The Last Word: A Q&A With Rick Rubin
By Wes Orshoski
Billboard — November 29, 2003
‘THE WORK WITH JOHNNY CASH REALLY CHANGED MY LIFE’
Say the name “Rick Rubin,” and a lot comes to mind: his groundbreaking pairing of Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith on the former’s remake of “Walk This Way.” His historic revival of Johnny Cash’s career. His signature “Grizzly Adams” beard.
But more than anything else, the name recalls some of the most successful and important albums of the past two decades. Thanks to an impressive track record that includes hit albums by Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty, the words “produced by Rick Rubin” imply an extra level of quality.
That reputation can be traced back to a New York University dorm room in 1984. It was there that Rubin, then pursing a degree in film and TV, founded the Def Jam label with friend Russell Simmons. During the next five years, Def Jam would help catapult rap into the mainstream, as Rubin slyly infused elements of the rock music he loved as a teen into the work of New York’s brightest hip-hop stars.
It would be the start of a career that would see the producer launch the Def American label (the “Def” was dropped in 1992) and become one of the top names in heavy metal. He would later branch out, with projects by artists as Petty, Cash and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
“I don’t hear music as genre-specific…I don’t put those boundaries on music,” he says.
For longtime American act the Jayhawks, Rubin, now 40, is not only a trusted producer but a music-obsessed and uncommonly supportive label chief, “He’s the reason we’re still making records,” frontman Gary Louris says. “Without Rick, we would have been dropped. Who knows? Maybe we wouldn’t have made any records.”
Q: What were the most important things Def Jam accomplished while you were at the label?
A: Probably a couple of things. One of them would be the use of song structure in hip-hop, which hadn’t really existed before then. Before we started, hip-hop records were typically a 12-inch that was between six and nine minutes long, and [they] rarely had a hook. It was more like Jamaican toasting.
And we really helped to put song structure into hip-hop. That came from growing up listening to the Beatles in my case–that was the inspiration. I think that through the Beatles’ filter, you really get into songs. While the feel of rap was great, and the message of rap was great at the time, it didn’t deliver the same song way that the Beatles did. So for one, putting song structure in hip-hop really allowed it to become what it is.
Another is that we put these young people who loved music in a position to somehow share that love–without any expectation. Something happened in hip-hop after the success of Def Jam where now people get into hip-hop with the idea that you can make a lot of money doing it. And it was not about that when we started. It was really a very pure art form, where anybody who did it did it just because they loved it–because no one had success doing it.
Q: You’ve worked with so many great artists on so many great projects. Can you describe one or two that have been the most meaningful?
A: There have been a lot of great ones. It would be hard to narrow it down to just one or two. So I’ll name the first ones that come to mind, but by no means are they definitive. Clearly, the work with Johnny Cash was inspirational and really changed my life. Having him in my life changed my life. The depth of our friendship and the amount of work that we did in the time we worked together was really staggering.
Another one that I really enjoyed was Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” It was the first time we worked together. And we really took our time. He’s really a fantastic craftsman of songs, both as a writer and as a record maker. He really knows what he’s doing. He’s another person I learned a tremendous amount from being around. That was a really gratifying album. I rarely listen to anything that I’ve worked on, but that’s one that I listen to on occasion and it really makes me feel good.
Also, System of a Down are really special to me.
Q: Can you share a memory of Johnny Cash that embodies who he was?
A: We had a dinner party at my house one night, and Johnny and [his wife] June [Carter] were staying at the house at the time, and I had a bunch of friends over–film directors and music people. And before dinner, Johnny asked everyone to hold hands, and he read from the Bible and said a prayer. And that’s not something we normally do in my house. And if I would imagine that happening…You know, the sarcastic New Yorker in me would feel like, “This is uncomfortable.” But his spiritual connection was so deep and so pure that everyone was moved. I have a friend who is an atheist who was at the dinner who was completely moved by Johnny’s commitment to spirit. It really had an impact on everyone’s life who was there.
Q: What did you learn from Tom Petty?
A: A lot of technical stuff. His attention to detail, really getting things in time and having everything really in tune, like immaculately in tune. I never really focused on things like that before. All I cared about was the performance. But, at the same time, getting all the elements of the performance right is a very powerful thing.
Q: How do you pick artists to work with?
A: It’s an emotional connection. 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.. I feel like the relationships I forge with the artists I work with are kind of a long-term commitment to helping them be all they can be.
Q: A lot of people see Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” as a deeply influential record. When you were making it, did you have the feeling that you were making a landmark metal record?
A: We knew it was great, but I don’t think we had any expectations. At the time, they had been on an independent label and had some success. And when they signed with me, there was some feeling in the underground that they had jumped to the major label and were now going to sell out. So, I guess, in some way, there was a concerted effort to do just the opposite–like, to really be as extreme and as pure as we possibly could be.
Q: At that time, in many areas of this country, Slayer was seen as the heaviest, most dangerous band in the world. Did it feel like you were making dangerous music?
A: Yes! [laughs] Yes, it felt dangerous and important and special and unlike anything else going on. You felt it at the shows; you felt a kind of power in the room that I had just not seen before–and, you know, I had grown up on heavy metal music.
Q: Who is on your wish list?
A: The only one I could think of is U2. I feel like they’re really at a great place in their career right now in their writing. Their last album may have been their best. And they’re really at a high point in their creative life. Their songwriting is really strong, they’re secure in who they are. They seem to be at a very powerful place creatively, and it would be fun to support and nurture that.