Album: The Black Album
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Producer: Rick Rubin
When Rick left the recording sessions for L.L. Cool J.'s “Going Back To Cali” and “Jack The Ripper” in 1987, he essentially left his hip-hop production career behind him. For the next decade and a half, Rubin pretty much didn't touch rap—aside from a Geto Boys remix here and a Cool J/Chili Peppers collaboration from Howard Stern's Private Parts soundtrack there.
The savage simplicity of Rick's track was refreshing precisely because nobody had produced a record anything like it since, well, Rick produced one.
I'm not sure why Jay-Z's Black Album provided the clarion that called Rubin back to the beat—perhaps a combination of Jay-Z's stature and his branding of the album as his final project before retirement; or perhaps his renewed association with Def Jam as his American Recordings entered the Universal Music division run by Lyor Cohen.
But “99 Problems,” recorded in the basement of Rick's house off of Sunset Boulevard, picked up right where he left off—with the hottest solo artist in the game at the top of his lyrical ability. The savage simplicity of Rick's track was refreshing precisely because nobody had produced a record anything like it since, well, Rick produced one.
You can see some of this process in Jay-Z's documentary, Fade To Black. There's a moment that's pure Rick—him suggesting to Jay that they begin the song a capella, and then coming in, WHAM!, with the track. An old move from an old hand, for sure. But, like a well-told story that you've heard many times before, it never fails to make you smile.