With former partner Russell Simmons, producer/mogul Rick Rubin helped transform hip-hop from an underground New York phenomenon spread through street parties and DJ battles into both a cultural institution and a thriving business. While still a college student, Rubin co-founded future rap powerhouse Def Jam with Simmons, offering a rugged, street-level alternative to pop-friendly labels like Sugar Hill. As Def Jam's reigning in-house producer, Rubin cranked out a remarkable string of masterpieces–including Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill, LL Cool J's Radio, and Run DMC's Raising Hell—while releasing work from artists like Slick Rick and Public Enemy.
While still heading up Def Jam, Rubin began producing rock and heavy-metal acts; eventually, he left to found Def American, a new label whose roster reflected Rubin's wide-ranging musical tastes. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing a pivotal role in the careers of artists as dissimilar as Geto Boys, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Slayer, Donovan, and Sir Mix-A-Lot, all of whom were at one point signed to Rubin's label (now simply "American Recordings"). But Rubin's most important post-Def Jam work was with Johnny Cash. Rubin engineered Cash's comeback with a series of dark, spare albums that reconnected the country legend with his roots, winning him critical kudos, a new generation of fans, and even airplay on MTV.
One of music's most sought-after producers, Rubin has manned the boards for everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Tom Petty to Mick Jagger to Smashing Pumpkins to Limp Bizkit. After an extended hiatus, Rubin also recently returned to the hip-hop mainstream by producing the hit song "99 Problems" for Jay-Z and collaborating with Lil Jon. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Rubin about Def Jam's early days, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, and the state of hip-hop.
The Onion: How were you first introduced to rap music?
Rick Rubin: There was a radio show on WHBI in New York called "Mr. Magic's Rap Attack." This was the only place that rap music was played in New York. It was on for like an hour, one night a week, on this station that you'd pay to get on.
O: What was your immediate impression?
RR: At the time, I was listening to a lot of punk-rock music, and it felt like an alternative to punk rock. It felt like black punk rock.
O: You mean the newness of it, the rebellion?
RR: Yeah, and in the way that punk rock took the music out of Madison Square Garden and brought it back to this kind of naïve street level where anyone could do it, even those who are not really musicians. Hip-hop did the same thing, where you didn't have to be Luther Vandross or Herbie Hancock. You could just be a guy with an idea. That was enough for you to make a record.
O: It seems like it was sort of being invented as it went along. Rock music had a history and traditions, whereas rap and punk could be whatever you wanted.
RR: True. But in both cases, it was often derivative of itself. With punk, I remember thinking at the time that it was odd that so many American punk bands were singing about this class struggle and political oppression, when we weren't really feeling that. They were imitating what the English bands were singing about. There's always some of that, taking from itself. Rappers talking about the same types of things: Bragging and dissing are kind of the main themes on early hip-hop records.
O: Did you think of hip-hop as innately black music?
RR: It was at that time. There were no white people involved in any way, shape, or form.
O: Did that make you feel like an outsider?
RR: It felt like outsider music to begin with. It was completely underground, and just happened to be made by black people. I felt like when I was submerged in it, I was as well-versed in it as anyone else. I felt like the music made a kinship that transcended skin color. Everyone was a fan. It was a shared passion.
O: How did you move more into the business aspect, and into producing?
RR: My favorite group at the time was Treacherous Three, and I met with one of the guys in the band. I didn't know anything about the record business, but I recognized that the hip-hop records that were coming out that I would buy as a fan, and the music I would hear when I'd go to the club, were two different things. The music in the club was much more breakbeat, scratching, raw, kind of rock-based. The hip-hop records that were coming out at the time were really like disco or R&B, but with a person rapping on it instead of a girl singing on it. I guess what I set out to do as a fan was to make records that sounded like what I liked about going to a hip-hop club, and trying to document that scene.
O: How did you join forces with Russell Simmons?
RR: We met at a party. I had produced a record called "It's Yours" by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay. That was a pretty big club record in New York City. It was played on the radio, too, but it was a New York-area local hit. I met Russell a few months after that came out, and he said it was his favorite record, and he was so excited to meet me, and couldn't believe that I was white. There was nobody white doing anything in hip-hop, and here was his favorite hip-hop record made by a white guy. I was really excited to meet him, because his name was on all these great records, like Kurtis Blow. He was already a mogul of rap music, even though there was no business. It was just a small, underground scene. He was already kind of the focal point.
O: What led to the founding of Def Jam?
RR: I'd made a record with LL Cool J, his first single, which I think is called "I Need A Beat." I played it for Russell, and he loved it. Then I asked him what we should do with it. He said, "Oh, let's give it to one of the labels that I deal with." I said, "All you do is complain about these labels; why don't we just do it ourselves?" Eventually, we decided to do it ourselves.
O: How did you find out about LL Cool J? He was about 15 at the time?
RR: Fifteen or 16. He sent me a demo tape to my dorm at NYU, because on "It's Yours," the label was called Def Jam, and the address was my dorm at NYU. So I started getting demo tapes sent to the dorm.
O: Did he need parental permission to become a recording artist or anything?
RR: No. In those days, we didn't even do contracts, because we didn't know anything about business. We just started doing it.
O: Did you think, "This kid's got what it takes, he could be a star"?
RR: There were no stars in rap music. It was really just a work of passion. Everyone who was doing it was doing it because they loved it, not because anyone thought it was a career. We didn't even think about having a hit single. We just tried to do something we liked. There were no expectations whatsoever. The only hope was that we'd sell enough records to make enough money to make another record. If it didn't cost us money to have Def Jam, we'd be happy. If it supported itself, and we could keep doing it, we'd be doing it.
O: Was there a point where you realized that Def Jam could be your career, that it could be this juggernaut?
RR: I never thought about it as a juggernaut, and I never thought about it as my career. But when we went from being an indie label to doing a deal with a major label… Again, we were living in the moment, but I realized, "Okay, I don't have to go to law school now. I can just make records now, and this is okay for now."
O: How influential were you in determining the label's style and the personas and the marketing of Def Jam's acts?
RR: Very much so. That's really what I'm into. I'm into the whole aesthetic of it, and the way the package looked. Anything on the art side was really what I cared about.
O: And how similar was all of this to the way it was portrayed in the movie Krush Groove?
RR: I don't know, maybe 50 percent accurate. There were things about the movie… We didn't work with a lot of the artists in the movie. That was definitely a Hollywood version. But the basic story is similar.
O: And you played yourself. How was that?
RR: It was bizarre.
O: It seems like Russell Simmons was the only person who didn't play himself in the movie.
RR: I think that's because it was a pretty big part, and I think the filmmakers wanted a real actor in there. And they really would have been better off having a real actor instead of me, too.
O: Can you talk a little bit about the experience of directing the Run DMC vehicle Tougher Than Leather?
RR: Very unpleasant. I like rock 'n' roll hours much better than movie hours. In those days, I was sleeping until two or three in the afternoon, and having to wake up at 6 a.m. and go to work every day was a disaster. We were just in completely over our heads. We didn't know what we were doing, just having fun and doing crazy stuff. I like the fact that we did it, because we did it. But I read somewhere that on my résumé, Tougher Than Leather would be like my Magical Mystery Tour. No point.
O: At the time, Run DMC had a reputation as the first rap group that white Middle America really embraced. It seemed like the film was a little darker.
RR: It was. It was actually the first—if you look at black films up until that point, they were more like Beat Street and Krush Groove, really these kind of Hollywood, Fat Boys movies, lowest common denominator. Ours was definitely edgier, and had violence and cursing. It was much grittier and more street. It was before Spike Lee was making movies, and before black filmmakers were able to make more black movies, like the Hughes brothers, etcetera. I don't know about them, but it seems like historically, it opened that door, in the same way that the records were kind of what the hip-hop scene really was. Tougher Than Leather, while it may not be very professionally done, was more where our heads were at than Krush Groove. So even though it was fictional, there was a grittiness and a realism to it that was different. What wasn't real was fictionalized in a way that wasn't condescending.
O: How did you become involved with Run DMC?
RR: Through my friendship with Russell, I started hanging out with Run and D and Jay. We just became friends, and when it was time to make their next album, they really loved what I was doing with LL and with the Beastie Boys, so they asked me to help.
O: Did they like that rock sound, that harder edge?
RR: It's really more what hip-hop has become, more than rock. It wasn't so much about the use of guitars; it was about the edginess of the hip-hop itself. It wasn't slick, and it wasn't mainstream, but it was alternative, edgy, raw music. There's a homemade and handmade quality to it. Like, if you listen to Sugar Hill albums, or the hip-hop records that came out on Enjoy and Tommy Boy, those are all of our competitors. They came before us, but became our competitors. Those records are all very, very different than ours.
O: A lot slicker.
RR: And a lot more, maybe, competent. But not necessarily hitting the nail on the hip-hop head.
O: Do you listen to hip-hop music today?
RR: Not very much.
O: Why do you think that is?
RR: I don't know. My taste changes radically all the time, and I listen to whatever feels good. Another thing is that I'm in the studio so much of the time, and I listen to so much loud, aggressive music for work, that for pleasure, I'll listen to something else.
O: It seems like you left Def Jam because you were growing less and less interested in hip-hop. Was that gradual or sudden?
RR: The reason I left Def Jam didn't have so much to do with hip-hop. It really had to do with mine and Russell's vision of our company growing apart, and wanting to maintain our friendship. It felt like if we were no longer partners, we'd be able to remain friends, and everything would be good. And that's exactly what happened.
O: Is it true that Russell didn't want to put out Public Enemy's first album?
RR: It's not that he didn't want to put it out, I just don't think that he cared about it as much as I did. He didn't understand why I was so excited by it. I remember him saying something like, "You make records with The Bangles. Why do you care about this?" I'm like, "This is what I like."
O: How did you become involved with Public Enemy?
RR: I'd heard a tape of Chuck D's college radio show, and the theme song was called "Public Enemy No. 1," which ended up being on the first album. I heard that and said, "We need this guy. This needs to be Def Jam."
O: Was Public Enemy an entity at that point?
RR: No, it was just Chuck at that point.
O: How did it come to be Public Enemy?
RR: I contacted Chuck about signing them, and he said no, that he was too old, and hip-hop was a young man's game. LL was really popular at that time, and he was 16. Chuck was an old man, probably 21. He felt like his artist days were past him. I put his number up on a post-it note on my phone, and I would call it every day and just keep bugging him. We wanted to put out music, and we were having great success, and there was nothing good. And here was something good. Finally, one day, after months, he came in with Flava Flav—I don't think Griff was there yet—and said, "Okay, I'm ready to do it. It's called Public Enemy. Here's the whole vision." He had it all worked out. They weren't going to be like any other hip-hop group. They were going to be more like The Clash. They were going to have lyrics that meant something, and uniforms, and a militaristic feel, the whole thing.
O: Once you left Def Jam, did you continue to make beats?
RR: No. I never made beats to make beats; I only made them when there was a record to make them for. That's one of the things that has changed in hip-hop that's made me like it less. It feels much more like it's a producer-driven medium, where there are all these tracks that are completely interchangeable. A Neptunes track could have Usher on it, or Jay-Z on it, or any one of these different people, but the track is still the same. Albums are now composed of a string, a compilation of these tracks. It doesn't sound like an artist-based medium any more, and I like things that feel like they stem from the artist. Even as a producer, and even when I was making all the music for LL Cool J or for the Beastie Boys, those don't sound like the same albums. I tried to make music that suited the artist and reflected the signature of that artist, and was very representative of who they were. It seems like hip-hop has gone away from that, and it's more like pop records, where it's all interchangeable and anyone can do it. I just don't like that so much. But there are songs that come along that blow my mind. I mentioned Lil Jon. He sounds like a unique artist with a unique point of view, and his album sounds like his album. It doesn't sound like it's off a production line.
O: You didn't produce any rap albums for a long time. Were you approached by rappers saying "I want to work with you"?
RR: Sometimes, yes.
O: Were you tempted?
RR: I can't remember any example where I really felt like, "Let's do this."
O: In the '90s, you started working with Johnny Cash. How did that come about?
RR: I felt like between Def Jam and American, I had only ever really signed new artists, and only really worked with young people on their first albums. It seemed like it would be a fun challenge to work with an established artist. I tried to think, "Who's a great artist, who's a legendary artist, who's maybe not in the best place, or not finding the support they need to do their best work?" Johnny was the first person I thought of.
O: Did you hit it off immediately? What was your impression of him as a man?
RR: I liked him very much. I would say we hit it off, though we didn't say much at our first meeting. We were both pretty quiet. But it felt strong, and it felt like there was potential for really good work to be done. I think he was almost at the point of giving up. I think he'd probably made a hundred albums, and making an album wasn't a big deal to him. It wasn't important to him. It was just another one: "Eighteen months roll by, put out another one, doesn't really matter, no one really cares. I'll either do it or not, it doesn't make a difference." I think that's where he was at, where the record-making part of his artistry didn't matter so much to him after being not treated so well, after being dropped from Columbia, his longtime label, and then being at Mercury, where he was not really cared for very much. I think he may have still been going through the motions, but I don't think he was emotionally invested in the record-making process. I think the idea of doing something new appealed to him, but I don't think it was that big of a deal. Until we started having some success, I don't know that he cared that much about his recording career, again, only because of the way he had been treated. It was almost beaten out of him in some way.
O: What did you feel like you could bring to Johnny Cash, both as a producer and as a label head?
RR: I guess I thought of the legendary image of the Man In Black, and thought that we could find material, or write material, and kind of use that imagery as a framework for the kind of songs that we were going to do. Make sure that whatever he sang suited the mythic character, that was really maybe a caricature of himself. There was probably some of him in it. That's probably where it came from. But we were trying to find, from a content point of view, what someone who loved what Johnny Cash was would want to hear him sing. Sometimes we would pick songs that you wouldn't think of him singing, like a Beck song, something you wouldn't think a Johnny Cash fan would want, or a Soundgarden song. But it's less where it came from, and more the actual content of the material. I always tried to pick material that really suited him, that when you heard him singing the words, it made sense, and you feel it. You feel the truth in what he's singing, whether you wrote the song or not.
O: You also worked with Mick Jagger. What was that process like?
RR: It was probably one of the more difficult works, because I think he very much wanted to make a Mick Jagger solo record that was not like the Stones. And I think there's just a Stonesiness around him that comes naturally. If he writes a song that sounds like it could sound like a Stones song, it wouldn't feel good to change it just for the sake of changing it. I would say it was a little bit of a tug-of-war, that album. But it came out, in my opinion, 70 percent or 75 percent as good as it could have been, which I think is really good. When I listen to it now, I'm really proud of it. I remember there were a lot of disagreements on that one, and there aren't usually.
O: Def Jam is the most successful rap label of all time. Have you ever regretted leaving?
RR: If I would have stayed, it would have been completely different. I don't know if it would have been the same successful thing that it is. I can't imagine what it would have been like, had I stayed, because I didn't. [Laughs.] I mean, Guns N' Roses asked me to produce their first album, and I didn't do it. When it had all that success, people asked me if I was sad that I didn't do it. It's like, "I don't know that it wouldn't have been the same thing that it was. No one might have cared." Everything happens kind of the way it's supposed to happen, and we just watch it unfold. And you can't control it. Looking back, you can't say, "I should've…" You didn't, and had you, the outcome would have been different.
O: Back when you started Def Jam, did you have any idea that 20 years later, it and hip-hop would be such a force?
RR: No. It's shocking.
O: Do you feel a sense of pride that this is something you helped birth?
RR: No. [Laughs.] I recognize my role in it, but had I not been around, it still would have—I think it would have gone a different route. But the strength of hip-hop is beyond any of the individuals involved. It really was a wave. We just happened to be in a good spot on the wave. The wave was comin'.