Who Is Rick Rubin? Is He a Hip-Hop Renegade, Creativity Catalyst or ‘Hindrance’?
To many, Rick Rubin is most famous for his back-to-basics production style – an approach that fuelled the evolution of hip-hop in 1980s New York and brought the emerging genre to the fore.
To others, he’s a creativity catalyst: the magician who helps artistes birth their best work by creating immersive “out of the studio” production environments.
To detractors, he’s technically lacking, proving more “hindrance” than “magic” when it comes to the nuts and bolts of production.
But to his parents, Linda and Michael, he was their pride and joy; this is where our journey begins.
RICK RUBIN’S FORMATIVE YEARS: IMMERSED IN LOVE
Rubin was born to parents Linda and Michael in 1963. And it was in the sanctuary of their Long Island home that his brain would develop – neural networks wired, connections forged in an environment blanketed by love.
In a 2022 interview with the BBC, Rubin described his family unit as “tight-knit”, “loving”, and “supportive”.
He spoke warmly of his parents but seemed self-aware enough to understand his home environment was a luxury not everyone had.
He has admitted that the love received in his formative years gave him “the confidence to be able to do things that other people felt were more challenging”.
And this confidence would birth Rubin’s unwavering faith in the positive nature of the world, alongside his ability to fearlessly immerse himself (and others) in the creative experience – an approach critical to his success.
MUSIC, CULTURE AND AUNT CAROL
On the music front, Rubin described the Beatles as being everywhere, both in the wider environment and his own home.
From ages three to seven, he basked in tracks like “Across The Universe” and was drawn to the eastern motifs the band explored at the time. The Beatles inspired him to learn to meditate at age 14 – a practice that remains influential throughout his life and career.
On the culture front, a young Rubin had his Aunt Carol, who he described as “a very groundbreaking person”.
Aunt Carol, who ran the creative department in the Manhattan branch of Estee Lauder, never married or had children, so Rick “was like her child as well”.
According to Rubin, “she was a sophisticated intellectual, whereas my parents were not”.
His parents knew they lacked in this area but wanted their son to experience every facet of life, including culture.
So each weekend, they’d take Rubin to stay at his grandmother’s house with Aunt Carol, where his aunt read to him constantly, played classical music and took him to museums and Broadway productions.
HIGH SCHOOL: FROM LONE PUNK TO A HIP-HOP COMMUNITY
As an only child, Rubin was surrounded by adults and had few friends his own age, leading him to spend a lot of time in his room with only his imagination for company.
During this frequent alone time, an adolescent Rubin discovered punk. He has described the Ramones as integral to this experience because they created the first “full punk rock album” he heard, but they were also the first band he discovered that played fast.
At high school, he was “the lone punk rocker”, and there wasn’t any internet to reach out to others with similar tastes – a lonely road for him.
Then, along came hip-hop.
He met a few other people in his high school who, like him, were fans of the then-emerging genre. And for the first time, Rubin “had a musical community”.
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY: ‘RAP WAS PUNK ROCK’
In 1981 Rubin began studying philosophy at New York University. By this time, rap had replaced punk as his musical love because, to him, “it was punk rock”.
Like punk, “you didn’t have to be a virtuoso to be a great rapper”, it was more about having something to say.
In his spare time, Rubin began frequenting New York’s burgeoning hip-hop hot spots.
He immersed himself in the club scene and the hip-hop community. He was meeting everyone from DJs, MCs and creators to the other fans who all had a passion for this “beautiful new art form”.
Rubin also (now famously) began to produce rap records from his dorm room.
RICK RUBIN’S SEMINAL HIP-HOP MOMENTS
Then, in 1984, a chance meeting at Graffiti Rock with a man already widely regarded as “the face of hip-hop”, would change the trajectory of Rubin’s life forever.
MEETING RUSSELL SIMMONS
Russell Simmons. Credit: Brett Weinstein/Wikimedia Commons
According to Rubin, Russell Simmons was the “centre of hip-hop” from before him, before they ever met.
“If you had a club and you wanted to hire a hip-hop artist, you called Russell and he would get you a hip-hop artiste. Or if you were a record company and there was a hip-hop artiste you were interested in signing, you'd call Russell…” he said.
In stark contrast, Rubin described himself as having “no experience whatsoever”. When he met Simmons, he was producing music for the sheer love of it.
Despite his self-proclaimed lack of experience, Rubin’s production of T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s track “It’s Yours” encouraged emerging rap artistes to send him mixtapes in droves.
Simmons, five years senior to Rubin, recognised the young producer’s talent almost immediately, recalling, “I met him and he had a drum machine full of hot joints. I mean his whole DMX machine was full of hit records, from what I could hear. He was a smart kid”.
DEF JAM RECORDINGS
Not long after their chance meeting, Simmons joined Def Jam Recordings as Rubin’s business partner.
The first release from Rubin and Simmons’ Def Jam project was LL Cool J’s “I Need A Beat” – one of the many tapes the fledgling producer received after T La Rock’s “It’s Yours”.
According to Simmons, Rubin “remixed it, or redid” the track, and it “sold so well”.
That same year (1984), the pair released the Beastie Boys' "Rock Hard" – another great seller. Building upon their success, Rubin and Simmons started the first full album production under the Def Jam banner, and LL Cool J’s seminal album, Radio (1985), was released.
THE ESSENCE OF THINGS
On the credits of Radio, you’ll find the legend “Reduced by Rick Rubin”. As the word “produced” is not used, it can be taken to be a testament to the stripped-down production style he’d revisit throughout his career.
An approach inspired by Rubin’s interest is getting to “the essence of things”, by “using the least amount of information to get an idea across”.
Few would deny the significance of a certain rap-rock infusion in 1986, when under the Def Jam label, Run-DMC released their cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”.
In his 2022 Desert Island Discs interview, Rubin said that he wanted to use the rap-rock collab as a vehicle to “explain rap music to people who didn’t quite yet understand it”.
He also recalled it was the drum beat and intro of Aerosmith’s original “Walk This Way” (a well-known sample played in hip-hop clubs at the time) that convinced Run-DMC to go with the vision – despite not knowing who Aerosmith was.
Their cover of "Walk This Way" would rank higher than the original, hitting number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Rap rock (and hip-hop, in general) had now well and truly entered the mainstream consciousness.
RICK RUBIN’S IMPACT ON HIP-HOP’S EVOLUTION
Rubin's impact on the evolution of hip-hop is undeniable. He, along with Simmons, helped transport hip-hop from old school to new school into the golden age, and finally skyrocketed the genre into the mainstream.
Alongside his work with LL Cool J and Run-DMC, Rubin produced hip-hop luminaries like the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. The latter’s success paved the way for hip-hop to become the most popular music trend of the 90s.
Rubin would later produce other hip-hop heavyweights like Jay-Z (notably the 2004 track "99 Problems") and Eminem.
SOUNDING IT AS IT IS
Aside from helping to bring hip-hop from the New York clubs and into the hearts and minds of the masses, Rubin’s perspective as a fan helped to shape, or more accurately, recreate the music’s sound as it actually was.
Rubin, who started making records “really for himself”, wanted to produce records which sounded “much more raw, much less musical” than the hip-hop tracks produced up until that point.
In essence, his stripped-back, raw style was a way to capture what he liked about going to hip-hop clubs.
And because he didn’t know how to make recordings, it allowed him to create records that were true to what rap music actually was, rather than blindly following production best practices.
Ultimately, Rubin bridged the gap between the “real” hip-hop experience and the polished-up recordings by approaching production as “someone who didn’t know what they were doing”.
RICK RUBIN’S PRODUCTION STYLE
In describing his style, Rubin said: “I’m not technical in any way, and my job is to listen”.
He doesn’t lean on technical ability – a bold move for a music producer – instead, he’s working on pure instinct and listening for an invite to a musical experience.
Rather than ruminating over technical prowess, Rubin pays attention to what happens in his body as he listens.
He’s looking out for somatic signals of laughter, involuntary movement, surprise, intrigue, and perhaps most importantly, boredom (in Rubin’s estimation, if he’s bored, the listener will be bored too).
Is Rubin’s renegade production style good or bad? It’s both depending on who you ask.
During his interview with Red Hot Chili Pepper’s frontman Anthony Kiedis, Joe Rogan described Rubin as “a magic person”.
And that magic (empowered by his formative years in a loving home) is arguably Rubin’s greatest strength.
What he lacks in technical ability, he makes up for by creating immersive recording experiences and fostering environments where creativity thrives. Take his production of The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik as an example.
IMMERSIVE RECORDING EXPERIENCES
Anyone who’s witnessed the 1991 documentary Funky Monks, knows that Rubin's first collaboration with the Chili Peppers was more like a group therapy session or art school experiment than a traditional album recording.
He took the band out of the studio environment, and they recorded the album in a haunted mansion – brimming with cultural history – in the Hollywood Hills.
Their seminal work, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, would transform the band from struggling artistes to the global successes we know today.
Would that album have been created within the confines of a standard studio experience? Unlikely, as Rubin sees it, a new venue creates a new experience, which is especially helpful for artistes who, like the Chili Peppers at the time, have recorded multiple albums.
BUILDING BRIDGES BETWEEN GENRES
Rubin also excels at connecting the dots between different musical worlds – Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” is just one example. Another, was his creative partnership with American country singer-songwriter Johnny Cash.
Their first collaborative project, Cash’s 1994 album American Recordings, was a defining moment in Rubin’s career and one that reinvigorated Cash at a time when the singer thought he was “done”.
Although Rubin was associated with punk, hip-hop and heavy metal, he found his way into this collaboration by thinking beyond genre.
Instead of viewing Cash purely through a country lens, Rubin envisioned him as “the mythical man in black”.
And the most important thing in the process became finding songs that suited this mythology – even if they were from a genre outside of the traditional Cash sound.
One of the most successful tracks from American Recordings was Cash’s stripped-down rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”.
Instead of being put off by the original’s heavy industrial rock sound, Rubin paid attention to the lyrics, which in keeping with the man in black mythology, spoke of a life of regret and remorse.
While Rubin’s raw, pulled-back, non-technical, and arguably overly simplistic production style is widely acclaimed… not everyone’s had a magical experience with this “magic person”.
The producer openly admits he’s “not technical in any way” – a double-edged sword, which is his greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Yes, Rubin facilitates creative production experiences, but not everyone is drawn to a producer who isn’t technically (or even musically) proficient in a traditional sense.
‘HOW NOT TO PRODUCE’
For multi-instrumentalist and Muse frontman Matt Bellamy – whose reverence for the classical realm is no secret – Rubin's production approach left much to be desired.
The band originally hired Rubin to produce The Resistance but subsequently scrapped his recordings, opting to produce the album themselves.
Then, during an acceptance speech after Muse received “the award for UK single of the year” (for a track from The Resistance) at the Music Producers Guild (MPG) awards in 2010, Matt Bellamy made scathing comment.
"And we'd like to thank Rick Rubin for teaching us how not to produce," he said.
‘A HINDRANCE MORE THAN A HELP’
Similarly, Josh Klinghoffer (who was the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist from 2009 to 2019) said in an interview with VWMusic that he was not impressed by Rubin.
“I will say that in the case of I’m With You, I feel Rick Rubin was way more a hindrance than a help. He told me once, ‘I just want to help the songs be the best they can be’. I should’ve said, ‘Well, then get your driver to come and get you’.”
For more on R&B and Hip Hop:
- Hip-Hop, A Pillar Of New York – Circa 1970s
- The Evolution and History of R&B
- Origins of Conscious Rap
Cover: Cheese Scientist/Alamy Stock Photo
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Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.