The 8 Jews of Rap: Rick Rubin

The 8 Jews of Rap: Rick Rubin

Happy Hanukkah! The Jewish "Festival of Lights" comes early this year. (Blame the ancient Hebrew calendar for the annual confusion—it doesn't line up with our modern one.) Hanukkah is the time when Jews worldwide celebrate a miracle that supposedly happened at a temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century B.C. Back then, a group of Jewish rebels called the Maccabees defeated the Greeks who had taken over the city. When they cleaned up the temple and rededicated the place to Judaism, they needed oil to burn in the lamps overnight. (For religious reasons, you were supposed to keep a lamp lit in a temple overnight.) They only had enough oil to burn for one night, but (here's the miracle) that little bit of oil burned for eight nights—long enough for them to get more oil, and keep things going. So that's why the holiday lasts for eight days. (Well, eight nights, technically, and seven days.) And why we light an eight-pronged candelabra called "the menorah," adding a new candle each night. And that's why, also, it seems like a good time to give thanks to some of the most notable Jews in hip-hop history. So sit back and light one (a candle) as we spin some records and the dreidel and celebrate the 8 Jews of Rap.  

Written by Jeff Rosenthal & Eric Rosenthal (@ItsTheReal)

Rick Rubin’s story could be straight out of a modern book of scripture: for the last thirty years, he’s turned musical water into wine. A Jewish college student from Long Island, Rick (born Frederick Jay Rubin) loved punk rock for its sounds and counter-culture ways. He himself played in a band, The Pricks, whose sole purpose on stage at the legendary CBGB’s in New York City, was to get booted off and kicked out. Mission accomplished. Not long after, young Rick began to see similarities between the punk world and young Rap in the New York City clubs he’d frequent.

Rubin turned his attention, his affection and of course the record label he started in his NYU dorm room, Def Jam, to rap music, and in short order produced thrillingly effective, bare-bones musical landscapes for folks like T La Rock, Run-DMC, and L.L. Cool J. Most incredibly, Rubin’s vision helped move rap to a national stage without compromising its underground sensibilities. He even saw the potential in three punk rock-playing Jews from Manhattan, who with his guidance, evolved into the Beastie Boys.

Over the last three decades, Rubin’s helped coax the best music out of Jay Z, the Dixie Chicks, Metallica, the Geto Boys, Slayer, Johnny Cash, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but perhaps the most important move he made was marrying rap and rock music together in 1986’s Run-DMC and Aerosmith collaboration, “Walk This Way.” It not only resurrected Aerosmith’s career, but fully let rap music cross racial lines, beginning a journey to today, where it’s the most ubiquitous art form on Earth.

Judaism has had a long history in the record business, from Leonard Chess and Milt Gabler to Jerry Wexler and Clive Davis to Mo Ostin and Seymour Stein, but no Jewish man helped redefine the industry and direction of music quite like Rick Rubin. He may have his feet up on Jay Z’s couch, but if he wanted to, he could probably walk on water.

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