Rick Rubin has created some of my favourite albums in his time (MTV has called him “the most important producer of the last 20 years”; Rolling Stone says he’s the most successful producer in any genre). I won’t go into a detailed career retrospective or insight into his personal life – other articles have that covered better than I ever could.
I thought a post on Rick would be a good start to the Producer Spotlight series and a timely one given his production of the new Metallica album, so this spotlight takes a look at his work with bands across the spectrum of hip hop and rock – from Jay-Z to Johnny Cash via the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It’s a lengthy post so apologies to those who want to skim – if you want to jump straight to the music I’ll sum up the waffle for you in one sentence: Rick Rubin helps artists to get their best music into recorded form and in doing so, creates new genres and redefines old ones.
“I don’t even know what a traditional producer is or does. I feel like the job is like being a coach, building good work habits and building trust.” – Rick Rubin
Rick likes to pare things back to the essentials. Although his approach is, of course, too broad to pigeon-hole, he’s been known since the early days for stripping things back; he cuts down on extraneous instrumentation – no unnecessary strings or random overdubs – and allows the core instrument, vocal and rhythm to shine through. Rick’s goal is to present the natural ability and artistry of a musician or band; he encourages them to remove artifice and eschew the tendency to fall back on familiar touchstones (especially true of established artists who’ve had time to grow “habits”).
What Is A Producer?
The title “Producer” is bandied about (especially in the hip hop world) but not a lot of explanation is given for it. I’ve heard the question frequently from friends in the past: What exactly does a Producer do?
The role of Producer in a nutshell is that of helping to nurture, create and shape a band’s sound – usually for a specific end goal, like a song or album. A common analogy I’ve heard to describe the Producer role likens it to that of a Film Director – responsible for molding the creative direction of a piece of art and coaxing the best from the artists and engineers involved.
In hip hop, a Producer (like Timbaland or Dr. Dre) is often responsible for ‘creating the beats’ i.e. putting together the drums, any samples used, and programming any synths that make up the backing track. In pop, a Producer (like Max Martin or Glen Ballard) may be involved in writing songs for an artist and putting them together in the same way – then getting the artist in to record vocals over the backing track they’ve put together with studio musicians. In rock, a Producer (like Rick Rubin or Mutt Lange) may work with a band to help direct their sound in a certain way and to suggest changes or improvements to the songs and instrumentation. A Producer may be all, and none of these things; like a musician, a Producer will have their own individual style and abilities.
“I do not know how to work a board. I don’t turn knobs. I have no technical ability whatsoever… My primary asset is I know when I like something or not. It always comes down to taste. I’m not there to hold their hands and baby-sit, but I’m there for any key creative decisions.” – Rick Rubin
The Producer Spotlight series are a collection of the work of some of my favourite Producers. Good Producers have a distinctive and recognisable style that stands out without burying the individual style of the artists they work with. Because of this, if you can identify the elements of a Producer’s work that you like, you may be able to appreciate an artist they’ve worked with whom you wouldn’t normally like. And that’s the goal of the Producer Spotlight series :).
A few of my favourite Rick Rubin tracks
It’d take too long to offer tracks from every nook and cranny of Rick Rubin’s career so I’ve just picked out some of my favourites over the years. Some of them I knew were Rick’s and listened to them for that reason; many of the earlier tracks, though, I had no idea of – I just knew that I liked them.
Jay-Z – 99 Problems
Jay-Z chose to go out in style – and getting Rick Rubin in to produce your final album (until you “unretire” of course xD) is not the silliest thing you could do. This track is one of my favourites and it has the stamp of Rick Rubin all over it – sparse instrumentation that allows space for Jay-Z’s rap to breathe; big phat rock guitar punching out a power chord at just the right time to provide crunchy punctuation, and solid, uncomplicated drums. And the simplicity of the video matches the song’s sparse aesthetic perfectly. Masterpiece!
And here’s Rick in the studio with Jay-Z during the recording of “99 Problems”.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Suck My Kiss
The inclusion of “Under The Bridge” on the Chili’s ‘breakout’ album Blood Sugar Sex Magick is a great example of Rick’s talent for pushing an artist in a new direction without betraying their sound. The story goes that Rick found the lyrics to Under the Bridge in Anthony’s notebook and cajoled him into showing them to the band – against Anthony’s personal inclination (he said they were too soft for a Chili’s song). Under the Bridge went on to be the Chili’s biggest hit.
Give It Away is another big hit off this album but I’m going with the underrated punchy, phat funk of Suck My Kiss.
System Of A Down – Toxicity
System brought a new melodicism and dynamism to the tired metal genre – the perfect project for Rick’s involvement and coaching. This song is a good example of their style – raw, phat, punchy drums and crunchy riffs with moments of comparatively ‘quiet’ melodic riffage in the verse broken by raw, hoarse energy in the chorus. SOAD combined melody and power in a natural way that won them fans from all over the map.
Danzig – I’m The One
Morrison-influenced bad boy Danzig benefited from Rubin’s production prowess on this song from his second album, Danzig II Lucifuge. Rubin’s “reduction” techniques are evident again in the simple instrumentation and stripped back production of the first two Danzig albums.
Slayer – Mandatory Suicide
Being one of his early notable successes I had to include Slayer – from my favourite album of theirs at the time: South of Heaven. Here’s a clip of the obligatory boy’s metal track about war – Mandatory Suicide.
Dixie Chicks -Not Ready To Make Nice
A more perfect segue could not be found (Slayer to Dixie Chicks – perfection!) – I couldn’t resist. USA Today declared Taking the Long Way – the Chick’s first album with Rubin – to be the best album of 2006. They said: “…the majority of USA Today’s critics — were enthralled by the stance and, more important, the rich, textured, genre-transcendent music the trio and producer Rick Rubin cooked up.”
“Dixie Chicks went five for five at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb 11 winning the big three general categories: Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year, as well as Best Country Album and Best Country Performance By a Duo or Group.”
Can’t find an embeddable link so here’s a live performance of the Chicks.
Johnny Cash – Hurt
Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” is a classic interpretation of a song far removed from Johnny’s own genre. It took Rick Rubin to see the potential and then to convince Johnny it was the right thing to do.
Run DMC & Aerosmith – Walk This Way
Regarded by many as Rick’s signature track and perhaps his most famous; Walk This Way kicked off the whole rapcore genre.