The King of Rap: Rick Rubin Makes the Music Industry Walk His Way
November 4, 1986
In 1964, Tom Wolfe wrote “The First Tycoon of Teen” about the 23-year-old Phil Spector. The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” was on its way to number one and Spector’s label, Philles, was in its hit-making prime. Wolfe described Spector as a jittery, Jewish, misunderstood boy-genius — the first youth to create a multimillion-dollar music empire for the pop of it.
In 1964, Frederick Jay Rubin was one year old. Now 23 himself, rock’s hottest producer, and an owner of his own record company, Def Jam, Rick Rubin is the closest pop music has come this decade to producing a conceptualist who can compare to Spector in studio wizardry, business acumen, and steam-rolling ego. Both are eccentric, Jewish, intimidating. If he hasn’t yet charted as many times as Spector — Rubin has been behind the sales of about three million records, including a top 10 single (Run D.M.C.’s summer hit, “Walk This Way”), a double-platinum album (Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell), one gold album (L.L. Cool J’s Radio), and more on the way (new releases by the Beastie Boys and Slayer) — the comparison holds. Both have an overpowering studio style: Spector with his wall-of-sound and Rubin with his fastidious b-boy blast, a lean, ornery orchestration of rap and heavy metal — his two favorite forms of rock ‘n’ roll.
And like Spector, Rubin started out as an adolescent prodigy and almost immediately went on to gain wealth and behind-the-scenes power. Using the technology of their times, they both have made music for and often by teens. That sort of currency has inspired Mick Jagger to ask Rubin to produce songs for his next solo LP, an invitation Rubin says he’ll accept if he can find the time. He has other ambitions. Foremost is the writing, directing, and producing of Def Pictures’ first feature, Tougher Than Leather, a spaghetti-western/film noir/blaxpoitation movie starring Run-D.M.C. Casting himself and his dad as father-and-son racist gangsters, Rubin relishes his status as a young white man traveling in black circles who can do no wrong.
“Rick’s a dick,” says Adrock a white rapper in the Beastie Boys and son of playwright Israel Horovitz. “He knows how to get what he wants. It’s almost a spiritual thing.”
Russell Simmons, Rubin’s 28-year-old black partner in Def Jam and the rap impresario whose life the movie Krush Groove was based on, puts it this way: “I’m sure Rick would like me to tell you what a bastard he is.”
This is peculiar praise for a wealthy, straight-A suburbanite who borrowed money from his father to start his record company while still living in a NYU dorm. Two weeks after he graduated from college last year, he and Simmons signed a multi-album deal with CBS, which each party claims is the largest arrangement of its kind — “in the millions,” according to Rubin who won’t be any more specific. Quite an achievement for someone who still sleeps past noon.
Rubin doesn’t look like a millionaire. He looks like Arthur Baker, another beefy white producer responsible for a number of influential dance records (Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” the Cyndi Lauper remixes, among others) by manipulating black street sounds in a pop context. At the height of his success in 1984, Baker released Rubin’s first rap single, “It’s Yours” by rapper T LA Rock and scratcher Jazzy Jay. Unlike Baker, Rubin’s weight seems relative to his success. And he really is big now. With his long brown hair, trim beard, pale skin, and biker’s clothing — black jeans and rock ‘n’ roll T-shirt — Rubin is the archetypal heavy metal kid from Long Island. Unlike the image, Rubin doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t do drugs. He eats.
“I like Rick because he eats like I eat,” says Darryl McDaniels, the “D.M.C.” of Run-D.M.C. “We met Rick in 1984 back when he was the DJ for the Beastie Boys. DJ Double R they used to call him. His room was packed tighter than Afrika Bambaataa’s — records all over the place, posters everywhere, and it was kinda b-boy. For a white person, it was really hip. He had every rap record and beat jam that you could possibly have. We started asking his opinion on our stuff ’cause he has the feeling like we have the feeling. Our first producer, Larry Smith went on to bigger and better things with Cameo, so we needed someone to help us with Raising Hell.
“Rick isn’t the kind of person to lay out a plan. He let us put our own two cents in. If we did something he didn’t like, he’d say [imitating Rick’s low voice], ‘I don’t think that is cool’ — that’s the way he talks. Or ‘That’s really soft. Get busy or get lost.’ Our record, ‘Proud to Be Black’ — Rick pushed that so hard. When we first started off, it was real, real corny. But he said, ‘Get ill and make it forceful.’ You don’t have to be no certain race, creed, color, or age to give the people what they want.”
L.L. Cool J, born James Todd Smith, liked “It’s Yours,” so he sent a demo to the NYU address Rubin had listed on the jacket. Rubin gave L.L. a call. “I thought Rick was black,” L.L. says, “cause when he talks on the phone, he sounds black. But black or white, it makes no difference to me. Rick gave me my break when I deserved one. Things haven’t changed since I met Rick except that back then I wouldn’t buy as many things. My grandmother would buy them for me.”
Rubin’s studio apartment, like his old dorm room, doubles as the Def Jam office. Success hasn’t changed his taste in interior decoration; he’s still a slob. (Def Jam recently bought a five-story Noho building, now being gutted for offices, a recording studio, and home for Rubin.) What little furniture he has looks as if it were found in an alley. Throughout several conversations, phones ring, answering machines click. Run-D.M.C promotions, a black light AC/DC poster, and a big picture of Led Zeppelin decorate the walls as well as a Beastie Boys graffiti mural. Rubin sleeps in a loft bed that faces a TV and VCR. The stove is a table.
“It was difficult at first, but now I’m a fixture,” Rubin says in describing what it was like being a white college student with a lot of b-boy friends. “I lived in a dorm, and I had all these black guys visiting me all the time. People thought it was weird. There was something exciting and dangerous about it, I suppose, but that’s what I like.”
No one around Def Jam, black or white, offers to probe racial relationships beyond banalities and generalizations. But by talking black and being white, Rubin has brought together the intemperance of heavy metal and the braggadocio of rap — a lucrative marriage. If he were black, it’s hard to imagine record executives admiring the aggression that first endeared him to rappers. Being able to go both ways is one reason why he is Simmons’s perfect business partner. It’s also how Rubin, along with his white friends the Beastie Boys, can get away with playing so fast and loose with black-white taboos. Rubin’s nimble duplicity is a big reason why Def Jam’s organization generates a lot of cold cash.
Chung King House of Metal is the unassuming studio, with state-of-the-art rhythm machines, where Rubin produced most of L.L. Cool J’s Radio and Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell. Late on a summmer night the Beastie Boys, whom Rubin met when they were in a punk band called the Young and the Useless, are recording. CBS executive Steve Ralbovsky is on hand to inspect the progress of their year-in-the-making Licensed to Ill, which the trio wanted to call Don’t Be a Faggot (CBS talked the group out of it). Ralbovsky proposed the deal between CBS and Def Jam, an exclusive promotion, marketing, and distribution arrangement that calls for a minimum of five album artists and a dozen 12-inch singles a year. This has given Def Jam the resources to expand its roster to 20 acts, some of which have given CBS problems.
For example, another rapper claiming to be the real L.L. Cool J, has come forth claiming his songs and stage name were stolen by James Todd Smith and put on Radio. L.L. denies it (“ridiculous”), as does Rubin. CBS lawyers are considering a crossclaim against Def Jam in the event a suit is filed. To protect himself, Rubin refuses to record Radio‘s follow-up until the matter is settled.
The Beastie Boys also have been giving the parent company headaches. Their lewd, rowdy behavior (as well as the accusation of stealing a camera at a party) first got them banned from the CBS premises. Then they were persuaded by CBS not to release “Scenario,” a proposed Bside that includes the lyric “Homeboy shot him in the mother-fuckin’ face.” Michael Jackson, a CBS act himself and owner of the publishing rights to the Beatles catalogue, refused permission to let their rewritten version of Lennon/McCartney’s “I’m Down” appear on Licensed to Ill. Not that Jackson has anything against rap; he and Run-D.M.C. are discussing a possible collaboration on an anticrack song for his next album.
But the rest of the Beastie product is still welcome, unlike another Rubin project, Slayer’s Reign in Blood. CBS was initially behind the project by these L.A. Satanic speed metallists. The company, already facing lawsuits concerning the psychological effects of Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest, got cold feet after an advance review mentioned a song about Nazi Joseph Mengele. “They want the [ed. note: illegible]” Rubin says, “but they’re afraid to get cut.” He took the finished tape to Geffen Records, which had no such qualms. Geffen shipped 100,000 copies of Reign in Blood this week.
After Ralbovsky leaves the studio, the Beasties start doing Whippets, small metal cylinders of laughing gas. Placing these into a cannister used to pressurize whipped cream, they release the gas into a balloon, suck on it, and get silly. This is how they prepare to work. Rubin reacts to the pandemonium coolly and doesn’t partake. Nor does he disapprove.
In the mood, the Beastie Boys are now ready to rap over the backing tracks for what Rubin calls “the reality song of the album” — “You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right To Party.” It’s AC/DC all the way, a solid 4/4 with Rubin on guitar playing distorted power chords. Adrock (who now prefers to be called “The King Adrock”) steps to the mike and his voice cracks on the first line. Each Beastie moves as if MTV had its cameras rolling: arms flail, neck veins bulge, hands pull at crotches. Being a Beastie Boy is a nonstop performance piece.
In the outer room is Steve Ett, Chung King’s resident engineer, who has worked with Rubin on most Def Jam recordings. Over the last year, Rubin learned to engineer by watching Ett at the control board. He has been in studios for 10 years, apprenticing on Steely Dan and Ricky Lee Jones albums, but just as significant is his experience as a drummer, for Rick’s productions are mostly voices and drums. Because it’s the way those drums — whether created from digital samplers, scratched in from other records, or from real percussion — reverberate around the rappers that forms the nonmelodic, but aggressively rhythmic aural space on Rubin’s tracks. “What Arthur Baker does I consider disco,” Rubin explains, “because it’s based on pulse beats: boom-cha-boom-cha-boom-cha. What I do is b-boy, which I consider rock ‘n’ roll because it’s based on rock ‘n’ roll beats: boom-boom-cha boom-boom-boom-cha.”
Often these beats are improvised at Chung King. Since Ett knows the technical end, Rubin’s contribution, besides playing bass and guitar, comes by ear. “Rick knows right away when something doesn’t sound right,” Ett explains. “If I play him a tape, within the first 30 seconds, he’ll love it or hate it. Maybe he’ll help write the beat. Or if someone has a rap written and a particular lyric doesn’t work, Rick will come up with a different way of saying what they wanted to say. But mostly he lets the artist have his own way.”
Back in the control room, Rubin gives diction lessons and pushes buttons. All his rappers enunciate clearly, especially L.L. Cool J, and deliver their rhymes with enough emotion to make them felt. The rhymes grab attention, because Rubin arranges them into verse-chorus structures. His rappers don’t ramble. A phrase like “rock the bells” breaks the flow and pounds home the title, so buyers know what to request. On the Beastie Boys’ “Hold It, Now Hit It,” the title chorus itself is borrowed and mixed in from two sources — the “Hold it now” from Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping” and “Hit it” from Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di.”
The Beastie song that Rubin’s working on now, “It’s the New Style,” is one of the few without a chanted chorus, but the song has peaks and breaks of tension created by the way Rubin and Ett work the mixing board. Each of the board’s 24 tracks contains a separately recorded percussion element, which repeats a phrase dozens of times. Rubin and Ett press buttons to make each cowbell, high hat, snare, and bass-drum track pop in and out at the precise moment. The mixing board itself acts as polymorphic drumset, which allows an enormous amount of freedom to alter a song. That, combined with Rubin’s instrumental contributions, adds up to control over the content of his records. Thus, he can encourage his performers to “get ill” because he’s at the board doctoring them. In a fly-by-night business, what other producer takes a year to complete a rap album?
After they finish for the night, around three in the morning, Adrock, Beastie Mike D, and Rubin go to the Palladium. Nothing is going on in the Michael Todd Room, ditto for the Cat Club. The action is at the Cozy Soup and Burger. Oh no, they’re out of the best item on the menu, split-pea soup.
The only lull in the table’s conversation occurs when I ask why didn’t Adrock share writer’s credits for “I Need a Beat” on the Radio LP when he was credited on the original 12-inch. “I can’t believe you asked that!” says Adrock. Rubin keeps mum. Song-writing and production credits are sore subjects around Def Jam, because Rubin likes to see his name in print.
In his Lido Beach home, Mickey Rubin, once a furniture store owner and now a children’s shoe wholesaler, brags about his son: “He never once opened up a book at NYU and still got great marks.”
“Don’t say that!” admonishes his wife, Linda Rubin, sitting across the kitchen table.
Mr. Rubin continues, “He has a photographic memory. He didn’t have to study. He’d sit in class and absorb everything. He borrowed money from me so that he could start his record label. It wasn’t much, but he never paid me back. I don’t want it back. He was a fantastic organizer, like Al Capone, even as a child. When he was little, he would buy shells, paint them, and then resell them.”
“He slept right in between us until he was, how old, 12?” Mr. Rubin asks his wife, who says, “He thought a green boogie man hid in his closet.” She says they finally got him to sleep in his own room by buying him a bunk bed that looks like a stagecoach. Mr. Rubin confides, “When he comes home without a girl, he still sometimes sleeps with us.”
“I’ve given Ricky a lot of freedom,” Mr. Rubin says, “but I’ve insisted that he follow two rules: Don’t use drugs and never lie to me. I told him, ‘Ricky, you’ve got me and you need nobody else on this earth. But if you lie, you’ll fuck up the best deal a son ever had.’ He doesn’t need to lie to anybody because if somebody doesn’t like the truth, fuck ’em. He doesn’t take shit from anybody.”
He takes me to Rick’s bedroom. Piles of yellowed Village Voices are stacked in a corner. Posters of Devo, the Dead Kennedys, and others line the walls. Car repair manuals fill the shelves. “Ricky has such a mechanical mind. He can pick up a how-to book and do anything.” Rick has owned three automobiles, all new: a Bradley GT II, a Fiat, and an MG convertible, which now sits in the garage. “He put a $1000 radio in the car,” Mr. Rubin says. “Jazzy Jay helped him weld the speakers in.”
Back in the kitchen Mrs. Rubin offers a chocolate bundt cake and says, “He was in kindergarten when I hired a magician for my birthday party, and he loved it. We bought him some magic tricks. Then we became friendly with someone in Long Beach named Irv Tannen, who owned what was probably the biggest magic store in the world, Tannen’s. And we started going there all the time. Ricky met people who were interested in magic, like Orson Welles, mingled with adults, and used to talk to them like one. Then he got called to do a Christmas show for a firehouse. They gave Ricky $50 for his half-hour show and he appeared in front of about 500 people, not at all nervous. His presence and the way he spoke gave him complete control over the audience even then.”
Mr. Rubin says, “He’ll be in the studio recording with Run-D.M.C., and she’ll call him anyway. Just to say hello.”
He shows me the rest of the house. In the master bedroom there’s a video projector and a large screen at the foot of the bed. To the right of it hangs a framed poster of a woman in jodhpurs drinking from a brandy snifter, one leg leaning on the fender of her Rolls. It’s captioned, “Poverty Sucks.” Then on to the furnished basement to see the room Rubin stays in “when he brings home a girl.” There’s a large mattress in front of two TVs and two monstrous speakers. Mrs. Rubin puts a song on the stereo that she’s mentioned several times during my visit, Helen Reddy’s mom and son anthem, “You and Me Against the World.” Mrs. Rubin says, eyes full of tears, “It’s me and Ricky.”
Mr. Rubin escorts me outside. He points in the distance at a massive modern building. “That’s Long Beach City High School where Ricky went.”
“Lido Beach,” Rick says of where he grew up, “is wealthy, mostly Jewish, with some Italians. The east end of Long Beach is upper-middle-class Jewish and Italian. Center town is a black ghetto. The west end is a white ghetto, mostly Irish with some Italians. And there’s Atlantic Beach, which is rich and WASPy. It was incredible that in such a small strip of land, there were these hard cut territories. And all the kids went to the same high school — mine.
“Long Beach High School is about 70 per cent white and 30 per cent black, and it used to close because of race riots. The white scene in my high school was into Led Zeppelin, Yes, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones — all of those groups were completely over. Whereas the black kids were waiting for the latest rap record. I remember asking a black kid what his favorite rap group was and he said the Crash Crew because their record came out last week. And the week before that it was the Funky Four, but now it’s the Crash Crew. It was so exciting that people could be so progressive musically that they’d want the newest thing, love it, and it would make them forget everything else.”
Radio set these racial parameters. Turn on stations that play primarily black music, you’ll hear today’s hits. Maybe one song an hour will be more than a few months old. Tune in three months later, it’s a different playlist. There isn’t much room for variety within this demographic-conscious format, but it occasionally makes concessions to renegade sensibilities that never have a chance on rock radio. When enough kids are listening to any underground record, no matter how weird, like Strafe’s “Set It Off,” they force it onto the air because they’ve dominated the request lines.
This happens less frequently on AOR stations that have been programming for the baby boomers, who get older each year along with their playlists. Rubin says, “White radio stations will publish lists of the most requested songs of that year, and ‘Freebird’ will be in the top 10. STILL! And ‘Stairway to Heaven’! Rock stations play such bullshit, such nonprogressive music.”
The music industry treats white music as an ongoing history, and black music as just the latest thing. Many record companies will keep in print the entire catalogue of white acts that don’t sell big numbers and delete product by all but the biggest-selling black acts. Go into Tower Records, and you might find five Spandau Ballet titles, but only the latest by Jean Carne, who has had around five herself. In other words, black kids are “progressive” because they’ve got no choice.
Conditions like these encourage small businessmen to keep an eye on what’s hip in black music. Independent releases by new American rock bands may get on to college radio and, if the group is really lucky, get snatched up by a major label. Until then, commercial white radio is usually hands off, whereas black independent records that achieve heavy rotation on commercial black radio are commonplace. Because of recent changes in radio promotion, the odds have improved for the black indie to crossover. There are now more black records, indie and major, on the pop charts since the late ’70 disco boom. This atmosphere has allowed for the pop success of Simmons’s pet Def Jam project, Oran “Juice” Jones and bis hit single “The Rain,” and more significantly, Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way.”
When Rubin first picked up the Lucite guitar his mother bought him when he was a high school freshman, it wasn’t to play like George Benson. He was into Johnny Ramone. The person who taught him how to play guitar was Steve Freeman, his high school audio-visual instructor. Freeman, who describes himself as a hippie, recalls: “Even back in high school, Rick was always Mr. Self-Promotion who could get anything he wanted. He was listening mostly to AC/DC and punk rock when he found out that groups like the Clash had learned how to play their instruments something like a month before they formed a group. So Rick thought, ‘Why not me?’ ”
Rubin practiced to early Ramones LPs and after three months, he could play just as fast. After another three, he could play faster, which meant better. Around his sophomore year, he formed the Pricks. In addition to speed, Rubin admired punk’s ability to swindle record companies. The Plasmatics’ television demolition publicity stunts appealed to the magician in him, and for a while he hung out with their mohawked guitar player Ritchie Stotts. With the school’s four-track recorder, Rubin made Pricks cassettes. His goal was to play CBGB, upset people, start fights, and get thrown out. It worked.
Freeman may say harsh things about Rubin, but as with most others, it’s spoken not with resentment, but with awe. “His father once had an easy-credit furniture store. Like his father, Rick knows how to get poor people to buy things. When he was in high school, Rick didn’t hang out in browntown [Long Beach’s black neighborhood], But he’s imitative and knows how to change people, He’s made the Beastie Boys into his alter ego — they never cursed or got high before they met Rick. He had more friends than many kids, but he looked down on a lot of people, too. Some resented him because of his car, others because he could get A’s without studying. Even back then, he knew how to use the system.”
Moving to an NYU Village dorm in 1981 gave him the autonomy he wanted. His parents no longer had to sit in their car while he was inside downtown clubs watching favorites like the Gang of Four and the Bad Brains. He enrolled as a philosophy major with the intention of going to law school but ended up studying film production. And living at NYU brought him closer to the rap scene, which by 1981 had spread downtown to clubs like Negril. He formed another band, Hose, who were (and still are, occasionally) a slow hardcore/metal/noise band in the Flipper mode. With the help of record store owner Ed Bahlman, whose 99 Records label released classic underground club records by Bush Tetras, ESG, and Liquid Liquid, Rubin released two Hose EPs. They included metal interpretations of top 40 r&b: Rick James’s “Super Freak,” the Ohio Players’ “Fire,” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thang.” One original reflected Rick’s vicarious interest in drugs, “Dope Fiend.” Rubin sold all his copies and took Hose to tour the West Coast. “It was really underground. We didn’t know enough people to make the tour work out right.”
By the time he entered the rap scene Rubin learned the necessity of proper contacts and quickly met all the right people. DJ Jazzy Jay, who spun at many of the downtown clubs that had rap nights like Negril, the Underground, and the Roxy, became an early friend. Rubin regularly sought his advice on which records to buy, and the pair soon decided to make their own record. They wanted Special K of the Treacherous Three but he wasn’t available, so they got his brother, T LA Rock, to rap “It’s Yours.”
Rubin intended to put out the cut himself as he did the Hose records. Instead he played “It’s Yours” for Profile, which proposed to release it without cover art. He turned Profile down. Rubin then played the song for Arthur Baker, who offered him more money and a sleeve with Rubin’s artwork, but it was almost a year before it came out, in 1984, and several more months before it hit radio big. Rubin claims Baker never paid up.
“That just isn’t true,” says Baker. “And besides, I never got paid for MCA and Burzootie’s ‘Drum Machine,’ which he put out on his label without my permission even though I wrote the first 16 lines of the rap. But all that is water under the bridge, as far as I’m concerned. Rick has a spoiled-brat mentality that he can get away with anything as long as his records do well. He and most of the people he works with have grown up in wealthy families and they want everything their way. Since I first met Rick, I could tell he had a good street sense. He’s able to capture the sound of live rap shows, which was something no one else was able to do. He picked up on what Run-D.M.C. were doing already and sold it back to them.”
By this time, college had become an annoyance to Rubin. Health authorities deemed his room, which was littered with newspapers and burger-to-go wrappings,”unfit for living.” Dorm residents complained about the club-level volume of his stereo, and one neighbor took him before a student court. He won the case by arguing that the noise was necessary for his career. Academics were the least of his problems; he claims he didn’t attend classes for his last 20 months. Former roommate Adam Dubin says, “As long as I knew him, he was paying people to write papers for him.”
Soon after the release of “It’s Yours,” Rubin met Russell Simmons, whose records he admired, especially Run-D.M.C.’s. The feeling was mutual. ” ‘It’s Yours,’ ” Simmons recalls, “was such a hardcore hiphop record, but it had a chorus, an arrangement, and all the things that no one had thought to put in those songs. I met Rick at Danceteria and I couldn’t believe it. He liked all the same records I did and they all weren’t selling — crazy break records that wouldn’t get airplay. He understood the music the way most people making it didn’t. He told me he wanted to start an independent record company and wanted me to be his partner. Well, I wanted to make a deal with a major label. Then he brought me L.L. Cool J and said this guy should make our first release. He was really insistent.”
Rubin says, “Russell had made maybe 20 records that I thought were tremendous, but he wasn’t wealthy. By then, I had dealt with a lot of people in rap music, none of whom understood it. Still to this day don’t, except Russell, Jam Master Jay, and a few others. So I said, ‘I want you to be my partner. I’ll run the company, I’ll do everything there is to do, and you’ll get half.’ ”
In late ’84 Def Jam’s first release, a 12- inch single of L.L. Cool J’s “I Need A Beat,” sold 120,000 copies. But its success didn’t come without some work on what was to be an essential Def Jam element: image. “When I heard L.L.’s tape,” Simmons recalls, “I thought this guy is great. And Rick said, ‘He’s kinda fucked up, Russell,’ and I said ‘What do you mean?’ and Rick said ‘You’ll see.’ So L.L. came into my office wearing fuckin’ Fearless Four [lace up] boots and straps around his legs like some breakdancer. And I said, ‘Where you from?’ He said ‘Hollis.’ I said ‘Where the fuck did you get those pants?’ L.L. came from the same neighborhood I and Run [Russell’s brother, ‘Run’ of Run-D.M.C.] grew up in and kids don’t dress like that except in breakdance movies. He said, ‘I want to make records like Run,’ and I said, ‘Do you like ’em?’ He said, ‘They’re selling, man.’ L.L. Cool J learned how to be L.L. Cool J because Rick taught him. When L.L. came into the studio to do his vocals, Rick and he would argue a lot. He wanted to sing.”
L.L. denies this: “I never wanted to sing. Like my song says, I just don’t do that.”
Though only 23, Rubin has developed a relaxed, philosophical demeanor. “Cool” is his highest and most common compliment — the ideal he aspires to. Because of his ever-increasing bulk, he has an aura that one might call heavy-metal Buddha. But give him something to disagree with, something he feels challenged by, and he becomes an extroverted performer who loves shock tactics. Syllables explode, hands pound the air, and he becomes Ricky the Rockin’ Wrestlin’ Coach. The validity of his ideas gives way to their entertainment value, and it’s hard not to be swayed by him. His audacity is so excessive that it becomes a charming, disarming eccentricity, even when he’s bullshitting.
“Def Jam is a unique label in that we’re in the music business,” he says, “whereas all the other record companies are in the banking business. They loan money, you make a record, you pay it back with your sales, and they take a piece from then on. They look at it as selling something. It’s really disgusting. Then there are a lot of people in the music industry w}io are just users like Profile. I don’t think that the people at Profile are that much into rap music. I think that’s what they use to make money.
“Show business, record business, entertainment business — it’s all bullshit,” he says. “No one knows anything. I was a little scared about making this movie [Tougher Than Leather], but there isn’t anybody who knows more than I do. I’m sure about that. I was on the set of Krush Groove watching Michael Schultz direct a scene between Run and his brother Russell. And everything he was saying was wrong. It really made me mad. I read the script. I understood how to get those emotions. It’s the same thing when you’re making a record. So I stepped in front of him and I said, ‘NO! That’s NOT how it goes! THIS is how it goes!’ And I directed the scene. Then Schultz said, ‘Excuse me, Rick. Come with me for a minute.’
“Now this was taking place on the corner of a theater stage. He put his arm around me, walked me all the way across the theater really far before he said anything. Like you take someone really far away because something bad’s gonna happen. So he said, ‘Rick, I appreciate your enthusiasm. But there can only be one director and I’m the director and don’t ever do that. And I said, ‘I’m really sorry but it was really making me mad. Because once you put it on film, that’s the way it’s gonna be, and it’s gonna be wrong.’
“So we walked back. And the guys who were doing the scene said, ‘What should we do?’ Schultz told them, ‘Do what Rick said.’ And they did, and it was good.” ■
RICK RUBIN’S 10 BEST
“It’s Yours” — T LA Rock and Jazzy Jay (Partytime, 1984)
Here’s the first def jam that made the others possible. Rock’s catchy rap encourages consumers to make his record theirs, while Jay’s scratching blasts like Miles Davis on crack.
“Rock Hard”/”Party’s Gettin’ Rough”/”Beastie Groove” — Beastie Boys (Def Jam, 1985)
AC/DC’s “Back in Black” riff gets overhauled on the A-side, with a oldfashioned speed rap on the B. Dig how Rubin — or DJ Double R as he was known then — reveals his roots by scratching in Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll.” Inspirational rhyme: “I’m the man who needs no introduction/I’ve got a big tool of reproduction,”
Radio — L. L. Cool J (Def Jam/CBS, 1985)
Setting a Rubin precedent for sustained quality that improves with each production, Radio masters the basics, The beats are hard, the rhymes inventive, and L, Lis hyper voice is in your face from word one. There isn’t much else, but that’s the secret to this album’s effectiveness. Like all great rappers, L, L.’s mouth puts over his myth.
“She’s On It” — The Beastie Boys video (Def Jam Visuals, 1985)
The Beasties practice their Monkees moves at Bimbo Beach for a possible MTV sitcom. Beata David Lee Roth at his own girl-watching game.
“Bad”/”The Bottom Line” — Big Audio Dynamite (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Dull tunes invigorated by Rick’s mix. Whereas most remixers make a record theirs by adding overdubbed layers, Rubin takes chunks away, leaving go-go and gunshots.
Raising Hell — Run-D.M.C. (Profile, 1986)
By involving the trio more directly, Rubin captures their caiaaraderie. The best tracks have warmth and spontaneity, making for a great party record. Second to Thriller, the crossover album of the ’80s, with thanks to Aerosmith and the ’70s,
“The Word”/”Sardines” — The Junkyard Band (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Rubin’s most political record and first commercial flop. These Washington, D.C., go-go teens want to eat and see their sisters go to college, but Reagan’s making bombs with their food stamps.
Reign In Blood — Slayer (Def Jam/Geffen, 1986)
What gives this major label debut by L.A.’s foremost satan-tripping heavy metal speedsters an edge — even over Metallica’s Master of Puppets — is that sculpted noise this extreme has never before been recorded so immaculately. When I asked for a lyric sheet, Rubin replied, “You don’t want it. The lyrics are really dumb_>’ As well he knows, words are secondary, it’s the exclamation points that count.
Licensed to Ill — Beastie Boys (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Here in abundance is every one of the PMRC’s fears about rap and metal, which Rubin expertly gene-splices. White rich young adults fantasize on what it means to be black: they get dusted and shoot one another in the back, while women are there to get violated (by Whiffle ball bats and what-not). Humorously offensive on every level, this is Rubin’s finest yet
Tougher Than Leather — a screenplay written by Rick Menello and Rick Rubin (Def Pictures)
“Rick said we’re gonna make the best movie ever,” D.M.C, says about the film that costars him, Run, and Jam Master Jay. “We’re gonna shoot people in the head and make it like Rambo or 48 Hours.” The script indulges more movie homages than a Brian De Palma film festival. As fast, fierce, and funny as Rubin’s records, this is certai11 cult fare, possible blockbuster, and maybe a riotinducer. Shooting begins November 3. — B.W.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2020