Rick Rubin
Life Among the Wildflowers

by Maureen Droney

 

Rick Rubin is a tough guy to figure out. First off, there are those publicity photos: The ones that show him looking mysterious and menacing, hidden behind mustache, beard, longer-than-shoulder-length hair and those ubiquitous dark glasses. Biker? Hippie? Some kind of weird guru? The message isn’t clear.

Then there’s his background: Simultaneous stints as both law school student and outlaw rock and rap producer. A vegetarian who studies Eastern mysticism, Rubin also owns a Southern wrestling circuit. A four-time Grammy nominee for Producer of the Year and the producer of 1996’s Grammy-winning Country Album of the Year, he’s more than once championed albums considered so offensive that their labels refused to release them. In print, he’s been called elitist and arrogant, as well as sweet and sensitive. So, what is he really? Demanding? Difficult? Dark? Dangerous? Or just a pussycat in disguise?

Probably the only thing 100% certain about Rick Rubin is that music is his overriding passion, the filter he sees the world through. He’s done landmark albums with Run-DMC (Raising Hell), the Beastie Boys (Licensed to Ill) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (BloodSugarSex- Magik, Californication). His shotgun marriage of rock and rap—Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s smash collaboration on “Walk This Way”— revitalized Areosmith’s stalled career and started a revolution in rock itself. His continued involvement with Tom Petty (Wildflowers, Echo) and Johnny Cash (American Recordings, Unchained) helps keep these artists vital and current. He thinks nothing of working with Slayer (five albums) and Danzig (four albums) on one hand and Donovan (Sutras) on the other. And, after all his success, Rubin still does hang in ratty rehearsal halls, not letting his bands near a proper studio until the songs are great. He’s an enigma, a cipher, but his love of music is clear as day.

We met for this interview in the peaceful library of his Hollywood Hills home, surrounded by books on Eastern mysticism, psychology and Sufi poetry. Incense burned, wind chimes jangled faintly and Monday, his Hungarian puli, curled quietly at our feet. Outside the library door, there was plenty going on: Rubin had just finished a record for new artists Paloalto on his own Sony-distributed American label, as well as projects for Eagle-Eye Cherry and Mel C. Currently, he is producing a new Johnny Cash effort, a collaboration between System of a Down and Wu-Tang Clan, and dealing with the ongoing projects of the other eight acts on his American Recordings imprint. All of this, by the way, while preparing to go into the studio with Rage Against the Machine. And as we sat down, guess what? The first thing he wanted to know is what I’d been listening to.

You’ve been both a record company owner and a producer from the very beginning of your career. Do you find the business part of the job creatively satisfying?
It can be. I prefer the strictly creative endeavors over the business endeavors, but to me, the business part of it is being able to follow through on the project.

You mean having control?
I wouldn’t call it control. It’s just the vision of the project. I don’t feel that my job is done once the music is finished; it can also be my job to be involved in other aspects of what a band does. Depending on the band, I’m often involved in artwork and videos, marketing approaches—how people perceive the band. It’s continuing on with a project instead of just passing it off.

So your involvement in business evolved out of your desire to make music?
It’s hard to say. I kind of started where I am; I’m really just doing the same things I’ve always done. I didn’t come up through the business. I’ve never been an engineer, I’ve never worked in a studio, I’ve never done the things that a lot of people have done to become producers. I started as a producer, I’m still a producer. And I’ve always, from the beginning, run a record company. The first records I made were on my label. I’ve worked with other labels along the way as an independent producer, like for Red Hot Chili Peppers for Warner Brothers. But I also produce for my company, and then I’m more involved, like with Johnny Cash and System of a Down.

It’s always been that way, so it’s hard for me to judge what I do vs. what other people do. Because I don’t know what other producers do.

Well, they’re all different anyway.
I know a lot of producers were engineers who graduated to being producers, but I can’t imagine what qualifications an engineer would have to be a producer. To me, it’s just a different job, but there are some great engineers who become great producers. Again, I don’t know what they do. I only kind of know what I do, and I’m not too sure of that. [Laughs]

You’ve been fortunate that your personal taste has struck so many chords with the public. How do you think you developed that taste?
I was lucky enough to grow up with The Beatles. What little I know about music is from them.

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Reprinted with permission from Magazine, October, 2000
2000, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved