clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Magic of Rick Rubin Is in What He Doesn’t Do

Explaining the legacy of the superproducer who doesn’t appear to do much while doing everything at the same time

Ringer illustration

The Ringer is celebrating the long and influential career of superproducer Rick Rubin, the man who cofounded Def Jam and founded American Recordings, helped define the sound of hip-hop, breathed new life into the career of Johnny Cash, and made a bunch of records with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Check out our ranking of the top 100 records in his discography.


What kills you is how casually he says it. “I’m thinkin’ maybe we start a cappella,” muses superproducer Rick Rubin, hair disheveled, beard resplendent, aura immaculate. He is addressing Jay-Z, who is, as it happens, getting his mustache trimmed. This is documentary studio footage for Jay’s 2003 opus The Black Album. See if you can guess what song they’re talking about. Yep, you guessed it. Rubin traces the air with one finger, non-rapper-style, as he raps the words: “If you’re havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you, son. I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one. Hit me. BAUUUM.” That’s the sound of the full backing track jackhammering in. That’s Rick Rubin’s idea. “Yeah, that’s—that’s money,” Jay-Z agrees.

I’m thinkin’ maybe we etch the 10 Commandments onto these stone tablets. I’m thinkin’ maybe we start with the line “Call me Ishmael.” I’m thinkin’ maybe we combine chocolate and peanut butter. It’s like watching someone casually invent fire, or money. (Jay-Z: “That’s money.”) If Rick Rubin had assisted no superstars and done absolutely no work in the previous two decades (Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slayer, Johnny Cash, Blood Sugar Sex Magik) or the two decades or so to come (Dixie Chicks, Avett Brothers, Adele, Black Sabbath, Yeezus), his superproducer rep would still be assured for I’m thinkin’ we start “99 Problems” a cappella alone. That’s how you get Malibu studio money. That’s how you get the aura. That’s how very little work registers as the hardest work of all.

Here on the occasion of Corbin Reiff’s gargantuan ranking of Rubin’s 40-year-wide discography—Run-DMC’s Raising Hell over Tom Petty’s Wildflowers is a hard but necessary choice—it is a fine time to reassess Rick Rubin, Superproducer. He is a man with nothing but time, a slovenly mystic who regards time (and producing) as a construct. Studio footage of this person doing his thing is endlessly rewarding, especially when the thing he is doing is an endless and somehow profound amount of nothing.

Rick Rubin counseling Flea on the bass fills to the Red Hot Chili Peppers jam “Give It Away.” (“Just keep ’em really simple: BA-DUM. BA-DA-DUM. AH-AH-DUM. BAHHHHH-DUM. Mix it up but keep it really simple.”) Rick Rubin soothing an internally and externally rattled Dixie Chicks, who seem to hate the song they’re playing for him. (“It’s worth pursuing even though you don’t like it.”) Rick Rubin bouncing sagely on an exercise ball as he shepherds minor English troubadour Jake Bugg. Or, my favorite: Rick Rubin napping in the background (look carefully!) as an amped-up System of a Down cavort at incredible volume.

Even after you’ve absorbed the history—from Def Jam to American Recordings, from ubiquity to relative seclusion, from Grammys to Grammys to more Grammys, from hip-hop to metal and back again—it is awfully tough to pinpoint what exactly this person does, what makes him a deity, what makes him necessary. This is all very much by design. His reputation does not precede him so much as subsume him; his primary instrument is his own unfathomable myth.

Dig Morgan Neville’s four-part 2019 Showtime documentary Shangri-La, named after the aforementioned gorgeous and historically momentous Malibu studio Rubin long ago commandeered. (Dig the grand piano next to the pool table where Rick Danko held court in The Last Waltz.) The trailer treats Rubin like he’s a walking, murmuring, transcendental-meditating Jordan Peele movie.

Shangri-La, a self-consciously flashy cousin to HBO’s way better 2017 Dr. Dre–Jimmy Iovine doc The Defiant Ones, full-throatedly buffs Rubin’s aura even when it’s half-jokingly attempting to puncture it. (There’s a great early scene where Tyler, the Creator is informed that there’s no art on the studio walls so the recording artist’s brain is as empty as possible, and he can’t work out whether to scoff or genuflect: “A piece of me is like, ‘Naw, shut the fuck up.’ But a piece of me is like, ‘Wow, that’s, uh, that’s cool.’”) The back cover of LL Cool J’s epochal 1985 debut Radio bears the legend “Reduced by Rick Rubin”—from the very beginning, the Bearded One’s thing was reduction, minimalism, total stillness. A vanishing act worthy of a famous magic enthusiast.

“My goal would be to be able to produce an artist, and have it be their best work, and never meet them or speak to them,” Rubin explains at one point. “That would be the ultimate version of it. I’ve not gotten there yet. I haven’t reached that level of skill yet.”

Is this all bullshit? It’s not not bullshit. What hits me so hard about that “99 Problems” clip is that it involves Rick Rubin making a concrete suggestion. Far more prevalent, in Shangri-La as in all extant Rubin footage, are iconic—and iconically static—shots of the man at quote-unquote work, barefoot in a ratty T-shirt and shorts, prostrate in his sun-dappled producing nook. Pillow cushioning his back. One leg crossed over the other, foot jogging gently. One hand on his Buddha-like belly, the other arm over his head. Eyes closed, head nodding. Maybe there’s a mic or a clipboard or both within reach, so he can follow along with the lyrics and/or tell Jake Bugg to do another song. Man, he really wants you to say Buddha-like. Boy, he’s earned it.

Rick Rubin in 2020 thusly exists as a historical monolith, as a paragon of enigmatically unkempt anti-style, as a music-industry luxury most current stars either can’t afford or are shrewd enough to know they don’t really need. His foundational idea—I’m thinkin’ we mix rap with rock—has been so dominant for so long that it feels silly to give anyone credit for the idea in the first place. (It’s like saying someone invented money.) And his presence is more of an absence than ever: You don’t listen to, say, the new Strokes album he produced, April’s weary The New Abnormal, and try to “hear” Rick Rubin. He’s not there, remember? (Shangri-La does confirm, however, that Rubin and the Strokes met, and spoke. Too bad.)

There is a dark side, of course, to all this wanton self-glorification, a lot of sordid detail that didn’t make the trip from his hallowed NYU dorm room to Malibu. In recent years the surviving Beastie Boys—perhaps his greatest discovery, and their Rubin-reduced 1986 debut Licensed to Ill perhaps his single most consequential album—have sought to burnish and reshape their own myths with both a hefty autobiography and an Apple TV+ documentary. In both cases, Ad-Rock and Mike D are quick to wall off Licensed to Ill from the rest of their career, to apologize for the tiresome frat-bro loutishness that typified their lucrative but soulless “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” era, to suggest that their worst ideas (including Licensed to Ill’s unforgivable working title) were really Rick Rubin’s ideas. (Mike D makes a genial appearance in Shangri-La, commiserating with Rubin about how the Beasties, for a time, became the macho dopes they were trying to make fun of.)

Meanwhile, not every artist who’s worked with our guy has walked away impressed with the Least Is Most approach. Rubin produced Slipknot’s 2004 album Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses), and famously brash frontman Corey Taylor, holding forth much later in a live Q&A interlude during a solo show, allowed that he found Rubin’s production style a little too, uh, subliminal:

“Let me give you the fucking truth of it. Rick Rubin showed up for 45 minutes a week. Yeah. Rick Rubin would then, during that 45 minutes, lay on a couch, have a mic brought in next to his face so he wouldn’t have to fucking move. I swear to God. And then he would be, like, ‘Play it for me.’ The engineer would play it. And he had shades on the whole time. Never mind the fact that there is no sun in the room. It’s all dark. You just look like an asshole at that point. And he would just stroke his huge beard and try and get as much food out of it as he could. And he would go, ‘Play it again.’ And then he’d be, like, ‘Stop! Do that over.’”

It goes on. “The Rick Rubin of today is a thin, thin, thin shadow of the Rick Rubin that he was,” Taylor concluded. “He is overrated, he is overpaid, and I will never work with him again as long as I fucking live.”

What’s extra funny is that Shangri-La, even amid all its lavish praise, doesn’t really try to refute this portrait. You do witness a few instances of genuine, specific guidance: Rick Rubin gently convincing English poet-rocker Kate Tempest not to record her whole album in one long take, or Rick Rubin politely jolting Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig out of a half-year-long creative rut. (“The record’s not getting better. It may be getting different.”) But what you mostly get—what Rubin has always mostly given you, and the artists you love—is an industrial-strength ease, is an oceanic calm, is a power nap with the force of a revelation. The 21st-century music business is not built for a person like this, expensive beyond imagining and existential beyond belief. Fire up GarageBand and do it yourself. That’s basically what he always said. But remember: When you see only one set of footprints in the sand, that’s when he’s carrying you.