Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator"—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Rick Rubin.
Most legendary record producers are known best for one band, no matter how diverse their resume. George Martin had the Beatles, and Radiohead has Nigel Godrich, but it’s hard to put your finger on which band to link Rick Rubin to. Run D.M.C.? The Beastie Boys? LL Cool J? The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Slayer? The list of influential bands and records goes on and on, no one shining brighter than all the others because each of the records produced by Rick Rubin became a bestseller at birth, and a classic later on.
Rubin’s gift for music has far less to do with a talent for creation and everything to do with impeccable taste across the board, regardless of genre. Not only did he produce everything from hip hop and funk to country and metal, he was responsible for merging the two most popular genres of the current musical age into monuments of popular music, fusing their audiences into a clamoring sea of hybrid fashion and attitude, one endlessly clamoring for more hip hop and more rock. It all began in 1984, when a 21-year-old Frederick Jay Rubin started a label called Def Jam in his NYU dorm room.
By the time Rubin started the seminal label known as Def Jam, he had a killer single under his belt. “It’s Yours” by T La Rock, which Rubin co-produced with DJ Jazzy Jay. It was a relative success in the burgeoning world of hip hop, a style Rubin had abandoned punk rock for a couple of years prior. In 1985, Def Jam released its first LP, the debut album Radio by a teenage rapper called LL Cool J. The success of this record propelled Rubin to scout out more hip hop acts in New York.
In the following years, Def Jam picked up artists like Public Enemy, Slick Rick, and the Beastie Boys. As his hip hop production style matured, references to his past in punk and hard rock began to resurface, with overdriven guitars complementing 808 drums. The Beastie Boys debut album, Licensed to Ill, was produced in its entirety by Rubin, and is ostensibly the bridge between hip hop and rock for both the band and the producer.
Walk This Way
In 1986, Rubin brought his love for the two musical styles that launched his career to the masses by producing Run DMC’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” which featured the original band’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. The original song, released 11 years prior to the 1986 cover, inadvertently featured traits of hip hop, opening with a break beat, and with lyrics that follow what had then become a typical hip hop cadence. The introduction of produced drums, scratches, and lyrics delivered in monotone drew parallels between hip hop and rock for a wider audience than ever before.
In the same year, Rubin produced Reign In Blood, the third album by metal band Slayer, returning to his hardcore roots. The band’s major label debut, Reign In Blood set the tone for an entire era of heavy music, earning praise for Rubin’s eclectic production abilities.
Moving into the 90s and beyond, Rubin’s production projects diversified even further, bringing his curation to hip hop acts not just from New York but from all over the nation, like Houston’s The Geto Boys and Seattle’s Sir Mix-A-Lot, as well as classic rocker Tom Petty, country legend Johnny Cash, and LA funk rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Rubin had established his own label separate from Def Jam, Def American Recordings, in 1988. When the word “def,” coined by Rubin, finally exited pop vernacular and entered the dictionary five years later, Rubin held a funeral for the term and renamed the label American Recordings. In the past decade, American Recordings has served as the platform for Rubin’s projects, ranging as wide a range as his entire career demonstrated. Rubin produced Johnny Cash’s final and posthumous works, as well as Jay-Z’s 2004 smash single “99 Problems,” for which the video featured the heavily bearded producer alongside the MC, a rare on camera appearance for Rubin.
American Recordings is still going as strong as ever, pulling talent from around the world regardless of genre. Rubin still has the ear that arguably helped to disseminate hip hop beyond its insular American audience, and turn metal into a culture beyond its music. Currently on Rubin’s plate are gypsy punks Gogol Bordello, indie rock band The Avett Brothers, and albums by Metallica, Black Sabbath, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.