LIFE AMONG THE WILDFLOWERSRick 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.
Ah, the gold standard. But you were attracted to more hard core, rebellious music, which The Beatles really weren't.
But they were, because they became the biggest band in the world, and because they don't exist anymore, you don't look back on them as being this outlaw band. But they really were.
Like back in Hamburg?
When they started, they were really a punk rock band - playing with toilet seats around their necks, trying to stomp hard enough to break through the stage. Really punk.
Do you think being a suburban kid from Long Island made you gravitate toward harder music?
I don't think it's just that. But I think, being suburban, there's less of a pretentiousness. I'll give you an example. I grew up an hour outside of Manhattan. One of the bands I worked with early on was the Beastie Boys, and their musical taste was radically different from mine. I liked bands like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin - they hated those things. Because being cool kids in the city, those things were too commercial, too mainstream. So the Beastie Boys liked really underground stuff, which served them well. It was cool, and it made them who they were. But I think it was the collaboration between my more suburban, mainstream taste and their more eclectic, underground taste that made our working together so successful.
Growing up, I always wished I lived in the city, instead of on the Island, but, in retrospect, I learned a lot about the culture that I wouldn't have learned had I grown up in Manhattan. I feel like I had the best of both worlds because I was close enough to be in the city, but far enough away that I didn't have what I'll call a "holier than thou'" attitude. It's not that I don't like those things, but I'm not bound by those things.
Another thing that affected my taste is that I'm an only child. Typically, people learn about music from older brothers and sisters, and I didn't have that, which forced me to create my own taste and really know what I like. When you're 11, whatever your 14-year-old brother or sister listens to, whether you like it or not, it's a starting point. It's a point of view, and I never had that. So it was really searching for things that appealed to me, without any kind of filter. Which is why I got into punk rock. I really liked it. But I know I didn't get my taste from anybody else.
Also, I often liked things that other people didn't like, and then they would come around and like them. When I was in high school, I loved AC/DC, and they were not popular yet. About two years later, everybody liked them. That's always been the case - like with rap music. I loved it when nobody liked it.
That's a blessing, but in some ways it's also a curse, because what you liked often changes when it gets popular, and sometimes you see what's great about it gets to be not be so great anymore. Which is sad, but then you move on and find other new things, which is good.
An engineer who works with you told me that once, while checking mixes in the car, you said, "The radio is my musical instrument." If that's your instrument, how do you play it with the artists you're working with?
In working with a band, I find what's good about them and help bring it out. Also, songs are a big deal for me. I'd say that my biggest contribution to bands is helping them get their material together. I know that some producers are more concerned about what it sounds like. And I'm clearly involved in what it sounds like, but it's almost more like I join a band when I produce a record. But, I'm unlike all the other members of the band, who each have their own personal agenda. The bass player is concerned about the bass part; everyone is concerned about their own part. I'm the only member of the band that doesn't care about any of those particulars. I just care that the whole thing is as good as it can be. I want to say it's less about the details, although it's all about the details, so that's not quite right. But it is a grander vision.
Most artists only hear their own instrument. Not all, of course; Tom Petty is a good example of someone who doesn't. He really is a record-making craftsman. He hears the whole thing. Some of the things I'm most proud of are things I've done with Tom. Like the Wildflowers album. I really like it a lot; it sounds like it was made on a weekend. Of course, it took us two years to make it sound like it was made on a weekend - the right weekend!
Do you ever make records fast?
Definitely. I often make records faster than a lot of other people. It usually has to do with how prepared we are in advance. The last Chili Peppers [Californication], I think, we made the whole record in like six weeks. Top to bottom. We recorded 20-something songs. But it's the pre-production time that really makes the difference. Sometimes that's a couple of weeks, sometimes it's a few months, sometimes it's a year of getting ready to go into the studio and cut the whole album in a week. The preference is always to get as much done before you go in the studio as possible.
Is it true that you actually hate working in the studio?
I don't love it. The idea of knowing how it can be is the best part. And then the actual work of having to get it there is just going through the process. Once you hear it in your head, it's like being a carpenter - trying to build the thing when you already know what it is.
Or like a sculptor chipping away what you don't want.
Yes. It's not an accident. You already know what the sculpture is, but you have to do all that work of chipping the stone away, and that's not the fun part. The fun part is knowing what it is. But no one else gets to know what it is unless you do the work.
The collaboration with Aerosmith and Run-DMC on "Walk This Way" was landmark. And culturally, very cool.
It didn't seem, for me, as unusual as it did for other people. I grew up with rap music and with rock music, and they always felt like different versions of the same thing to me. People viewed them as such polar opposites: I can't tell you how many times people have talked to me about rap not being music. But if you listen to "Walk This Way" by Aerosmith, it really is not that different from rap. It shares a lot.
What are you excited about now in music?
I just finished a band called Paloalto, which I love. I also just finished a record with a guy named Saul Williams who's a poet, who is really beautiful; lyrically, he's very important.
Poetry and music?
It's hard to explain what it is. If you had never heard rap music and someone described it to you, it could be what this is. But if you've heard rap music, it doesn't sound like this.
How do you feel about music in general lately?
It seems like music is getting very disposable. It's getting song-oriented, but not in a good way. Instead, it's about one hit and not about an artist. Artists just don't mean as much, and a lot of music is becoming producer-driven. Which, being a producer, you'd think I'd like, but I don't. When it's so producer-driven, the artists become interchangeable. If the producer is making the tracks and different people could sing on them, it's pretty close to being the same record regardless of who the artist is. I don't think that's a good thing for music, and I think that because everything has become so single-oriented, the album has suffered.
Sure. Why bother to lay out $17.99 for one song?
I think that's one of the reasons that downloading of music makes more sense today than it ever did before. The music that's coming out isn't worth what people are trying to charge for it. Although I should add that I do like a lot of music out now: Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock - I think they're great. I like a lot of things that are popular today that often get maligned.
So, to get people to actually purchase a whole album, there will have to be better albums.
Everybody's wondering what the new sound is going to be. What I'm wondering, or hoping, is that maybe there won't be a new sound, but, instead, the quality of music will get upped. I think there are several records that have come out that have done that, like the Travis record [1999's The Man Who].
The Travis record doesn't sound new in any way. It's just really good at what it is, and it's consistently good at what it is. You can listen to the whole album and enjoy it. And you can buy into their trip and want to see them. I'm hoping that music will get less about, "Well, we have a single and now we can put whatever else we want on the album." And more about making a whole great record.
One of the things I like about the Paloalto record is that the songwriting is consistently good. You can listen to the whole album and like all the songs. That's also what we tried to do with the Chili Pepper album [Californication]. And I think that's one of the reasons they're enduring when so many of their contemporaries, or even the crop of groups after them, are less significant. The quality of the material is really high, and ultimately that is undeniable.
What do you look for in new artists?
It's really about falling in love. I'm not looking for any type of anything or to fit any mold. I'm not looking for the next Prince or something. It's really an emotional connection that transcends any genre.
But what? It makes you smile, nod your head to the beat, what?
Just listen to feelings. You just know. You don't even have to think about it. When you listen to music you know what you like and what you don't.
Yes, but you seem to have a more immediate grasp of what you like and what you don't than most people.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Some of the things that I love the best when I first heard them, I laughed at them and thought that they were crazy. I remember when I first heard The Ramones; I just laughed. I thought they were ridiculous, and they became one of my favorite groups.
When something is revolutionary, it's hard on first listen to accept it. There's a shocking period there where you don't know. A lot of the things that you hear once and you love may fade faster... sometimes it's the stuff that takes a little while to get around before you realize how good it is that really stays with you. Because that's the stuff that's different.
How, out of the immense amount of aspiring artists out there, did you find Saul? And Paloalto?
A Paloalto tape was given to me, and I liked it enough to ask them to play for me. Usually when we go to a showcase there's one good song, otherwise we wouldn't be at the showcase. And maybe there's a second song that's okay. This band played ten songs for me, and every song was good. And unlike each other - it didn't sound like the same song done different ways. So it was an unusual experience - to find a young band that had that level of quality in writing.
And Saul, I was in a record store in London and I heard a hip hop record. It sounded like it had vocals sampled from an old '60s record, because the words were too intelligent for something written today. It sounded like The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron - something important, not disposable. I found out who made that record and it said, "Vocals: Saul Williams." I figured maybe Saul was the guy that they sampled from a long time ago, but I did research and found out he was 25 years old. And I hadn't heard a voice like his, a meaningful voice, in a very long time.
Part of a producer's job, usually, is to help guide a band, which, given the nature of band politics, can be difficult. Did you think you deliberately developed a persona that was a little intimidating to make the job easier?
No, it probably was a device to survive life more than being a gimmick to present an image. It was probably just to live in the world and be okay.
So how do you help guide a band to a great record?
There's nothing better than telling the truth. When I start working with a band, I explain, "Look, I'm just going to tell you everything I think. I'm telling you that, not in any way to criticize what you do, but to do my job."
Do you think consciously about how to present your opinions?
Of course. That's really important. But I let them know that I'm going to say what I think. And they can listen to what I say, accept it and try it, or they can say, "You know what? What you don't like about this is what I like about it. F superscript **k you, it's fine."
If they fight hard enough you'll give in.
Always. But I always ask. Because what we do is really a big experiment, and there's no reason not to try different things. If it doesn't work, we all know it doesn't work. Usually. And we get in the habit of trying a lot of different things. You get everyone thinking in terms of "nothing's in stone, there's the potential for more." Usually.
It's really a completely collaborative effort. Anyone who's got a good idea, if it makes the record better, we use it.
You were that easygoing even back in the beginning?
In the beginning - I don't remember, but I've been told - I was much more the tyrant.
I know now to pick my battles. If I think something can make or break the song, I'm more emphatic. But ultimately, it is the artist's record. Their name is on the front of it, and they have to be the one who is happy with the record.
And there are certain artists that I've worked with that I would probably not work with again, just because it seemed like we were on too far different pages. It wasn't that much fun, for them or for me. Usually, it also has to do with a band's confidence. Interestingly, the more confident a band or an artist is, the easier they are to work with.
The more insecure they are, the more they tend to hold onto things that don't really matter. Before Roy Orbison died, I did a track with him, and he was willing to try anything. Because he knew, no matter what I had him do, it wasn't going to take away from him being Roy Orbison. Sometimes young artists, or insecure artists, hold onto things that don't matter because they feel, "This is what makes me `me.'" They have this image that some little thing they do makes them what they are. But it doesn't.
I'll give you a good example, when I started working with the Chili Peppers the first time, which was on the Blood- SugarSexMagik album. Up until that time, Flea's bass playing was a particular style. He was famous for it, considered one of the best bass players in the world because of it. But when we started working together, that bass playing that made him one of the best didn't necessarily serve the songs in the best way. It was more about the bass being great. And, the song is more important than the bass.
I think, starting with that record, he changed the way he played. Not that it was so different stylistically, but it was more about playing the parts that supported the song. Instead of playing the parts that he liked the best or that were the coolest.
It was a very interesting part of the change in the Chili Peppers' sound, from being a, let's say, "traditional" funk band to being more of a songwriting band.
Was it as difficult as I've heard to get them to record "Under the Bridge," their "big ballad"?
Anthony [Kiedis] had shown me the lyrics when we were looking through his lyric book. I said, "Oh, what's this?" and he said, "It's a song I wrote, but it's not Chili Peppers." He sang it to me and I thought it was beautiful. But he was emphatic: "No, this isn't what we do!" I said, "It's you, though, and what you, Anthony and the Chili Peppers band create is what you do. It doesn't have to be limited to funk jams; you are allowed to do different things. It's just a question of `Do you love the song?'"
I read a quote where you said that you approach music and producing as a fan.
Very much so. [Laughs] If you have no technical skills or knowledge or ability and you just know what you like...I just try to get it as close to what I like as possible. I have a strong opinion and I explain it clearly. Actually, the way I got started making records was going out to hip hop clubs in the early '80s, then hearing the rap records that came out that sounded nothing like what was going on in the clubs. I was a fan of what was really going on, who went out and got all these records and none of them sounded like they were supposed to...
So you said, "I'm going to make my own record"?
Just to document what was going on. I was really just a fan wanting to chronicle what I went out and heard. I never thought this would be a job. I always liked music, but it never seemed like a way to support yourself. Everything happened very accidentally for me. The way it was supposed to, but I don't feel that I chose the things that happened.
You have had some pretty public battles over putting out music that some people find offensive. Morally and philosophically, do you think there is any record that shouldn't be made?
People should be free to do whatever they want to do, and people should be free to listen to what they want to listen to. If someone makes something that you don't like, don't support it, don't listen to it.
No matter how down, dirty, low and nasty the sentiment; no matter how far down on the spiritual plane something is, if somebody wants to say it, it should be said?
One hundred percent. If you're for freedom of speech, you're against censorship. The same thing that will protect somebody fighting out against injustice protects the person saying something radically negative and terrible. You can't limit censorship to the things that you think are okay. You're either for it or you're against it. And if you're against it, everything goes.
I don't think people should hurt other people, and I don't think that the influence of music is such that it does. I've been involved with some very negative records that I'm proud of. I think that those records resonate with people who need to hear that energy, and I know that music doesn't cause people to go out and do bad things. I think if anything, it defuses them. There are a lot of people out there who are angry, and there's no reason that angry people can't be entertained as well as others. I think it's fine, I think it's a service. I think everybody should get to enjoy whatever it is that resonates with them.
PRODUCERRed Hot Chili Peppers: Californication (Warner Bros., 1999)
Tom Petty: Wildflowers (Warner Bros., 1994) and Echo (Warner Bros., 1999)
Various Artists: Chef Aid: The South Park Album (Columbia, 1998)
System of a Down: System of a Down (Sony, 1998)
Johnny Cash: Unchained (American Recordings, 1996)
Mick Jagger: Wandering Spirit (Atlantic, 1993)
Andrew Dice Clay: The Day the Laughter Died, Part II (Warner Bros., 1993), 40 Too Long (American, 1992), Dice Rules (American, 1991), The Day the Laughter Died (Warner Bros., 1990) and Andrew Dice Clay (Warner Bros., 1989)
Beastie Boys: Licensed to Ill (Def Jam, 1986)
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERVarious Artists: Big Daddy soundtrack (Sony, 1999)
Sir Mix-A-Lot: Return of the Bumporsaurus (Warner Bros., 1996), Chief Boot Knocka (Rhyme Cartel, 1994) and Mack Daddy (Def American, 1992)
Public Enemy: Yo! Bum Rush the Show (Def Jam, 1987)
The Black Crowes: Shake Your Money Maker (Def American, 1990)
Danzig: Danzig III/How the Gods Kill (Def American, 1992)
Slayer: Undisputed Attitude (American, 1996) and Divine Intervention (American, 1994)
Dan Baird: Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired (Def American, 1991)
Various Artists: Private Parts (Warner Bros., 1997)