IT’S just past noon and Rick Rubin is about to start his workday. The New York native has already spent half an hour meditating and an equal time strolling around his Malibu neighborhood, caressed by the warm sun and ocean breeze.
He’s back in his 6,000-square-foot English Tudor country-style estate now, sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a living room sofa, slowly fingering some Buddhist prayer beads and listening to Mozart. When he speaks, his tone -- soft and unhurried -- is as serene as the setting.
It’s hard to imagine that this burly, bearded man has produced some of the most explosive rock records ever, including aggressive works by Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down and Slayer. You’d think he’d be more at home on the self-help lecture tour with bestselling (and similarly bearded) author Andrew Weil.
But Rubin, 43, doesn’t stick to playing against type. He’s made some extraordinarily tender recordings, most notably Johnny Cash’s painfully introspective version of “Hurt,” which stands for young rock fans as an even more definitive work than “Folsom Prison Blues.” A trailblazer who helped define the sound of modern hip-hop, he was also responsible for Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” one of the most wickedly funny rap hits of recent years.
In tonight’s Grammy competition, Rubin is up for producer of the year for the fifth time. Though he hasn’t won previously, he is the favorite this time because he worked on three of the five collections that are nominated for album of the year. He was sole producer on the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dixie Chicks albums and did one track on Justin Timberlake’s CD.
He’s such a major presence in the industry that Columbia Records has offered him co-chairmanship of the label, which would add immense credibility to the company in the competition for quality artists. Rubin is considering the move, but no decision has been made, says someone close to him.
Whatever the project or musical style, Rubin enters it with the same goal: Create an easy, reassuring atmosphere that encourages collaboration and experimentation. He thinks of himself as a coach, but you could just as easily call him a counselor or therapist.
It’s not hard to see why artists feel comfortable -- even safe -- with the man known as the gentle guru of pop. Sit with him for even a few minutes and the tension drains from your body, which is unusual in someone in the hyperactive music business, where urgency is invariably the prevailing mood.
Rubin Rule No. 1 in the studio: Relax.
“You and the band have to believe what you are doing together is the most important thing in the world,” he says. “But you never want them to think that what they are doing today is the most important. You don’t want them to ever think, ‘Oh my God, I have to get it right today or else.’ ”
Rule No. 2: Keep an open mind.
“It’s one of the things we talk about at the beginning of a project: ‘Let’s try every idea and see where it takes us, not prejudge it.’ Sometimes it still comes up where someone in the band makes a suggestion and part of me says, ‘That’s a bad idea. Let’s not waste time on that.’ I stop myself and think, ‘Let’s try it and see what it sounds like,’ and very often it sounds good.”
Though Rubin also has a home in the hills above the Sunset Strip, he finds himself spending more and more time here because of the ocean’s calming influence. “I think the act of creation is a spiritual act,” he says softly, looking out his picture window at the Pacific. “The more involved we are with nature and the spiritual side of life, the more it seems to have a good effect on creativity.
“Think about how seeing the sunset can take your breath away. That’s the same feeling I get when I hear a beautiful line in a song or a great guitar solo. I don’t think great songs stem from us. They are just kind of in the universe. The best artists are the ones with the best antennae that draw it in, and meditation helps get rid of tension and tune into the ideas that are out there.”
Yet even his meditation, rules and great bedside manner don’t guarantee things always turn out the way Rubin wants.
Asked about disappointments in the studio, he mentions a veteran British superstar whose band continues to fill stadiums around the world.
Rubin knew the Englishman was used to calling the shots, and he only agreed to produce the solo album after being assured that the artist would keep writing until he and Rubin agreed they had enough good songs for an album.
Early in the process, however, the singer played a song for Rubin and waited for a reaction. Rubin said he liked it, but thought the rocker could do better.
“Well, his face fell,” Rubin recalls. “It was probably the first time someone criticized his work in 30 years. I could tell at that point it was going to be an ego-driven project, not a music-driven project.”
When asked why he just didn’t walk away, Rubin replies, “I approach every record as a fan and I don’t give up. Each step of the way, I ask myself, ‘Am I satisfied with what I’m hearing?’ If not, I’m still a fan. I’m just not satisfied.”
And who was that star?
Ever the diplomat, Rubin says with a teasing smile, “Oh, I can’t tell you that.”
WANT to be a record producer? Frederick Jay Rubin has one piece of advice: Just do it.
“Go to a small club tonight, and if there is a band you like, figure out a way to make a recording with them -- it’s easier than you think,” he says, sitting in his backyard. “There are thousands of bands just waiting for someone to ask them to make a record.”
Rubin speaks with confidence because he started his own career 22 years ago by making a recording in his New York University dorm room. The only child of an upper-middle-class Long Island family, the pre-law student grew up on hard rock and punk, loving no band more than AC/DC. By the time he got to college, however, hip-hop was the hot new thing in New York clubs, and he was fascinated by it.
Rubin noticed rap records didn’t have the energy or excitement of the rap he heard in downtown clubs because the music on the records was supplied by musicians instead of “scratching,” the club DJ practice of mixing and matching the sounds of actual recordings. Rubin began using “scratching” and other turntable wizardry rather than live musicians.
After gaining attention around New York City with a rap recording he made in his dorm, Rubin teamed with Russell Simmons, manager of the rap group Run-DMC, to form Def Jam Records, the Motown of hip-hop.
At Def Jam, Rubin worked with LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, whose “Licensed to Ill” album in 1986 was a musical and sociological bombshell that reflected Rubin’s love of hard rock and rap. The album sold an estimated 9 million in the U.S. alone, but Rubin swears he never set out to make a “hit.”
“I don’t believe anyone is good at trying to figure out what will be a hit,” says Rubin, who left Def Jam in 1988 to start his own label -- now called American Recordings and distributed by Warner Music Group -- in Los Angeles. “The best thing you can do is reach for something that excites you and the artist.
“In the early days of Def Jam, I was pretty dictatorial, and I think that’s one of the reasons the Beastie Boys left the label. They wanted to have more of a voice in their records, and they were right.”
Today, he takes his belief in democracy in the studio so far that he and a band will sometimes hire several engineers to do the final mix on a recording and listen to the results without knowing which engineer did which track.
“If you know the greatest mixer in the world mixed one track and the guy who is making coffee on the project mixed that one, you’re liable, psychologically, to think the famous engineer’s mix is bound to be the best,” Rubin explains. “But if you don’t know who did what, the playing field is clear and even, and you are really picking based on what sounds good. And very often we’re surprised. Very often.”
There are lots of books on the shelves of Rubin’s other home -- the one overlooking the Sunset Strip just west of the House of Blues -- mostly spiritual and self-help volumes. Though born Jewish, Rubin says he draws spiritual ideas from many sources.
“I got into meditation when I was 14,” says Rubin, who sometimes meditates on the beach. “My neck always hurt and my childhood pediatrician said I needed to learn how to meditate, and I’ve found it benefits all aspects of life.”
Specifically, he says, it allows him to focus deeply for a long period of time, which is helpful in producing a record because you sometimes have to listen to a track endlessly before you are finished.
Rubin has meditated with members of the Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, Donovan and others over the years.
He feels tension is a major enemy of the songwriting process, which he identifies as the most important period in the making of a record. That’s why he urges artists to take as much time as possible to make sure they have strong material before going into the studio.
That approach doesn’t always please managers or record companies who prefer to see artists record an album quickly so they can get back out on the promotional and touring trail.
Meditation also gives him the patience to overcome an occasional studio problem. “If there is a problem with a song, I may start by pointing to one line and suggesting it’s not as good as the rest, and the artist may say something like, ‘I think it’s the best line in the song.’
“So, I’ll just keep gently pressing the point until I get to where I can see the artist isn’t going to change. In this case, I might say, ‘It doesn’t resonate with me. What is it you like about it, how does it fit the song?’ and so forth. You’re not always successful. Ultimately, it’s their album, not mine.”
The Cash connection
RUBIN has produced more than 80 albums, from Mick Jagger (oops!) to Neil Diamond, generating some 150 million units sold. But he’s probably associated most these days with his work with Cash and the Chili Peppers, and both projects underscore the value of patience in Rubin’s approach.
Cash represented all the maverick qualities that Rubin admired in artists, so he went to a Cash concert in 1993 in Santa Ana, hoping to strike up a relationship.
The Man in Black was just turning 60 and his morale was low because country radio had stopped playing his music. So he was intrigued when Rubin said he wasn’t necessarily interested in recording “hits.” He just wanted to make a great record.
Rubin proposed that Cash sit down with him in the living room of the Sunset Strip house or at Cash’s house near Nashville and sing every song he ever loved. The process went on for weeks, Rubin putting it all on tape. Eventually, the producer started bringing in songs for Cash, such as Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” The rewards included three Grammys.
“Most important, Rick made me have faith in myself again,” Cash said after the first album in 1994. “He made me believe in myself and my music, which I thought was gone forever.”
Cash spoke in equally glowing terms nearly a decade later, a period when the singer was so ill -- from asthma, various bouts with pneumonia and more -- that he sometimes had to rest between lines of a song in the recording studio.
In an interview just before the release of his 2002 CD with Rubin, Cash said he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to keep recording him, especially when Rubin’s albums with the Peppers and others sold far more.
So after the last vocal on the record, Cash said he walked over to Rubin, shook hands and said, “It’s been fun.” It was his way of saying he understood if Rubin wanted to call it quits.
“But Rick immediately asked what I wanted to do next,” Cash continued, his eyes moistening at the loyalty. “I mentioned [an album of] black gospel, and then I mentioned an album of songs that would show my musical roots, and Rick said, ‘Let’s do them both.’ I was dumbfounded. I thought I might finally be at the point where I would only be singing for myself.”
The scenario with the Chili Peppers wasn’t at all similar to the Cash story, but the ending touched similar emotions.
Rubin was impressed when he saw the Peppers on stage at the Greek Theatre in 1989, but he was even more impressed by their potential. “They were always incredible musicians, but that doesn’t necessarily make a great band,” Rubin says, looking back.
The producer felt that the Peppers were limited in the way they saw themselves -- a funk group with rap lyrics, which can get old pretty quick. He could see them playing rock on a much wider scale if he could get them to change their idea of what the Chili Peppers were about. He “needed to break down the walls in their own imagination.”
While encouraging the band to think in wider terms, Rubin focused with lyricist Anthony Kiedis on material. The breakthrough came in the late-'90s when Rubin glanced through a book of Kiedis’ poetry and notes and found what became the lyrics to the song “Under the Bridge,” a tale of drugs and alienation that spoke with more depth and universality than the group’s previous tunes.
“It was something that cried for singing, not rapping, and for a melody, not just funk beat, and I said, ‘What’s this?’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s not for the Chili Peppers, it’s not what we do.’ ”
But Rubin kept encouraging Kiedis, who eventually sang it for guitarist John Frusciante, who put chords to it, and they played it for bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith, who were open to it. It was a breakthrough hit that greatly upgraded the future of the band.
As with Cash, Rubin helped the Chili Peppers to believe in themselves.
And now U2 too
IT’S a few weeks later and Rubin is back home after working with U2 in England on two tracks for the band’s latest greatest-hits album and three weeks vacationing in Hawaii with his fiancee, model Amanda Santos.
U2 was a prize assignment, and Rubin felt invigorated by it. “There are four very different, very smart people, and all with lots of ideas and often conflicting ideas,” he says on the phone. “The ideas keep coming so fast that it’s like a tornado of creative energy.”
Plans had also just been announced for Rubin to team with Kanye West, the most compelling figure in hip-hop since Eminem, and writer-director Larry Charles, whose credits range from “Seinfeld” to “Borat,” to develop a fictional comedy series for HBO based on real incidents in West’s life.
Also on his immediate schedule: going in the studio with bestselling rock-rappers Linkin Park and heavy-metal marvels Metallica. Though he doesn’t speak about finances, a superstar producer like Rubin, who is hired by the artists, can walk away with $400,000 to $500,000 for every million albums sold on a project. As a producer he is free to work with any artist, regardless of label.
To relax, he normally keeps weekends free for reading, walking on the beach, watching old movies, listening to music (never his own) and hanging out with friends -- a circle of creative types including Chris Rock and director Wes Anderson.
Tonight, he’s got five avenues to the stage to be honored for his production skills -- as producer of the year, album of the year (whether Dixie Chicks, Chili Peppers or Timberlake win) or record of the year (the Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice”).
The most surprising association is with the Dixie Chicks, the country trio that suffered a backlash at country radio after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President Bush in 2003 over his Iraq policy.
Rubin’s primary role in the nearly two-year project was helping on the songwriting and “taking away any fears they had about what they were doing and not let anything get to them to where they would soft-pedal anything in any way.”
Timberlake and Rubin recorded several tracks, but only one made last year’s album. Timberlake has said he wants to do the next album with Rubin, and the producer looks forward to it.
But don’t expect Rubin to attend the ceremony at Staples Center. At mid-week, he was leaning against going. “It’s just not his thing,” said an aide. Rubin did vote in the Grammys, though.
Might the diplomatic producer share his choice for best album?
There is a brief pause, then a slight chuckle that suggests, “Oh, I can’t tell you that.”
Next: Dr. Dre, the hip-hop producer, who has changed pop culture three times -- with N.W.A, “The Chronic” album and Eminem.