Interview by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
Rick Rubin has been in this game for years. What you know about “It’s Yours” by T-La Rock & Jazzy Jay? That was the 1984 12-inch on Partytime Records that sent a young Russell Simmons searching for the producer who made it. Much to his shock the responsible party turned out to be a white NYU undergrad.
Simmons would soon partner with Rubin to launch Def Jam Records out of Rubin’s dorm room. Together they released such seminal Rubin productions as L.L. Cool J’s “Rock The Bells,” Run-DMC & Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” and The Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right,” forever changing the course of pop culture in the process. Rubin would go on to do memorable work with a wide range of artists, from Johnny Cash to Adele to Slayer, making occasional returns to the rap game as on Jay-Z’s 2003 masterpiece “99 Problems.”
This year the bearded Buddha of beats has been more of a presence in hip-hop than any since he left Def JAm: Playing a crucial role in Kanye West’s ground-breaking album Yeezus and more recently co-executive producing Eminem’s triumphant The Marshall Mathers LP 2 with Dr. Dre. (No, Rubin didn’t work on Jay Z’s Magna Carta...Holy Grail, although that was him laying on the couch in the commercial.) We’ve already heard how stoked Em was to work with the man he calls “Yoda,” now pull up a chair and listen to Rubin’s perspective on working with Slim Shady.
Interview by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
How did you and Eminem come to collaborate on MMLP2?
I think it just worked out timing wise where the universe worked to make us get together at this time. We just went into the studio a couple of different of times for a few weeks at a time. Started up a bunch of songs and then some inspired vocals more than others and those ended up being the ones that he ended up pursuing.
We asked him what you brought out of him that others had not and he said, “The Devil.”
[Laughs.] I think he’s being funny.
I’m pretty sure.
I would say that he is probably the most obsessive artist, maybe, that I have met in any genre. He is very, very dedicated to his craft. To the point to where it seems like there is nothing else in his life. It truly is a 24-7 thing for him.
What was the process like with Em? What exactly went on? Were you making beats? Were you talking about creative direction?
Probably all of those things. I collected up lots of possible ideas of starting points. A lot of samples and a lot of beat ideas and I’d play him a bunch of stuff and just say, “Tell me which of these feels like a good starting point.” And then he would pick a bunch of them and then we would develop each of those a little bit. And then he would listen to them and say, “OK, these are the ones I want to work on.” Then he would take them to write and then we would find more stuff.
Em is not just a rapper, he’s also a producer.
We worked like a tag team. We had two rooms set up at the Shangri-la Studio in Malibu. In one room we were building beats and in the other room he was doing vocals. Anytime he would have a vocal thing together, he’d bring it in and play it for me and we would talk about it. Anytime I would have a new version of a beat or change in a beat or further developed a beat, I would call him in and he would listen to it and say what he liked and what he didn’t. We just kinda worked together, back and forth.
Did you have a favorite Eminem song before you started working with him?
Probably not. I usually listen to whole albums in the car and I don’t usually remember what titles are. I’m an album guy.
OK, so what was your favorite album of his?
Probably The Marshall Mathers LP. I like the first album a lot, too.
Do you remember the first time you became aware of him as an artist? What was it that interested you about him?
I can remember another artist telling me about him and they were really excited about him. And I remember the first video—I think it was the first video he had, with gold records behind him. I just remember seeing that and feeling like something different was happening. It was exciting to see a new voice in hip-hop. Self-important right from the beginning.
When he was talking about how excited he was to work with you, Em mentioned LL in particular. You’ve worked with so many great MCs, how does he compare to all the others? Does he remind you of anybody?
He doesn’t. And I would say that he is probably the most obsessive artist, maybe, that I have met in any genre. He is very, very dedicated to his craft. To the point to where it seems like there is nothing else in his life. It truly is a 24-7 thing for him. One of the reasons that many artists make good records when they’re young and then as they grow up, maybe they’re not doing their best work anymore, is because—especially if you’re successful—other things in life take over. Whether it’s family life or just other interests. It just happens.
When you make a record when you’re 19 and then you‘re making a record when you’re 40, usually when you’re 40 there are other things in your life that are more important than music by that time. When you’re 19 it might be the most important thing in your life. I would say Em’ is unusual in that he’s a grown-up who is as dedicated and focused on music as… I can’t imagine he was ever more so at any other time because it’s full-on all the time, 24 hours a day. Whether he’s working on a record, not working on a record, he’s writing all the time. Full time.
We were just talking about it the other day. He said, “I write constantly, to the point where while I’m writing in my books I know 95 percent of this stuff, 98 percent of it’s never gonna get used. But by writing all the time it’s like I’m sharpening my tools. And I’m more able to draw upon that skill-set when needed. And sometimes a reference that I wrote two years ago might come back and find it’s way into a record completely unrelated just because I was doing this homework and coming up with a new rhyme scheme or just hearing a word I liked and thinking about how that could rhyme. And there might not be any context for it. But then I might be working on a song years later and think, 'Oh, maybe that phrase could work in this context.'" And it’s like that always. There is no time off. And it’s really unusual. I’ve never met another rapper like that, who is so on. So on and so obsessed. It’s No. 1 in his life. Period. That’s it.
When you’re 19, making a record might be the most important thing in your life. I would say Em’ is unusual in that he’s a grown-up who is as dedicated and focused on music as… I can’t imagine he was ever more so at any other time because it’s full-on all the time, 24 hours a day.
Are you like that too when you're working on a record? Are you obsessive in that way?
I’m obsessive about it being as good as it could be. But I’ve found for me it helps to get away from and get back to it, get away from it and get back to it. With the hopes that every time I get back it’s almost like hearing it for the first time. Because I know in my case, if I work on something too consistently for too long, I’ll get tunnel vision. And I will not hear it the way other people will hear it.
That’s one of the great things about getting to work with different artists. If I could focus on one thing for a period of time and then go into another project, maybe later that day or the next day and focus my full attention on that one, then the next day when I come back to the first project I’m really fresh and really open to hearing it. You don’t carry the baggage of what you thought it was supposed to be. Whereas if I listen to the same thing over and over and over again, in that moment I would lose objectivity.
Which tracks did you produce?
I think the ones that are actually on the album were “Berzerk,” “Love Game,” “Rhyme or Reason” and “So Far.”
Who had the idea for the Joe Walsh sample on “So Far”?
It started with Paul Rosenberg, Em’s manager. He said, “Did you ever think about trying anything with this loop?” And I said I hadn’t really thought about it. And then I listened to it again. And I’m a Joe Walsh fan—I like Joe Walsh, but I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. So I listened to and thought, “OK, it’ll be good.” And we just developed the most interesting hip-hop record we could out of it.
It’s an unexpected sample but it works really well.
There is something about Eminem’s sensibility. It seems like he can make certain records work that most people could not pull off.
Absolutely, absolutely. One of the things that we did talk about a lot is that it felt like early in his career the tracks that he had—when I say the tracks, I mean the music—sounded like Eminem tracks. And you couldn’t necessarily have another MC on them and have it make as much sense. The tracks had as much personality as he did. And I felt like more recently some of the tracks felt more like maybe they could have been on someone else’s record.
One of the things that we did talk about a lot is that it felt like early in his career the tracks that he had—when I say the tracks, I mean the music—sounded like Eminem tracks. And you couldn’t necessarily have another MC on them and have it make as much sense. The tracks had as much personality as he did.
So we talked about that a lot and tried to pick more quirky... Like for example, “Love Game” is not a regular… You know, I don’t know if you want to hear Jay Z on that record. I don’t know. There’s a quirkiness about Em where he can get away and make his own… these kind of stranger records. And I think it actually makes it a strength, the fact that it doesn’t sound like maybe what's typical on whatever hot records you’re listening to now. It’s really different than that. I think that that’s a strength. My goal was always. I don’t want to make stuff that sounds like everything else or that fits in with what’s going on. I want to make interesting, challenging, unique, weird records. You know?
Yes, that’s a good description of your catalog.
Yeah. It’s almost like you like ‘em by default. Do you know what I mean? Because stylistically it’s not what you’re looking for. But for me that’s more interesting. A track like “Love Game” reminds me of a track that we might have done with Run-D.M.C., like “It’s Tricky.” It’s kinda in that wheelhouse of weird pop crossover. You know? It sounds wrong. It’s supposed to sound a little wrong. But that’s the strength in it—how do you make this work? Like, “Wow. I don’t really like this,. but I want to listen to it again.“
So wrong that it’s right.
I remember hearing a story about a music meeting at a hip-hop. radio station where an old school DJ was going to play a set and he said, “I gotta play Billy Squier” and they program director said, “Well that’s not rap.” But it was nice to hear “The Stroke” on “Berzerk.” I’ve heard that the song did not initially start with that sample.
What was the original sample?
I’d actually rather not say.
Are you going to keep that one in the chamber for another day?
No, I don’t think it will ever get used. There’s no reason to shed light on it. [Laughs.] Because they wouldn’t let us use it. We had developed it. They didn’t want us to use it. So it’s like, “Eh.”
OK, it was a clearance issue.
But ending up with “The Stroke” is not a bad place to be.
No, It actually transformed the song and I think it’s a much better song. I’m not sure if the other version would have ended up being a single.
And for the producer of “Rock the Bells” to have some guitars…
Yeah, it makes sense.
“Rhyme or Reason” is such a very personal piece of work. Did Em know what that was going to become when he started making the song? The sample sort of leads into the topic.
We worked on the track, he loved the track and then just sat with it and said he had an idea. He wrote the first verse. I heard the first verse and I loved it, and told him how great I thought it was. It took a while to write the whole thing, that one.
Did you bring that Zombies sample to the table?
Did you have any idea of where that was going to head? “What’s your name, who’s your daddy?”
No, I usually have an idea of where it’s going to head musically but not vocally. And especially in Em’s case, he’s got such a clear vision of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. As far as the vocals go, it’s more a question of me saying when I think he’s there all the way. Or if there’s additional stuff. Or maybe we need another part. Or what would it be like if it had some sort of a bridge? But for the most part, he really has very clear and distinct ideas about everything he wants to do vocally.
Well, that one definitely felt like a catharsis as well.
Let’s talk about “Love Game” with Kendrick Lamar, who’s kind of an amazing artist himself.
Amazing. And, it sounds as if he is almost rapping as Eminem. It’s not… the lyrics are really different than what he seems to usually talk about.
Yes, did you know it was going to be that filthy?
I had no idea, but I love it. [Laughs.]
He’s definitely in Eminem mode. He seems like he might be a fan.
Yeah, for sure.
As competitive as hip-hop is, do you think that deep down, the great lyricists respect one another?
Absolutely. Especially also when one’s now an elder statesman and one’s an up-and -coming guy. I’m sure Eminem was someone that Kendrick looked up to, growing up and listening to MCs for sure.
In Em’s case, he’s got such a clear vision of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. As far as the vocals go, it’s more a question of me saying when I think he’s there all the way.
Were they in the room together?
They were not in the room together. They were in the room partially together, and it happened in Detroit. And I was not there when they were there. But I know Eminem left Kendrick to do it and when he came back Kendrick had done the hook, which is not what Eminem was expecting. He was expecting a verse. There was a miscommunication. And then Kendrick ended up staying and doing the verse. He thought he was gonna just do the hook.
You must have heard “Control.” How do you feel about what Kendrick did on that?
I can’t remember now. Honestly.
It was a Big Sean song featuring Kendrick and Jay Electronica.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kendrick sort of upstaged Sean and Jay Elec and threw down the gauntlet towards a bunch of other rappers, bringing a spirit of competition back into the music.
Yeah, I didn’t hear it that way. I just thought he was incredible. And I actually quite like Jay Electronica’s verse as well. I loved it.
Really? No one talks about that verse.
No, I loved it.
Well it has been a while since we heard from him.
I like his whole mystical trip. I like the stuff he talks about.
You helped shape the foundations of rap music. What are you hearing in hip-hop right now that excites you?
I would say I don’t listen to hip-hop music specifically. I just listen to everything. And when something speaks to me, I react. I try not to think of it in terms of genre. I just try to listen to different music. So it’s hard for me to think of it even in that way. I guess of current hip-hop artists, one who excites me a lot is Kanye—and, I get to work with him, it’s nice. He excites me because I like how forward he’s willing to move away from everything. I love that about him. It’s really bold and radical to be such an important figure in hip-hop and to be willing to make such non-hip-hop music. I think that’s just awesome.
I love the dancehall influence on Yeezus
Yeah, I also liked the minimal electronic... How hard it was. It’s just crazy.
Right, which to me is a dancehall aesthetic: simple drum machines, hard-edged, unadorned tracks.
Eminem gave a very interesting answer at the end of the cover story. We asked him where he fits in the landscape hip hop. He said, “I don’t know. I struggle with that sometimes. At the end of the day I’d just like to be thought of as an MC.” That seems a very humble answer for someone who’s accomplished as much as he has. Does that answer surprise you?
No. I think it makes perfect sense for who he is, because that’s the guy who he is. He really is an MC first. And, where so many artists get wrapped up in the celebrity, he doesn’t. He leads a very simple life at home in Detroit and tours very little. Basically he is a full-time, full-on hip-hop head. I think it’s amazing. It’s amazing that he’s unfazed by all the amazing things that have happened. Less fazed than anyone.
Less than any other artist that you’ve encountered?
That’s a pretty big statement.
He went on to say in our interview that he wanted to clarify that when records get big and play on certain stations and become very successful and cross over, and people hear them and say, “Oh, that’s not hip-hop.” He said, “I can’t control that. I just want everybody to know that on every record I do, I try to push that record as hard as I can with my pen.” It seems like he really enjoyed just working on some rap joints that didn’t have the baggage of being big pop phenomena.
Like that Black Moon thing he put out the other day. Did you know that was coming?
No, I did not.
He really is an MC first. And, where so many artists get wrapped up in the celebrity, he doesn’t. He leads a very simple life at home in Detroit and tours very little. Basically he is a full-time, full-on hip-hop head.
Anything final thoughts on MMLP2 and Eminem?
I just think he’s a one-of-a-kind MC. And he’s first and foremost an MC. That’s it. I’ve had other great rappers ask me how he does what he does. You know, how does he do that? And I mean really great rappers. It really is him, and it’s natural. And a lot of his greatness come from his work ethic. It’s just on. It’s really an obsession.
Well, you can definitely hear it. Its all on the record.
Yep. Especially, again, when so many MCs get popular, you hear stuff that sounds like it’s phoned in—either performance-wise or writing-wise. It’s like there’s not enough room on a CD for him to get to say all the stuff he wants to say and say it well. It’s unusual 15 years into your career to have that.
Yes, he was revising right up to the deadline wasn’t he?
Did you have any interaction with Dr. Dre as co-executive producers?
Yes, he mixed “Berzerk” and I went to the mix and we hung out and talked about it. And it was great. I’ve known him for a long time. I first came to the studio when they were recording Straight Outta Compton, so I know him since then.
And it’s the first time we’ve ever worked on anything together.
I didn’t realize you all went back like that.
So you were just passing through L.A.?
Yeah, and was a fan, wanted to check out the scene, and liked them.
I bet. Where were they working on that? That must have been a completely different kind of studio.
Completely different. I can’t remember exactly where it was. I know it was somewhere south of Los Angeles. I want to say, like, 45 minutes south. But I don’t really know where it was. I didn’t really know L.A. that well at that time.
Did he say anything about your work?
Yeah, he was a fan. Came up Beastie Boys and Run and LL Cool J. Yeah, he’s been great. He’s always been very supportive and deferential.
I have read interviews where N.W.A talked about Run-DMC as a sort of template for what they were trying to do. That’s great to know that you guys got to chop it up this time. So did you two work on anything aside from “Berzerk”?
I think he only mixed “Berzerk”
So cool to have the dream team on that record.
Absolutely. And I get the feeling… I’m sure we’ll get to work on stuff again in the future. I just know we will.
Well, that’s tantalizing.
I have no idea what it’ll be.
Did you hear of any Detox when you were hanging out?
Have not. No.
Well, that might just be the ticket to get that thing out in the world.
And get back in the room! Cool, man.