Album: Less Than Zero and Walking with a Panther
Label: Def Jam
Producer: Rick Rubin, LL Cool J

In 1987, while Rick Rubin sojourned in Los Angeles, recording songs for the soundtrack to Less Than Zero, he began to lose his New York-bred disdain for the Southern California life. Sunset Boulevard was alive with nightclubs featuring new and exciting rock bands like Guns N Roses. The recording studios were amazing, the town seemed set up for making music. The rock radio stations were amazing. And he met and began dating a porn star, Melissa Melendez.

 

The man who broke hip-hop down to just the bare beat now fleshed it out with a horn section. The producer who encouraged the loudmouth now bid him hush.

 

When it came time to return to New York, he wasn't sure he wanted to go. But he wasn't sure he wanted to stay in California either. That ambivalence continued after he and Melendez came back to stay in Rick's apartment above Def Jam's offices on Elizabeth Street. And it continued into a recording session he booked with L.L. Cool J., and informed the chorus of the song that came to be called “Going Back To Cali.”

What's so striking about this song is how Rick broke with many of the conventions he himself espoused. The man who broke hip-hop down to just the bare beat now fleshed it out with a horn section. The producer who encouraged the loudmouth now bid him hush. The “worst shit” was still there — the jarring, discordant guitar chord thrown, ugly and raw, into the quiet, dueling with a lone horn. But the most jarring thing about “Going Back To Cali” was how different this record was from anything that came before it. And, frankly, from almost everything that came after it.

Oh, and the b-side—that was important, too. “Jack The Ripper” was wrathful where “Cali” was calm. L.L. Cool J's riposte to Kool Moe Dee became not only one of the best MC battle records of all time, but a staple of DJ battles, too. “Jack The Ripper” was another musical departure for Rick Rubin, in the opposite direction: Completely dependent on one repeating musical loop, in the growing fashion of sample-based hip-hop.

And just like that, with a one-two punch, Rick Rubin killed himself off, annihilating his particular brand of “beat box” hip-hop—first with a record that said there was nothing more for the beat to say, that music was the answer; and the second a symbolic handing of the baton to folks who deserted the beat box for the soul of real drums, looped.

Then he flew back to California, leaving most of his possessions behind—including his half of Def Jam—and never came back.