One of the most important and influential producers of all time, Rick Rubin has had a hand in the development of countless artists, albums and entire genres – notably including hip-hop. In a new feature with Rolling Stone, Rubin has broken down his experiences working with a number of artists across the past few decades, including LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Eminem, Jay-Z and more.
LL Cool J was one of the first ever acts signed to Rubin’s then-fledgling imprint label Def Jam Records, which he founded in 1984 with Russell Simmons. The pair worked together on his 1985 album Radio, paving the way for an R&B-tinged form of rap which would quickly become considered somewhat revolutionary in the development of the genre’s countless subtypes. It also kickstarted an extremely successful career for LL, who most recently hosted the Grammy Awards last week.
Speaking about I Need A Beat, Rubin revealed, “It was a beat that I programmed at the dorm room on a DX drum machine. I think that was the first one that we ever recorded with LL.”
“Back then, I would say LL was kind of a nerdy 16-year-old kid. He was really smart, well read. He came to the dorm room and was very motivated. He’s one of the more hardworking artists I’ve worked with, even from then. And I felt like he really kept to himself. He was friendly with the other artists, but I felt like he was a little bit of a loner type guy. He was in his head a lot. It was different than so many artists that were much more outgoing.”
The Beastie Boys’ relationship with Rubin is perhaps one of the most famous of his career, and in the article, Rubin discusses working on No Sleep Til Brooklyn.
“The title came from Adam Yauch,” he began, explaining that Yauch had used the title in a punk rock band he was in before the Beasties.
“All four of us always wrote lyrics and then kind of pooled ideas, and we hung out a lot. We would go out to Danceteria pretty much every night and hang out and come up with lines to make each other laugh,” he reflected.
“I remember there were a lot of really funny lines in that one. It definitely entertained us at the time.”
He talks about how Kerry King of Slayer recorded the track’s monumental guitar solo, and how strange it was for a stanch metalhead to record on a rap track. “I don’t think he liked the song. I think he just thought it was bizarre. He’s a real, serious metalhead. He really loves metal, and I don’t think he listens to much music outside of metal… At least then he didn’t. I don’t think it spoke to his aesthetic.”
Rubin also discussed the making of Walk This Way, the hit collaboration between Run-DMC and Aerosmith.
“The rest of the Run-DMC album [Raising Hell] had already been finished. I just had a feeling that there was something more that we could do that would help it. It was a funny time in rap music in that the majority of people didn’t understand what it was at all. People didn’t think it was music.” Rubin had the idea to bring the two groups together to help “bridge that gap” between hip-hop and the rest of the music world at the time.
“Getting Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to participate was easy,” he went on, explaining how their recent album had flopped, and they were “really excited to participate in real, urban street music.”
“I remember when we discussed the idea of having Aerosmith come in with the Run-DMC guys, and they were really against it. They didn’t want to say words that they didn’t write. They thought they were kind of like, country. It didn’t relate to their mentality. And I remember Russell [Simmons] called them and said, “Just do what Rick says.””
Eminem and Rubin have collaborated a number of times throughout the rapper’s extremely successful career, and here, Rubin discusses the making of the Marshall Mathers LP2 standout single Bezerk. “That was a case where Eminem said, “Let’s make one of those old records that we grew up on,”” he revealed – and that feel can be immediately held upon listening. The entire track was programmed, save for Rubin playing guitar, and a sample of a news reported saying “go berserk.”
Eminem recorded the vocals to the track entirely alone, without anybody else watching. “Once he raps to a beat, you can’t change anything. It’s almost like all the drops, all the moves in the song have to happen before he writes to it because he writes into the music in a way that makes it hard to change anything after he raps. He uses his voice as another instrument that plays off of all the different rhythms going on in the track.”
“He’s a real, unbelievable student of hip-hop. He’s maybe the most obsessive artist I’ve ever worked with in terms of someone who just full-time is writing rhymes. It’s what he does.”
One of the most insightful tracks Rubin breaks down in the article is Jay-Z’s smash single 99 Problems.
“Jay Z was coming out of retirement and asking different producers that he liked to each do a track,” he began, before revealing that the song’s inspiration came from Chris Rock, who had pointed out that Ice-T also had a track titled 99 Problems. “The idea was, it’s the opposite song. In the Ice-T original song, it’s all about the girls. Our idea was, “OK, this will be a song with the same hook about the problems.””
Jay-Z wrote the verses in “about half an hour,” before going on to record and re-record every single part numerous times. Each time he recorded it, “the inflection and flow would be different.”
“He said it was the first time he had ever physically wrote anything down before for any record. He was just very inspired by that beat, and it was a miraculous thing to behold.”
Read the full article on Rolling Stone, which also features Rubin delving into his work with artists including Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Queen, Slayer, Danzig, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Black Sabbath.