your ear—has been spot-on again and again, across genres. What’s the secret?
I never decide if an idea is good or bad until I try it. So much of what gets in the way of things being good is thinking that we know. And the more that we can remove any baggage we’re carrying with us, and just be in the moment, use our ears, and pay attention to what’s happening, and just listen to the inner voice that directs us, the better. But it’s not the voice in your head. It’s a different voice. It’s not intellect. It’s not a brain function. It’s a body function, like running from a tiger.
Yes. But being open to using your instincts instead of going, “Oh, that’s not going to work.” Or listening to the part of your brain that goes, “Oh, that’s out of tune.” Or the part of your brain that says, “That’s too loud.” You have to shut off all of those voices and look for these special moments—these moments that you accept you have no control over. So much of my job is to not think—to be open to what’s there, and then use my intuition to see where it takes me.