I don’t remember who I was recording, or what year it was exactly, but I do remember Rick Rubin dropping by a session I had booked at Hollywood Sound.
“I really shouldn’t be here,” Rubin deadpanned as he stared down at the huge Neve mixing board. “My doctor says I’m not supposed to be around a lot of heavy electronic equipment.”
I have no doubt that one of Rick’s homeopathic doctors counseled him this way. And I also have no doubt that Rick found this ironic and incredibly funny given his line of work. It was even funnier to trot out in conversation, and, moreover, useful as a way to escape sessions in which he had no interest. Like mine.
I worked for Rick Rubin for seven years, in the 1990s—the time after his departure from Def Jam, in which he built both a new label, Def American Recordings, and his independent production career. And though I don’t claim to know the man as well as many, this is the Rick that I knew, and that I think is essential to understanding what makes him one of the greatest and most influential record producers of all time—from his roots in punk and hip-hop, to his forays into heavy metal, straight-ahead rock, alternative, techno, country, folk, and spiritual music
From his roots in punk and hip-hop, to his forays into heavy metal, straight-ahead rock, alternative, techno, country, folk, and spiritual music.
The Rick Rubin that most people know is the one who looks like the carefully cultivated image they see—serious, taciturn, enigmatic. It’s the image that fits his manifest brilliance as a producer, which draws on his love of the pure and raw and natural.
The side they don’t see, however, is his peculiar sense of humor—sarcastic, mischievous, and slightly misanthropic. Rubin’s ultimate gift as a producer is his ability to combine light and dark, serious and playful, sweetness and acidity, divine and diabolical, beauty and ugliness.
Rick was all about the element of surprise. To look ferocious and then speak softly. To put people at ease and then make them really uncomfortable. This was the guy who—when I told him that I couldn’t make a great music video for $5,000—gave me $20,000 and said, “But now you have to make four videos.” This was the man who was asked by his new partner, Warner Bros. Records, to give the keynote address at its yearly convention—and then had the president of a rival record company read the address while Rick stood behind him, nodding in agreement.
That’s the Rick I wish people could see, but I don’t think even Rick wants to remember it. While interviewing him for my book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, I reminded him of a few of these moments.
“I can’t believe I said that,” he replied softly, shaking his head.
But that was the key thing that gave Rick Rubin his unique gift: Clarity and noise, a study in contrasts and surprise.
Rick doesn’t push that envelope like a 20-year-old anymore, which is natural. The older Rick Rubin aims for the heavenly, not the marginal. Because of this, the following list of Rubin’s 25 all-time best productions has a slight early Rubin bias. Still, his best work could well be ahead of him.
A few words about the choices that follow:
First, what do we mean when we say “producer”? To many in hip-hop and dance era, a producer is the person who makes the beats. But a record producer, in the classic sense, is analogous to a movie director. He’s not the guy moving the camera; not always the guy who wrote the script. He’s the guy with the overall creative vision. Rick did not have to be in the studio when songs were “tracked,” because he was there during rehearsals, when the structure and arrangements were shaped.
But what we aren’t counting here is the stuff that Rick Rubin “executive produced” (like Public Enemy) or simply signed (like Slick Rick), or slapped his name on after the fact (like The Black Crowes). With heavy heart, I am leaving out some unreleased gems, like the Beastie Boys’ remake of The Beatles “I’m Down” and Rick's sessions with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
What we’re looking for, in the songs that follow, are the works that changed the man, the music, and moved the world.
Written by Dan Charnas (@dancharnas)