Rock Producer Rick Rubin on his work: “Collaborating with the Universe”

Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Slayer, Lana Del Rey – Rick Rubin has developed albums with all these stars. A conversation with the producer legend.

An old man with a white beard and tousled hair looks into the camera

Rick Rubin Photo: Matthias Roeckl

Wochentaz: Rick Rubin, you once claimed that you can’t play an instrument and that you had no idea how to operate a mixer. Her career began as a guitarist and singer in a punk band. Does this experience help you in the studio today when trying to put yourself in artists’ music?

Rick Ruby: No. I try to get closer to each person. First I listen to what she has to say and then deal with it. Often the fact that someone is playing music has little to do with the person behind it, who is just a symptom.

You were on stage as a guitarist and also sang. And you also produced it yourself. Do you remember these experiences?

Everything was do-it-yourself, in keeping with the punk aesthetic. We played about 30 concerts. Later I had just as much fun producing hip hop in the studio.

Do you sometimes get nervous when producing an album?

Sure, every time I start a new project, because I have no idea what’s going to happen. It can be scary because I’m expected to create something. I have no preconceived notions, I come as unprepared as possible, listen and then look for the most interesting path.

major labels and managers have a say and make suggestions – how do you deal with the external pressure?

I ignore all outside voices. Their intentions may be good, but they don’t know how to approach music. What matters to me is that the artists and I love what we do together. That’s the most important. If only I like it, we’ve failed. If only the artist likes it, then we have failed too.

What role do egos play in producing?

When I’m working with a star and there are several composers, I’m often told who wrote which part. I don’t even want to know! Play me the music and let’s work on it, I don’t care who wrote it! In my book, I call this cooperation when everyone fights to have their version of the piece included. With good cooperation, the best solution is worked out together. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be one of the two solutions, which are mutually exclusive.

Can you analyze that philosophically?

We are always collaborating with the universe, with all that has come before us and with all that will come after us, because we are part of a creative flow.

Am I sitting in front of the same Rick Rubin who produced early hip-hop classics in 1984?

born in 1963 near New York, founded the label Def Jam in 1984 while studying and thus helped the New York rap scene to gain worldwide attention.

Rubin produced Public Enemy and Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell” (1986). The US producer is a music fan who uses therapeutic sensitivity to get the best out of artists. He has twice been awarded the Grammy “Producer of the Year”. Rubin productions such as Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” also won awards.

Now he has written a book about his work: “creative. The art of being”. Translated from the English by Judith Elze, Droemer Knaur Verlag, Munich 2023, 419 pages, 24 euros.

At the beginning of my career it was different. Even though I thought back then that I knew what I was doing. I never felt like I really belonged. To be honest, I still don’t feel part of the music biz. It’s my job to connect with artists and support the process so that the best songs come out of the studio. It’s my job and it’s valuable to record companies. When we create good things, it’s a win-win situation. Anyone who interferes between the artist and me as we try to do our best undermines that concern.

You used to be part of the music industry with your record company Def Jam, as you know, it’s like being in a shark tank. Didn’t you have to fight against too many centrifugal forces?

That is still the case today. Attempts are often made to censor something that is outside the norm. I, on the other hand, like things that sound different, like in the early days of hip-hop. Don’t forget, back then a US government youth protection commission tried to ban this music. All albums had to be affixed with the famous parental warning sticker. I experienced censorship early on. Multi Columbia refused to release albums by death metal band Slayer. I had to find a new label for Slayer. Geffen Records did not want to be associated with the Geto Boys’ music. They kicked me out for producing their gangstar rap. I’ve always stood up for difficult cases, regardless of whether I agree with what the artist says. This is purely a question of freedom of expression. I want people to be able to say what they want to say and I support them in that. But I’m not part of their message. I’ve made albums with Slayer singing about satanic stuff and I’ve made records with Krishna Das singing to Hindu gods. We learn more about the world when everyone can say how they see it.

Pop stars like to copy others. This is also why new songs sound familiar, but musicians still manage to create something of their own, which is why Lana Del Rey sounds so unique.

She is unbelievable!

How is she able to do that?

After a few bars, it becomes immediately clear: Lana is singing. It has something to do with their great lyrics. And she sounds so weird because she sings from a fictional character’s point of view and never sounds like the real Lana Del Ray. Although, that’s just her stage name, I don’t even know what her real name is.

They have produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ major albums and maintain a close friendship with them. Are you part of the band?

I’m not a member of the band, but I’ve been in the studio with them many times and it’s always fantastic. Something magical happens to them. It’s like there’s a transcendental thing going on in the recording. It happens very rarely, but it happens to them.

With which other musicians have you had transcendental experiences?

I was able to record with Carlos Santana even though I had never seen him live before. He came into the studio – the band started playing. Suddenly it sounded like Miles Davis was playing the guitar.

Tom Petty has with you the world hit “Mary Jane
‘s Last Dance”. They are credited with the now iconic guitar riff that opens the song. How did that happen?

Tom sent me a demo tape with several songs. There was a fragment in between, which sounded a lot more interesting than the songs, and I told him that part sounds really cool, he should expand on that.’

What do you think of today when you hear a Tom Petty song?

At his big smile. I think about how he came into the studio with a grin every day. During the recording of the “Wildflowers” album in 1994 we meditated together before we started. I can’t believe he’s not here with us anymore.

You have witnessed many different phases of the music industry. Nevertheless, you have not become cynical. Why?

I’m always amazed at what comes next. And I love the fact that something new is emerging and I get caught up in the hype. That’s how I listen to music too. It started with heavy metal, then came punk, hip hop and country and all kinds of other styles. I like to hear motley and mixed up. I’m tired of hearing the same stuff over and over again. I often rummage around for old stuff I don’t know, like psychedelic music. I dive deep until I feel like I’m living in the sixties. I’m also interested in the trashy songs, not just the hits.

Hip hop turns 50 this year. How did you experience this music culture in the early 1980s?

It was underground music. I DJed for the Beastie Boys back when they were a punk rock band. Hip hop was a liberation. In hip-hop, the DJ was just as important as the rapper. And I liked the idea that it’s not rock music with a singer. Most of the time it was DJs manipulating existing material to create something new and rapping along with it. The music was brought back to the streets. Anyone with a say could do it. You didn’t have to be a pro or go to conservatory to do that. Hip hop was open to everyone.

After the success with the Beastie Boys in 1986 you produced Slayer. A death metal band with a rock solid sound.

But it sounds groovy and funky at the same time, completely different from most speed metal bands. That’s because of Dave Lombardo’s drums. An incredible bolt, but so much feeling.

How do you feel about working on Reign in Blood? The band then hired you as a permanent producer.

Slayer was the first band I recorded in California, so I love them for that too. One of the greatest live bands I’ve ever seen. I first saw Slayer at the Ritz in New York. When they started, the audience went completely nuts. How can such an infernal noise even arise on earth? Those guitar solos are insane, the notes seem random at times. In addition, Lombardo’s hyper-fast and at the same time precise drumming. When I got to Los Angeles, I realized they were rehearsing in the garage behind Lombardo’s mother’s house. So that’s where this sick music came from!

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