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The Wisdom of Rick Rubin: The Producer Annotates His Greatest Hits

The Wisdom of Rick Rubin: The Producer Annotates His Greatest Hits: Photograph by Kevin Mazur

Photograph by Kevin Mazur

Rick Rubin produced the first rap song I ever truly loved: T La Rock’s 1984 single “It’s Yours.” The bearded wonder producer has been around so long, as my editor puts it, “riding shotgun” with hip-hop, that it’s nearly impossible to remember how many songs he’s had a hand in or to estimate his influence across the entire spectrum of recorded music.

Fortunately, Rubin recently took the time to remind us, adding a slew of comments and personal anecdotes to tracks on the user-annotated music site Genius.com. Rubin was and is prolific for sure. But what stands out here is that he is also a fan — hell, he commented on songs he didn’t produce. It’s his affinity for sound that makes him the indispensable miracle worker he is. At the risk of annotating an annotation, here are some of his pithiest observations on his own work.

ON METALLICA’S “THAT WAS JUST YOUR LIFE”

“The idea is to allow an artist to see themselves as greater than they thought. Or break down any pre-conceived idea of what they think they’re supposed to be. That’s a big part of it. Take away the self-imposed limitations that artists have for whatever reason. A lot of them are like, ‘Well this is really what I like because I’m gonna do this because this is what I think someone else is gonna like.’

"Sometimes it’s the opposite, where artists have gotten so experimental that they’ve lost the core of what makes them them. And then in those cases, I’ll try to redirect them back. The example might be Metallica. They were kind of lost before and we helped get them back to being Metallica.”

ON JOHNNY CASH’S “HURT”

“What I came to realize about that whole Johnny Cash experience was that he was a great storyteller. The song didn’t matter — all that mattered were the words. All that mattered was if the character of Johnny Cash — the mythical Johnny Cash, the man in black — would say those words. If that’s what you would want to hear him talking about, then that would be a good song to do.

"So it was never about like melody, it was just about if the lyrics were right.”

ON LL COOL J’S “ROCK THE BELLS”

“It was never about proving anything, it was just that this is what I like and this is true to who they are. The only reason those first records were so aggressive, it had little to do with me. That was the good music at that moment. It wasn’t because it was that, it was the music. If the best music in that moment was folk music, that’s probably what I would have done first. I mean, I like all kinds of music, I always have, I’ve always listened to all kinds of music.”

ON T LA ROCK & JAZZY JAY’S “IT’S YOURS”

“'It’s Yours’ is the very first record I made. At the time, the only place you could hear hip-hop on the radio in New York was on WHBI, WBLS, or 98.7 Kiss, for an hour or two. Magic was on WHBI and then moved to WBLS, and Afrika Islam was on WHBI, where Red Alert was guest of his. Then Red got his own show on 98.7 Kiss.

"I felt like all of us made really interesting, challenging records. And they were all different, and cool, in their own way. And then when you listened to a DJ like Mr. Magic, every record sounded different.”

ON JOHNNY CASH’S “LET THE TRAIN BLOW THE WHISTLE”

“Something that I learned through the process is that when artists have done it for a long time, a certain pattern takes over their lives. They’re on the road, and then there’s a window where they can make a record. It’s just a function of the schedule. The album is what happens between those two weeks of touring: that’s your record. Not a lot of care goes into it.

"My job is often just breaking that pattern. We’re going to take as long as it takes, like it’s the most important thing in the world, and make the best record of your life. When I said that to Johnny, he looked at me like I was insane. It was just such a foreign concept that he could do something great.”

ON BEASTIE BOYS’ “GIRLS”

“Adam Horovitz and I wrote 'Girls’ on a train. We trained down to DC to record with the Junkyard Band, this band of kids who played DC go-go on garbage cans. We put out a Junkyard Band single on Def Jam.

"On the train back, we wrote 'Girls.’ It was rooted in an Isley Brothers song, 'Shout.’ It was written with that music in mind and then we sort of did our version of what that would have been. We just wrote really stupid, offensive words.”

ON SLAYER’S “POSTMORTEM”

“I love the way the last two songs on Reign In Blood — 'Postmortem’ and 'Raining Blood’ — go into each other. I can remember feeling 'It can’t get any harder and faster,’ and then the next part would be twice as hard. It just gets so insane.

"And the solos. I really love the solos on that record because they have nothing to do with music. It’s just about speed. How fast can a guitar, or how fast can anything play? We’ll use this guitar, because we have these, but it has nothing to do with guitar playing or music. And also the fact that they had two lead guitar players who would trade off these guitar solos, neither of which made sense. Like: 'This thing doesn’t make sense, and now I’m going to out not-make-sense you. You think you can do that? I’ll do this.’ It’s so insane. There’s one where I think its like five back and forth of just insanity. Unbelievable.”

ON JAY Z’S “99 PROBLEMS”

“Jay came into my studio every day for like a week, I kept trying things that I thought would sound like a Jay record, and after like three or four days he said, 'I want to do something more like one of your old records, Beastie Boys-style.’ Originally that’s not what I was thinking for him, but he requested that vibe, and we just started working on some tracks.”

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