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.