RICK RUBIN is perhaps the most important record producer of the past 25 years. His stamp on contemporary music is immeasurable. While still a student at NYU, Rubin borrowed $5,000 from his parents to start the Def Jam label with Russell Simmons. Soon he was working with the cream of the music world — Jay-Z, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Slayer, Danzig, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Dixie Chicks, to name a few — transcending musical genres like no other producer before him. Rubin has meditated for most of his life and, with an unusual regime of exercise, has recently lost 130 pounds. Rubin’s stellar career is now the stuff of legend, but we wanted to know more about the man behind the myth.
interview and photographs by ANNABEL MEHRAN
ANNABEL MEHRAN — Where did you grow up? What kind of music were you exposed to?
RICK RUBIN — I grew up in Long Beach, Long Island, New York. There was always lots of music playing in the house. My dad is really into jazz, especially Latin jazz. And the pop music of the day was always playing — a lot of The Beatles — on the radio, or in the car. I heard a lot of music from an early age, and I always pursued it, first by buying singles and then albums.
ANNABEL MEHRAN — What was the first concert you went to?
RICK RUBIN — An Aerosmith / Ted Nugent stadium show.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – What was the first record you ever bought?
RICK RUBIN — I bought singles by The Monkees, Hermans Hermits, and the like when I was a little kid.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Out of you and all of your friends, were you the one who was the most musical?
RICK RUBIN – I was the one most into music. I mean, there was a time when I was really young that I just loved music. Then I went through a period of not really listening to it. Then I started up again in junior high school. During the no-music period I listened to comedy records. I was obsessed with comedy records and I collected them — Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Monty Python, Cheech and Chong. I would kind of memorize them. I can’t remember if I laughed out loud, but it was entertaining. I also liked Abbott and Costello’s old TV show. It was old vaudeville. They were more concerned with the jokes than with a plot so it could be really psychedelic. I liked the abstractness of it.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Do you think that some comedians have a kind of musical rhythm?
RICK RUBIN – Absolutely. Comedians play off of that. Chris Rock talks about that a lot, how music and comedy are related. George Carlin talked about it, too — he would write a joke like a song. The phrasing, rhythm, and choice of words were all really important, as if it was a kind of music. A comedian can get into a rhythm telling jokes and you’ll almost be laughing at just the rhythm of it. They can make anything sound funny if they tap into a pattern that makes it sound like it’s a joke. — Certain guys have told me that they got into music — or into the arts in general — just to meet girls. — That wasn’t the case for me. Music took me away. It took me to another place.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Where would you listen to music when you were growing up — alone in your room with headphones?
RICK RUBIN – All the time. But out loud.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – When you’re working on a record now, at the end of the day’s sessions will you listen to it alone, just for your own pleasure?
RICK RUBIN – No, I don’t listen to the music I’m working on for pleasure. But I do listen to other music for pleasure, all the time. Then I go to work and I listen to music with my critical hat on. It’s different, but I still enjoy it — when it’s good. There’s the analysis mode, and then there’s the enjoyment mode.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – You’ve never taken drugs. But weren’t you ever at least interested in them, even when you were young?
RICK RUBIN – No. It seemed like when most of the kids I knew started taking drugs — and pretty much everyone I knew took drugs — it was out of boredom. They’d finish school and have nothing to do, so they’d get high. But I always had other stuff I was really interested in doing. First it was magic and eventually it was music. I’d come home and listen to music and play the guitar. I was never bored. A part of it had to do with my being an only child. I learned how to entertain myself. I think another part of it is that I learned to meditate when I was about 14, and that became a big part of my life. Also, my parents didn’t drink and they didn’t like having alcohol in the house. If they went to a wedding or something, they might have a drink. So I didn’t grow up in a culture of drinking and I think that played a role in my not drinking.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – One of the reasons kids start drinking is that it loosens them up, helps them lose their awkwardness. Did you just not feel awkward?
RICK RUBIN – No, I felt awkward, but I didn’t think drinking would change that. I felt weird — that I didn’t belong, regardless of what I did. I didn’t feel a part of anything. I was completely by myself. Plus, I was the only person in my high school who liked punk rock. I was, like, the lone punk rocker. I felt like I didn’t fit in at all.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Did you go to shows?
RICK RUBIN – Yeah. I loved the shows. I might’ve felt like I belonged with the musicians. That was where I always felt like I fit in. And I took pictures at shows. I had a darkroom. So I always had a creative outlet.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – How did you deal with your friends taking drugs?
RICK RUBIN – That didn’t happen until later. But I’ve always felt that people should do what they want to do. I don’t think there’s only one right way. Everyone has their own way of coping and dealing with the world. I understand that the reason so many artists do drugs is that they’re sensitive. I understand the need for self-medication. But I’ve done it more with meditation and therapy. Meditation is a way of seeking. I’m into analyzing why things are the way they are. I’ve also done a lot of therapy. If something is painful, if you’re sensitive or uncomfortable, if you feel like you’re different, your choices are to examine this and figure it out, or to numb yourself and ignore it. Most people tend to numb themselves and ignore their problems to avoid how they feel. Most people don’t seek therapeutic help, and just look for ways to kill the pain. We live in a kill-the-pain society. TV kills the pain. Doctors prescribe drugs to kill the pain. Somehow I got into tuning into how I feel and trying to understand it. At one point I was doing Freudian psychoanalysis four days a week. After a year or so I became so depressed that it was crippling. So I pulled back and switched modalities.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – I’ve seen the way you interact with people. It’s like you’re hyper-aware of how they’re feeling. When you’re with people who are on drugs, or who are just upset, are you able to control your compulsion to help them out?
RICK RUBIN – It’s an internal struggle, because a part of me wants to help, but there’s also a part of me that knows that ultimately everybody has to do their own thing. I really respect people’s boundaries. If it’s clear that someone needs help but they don’t want it, then I’m not going to push it on them, because I wouldn’t want that done to me. Like, my appendix burst ten years ago, but I wouldn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t want to have surgery.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – You wouldn’t have surgery?
RICK RUBIN – Certain people will try to convince me to do something, something that might even be in my best interest, but I won’t want to do it. I don’t want anyone putting their values on me, even if they’re right.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Even if it’s a matter of life and death?
RICK RUBIN – It’s my choice. I want to have the information, then I make the choice.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Did you know that your appendix had burst?
RICK RUBIN – No, not at the time. When I found out, they wanted me to have the surgery, but I chose not to. I understood the risks, but I believed I wasn’t going to die, and I didn’t. But I got really sick.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Would you do the same thing today?
RICK RUBIN – Absolutely. I handled it perfectly.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Explain to me in simple terms what it means to be a producer.
RICK RUBIN – Well, different people do it differently. So I can only discuss it in general terms. It’s the equivalent of being a movie director. You’re responsible for the material. Now, you don’t write the material, but you’re responsible for what’s chosen to be presented. You cast the people involved and then you try and get the best performances from those people. You have the unifying vision of the project and you know how it’ll work. Now, in some cases, the artist is very strong and so the role will be different from what it is with, say, a newer artist. It’s different with every artist. I mean, some artists don’t write their own songs, and so the producer’s job is also to the find the songs. Some artists do write the songs, but if they’re not good enough then the producer’s job is to tell them they’re not good enough and to help them do whatever it takes for them to be good enough. So, the first step is getting the material. Once the material exists, it’s about how it’s going to be recorded, and about getting the best performances from the musicians. Then it’s about presenting it all up, with a nice bow tied around it. Producers come from different backgrounds and their backgrounds usually determine the kind of producers they are. For example, some producers are also engineers, which is in itself a very different job from that of a producer — it’s a technical job, working with equipment. But it’s not uncommon for an engineer to graduate to becoming a producer. I was never an engineer. Sometimes a guitar player or a drummer or a singer will become a producer — they’ll come at it from an artist’s perspective. Sometimes a writer will do it from a writer’s perspective.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Early in your career you worked with the Beastie Boys and other groups who employed a lot of sampling and computer-generated music. You went on to make records with people like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, people who recorded using real instruments. Did this involve taking a totally different approach in the studio? Do you have to change tacks working with different types of musicians?
RICK RUBIN – The early hip-hop albums I made were done before samplers or computers were used for recording music. Due to the technological limitations we faced, these earlier records were more handmade than most of the ones made today, but it gave them a more human feel. The music might speed up, slow down, be out of time, or be out of tune. These imperfections have a certain effect on the listeners — they can tell that the music is being played by humans, instead of computer-generated. For this reason, we also tend to avoid the click tracks and grids used by so many other recording artists today. I’ve had the chance to work with such disparate artists that now each project is a learning — or relearning — experience, as I try and see what best suits each artist.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Being a producer who wasn’t first an engineer, do you ever find it difficult to talk to engineers about technical issues?
RICK RUBIN – The engineers and I don’t discuss technical issues. I explain how something makes me feel — and how I want it to make me feel. Sometimes I’ll refer to specific instruments, but never in a technical way. The same thing is true for musicians — I might say, “In this spot, is there a lower note you can play?” or “Can we do something with more movement in the bridge?” But it’s never, like, “Let’s try a C sharp.”
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Jay-Z spoke about how you stripped his material down to the basics, to get to the heart of the music. You did this with Johnny Cash as well, emphasizing the quality of the songs and the musicians’ performances. Does this searching for the essence of a song reflect a musical philosophy of yours?
RICK RUBIN – It’s funny — the first album I produced was LL Cool J’s first album and the credit I took on the album was “Reduced by Rick Rubin.” I guess the aim has always been to get down to the cleanest, most elegant form of the music. It’s like building an architecturally strong foundation for a building. After we have that we sometimes add a little decoration, but when the essential form is as beautiful as it can be oftentimes nothing more is needed.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – What’s the most difficult thing you have to deal with in the studio? Is it issues with the musicians — like maybe their sense of timing and tempo, or their confidence levels? Or is it more technical issues, now that the technology of recording is so complex?
RICK RUBIN – Overcoming bad work habits artists have developed over the years is probably the most difficult aspect of it. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of homework to write great songs. It takes great discipline and few artists have the natural inclination to do the kind of solitary work that’s necessary. Communication between the band members is another problem area. Often the relationships between the members are unhealthy and the issues that stem from this limit productive collaboration.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – You were in a band in high school, right?
RICK RUBIN – Yes, but not anything really worthy, even as just a prerequisite to being a producer. I’m a real fan of music. So I produce from that perspective — of what moves me about an artist, of how I want to feel listening to that artist. So I’ll ask myself if what we’re creating hits the sweet spot strongly, or not.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Did you ever want to work in just one genre, or was it always mixed up?
RICK RUBIN – Most people do tend to work in a specific genre. I first produced my punk rock band, and after that I produced rap records. Then I moved from rap to heavy metal. Then I did comedy and then blues. I’ve never listened to music in a genre-specific way, except maybe when I was into punk and didn’t listen to much of anything else. And maybe again in the early days of hip-hop when I didn’t listen to much else. But those periods were focused — they were about those special moments. I always listened to Black Sabbath and some other things, though.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Is it the same when you produce a comedy record? Do you try and bring out the best in the comedian?
RICK RUBIN – Yeah. It’s about talking to the artist in advance. Helping to edit the material. I love comedy. It’s one of my real interests. But I’ve always listened to music eclectically. Because of that, I approach it in such a way that I can easily work with Jay-Z or the Dixie Chicks or Neil Diamond or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The fact that their styles are so different doesn’t matter. I like their music, I understand who they are and what they do, and I work with them from that perspective. Another important thing for me is trying to make records that sound like the artists. Some producers have their own sound, and all the records they produce sound like their records.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Like Phil Spector?
RICK RUBIN – Phil Spector is one example, but there are also people like Timbaland, who makes Timbaland records, and Dr. Dre, who makes Dr. Dre records. They’re cool, but I never wanted the records I do to sound like my records. I want a thread running through the records that’s about the artists, not about me. I think my recordings are honest, almost documentary-like, explorations of who the artists are. With other records they may not necessarily project exactly who they really are, but rather play up to the highest level of the mythology of who they are — which can be interesting, too. But I want their true selves, which may be different from how we’ve come to know them, and may even be different from their own view of themselves.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Do you ever think about what the public wants?
RICK RUBIN – No, I never think about that. Sometimes when we’re in the studio working on something and it sounds really great, I might think, “Wow, people are really going to love this.” But that’s the only time I ever think anything like that. It’s just that I’m excited that people are going to get to hear something great, and I know they’re going to like it.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – When you’re working on a song, do you ever think, “This is it! This is a number one song!”?
RICK RUBIN – No, I never think like that. I don’t even know what a number one song sounds like. I don’t listen to the radio and I don’t look at charts.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Never? What about the first time you had a number one record? Weren’t you psyched?
RICK RUBIN – I can’t remember. I don’t even know if I’ve had one. I can remember the first time I had the number one album in the country. [“License To Ill,” by the Beastie Boys, the first rap album to reach number one. — Ed.] I remember that because of a conversation I had when I’d just graduated from NYU, or maybe it was when I was still going to NYU. I got a call from my music business attorney and he said, “You have the number one album in the country. How does it feel?” And I said, “I’ve never been more miserable in my life!” Because it’s never really been about that.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Have you ever not been successful?
RICK RUBIN – I have had a remarkable run. It’s been pretty amazing. I have gone through patches where I’m colder. It’s a normal sort of cycle. But it’s unusual to have worked for so long and have had so many great — unbelievable — successes. It’s hard to believe. The only thing I can attribute it all to is my not trying to be successful, but only trying to make good music. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make the music as great as can be. I’m not at all lazy and I won’t settle for just anything. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist — I can be miserable if I know things could be better.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Will a project ever take a different direction depending on the way you’re feeling personally?
RICK RUBIN – Well, if it does, it’s definitely not on purpose. I think I’m pretty consistent work-wise. I’ll hear a song and write a set of notes about it and then not think about it — two years later I’ll hear the same song and write a new set of notes about it and they’ll be the same as the first set. It’s like math. It tends to be purely analytical.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Do people choose you as their producer or do you choose them?
RICK RUBIN – Both. I mean, usually an artist has to choose me first, unless it’s a new artist, in which case it’s different. But with established artists, usually they approach me.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Do you ever say no to people who want to work with you?
RICK RUBIN – Sure. I mean, sometimes it doesn’t work out schedule-wise. There are a lot of reasons why things don’t work out.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – When was the last time you apologized to someone?
RICK RUBIN – I apologize all the time. The first thing that comes to mind is a comment I made to David Crosby, in the context of our producer-artist relationship, which upset him. That was the last thing I wanted to do, so I apologized, first in person and later in a letter.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Do you have any regrets about certain records you’ve made?
RICK RUBIN – Not really, not about anything. Even when decisions I’ve made have negatively impacted my life — like bad financial decisions or something — I don’t look back on them with regret. I feel like things happen perfectly to get you where you are and to make you who you are.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Do you work all the time?
RICK RUBIN – Yes, but I don’t necessarily like to. It’s weird — work takes on a life of its own. Plus, I want things to be great, and it takes a while for them to be great.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Do you always lie down when you listen to music?
RICK RUBIN – I try to, but sometimes it’s pretty much impossible.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Didn’t you sometimes feel lonely?
RICK RUBIN – Yeah, still do.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – You’re clearly a deeply spiritual person. How would you describe your beliefs?
RICK RUBIN – I’m a seeker and a believer. I’ll believe in most anything until I’m convinced otherwise. I believe in God and any of the paths leading in that direction.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – How did you find out about meditation?
RICK RUBIN – I was very lucky. My neck hurt and I went to my doctor, who was kind of hip, and he said it was stress-caused and that I needed to learn how to meditate. So I learned how to do Transcendental Meditation.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Let’s talk about your coming out here to Los Angeles.
RICK RUBIN – I came here to work on the soundtrack for the movie, Less Than Zero. I never officially moved to LA. I just came out to work. I would go look at houses in the Hollywood Hills on weekends. It was flat where I grew up so houses built into mountains were really interesting to see. Eventually I found one that seemed like it would be more fun than the hotel I was living in, so I bought it. It stayed empty for years — I didn’t bring my things out for at least five years. Even when I was working 12 hours a day, there was something about coming to LA from New York that made it feel like a vacation — even more so now that I live in Malibu.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Why did you decide to get into shape?
RICK RUBIN – It’s because of my friend Mo Ostin, who’s also sort of my mentor. He ran Warner Brothers records for 40 or 50 years. He’s really a sage. He signed Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols and many other great artists. He worked with Frank Sinatra. Had an incredible life — has an incredible life. I went out to lunch with him one day and he said, “Rick, you’ve always really watched what you eat and you’re really diligent about food.” I was vegan for a long time. He said, “Now you really are starting to get big and I’m starting to worry about you. I’m going to give you the name of a nutritionist and I really want you to go see him.” He spoke his piece and I could’ve said “cool” and then never followed up on his suggestion. But it resonated with me and I was prepared to do it.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Tell me about this crazy exercise regime of yours.
RICK RUBIN – OK. I’d already lost about 90 pounds. Then I met Laird Hamilton, arguably the best athlete in the world, and a guy named Don Wildman. Don is in his 70s and is, like, a nine-time Iron Man champion. I was happy with my exercise regime of bicycling along the beach, and walking and swimming. I’d worked my way up from swimming only one lap to swimming a little over a mile. So I was happy with where I was, exercise-wise. Laird and Don were excited about all the weight I lost so quickly. They said I should start going to the gym with them. So I started hanging out with these guys, training with them three days a week, with weights, and then Laird — he’s so inspirational — developed underwater training. You bring dumbbells into a pool and you walk down into the deep end with them, holding your breath, and you do all these exercises underwater, like ten feet under. You try to use as little air as possible swimming down because you want to have enough air left to lift the weights. Lifting weights underwater is interesting because holding your breath and all of the sudden, a switch goes off in your head that says, “If I don’t breathe now, I’m going to die.” The first thing you do is freeze, because you’re like, “Oh, my god, I have to put the weights down and I don’t have enough time to put them down because I have to race to the top.” But you have to put the weights down and race to the top, and it’s terrifying, every time. You get your air and then you go back down and do it all again.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – How do you feel afterwards?
RICK RUBIN – You’re essentially weightless underwater, so while you’re doing it, it feels like the dumbbells don’t weigh anything. But then, an hour or two later, you suddenly feel like you’ve been hit by a bus.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – Do you listen to music while you’re exercising?
RICK RUBIN – No. I mean, I can listen to music in the gym. I put on classical music. But I don’t use the energy of music to drive me. I find it distracting. If I’m listening to music I want to close my eyes and listen actively. I can’t do that and exercise too.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – You must have so much more energy now. Are you directing that energy towards even more exercise?
RICK RUBIN – Pretty much. My whole life revolves around exercise now — and I love it. I feel like I’m going to be doing it from now on.
ANNABEL MEHRAN – One last question. Do you think the fact that everyone feels good around you is one of the reasons you’re so good at what you do?
RICK RUBIN – I’m sure there is a certain comfort factor. People feel at ease around me. I think one of the reasons that the music turns out good is that I can make people feel comfortable and they can be themselves. I try to set up an environment in which artists can be naked and vulnerable, but still feel safe enough to really express themselves. I would say that my ability to put people at ease does play an important role in it all.