Looking for Rock of the ‘90s in L.A. : Record producer Rick Rubin left N. Y. for a more vital scene
Heads turn as the large, imposing man with the long, unkempt hair and beard steps from a car just before midnight on a seedy stretch of Hollywood Boulevard.
The dozen or so people loitering around the entrance of a decaying building don’t appear the types to be easily intimidated. They’re mostly men in their 20s who look at the world with expressionless gazes--the epitome of L.A. street cool.
But they clear a path for this visitor and whisper anxiously to each other as he walks past them into the building, which houses rows of ragged, low-budget rock ‘n’ roll rehearsal rooms.
While Rick Rubin may convey the menacing aura of a character in an urban psycho-killer film, it’s his reputation, not his appearance, that causes this late-night buzz.
The guys who stepped back for Rubin are musicians, and they know a nod from this man could lead to the break they’ve dreamed about for years.
At 26, the Long Island native is the patron saint of rock ‘n’ roll extremists: a record producer who thinks bands should challenge, provoke and even offend.
Rubin was in the studio three years ago with the Beastie Boys when the Manhattan rap trio combined the three styles that parents love to hate most--punk, rap and heavy metal--in “Licensed to Ill,” as rowdy and irreverent an album as ever made the national Top 10. Sales to date: more than 4 million copies.
Rubin’s name is also attached to Slayer’s “Reign in Blood,” a 1986 album so outrageous that Columbia Records refused to release it. The L.A. speed-metal band’s collection--reverberating with such themes as satanism, sadism and death--was finally released by Geffen Records.
“Who said rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be nice?” Rubin said forcefully. “Rock ‘n’ roll is about going against the rules.”
Among the other controversial and/or trailblazing acts that have been blessed by the Rubin touch: rap stars Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J and Public Enemy.
But those credits go back to Rubin’s New York days when, in addition to his role as a free-lance producer, he was co-owner of Def Jam Records, easily the hippest source of street-oriented pop in the ‘80s.
However, he left the East Coast last summer to concentrate on the hard rock that was his first love. He has since launched his own Def American Records, which is distributed by Geffen Records. To underscore his starting-over spirit, he settled in Los Angeles, which he feels is a better rock ‘n’ roll town. It’s here that he hopes to make his new label, Def American, the cutting-edge record company of the ‘90s.
“Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t exist in New York anymore,” said Rubin, who lives in a two-story, Mediterranean-style house just above the Sunset Strip. “When you make a rock ‘n’ roll record in Manhattan, there is nowhere you can hear it on the radio the way you can here on KNAC. There are also no good venues, no real club scene happening.
“The ‘in’ places in New York are these upscale discos, where you see older people in suits, drinking champagne. I hate that.”
He finds L.A.'s dance clubs and bars more his speed. “Here, I like Bordello on Thursday nights, the Cathouse on Tuesday nights. I love going to the Rainbow and hanging out there because there’s a real rock ‘n’ roll feel to the place.”
Despite the move west, Rubin shows little evidence of tempering his radical rock ‘n’ roll vision.
He still works with Slayer, and his other new bands--including Danzig and Masters of Reality--are equally against the grain. (See related stories on Page 77).
Despite his infatuation with the energy of the local scene, Rubin doesn’t expect to actually find many new bands for Def American in L.A. clubs. Two of his most recent signings are from Chicago and England.
“The problem is that most of the musicians in L.A. are so aware of what’s going on in the music industry that they put a band together to get signed . . . a band that reflects just what they think record companies are looking for,” he said. “That takes the adventure out of a band because they are more into making a million dollars rather than into loving what they are doing or trying to truly express themselves.”
Rubin, however, is a fan of the controversial outlaw rap sounds coming out of Los Angeles.
Passing the rehearsal building’s broken elevator, Rubin headed for the stairs and began the climb to the fourth floor, where one of his new Def American signings was rehearsing.
“Let me tell you about Frank Starr, the singer in the band,” he said. “I was at the Rainbow bar one night and this guy Starr comes in. He had been in a fight in the parking lot and his whole face and hands were covered with blood.
“He walks in and everybody’s looking at him. So what does he do? He walks over to the bar and started drinking like nothing had happened. Is that cool or not? I knew this guy belonged on stage.”
Rubin is one of the few people in rock who have become stars without stepping on a stage. Or at least he hasn’t been on stage since his Long Island high school days when he fronted a band and did a few gigs at New York’s legendary punk palace, CBGB’s.
Yet he has an image almost as menacing as Slayer itself.
“The Bloody Reign of Rick Rubin,” declares the headline of a recent cover story in Sounds, a British journal that leans toward hard rock. The accompanying photo shows a grim-faced Rubin, his eyes covered by the trademark dark glasses that he favors for photos.
The article itself suggests that no pop figure in this decade has “demonstrated so complete or innate an understanding of contemporary black and white street (ie., youth) musics.”
Beneath the “beast on the loose” image, however, Rubin proves surprisingly soft-spoken, with a gentle smile and soft eyes behind those shades.
Before the band rehearsal, he sat down for dinner at a modest Italian restaurant in the Fairfax area and talked about the image. “I’m a fan of the whole outlaw image of rock ‘n’ roll. I try to make outlaw records and I like to act the part. It’s part of the entertainment of it all, seeing all these characters and living out fantasies.
“I live the life style. I even bought a dumb Dodge Charger because it’s a ‘60s muscle car--complete with a magnum 440 engine, the biggest you can get for it. At the bottom of it all, rock ‘n’ roll is saying ‘screw you’ to all the rules that no one likes but most people end up following.”
But what about the outlaw implications of heavy metal and rap, the two music forms with which Rubin has been most closely identified? What about parents who worry that all the emphasis on sex and violence will warp their kids?
“Art reflects culture, not the other way around,” he said sharply. “Go through the ages and you’ll find the great works of art were always rooted in what was going on at the time.
“Take N.W.A,” he said of the rap band whose controversial “Straight Outta Compton” album chronicles the gangbanger life style. “People point a finger at the records, but what they don’t like is Compton. When you start being scared to let art reflect society, then something’s wrong in the world, not in the music.”
Rubin wasn’t born a rebel. He was raised in an upper-middle-class Long Island family and was encouraged by his parents to be a lawyer. And he followed their wishes all the way to New York University, where he majored in film.
But along the way he picked up a love for hard rock (particularly Aerosmith and AC/DC) and the raw new rap sound that surfaced in New York in the late ‘70s.
While still in college, he started producing his own rap records--and he did well enough, critically and commercially, to have Columbia Records give him and his partner, Russell Simmons, a seven-figure distribution deal for their Def Jam label.
Rubin broke the news to his parents that he was going into the record business by sending them a photostat of the first check he and Simmons received under the Columbia agreement. It was a way of telling them that they shouldn’t feel he was throwing his life away just because he was skipping law school. The amount of the check: a cool $600,000.
For the past four years, Def Jam has been a symbol of adventure and independence in the record world. And Rubin, in the spirit of Phil Spector in the ‘60s,established himself as one of the few producers whose name on a record was a virtual guarantee of quality.
But Rubin and Simmons drifted in different directions and last year agreed to dissolve their partnership--a move that led to a series of rumors about bad feelings between the two. Both, however, have since denied any ill will.
In starting over, Rubin has to prove himself again--always a tricky matter in the fast-changing pop world. When neither the Danzig nor Masters of Reality albums exploded onto the charts (they have sold around 100,000 and 50,000 respectively), you could already pick up whispers that maybe Rubin was just another of yesterday’s heroes.
On the issue of pressure, Ed Rosenblatt, president of Geffen Records, said, "(Rubin) has created an incredibly (high level) benchmark for himself with the success he has had in the past. It doesn’t mean he is going to (match that level) on every record, but--with someone who has this much talent and vision at such a young age, there is no reason he won’t do even better.”
Inside the Hollywood Boulevard rehearsal hall, Rubin listened to Starr’s band, the Four Horsemen, a name suggested by Rubin in honor of some stars of pro wrestling, one of his passions. The tiny room was filled with amplifiers, all turned so loud that it was virtually impossible to hear Starr’s vocals.
But Rubin heard enough to make some suggestions about the arrangements. He spoke in a low-key way, but the musicians listened intently, knowing how often he has been right before.
After three songs, Rubin said good night and headed back down the stairs, ignoring the curious glances of the musicians still standing by the entrance.
He got in the car and headed to another Hollywood rehearsal hall to check on the progress of Trouble, also part of his Def American stable. It’s a Christian rock band, but nothing like Stryper, which offers a wholesome image and tosses Bibles to the crowd.
“These guys don’t preach at all,” Rubin said. “Their roots are more Black Sabbath than anything else. If you read their lyrics, they’re all about suicide. It’s not an optimistic view. The songs are about being confused and not knowing if ‘I can make it on any more, but when I die, I know I’ll find my way.’ That’s heavy.”
Before going into the studio, Rubin paused and reflected again on the the pressure on him at Def American.
“Every time I think about this business, I realize the important thing for me is to keep remembering what has worked for me until now,” he said.
“It’s not trying to figure out what other people are going to like. I don’t think anyone is that smart, though everyone in this business spends most of their time doing that. My success has always been based on making records that I like. The bottom line has to be flipping in a cassette, turning it up and loving it . . . and counting on enough other people to think the same way I do.”