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Rick Rubin

Interview by Joy Williams
first published in Shark Magazine, Germany
cover photo © Lisa Johnson


Rick Rubin c Lisa Johnson


As much as I dislike the music business, which I do, the thing that I like is that nobody understands it. That makes it fine, makes me know I can win, you know?


One steamy summer night in New York City I was hanging out at a party, making small talk and getting drunk with Joey Ramone to pass the time, when I spotted the hottest producer in the country walk in the door. I'd traveled cross-country to attend the New Music Seminar, armed with a list of people I was determined to meet somehow.

Rick Rubin was high up on that list, so when he came over to say "Hi" and "Bye" to Joey, I seized my chance. "Do you have to leave right now?" I inquired sweetly of this hotshot young (24) producer of the Beastie Boys and Slayer, with the reputation of being arrogant and difficult.

"Well, no," he smiled. "Good," I shot back, "then sit down. I have some things I want to say to you!"

I told him, first, I thought he was brilliant. But then I ripped into him about how his company, Def Jam Recording, was run. He heard me through, all the time gazing up at me with soft, puppy-dog eyes.

The next morning when I woke up sober and remembered, I thought: "Oh, my god, now I've blown it..." But instead, all throughout those hot summer days and nights at the Seminar and on the streets of Manhattan, we kept running into each other, and he was unfailingly polite. Thrash night at the Ritz, I sat at his reserved table, and I even got into the special VIP party. So much for reputations.

When, two years later, I was assigned by a German magazine, Shark, to interview the man, whose reputation for arrogance had only increased, he was again sweet and polite. I asked him about that night in New York, and why he'd let me get away with ripping into him and he said, "I always listen to what other people have to say. Sometimes they're right and I learn something."

Rick Rubin may indeed be arrogant, but most of the time he really does know what he's doing—better than most. At the same time, he realizes that he doesn't know everything, that there's much to learn and it doesn't hurt to listen to something or somebody new.

That attitude, I think, is one of the main reasons Rick Rubin has been able to go from backing rap when barely in his twenties (LL Cool J, his first production effort, made him his first million dollars); to breaking rap on MTV by finding and promoting the Beastie Boys (their being white was crucial, as we shall see), running them all the way to #1 in the country; to Slayer, the heaviest of thrash; to converting The Cult from an obscure alternative English band played only on college radio into a band that Metallica wanted to have tour with them; and then after breaking with Russell Simmons, his partner at Def Jam, moving to Hollywood and backing the roots-rock-revival sound of the Black Crowes—among others.

If you want to see the direction in which music is moving, watch who Rick Rubin chooses to produce.

He's terribly difficult to pin down to an interview. I spent months chasing the man, calling him at his record label, calling him at home, until he finally agreed to a time and place. The photographer went through the same chase. It's not so much that he's uncooperative per se, but that he's determined to do what he feels like doing. And since no one likes to to be interviewed....

But, finally, we sit across a conference room table at his record label offices in LA and I wonder:

Q: You have this image as a satyr, a "dark" person. But my experience of you isn't like that at all, and the photographer said the same thing. She said you were very sweet. What's going on?  Is it that darkness/lightness thing some people have, where you're basically an OK person, but you're really drawn to this other side of human nature?

Rick Rubin c Lisa Johnson/Joy Williams
photo © Lisa Johnson
digital effects © Joy Williams

RICK: (softly) I guess that must be it.

Q: Kind of like Batman?

RICK: (laughs)

Q: Do you know what I mean?

RICK: Exactly. I like extreme things—good, bad. I like it when people take things to their limits, regardless of whether or not I agree. Because I think that's the only way we find out about new things.

Q: Well, what's the big deal about new things? A lot of people couldn't care less.

RICK: I don't know; I guess I'm bored by regular stuff. Things really excite me or else they mean nothing to me. I don't like anything that's mediocre. I'd never talk about anything, "Oh, that was OK." I hate it or I love it.

Q: But you don't go out running around madly pursuing exciting experiences. You don't even drink. Why not?

RICK: I'm just not interested. I need to be in control. And I'm a good boss. I mean, I'm an effective leader in terms of getting people to get things done. I can motivate people to do good work. People take what I say seriously, which is good.

Q: Yeah, but once you were this kid, hanging out on the streets in Long Island, New York. You were like this street kid, right? And then you just got into music, and you founded Def Jam and produced several top-selling albums, and now you've got Def American Recording. But you're still only, what, 25?

RICK: Twenty-six.

Q: How did this happen? How did you get out of being the guy who hangs around with a gang? And why? Why did you decide you were going to become a producer?

RICK: It was very much a hobby. 

Q: A lot of people have hobbies, but they don't go out and start their own business.

RICK: I was going to NYU [New York University] and I was into rap music at the time, but there weren't a lot of rap records coming out; and the rap records that were coming out weren't representative of what the rap scene really was. I used to go to the rap clubs in New York—I'd be the only white guy there—and they'd be playing rock'n'roll records with guys rapping over them. Like "Walk This Way".

"Walk This Way" was an original record that every rap DJ would have and use. Billy Squire's "Big Beat" was another one. And the rap records that were coming out at the time were like Sugar Hill Records, which were essentially disco records with people rapping over them. Kids who liked rap bought them because there weren't any records representative of their rap scene. So, I saw this void and starting making those records, just because I was a fan and wanted them to exist. The way it started was, the first record I made, I was planning on putting it out myself strictly for the purpose of breaking even—making back my costs, that was always the plan—and I sold it to Streetwise Records, who offered me more than I thought I was going to make if I'd sold as many as I wanted to. Then, as it turned out, it was a hit; it sold, I don't know, 100,000 12-inch's in the New York area, which was a big deal.

Q: And you looked at that and said, "Hmmm...."

RICK: Well, I never got paid. And I learned how the independent record business works; I still haven't been paid to this date. And I met Russell Simmons, who had made about 20 hit records that sold a lot, and he was broke. He never got paid either. So I said, "This is dumb. They're not really doing much for us, and they're not paying us, so let's do it ourselves. At least we can make sure we get paid and our artists get paid."

Q: How did you do this, if you didn't have any money?

RICK: It doesn't cost very much. Rap records can be made very inexpensively. I mean, the first LL Cool J album—the whole album—cost $7,000 to record and we sold 900,000 copies when we first came out. We were already selling to CBS at that time, so that's where that much came from.

Q: So, how about a list of all the records you've produced?

Rick RubinRICK: I'll try to make it up as I go; I don't really remember. (speaking quietly, slowly, distant...) There were 7 independent 12"s. Actually, the first record I ever made was called "It's Yours," T Rock & Jazzy J, a rap record. The first of the seven maroon-label Def Jam records was LL Cool J's I Need A Beat 12".... The second one was The Beastie Boys' (whispers to himself, "What was it called?") Rock Hard. The third one I didn't produce. The fourth one, I think, was Jazzy J. The fifth one was The Hollis Crew. (gaining momentum now) The sixth one was another LL record and I think it was called Dangerous... Uh, what was the other one? Jimmy Spicer. Those were all records I produced before Def Jam/CBS.

And then, at Def Jam, through CBS, the first LL Cool J album, Radio; the Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill album; ummm, there was also a Beastie Boys' She's On It, which was a 12"; I can't remember all the 12"s associated with each record. The Cult's Electric, there's Slayer's South Of Heaven and Raining Blood. On the first two Public Enemy albums I'm executive producer. The Less Than Zero soundtrack; Masters of Reality, Trouble, the Wolfsbane album, Live Fast Die Fast, Andrew Dice Clay, Danzig, and the Geto Boys. Most recently, the new Four Horsemen and the new Red Hot Chili Peppers. And Def American put out the Black Crowes, but I didn't produce that one.

Q: There's a big difference between putting out some rap records and becoming a producer....

RICK: Oh, very much so—two completely different things. It just turns out, I was really making records before I became a record company; I was producing records (first). The record company became a function of the production. In other words, I knew we could get paid, whereas I didn't know we could get paid when I was delivering records to other people. And it damages your relationship with your artists when they don't get paid—it's your fault. So, I tried to do away with as many of the problems.... Instead of going to somebody and asking them to do the things that needed to get done, and not getting them done, it was easier to just take on the responsibility. It was just not going to get done unless I did it, so.... 

Q: But talking specifically about the commercial acceptance of rap, which now runs 50%-50% with metal amongst 15-year-old kids, the prime record-buying market: There has been a big shift from the early stuff, which, as you said earlier, was someone just rapping over a rock record, to what we have now in the whole hip-hop movement. Do you think you actually influenced what came about?

RICK: I'd say so. One of the contributions I think I had to rap was the song structure. Before I started, a lot of rap records were like a verse from beginning to end—just three guys trading off vocals, starting at the beginning and finishing when they finished, maybe six minutes later. And I tried to make rap into songs, which is now the way they are. I think I helped bring it to the masses. The fact that the Beastie Boys were a white group was kind of a big deal. If a 14-year-old white girl in, oh, Alabama had brought home a Run-DMC album in those days—you know, looking at these black guys as rock'n'roll guys or sex symbols—or it would not really have been OK. Whereas, as stupid and disgusting as the Beastie Boys might have been, that was OK because they were white. Reality is, this is a very racist country, very racist. I think when they played the Beastie Boys on MTV, then it made it easier for MTV to play Run-DMC.

Q: What attracted you to rap in the first place?

RICK: The fact that there was nothing going on in rock.

Q: Were you bored? Are you attracted to new sounds?

RICK: Always. My high school was, like, 70% white, 30% black. The kids in my high school liked Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd....

Q: But you like Led Zeppelin.

RICK: I do now. I didn't then, I hated them. Uh, the Rolling Stones were big. Yes. The Doors. I graduated from high school in 1981, so it's not that long ago. It wasn't enough for me to listen to an album that came out 10 years ago. I wanted to feel it and be there. You know, John Bonham died while I was in high school. There was no.... Do you know what I'm saying?

Q: Yeah, but for most people, music is part of, like, what their crowd approves of. So, you weren't worried what the crowd approved of?

RICK: No, I didn't care. I didn't like what the crowd was doing. I think the reason a lot of the kids who were my age liked what they liked was just because their older brothers and sisters liked it. I think that's the way it is. I don't know. I'm an only child, which is what I was getting to. I didn't have an older brother or sister listening to Led Zeppelin or who got to see The Doors. That was all very old news to me, it didn't exist. They weren't coming around every six months to tour. It wasn't a real thing. And then, all the black kids liked rap records, and one week their favorite would be one group and then a new single would come out and they would have a new favorite group. It was that immediate. It was a very immediate, progressive audience. It was very exciting, and you could be part of it. You could go and hear it and see it and feel it and touch it.

Q: But you were the only white guy who went into these places, so it wasn't really an option that was open to most people.

RICK: It was an option. They just didn't care, I guess. Really, the key to it is doing what you believe in, as opposed to what you think is going to work. There were never any plans to make anything happen. I just did what I liked and believed in it, and luckily it all worked out. You just have to do what you want to do and be good at what you do. Be good at your craft. I do what I like, and I believe what I like will work. I don't put barriers up.

Q: Yes, you have to have that belief in yourself. And it's the same way with the artists....

RICK: One hundred percent. You know, artists come in all the time (and ask us) "What are you looking for?" It doesn't matter what we're looking for. You do what you do, and if you do it well, people will like it. And if they don't like it, you should be pumping gas. That's just the way it is. It's either right or wrong, and if it's right, it will happen.

Q: Do you go out in the clubs to check things out, wait for that gut feeling?

RICK: Oh, yeah, but I don't usually arrange my schedule around it. I don't want to become an A&R guy who goes out seven nights a week searching for acts. I don't do that. But I keep aware, I read magazines and I just feel what's going on. I try to understand culture as much as music, because it really works together. You know, art has always reflected culture. It's never been the other way.

Q: Even though art appears sometimes to be leading culture. But that's only because the artist is the one who first picks up what's happening and expresses those inchoate yearnings, desires, threads of their culture.

RICK: Exactly. Or doesn't just pick it up, but is it for the times. You know, is for the times. That's really what you have to be aware of. People think that....

Q: That there's this set of rules, and if you check them all off, the band will work?

RICK: Yeah, but that doesn't work. Or if it does work, it doesn't matter. It's not the business I want to be in, and I don't think it's what the record business should be about.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of metal bands that aren't very good and that go through the motions and get popular, but it's a very short-term, meaningless kind of success.

Q: When you see or hear a band, what are you looking for?

RICK: I just like what I like, no matter what. 

Q: Isn't there a limitation somewhere?

RICK: I believe in freedom of speech, that people should say what they want to say, whether I agree or disagree. I've put out records that have Nazi overtones and I've been a supporter of the Jewish Defense League, which is exactly the opposite.

Q: Which seems very odd. You puzzle me. I feel you as warm and sweet, but you associate with, and produce, these really dark, ugly, mean, extreme people....

RICK: It's about the extremes, and about people believing in what they believe in. I think people should be allowed to sing about what they feel, whatever that is. If Public Enemy wants to do songs about killing whitey, and I'm whitey, that's fine; and I'll support them in that attempt, as long as what they do is good musically, which is all I really care about. It's only commentary. I don't think music can change the world. It's OK to say anything in art. Public Enemy are not politicians. All they do is try to entertain people. I don't think records can make people do anything. And I don't think there's anything people shouldn't be exposed to. I think people should be exposed to all the ideas that are out there. It's OK. If you don't like what's on TV, turn it off....

Q: But that's after you're grown. What about exposing children to what some people would consider dangerous or immoral ideas?

RICK: I think it's the parents' responsibility to teach kids values. TV, records, all these things are solely entertainment, for kids as well. 

Q: Mmmm, I think the environment in which children grow up very much influences the way they act toward each other and the kind of society they build. I think there is a line, but where...?

RICK: There are no lines. The only responsibility an artist has to his audience is to entertain. And I don't care how they do it. Knowledge is always good—whether it's good or bad. Not letting people have information.... Again, it's just all information. And everybody should have (access to) all information, and people can choose whether to like it or not, to agree with it or disagree with it. No one can make anybody do anything they don't believe. I think, in upbringing is where people learn their values, and all artists can do is entertain people. Otherwise, when they get into politics, when they start preaching, their audience will leave them and they'll have no value at all, even as an entertainer.

Q: Well, it's true that I can't imagine hearing any song that could make me run out and kill somebody.

RICK: I don't think it exists. A kid who commits suicide doesn't do it because the lyrics tell him to—it just doesn't happen—unless he was going to do it anyway.

Q: Well, how do you make your final decision about who you're going to put your time and energy into? You can only produce so many bands.

RICK: Ummm.... I like them comes first, then I decide whether the potential is there to warrant the investment. It's so different, case by case, and I like so little in the first place. Very few records come out that interest me at all, very few bands do I ever see that interest me at all. I have to be honest, I don't really think about it that much. I just kind of do it. A lot of times I'm overworked. I'm a workaholic, though, so it's all right.

Q: You just work until you fall over?

RICK: Yeah!

Q: Producers, just like musicians and painters, generally have a "style." Have you thought about the possibility of getting bored with your own style?

RICK: (groping) Well, I think I've progressed a lot musically. I feel like, because I'm aware of the cultural things going on, and because I allow my tastes to change and not say, "Oh, I sold millions of records making rap records, I have to keep making them,"  I'm happy to say, "Oh, well, I like speed metal this week, so I'm going to make speed metal records. And fuck it, I don't care if my speed metal records sell or don't, this is what I want to do."  Or, I may decide I want to make retro-'60s-sounding records because that's what I like and that's what I'm going to do. So I don't think I'm going to run the risk of getting stale, because I don't make the same record. If you listen to my records, they don't really sound the same. Unlike a Stock-Aiken-Waterman record where the artists are interchangeable, or Desmond Childs—I think all of his records sound the same, whether it's Alice Cooper or Bon Jovi singin' them, it's a Desmond Childs song. I try not to fall into that trap because I think it's limiting, I think it's short-term.

Q: But what caused your switch from rap to metal?

RICK: I haven't heard anything in rap (recently) to make me excited enough to be involved in it.

Q: That's what you said about rock before you got into rap!

RICK: That's true. That's the case. I just go by what's out there.

Q: But are drawn to something new in, say, music actually because it is new? Is it the newness itself that attracts you?

RICK: I very much like it when new things happen. That's what excites me. I don't know why.

Q: But most people don't instantly like new things. Mostly, new things are seen as scary.

RICK: It's scary, but you can't help it. In the face of adversity, when people all around me always were telling me I was wasting my time, from the beginning.... You know, I remember my old partner Russell Simmons, when I signed Public Enemy—I'd just made the Less Than Zero soundtrack and it was really good and The Bangles' record was a hit—and Russell said, "You're wasting your time. This is black punk rock. This is garbage. You could make pop records, why are you wasting your time on Public Enemy?" I said, "Because they're the greatest group in the world. Because the pop records are the ones that aren't important. This is what's important, you'll see."  And two years later, he saw.

Q: It's interesting that you said, "This is what's important."

RICK: I believe in the validity of art. It's funny, because I'm against politics and I think musically that there's got to be a reason this is happening. Like treading new ground, like doing something that's not what's already on the radio. Rather than doing something that's already on the radio, so that's what we should do because then we'll get on the radio, too. That's not valid. The "new Prince" isn't valid—I don't mean the new Prince record, I mean the guy who claims to be the "new Prince." There's never going to be a new Prince. There's Prince, that's that. How many guys out here think they're the next Guns N' Roses? Guns N' Roses is Guns N' Roses. That's that.

Q: Why did you leave Def Jam?

RICK: Russell and I were going in different directions, both musically and business-wise. And I thought that being as we were good friends, it would be better for us to break off and still be able to be friends, instead of some day hating each other—being in business together and it being a big, ugly mess. So, I said, "Do you want to leave?"  And he said, "No," and I said, "OK, fine, I'll leave." (laughs) And we're still friends.

Q: You speak so casually about making these decisions that would be so incredibly difficult for most people to make.

RICK: You have to do what you think is right.

Q: When you're afraid of something, do you find that if you put that fear aside and go ahead and do it anyway, that most of the time you actually manage to do what it is you want to do? That it works?

RICK: Oh, yeah.

Q: And then the fear goes away.

RICK: I don't know that it's this way for everybody, but I think that for a lot of people, the things that get in the way are being scared and worrying about what other people think.

Q: But the worst that could happen to you is that you fail—but then you're not any worse off than you would have been if you hadn't tried, are you?

RICK: Exactly. I agree.

Q: What do you say to musicians who come in and say, "I want to be a star?"

RICK: That's OK. A lot of times that mentality is needed to get up on stage and do what you have to do. Again, we're talking about those people with that special magic, the people who light up a dark room; you have to be prepared to take whatever comes along with it.

Q: You've produced quite a range of bands, some of them pretty "out there," such as Slayer, and now there's the Four Horsemen, who are supposed to be so much more....

RICK: Yeah, they're not Slayer, but as people they're.... (laughs malignly)

RICK: Or are you attracted to things that are really bizarre?

RICK: I probably am attracted to bizarre things. I'd like to call them progressive things. (chuckles) If you look historically at the biggest bands in the world, they've always been progressive and new. I mean, even The Beatles were a punk rock band; you know, The Beatles used to play with toilet seats around their necks..

Q: I once had a psychologist tell me that there are some people who are so different, they call them aliens. He said I was one of them, and, in fact, artists who won't talk to other interviewers will talk to me. They look at me and go, "Oh, you're one of us...."

RICK: Yeah. I get the same thing. I guess it's just that awareness of life. We relate to people who.... I'm good with artists a lot of times those whom a lot of people consider difficult, because I understand the way they think. I hate all the same shit they hate.

Q: And have you found that they're really not that difficult?

RICK: Not at all! We get along great, all the time. I get along great with my artists, most of whom are considered difficult by everyone. They're just fine.

Q: It seems to me that the "difficult" tag is related to rejecting most of the world.

RICK: Could be.

Q: It's kind of like what Lars Ulrich said, "Hey, if you like us, fine, come on along. If you don't, fuck you, get out of our way."

RICK: That's right. I understand that.

Q: When I go out to check out a band, one of the things I look for is whether they have the ability to control a crowd.

RICK: Well, that's the reason I signed Slayer. The first time I saw them, I'd never heard of them. This was at the time they were playing so fast you couldn't even tell what they were playing, it was just a blur. But the command they had of the audience, I'd never seen anything like it. (awed tone)

Q: You knew there was something there.

RICK: Something there I'd never heard of! They had such an arrogant presence on stage, and they had this sold-out place of kids killing themselves, into the music—jumping around, stage-diving, everything—the band so... arrogant and not caring. They knew. They knew that it was right. Do you know what I'm saying? They weren't smiling, it wasn't like that. It was a very serious. They did not care what was going on, because they knew that they were good. And the audience respected it and were 100% with them.

Q: The first time I saw Metallica, I had that reaction. I was amazed, and I went home and immediately wrote an article (which I never do) on "metal has changed."

RICK: Very much. That's what's going on. The Metallicas, the Slayers, the Anthraxes of this world are replacing the Judas Priests and the Iron Maidens. Those bands aren't exciting anymore.

Q: What's the big difference, that you see? It's not just the sound, there's something else happening.

RICK: I think the old guard once had this attitude, and as time when on the success thing struck, and they wanted to compete or outdo themselves instead of doing what they felt was right, or really reaching for new things. They weren't reaching to push boundaries, they were reaching to try to sell a few more records, make some more money.

Q: I think that many bands lose contact with what the audience is about. You're talking about a band becoming successful because they're a reflection of society, and then you're talking five years down the road, and in this society, five years down the road is not the same culture anymore. I watch bands go from the clubs, where they have close contact with the people in their audience, and then up into the stadiums. And they retreat further and further behind these walls of security, until they become so isolated. And I think that they just lose contact with the world, maybe even themselves.

RICK: Yep. I agree.

Q: And then what do you do, except try to repeat the last record. Or maybe there isn't the inspiration there anymore.

RICK: That's why artists disappear.

Q: A few don't. A few change a lot, although they get criticized for that, too.

RICK: That's fine. It doesn't matter what anyone says, you can get criticized for anything. The point is, the kids who like you have to keep liking you.

Q: It takes a certain kind of openness.... It's easy to look back, and in retrospect see the line that led to the correct decision; but you often don't know it at the time, do you?

RICK: That's right.

Q: Why'd you move to LA?

RICK: Because I got a deal with Geffen, and I wanted to be right across the street. (laughs) Also, musically, there are a lot of clubs. For the kind of records I'm making, there's a rock'n'roll community in LA that doesn't exist in New York. There's nowhere like the Rainbow, you know.

Q: Indeed. Lemmy (Motörhead) says he moved here just so he could be within walking distance of the Rainbow, his favorite club in the world.

RICK: So, it's nice to be able make a record and turn on the radio so you can hear it, and go to a club and... there's a scene revolving around this kind of music that doesn't exist in New York. In New York, it's like making records in a vacuum. You never hear your records on the radio, because radio is all Top 40, there's no rock'n'roll station.

Q: Why is that?

RICK: That's the way it is around the country. It's weird. We (here in Los Angeles) are really spoiled, with all this good stuff, like rock'n'roll and clubs, and there being a scene. It's nice, when you're doing any kind of art, to be able to see the effect. It helps you do it. It's just the fact that the community exists feels good, makes you want to do it. In New York, all it is is numbers on a page.

Q: Ah, so you were alienated. You came to Los Angeles to find yourself! A lot of people who believe that Los Angeles is all hairdo bands and poseurs are going to find that difficult to believe.

RICK: I don't think there are a lot of great bands here....

Q: Are there anywhere, though?

RICK: No, not in one place. The only difference is that the industry is here, and they can get together and get signed, as opposed to everywhere else in the world, where they get together to be a band. As much as I dislike the music business, which I do, the thing that I like is that nobody understands it. That makes it fine, makes me know I can win, you know? (and he laughs...)

  

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