Rick Rubin: The Invisibility of Hip Hop’s Greatest Producer

New York-born, L.A.-based record pro­duc­er Rick Rubin start­ed his musi­cal career as a gui­tarist, first in a short-lived high school band, then in the punk band Hose, tour­ing the coun­try with 80s hard­core stal­warts like Hüsker Dü and the Meat Pup­pets. It was an aus­pi­cious begin­ning for the major pro­duc­er Rubin would become in lat­er years, behind albums by Weez­er, Red Hot Chili Pep­pers, Slay­er, Danzig, Metal­li­ca… the list goes on. Not all of his work has been beloved, but hard­ly any of it has been ignored. Rubin’s won 9 Gram­my awards since 1998, includ­ing one this year for the Strokes’ The New Abnor­mal and one in 2009 for Pro­duc­er of the Year; in 2007 he appeared on the cov­er of The New York Times Mag­a­zine, cov­ered in a white blan­ket and sig­na­ture flow­ing beard, med­i­tat­ing over the head­line “Can Rick Rubin Save the Music Busi­ness?”

Rubin revi­tal­ized John­ny Cash’s career, cap­tur­ing the singer’s aching­ly poignant last record­ings in six clas­sic albums. He has appeared in doc­u­men­taries over the past few years with Cash, Dave Grohl, and Paul McCart­ney he’s been a guest of David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Intro­duc­tion with David Let­ter­man; he’s had a four-part doc­u­men­tary made about him in 2019 called Shangri-La.…  And he is also – of course – all over con­tem­po­rary hip-hop, pro­duc­ing Jay Z’s “99 Prob­lems” and piv­otal albums by Kanye West and Eminem. This is no sur­prise, con­sid­er­ing he was a major fig­ure of the genre’s ori­gins, tak­ing time between Hose gigs to found and co-run Def Jam Records with Rus­sell Sim­mons and pro­duce sem­i­nal albums by LL Cool J, Pub­lic Ene­my, Run‑D.M.C., and the Beast­ie Boys.

Giv­en all of the above, in what sense can any­one claim Rick Rubin is “invis­i­ble”? Just such an argu­ment is made in the video above by Soulr. It’s a com­pelling one, due main­ly to Rubin’s pres­ence, a steady calm­ing force – the result of years of tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion and a relaxed approach to work that favors con­ver­sa­tion over con­trol. “Despite his rep­u­ta­tion as a sol­id-gold hit­mak­er,” a WNYC pro­file not­ed, “Rubin remains stub­born­ly mod­est. He attrib­ut­es his suc­cess to his one rule in the stu­dio. ‘We don’t talk about what’s going to get on the radio [or] how are we going to make our release date,’ he says. ‘We talk about how we make this song as good as it can be.’” In let­ting the artist’s vision emerge, Rubin lets him­self dis­ap­pear, play­ing the role of ther­a­pist, as he him­self describes it:

If you real­ly lis­ten to what peo­ple say, usu­al­ly they tell you every­thing. I just real­ly pay atten­tion to what peo­ple say, and through that I can reflect back thoughts that they’ve told me about them­selves that they don’t know about them­selves. And allow them to unlock those doors to get to the places they want to go artis­ti­cal­ly. 

In a clip tak­en from Shangri-La, we see star rap­per Tyler, the Cre­ator tell Rubin, “You’re so god­damn free.” As Judy Berman writes in a Time review of that Rubin-pro­duced doc­u­men­tary, “com­ing from an artist whose entire career has been a series of shocks to the main­stream, that’s high praise indeed.” The clip also sets the tenor for the fan-made doc­u­men­tary above. There isn’t a sig­nif­i­cant amount of crit­i­cism, to say the least, of Rubin’s role in the so-called “loud­ness wars” or charges from bands like Muse that he’s hard­ly involved in ses­sions at all. Those charges may indeed come from peo­ple who do not under­stand how a man “behind hun­dreds and hun­dreds of beloved records… does­n’t appear to do much, while doing every­thing at the same time.” Find out how Rubin has used his pow­ers of invis­i­bil­i­ty for the good of pop­u­lar music. His super­pow­er, the video’s nar­ra­tor tells us, is “sim­ply his abil­i­ty to lis­ten.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The His­to­ry of Hip Hop Music Visu­al­ized on a Turntable Cir­cuit Dia­gram: Fea­tures 700 Artists, from DJ Kool Herc to Kanye West

Enter the The Cor­nell Hip Hop Archive: A Vast Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tion of Hip Hop Pho­tos, Posters & More

How Jazz Became the “Moth­er of Hip Hop”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Joe says:

    Thank you, Mr. Rubin, for help­ing make the world what it is today. Ram­pant crime, debauch­ery, and deca­dence, all done to a catchy beat. When young peo­ple yearn to live a short, vio­lent life, we can thank you for being a cat­a­lyst in that nihilist direc­tion. Mag­ic is all about fool­ing your audi­ence, isn’t it?

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