Quick: what do the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Sheryl Crow, Donovan, Jay-Z, Tom Petty, System of A Down, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Diamond, Ozzy Osbourne, Weezer, Slayer, Johnny Cash, Public Enemy, Kula Shaker, and Danzig have in common?
Not a whole heckuva lot it would seem on the surface; one would assume that a mix tape of such artists would make for a singularly bumpy listening experience.
Yet there is a common thread among those artists that manifests itself in sonic ways that actually does render such a mix less bumpy than you’d expect: they were all produced by Rick Rubin, whose contributions to rock have been every bit as important as his contributions to rap and hip-hop. At it for over twenty years now, the 42-year-old Rubin has already amassed a resume that can stand among the most elite producers in rock; as a label owner, he helped launch some of music’s most vital careers, as well as revitalizing some key veteran musicians whose careers had sagged. He can also pretty much take credit for inventing the rap/metal genre, one of the most unlikely music hybrids in history, and a successful and influential one in the 1990′s.
Frederick Jay Rubin was born on Long Island NY in 1963 and launched the Def Jam label in 1984. He was attending college at the time; he and partner Russell Simmons ran the fledgling label from their dorm room at NYU. In 1984, rap was only just beginning to emerge on the national scene; five years had passed since Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow had come up with the very first rap records of all. MTV was only just beginning to play Run-DMC; most rap was still confined to clubs and tapes. While it had been growing rapidly since its 1979 appearance, it had yet to reach suburbia in any real numbers.
Def Jam’s first release was a single by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay called “It’s Yours”, which was distributed by Partytime/Streetwise. Within a year, Def Jam had a distribution deal with Columbia records, a major label, and Rubin, at 22, was in position to leave his mark on the world.
It was a busy year; in addition to its initial string of rap releases, Def Jam released Krush Groove, starring Sheila E., Run D.M.C., the Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow, the first rap movie, and now a cult classic. Rubin also made his first ripples of news by producing Hell Awaits for controversial satanic/thrash metal band Slayer. From the very start, Rubin’s personal music tastes were evident in his choice of musicians to work with, which tended towards rap, metal, and aggressive club rock. Later, he’d work with country, trad rock, and roots rock performers as well.
1986 marked rap’s national breakout; the year it literally crossed over in the cities and the suburbs. Two essential rap albums from 1986 were Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, both of which were produced by Rubin, and both notable for borrowing guitars and other cues from heavy metal. In 1987, he produced Public Enemy’s debut Yo Bum Rush The Show; Public Enemy during their heyday was arguably the greatest rap group in history, marking the point where rap began its evolution into hip-hop. On the rock side of the coin, he produced the 1987 album Electric by The Cult, a record that propelled them from cult act to brief superstar status as kings of the 70′s revival (a movement that never really caught on).
Rubin and partner Simmons wound up at each others throats for reasons that appear both personal and professional, and the pair split, with Rubin forming a new label, Def American (later renamed American). Def American’s first signings were all fairly controversial acts, all among Rubin’s favorites, including Slayer, gangsta rap pioneers the Geto Boys, noise-rock pioneers Jesus and Mary Chain, and comic loudmouth Andrew Dice Clay.
In the early 90′s, Rubin got off to a running start. He scored big producing the Black Crowes’ debut, restoring Southern jamband rock to the charts long after all hope seemed lost for the genre. In 1991, Rubin produced Blood Sugar Sex Magik by Red Hot Chili Peppers, a group that had been also-rans for years; the album established them as superstars. In 1993, he produced Mick Jagger’s Wandering Spirit, which got good reviews after his earlier solo releases were panned.
His 1994 production job on Johnny Cash’s comeback album, American Recordings, was an inspired job; Cash hadn’t been a commercial force in years; Rubin was surprised to see him playing dinner theater in 1993. His rock-listening fans had given up on him in the 1970′s. Rubin’s tough-as-nails monochromatic production job and his ideas for cover versions (including very notable Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails covers over the course of four albums) won Cash a huge new audience and reinvigorated Cash for the rest of his life.
After his big success with Johnny Cash, a number of fading stars also came to Rubin for help; he produced Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, which was a big hit, and Donovan’s Sutras, which wasn’t. In fact, the failure of the Donovan album, which appeared on American (as did Cash’s) and had been predicted by record biz pundits, was Rubin’s first major professional failure; it also seemed to suggest that American had begun to lose its finger on the pulse, the sure touch that kept it at the cutting edge. Rubin’s work with older mainstream acts, while excellent, weren’t what American’s largely young customers were looking for.
Since then, American records has stuggled to regain its profile; high-profile signings haven’t panned out. Alt-country act the Jayhawks, while garnering critical respect, haven’t been able to meet commercial expectations. Crown Heights also failed to live up to their hype. American’s reputation was a chaotic and dysfunctional one too, by Danzig’s account; Danzig abandoned ship in 1999. While they’ve had more success in the 00′s; System of a Down being a credit for Rubin the producer and Rubin the label chief, nothing is certain in the label business.
However, Rubin’s production work, which is distinctive in its hard, meaty edge and crystal clarity, remains excellent when he works with the right talent. While he still works with established stars (Neil Diamond, recently, and to excellent effect), he’s focused more on younger acts and relatively undiscovered ones. Some recent successful productions were De-Loused in the Comatorium by the Mars Volta and The Black Album by Jay-Z. System of a Down and Slipknot owe their careers to him. One of his most recent projects was Make Believe by indie-rock vets Weezer, released in 2005.
American Records releases are currently distributed through Geffen Records, a part of Universal Music Group, via a 2004 deal.
Here’s a good playlist of significant Rick Rubin-produced songs you can hear at Rhapsody Radish; context for each is provided below:
1. Run-D.M.C.: It’s Tricky
The primary sonic cue is a slowed down, fragmented, distorted guitar riff from “My Sharona” by the Knack. Raising Hell, from 1986, was one of the two albums that really made Rubin’s name that year; Licensed to Ill was the other. Run-D.M.C. had blended rock with rap before, but Raising Hell was their masterpiece. Run-D.M.C. were one of the only 80′s rap acts to have a long term career; ending when Jam Master Jay was senselessly shot dead in a studio in 2002.
2. Beastie Boys: She’s Crafty
The primary sonic cue is a chopped up riff from “The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin. The Beastie Boys, of course, were the first white rappers to produce any rap wrth listening to, and the rap-metal hybrid they created ultimately was a hugely influential one. Rubin probably deserves credit for that as much and maybe more even than the Beastie Boys themselves. From the landmark 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill. The Beasties, of course, have managed to keep a career going to the present day.
3. Johnny Cash: Hurt
“Hurt” is a cover of Nine Inch Nails, from the wintery 2002 album American IV, recorded shortly before rock ‘n’ roll and country pioneer and legend Johnny Cash’s death. His gruff, grizzled, old man’s voice adds an element of shock even Nine Inch Nails couldn’t match; a great last hurrah. All four of Cash’s records for American were outstanding and groundbreaking in their own way; Rubin revived the fortunes of an American treasure, and reintroduced him to fans young enough to be Cash’s grandkids. And it worked. Who says you can’t rock past 70?
4. The Cult: Love Removal Machine
Led Zeppelin meets the Rolling Stones, with a hint of the Doors. Unabashed guitar solos old school style, as if it were 1977 again. “Love Removal Machine” is from the 1987 release Electric, the Cult’s third album, which made their metal revival explicit; prior to that they had been more of a punky, gothy psychedelic band. The band peaked with their next album, Sonic Temple, in 1989; they split in 2001. Frontman Ian Astbury is now in the fairly ill-conceived Doors reunion (minus litigious John Densmore), filling in for Jim Morrison.
5. Red Hot Chili Peppers: Suck My Kiss
Funk-metal-rap stew from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ big 1991 breakout, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. In retrospect, this was one of Rubin’s most important albums; the funk-metal mix had worked for cult acts, but the mainstream had proven resistent until this album, which became a huge seller. The guitars and Flea’s bass are in-your-face and if Anthony Kiedis’ vocal isn’t quite rap, it certainly borrows something. The band, which seemed destined for a career of also-ran status, were big sellers through the decade, relying on essentially the same formula.
6. Neil Diamond: Delirious Love
Neil Diamond gets an edge, long after being presumed washed up, and maybe even dead. Notably tough, crisp acoustic guitar playing from Diamond; an unexpected dobro that shows up from nowhere in the middle and adds urgency, one of his catchiest songs and best lyrics in decades, and otherwise clean, spare production. “Delirious Love” is from 12 Songs, a major 2005 comeback effort, and, frankly, one of Diamond’s very best albums; listeners who can’t stand Diamond will find themselves liking this one despite themselves.
7. Public Enemy: Bring The Noise
A smorgasboard of audio effects, most indescribable, ranging from bleeps to swirlies to buzzes; plenty of turntable scratching and great vocal interplay between Chuck D. and Flavor Flav. A buried jazzy horn sample provides one of several backbones. A celebration of noise. The Rubin-produced “Bring The Noise” first turned up in the 1987 film Less Than Zero, the same year the group debuted with Yo Bum Rush The Show; both were Def Jam release. It was also included on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the band’s groundbreaking sophomore album from 1988.
8. Sir Mix-A-Lot: Baby Got Back
This opens with two chicks talking about a gross enormous butt before Sir Mix A Lot chimes in in favor of booty. Public Enemy-esque production, with turntables and horn sample. “Baby Got Back” is from the 1992 album Mack Daddy, and pretty much typecast Sir Mix-A-Lot as a novelty act; his next two albums did poorly and American dropped him in 1996. He released another album in 2001, but nothing else has been forthcoming since.
9. The Mars Volta: Televators
This opens like an exotica album, with exotic bird chirps, before an easy, lilting melody rides in on some of the strangest electronic warp sounds since the 60′s; it builds into something of a Bowie-esque art rock tune, with eerie otherworld guitar treatments, the song gathers edge as is continues, the bird cries that get through the sounds start sounding threatening and ominous. The Mars Volta are the vehicle of Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez, formerly of the Texas indie rock combo At The Drive-In. The’ve undergone quite an evolution since then; this is strange, psychedelic, experimental stuff. Good, though.
10. Tom Petty: You Don’t Know How It Feels
A ragged drumbeat and woozy harmonica dominate this pothead anthem that somewhat recalls the countrified Neil Young. The upfrontness of the drums is what is significant productionwise; it never once changes tempo throughout the song, even when they reach the bridge, chorus, and solo. From Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers. Most of the album has a rustic, back-to-basics sound which contrasted with Jeff Lynne’s intrusive production job on Petty’s previous two albums, which sounded like the Traveling Wilburys.
11. Nine Inch Nails: Closer
This danceable Nine Inch Nails track features a funk inspired vocal and rhythm, the latter supplied mainly by an upfront drum and electronic effects; Trent Reznor’s voice alternates between clear and heavily filtered. Notable are the eerie electronic swooshes that accompany the chorus, which recall a demented calliope on planet Krypton. From the 1994 mainstream breakthrough The Downward Spiral which put Trent Reznor breifly among the forefront of the alternative rock universe; Rezner and Rubin made a good pair; the album’s dense, rich industrial walls of sound were the only industrial sounds to ever become hits in the mainstream.
12. Paloalto: The World Outside
If Bono fronted Oasis, it might sound something like this. The prominent drum is the signature touch; otherwise this sounds like fairly unremarkable 00′s midtempo harmonic rock. The focus is singer/guitarist James Grundler, and L.A. native; this song sounds tailor-made for inclusion in The O.C. or something like it. From their 2000 debut, Paloalto, released on American, one of Rubin’s lesser credits. A followup, Heroes and Villians, appeared in 2003.
13. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: Redemption Song
Joe Strummer went too soon; he was not only one of the greatest ever as leader of the Clash, but was undergoing something of a musical renaissance when he died suddenly from a heart attack in 2002. The 2003 release of Streetcore is evidence. The old Bob Marley chestnut “Redemption Song” is a very apt and fitting self-eulogy; delivered here on acoustic guitar with accordion. You’d never know Rubin had anything to do with this; Strummer gets the spotlight to himself.
14. Audioslave: Gasoline
Ex-Rage Against The Machine provides heavy textured, processed, layered guitar; Chris Cornell delivers a strong vocal that sounds a little like a slowed down “Even Flow”; the riffs are thick, Cornell’s shrieks work well. The procesing of the guitars shape shifts throughout the songs, sometime having a Sabbath-like thunder, other times sounding almost like an electronica device. Audioslave paired the Oscar de la Rocha-less Rage Against The Machine with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell; an unlikely pairing that has turned out better than anyone might have expected.
15. Weezer: Beverly Hills
Weezer comes on in what sounds like heavy metal mode during the first 8 beats, until the device proves to be a trick; still the guitars get pretty heavy on the chorus, and the song has a ragged, loose anthemic quality, with quirky effects like the sampled female vocal that accompanies them on the chorus. Rivers Cuomo provides a good vocal and the hard guitars do hit the nervous system in the right ways. From Weezer’s 2005 release on Geffen, Make Believe.
16. Slayer: Hell Awaits
“Hell Awaits” is from the 1985 album of the same name, and it was the album that turned Slayer into antichrist superstars. Opening with a babel of backmasking and Satanic-sounding voices before settling into a heavy, mid-tempo jaunt that sounds less threatening after it has been copied so many times by other bands who turned up the volume, it really is the invention of a whole genre. Rubin’s hand in all this was big; he’d bring out the Slayer in other bands repeatedly through the years.
17. Danzig: Mother
This song form Danzig’s 1988 debut, released on American, opens with a classic riff before settling into a great mid-tempo rocker that owes a lot more to metal than it does to punk, despite Glenn Danzig’s first career as leader of Misfits, the hardcore heroes from New Jersey. Danzig’s voice is somewhere between Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley’s; the song has a good crisp production job from Rubin, who doesn’t get fancy.
18. Sheryl Crow: My Favorite Mistake
A slightly distorted guitar opens this with a ragged, slow riff, and Crow’s voice has an interesting jaded weariness to it. The chorus is catchy; there’s some tasty organ in the background. It essentially a Rubin-ized updating of the “classic rock” sound, and one of his less distinctive jobs. However, it is a suitable sound for Crowe, and the album was a hit. Crow continues to release music with a very similar sound to the one she arrived at on The Globe Sessions in 1998.
19. Eagle-Eye Cherry: Been Here Once Before
This is a pretty catchy tune, with its mellow phase-shifted guitar hook, harmonies, and good lead vocal. Eagle-Eye Cherry is son of jazz trupmeter Don Cherry, and brother of Neneh Cherry. It’s a good 00′s sixties song, with the post-electronica adult alternative filters that implies. From his 2001 sophomore album, Living in the Present Future, which tanked; given a second release as Present/Future a year later, it tanked again.
20. Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz: Crunk Juice
Atlanta-based party rap group Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz Crunk Juice from 2004 can best be described as a party rap concept album, of such a thing can exist. “Crunk Juice” is an 0:56 album opener that sets the tone; metallic guitars, outrageous to the point of ridiculous lines, an agitated electronic whirl in the backround that resembles a theremin, this sets off a good absurdist party groove. Theatrical and fun, if maybe a little silly.
21. The Black Crowes: Hard To Handle
As with most of Rubin’s rock production jobs, the drums are mixed farther towards the front and played more sparely than is customary with this band; a device that keeps that beat moving; the lead guitar is also highlighted and is given a rough timbre. Chris Robinson’s vocals play up the song’s inherent bluesiness. Southern rock and jamband rock had been out of style for some time when American released the Crowes’ debut Shake Your Money Maker; they subsequently became one of the biggest bands of the 90′s.
22. Melanie C: I Turn To You
Melanie C is none other than Sporty Spice of the Spice Girls. What that means is that this should be a producer’s record; the artist will be bringing very little to the table herself. This is a very unremarkable techno-britpop club tune reminiscent of Blur crossed with Alice DeeJay. Production-wise that means a high bpm rate, drum machine, simple synth riff. A counter-beat synth-string section is a nice touch. From her 1999 solo debut Northern Star.
23. Jay-Z: Dirt Off Your Shoulder
Jay-Z’s rags-to-riches story is one of the most compelling in rap history, as he rose from a housing projects kid to king of the New York rappers, to best selling hitmaker, to major label executive. It opens with bravado and worms into a slinky, oppressive, disorientating hardcore urban rap, thick with sonic surprises, from cinematic playing card shuffles to passing vehicles; it delivers the goods. From The Black Album, released in 2003. Jay-Z’s records are Rubin’s biggest success in recent years, although Jay-Z deserves a lot of that credit.
24. Kula Shaker: Great Hosannah
Kula Shaker’s psychedelic club-rock excursions give Rubin a lot to work with; he stays true to the spirit of “Great Hosannah”, which opens with an eerie electronica/raga-rock section that morphs into a Madchester-like groove full of Pink Floyd-esque echoed screams and erupts in a spectacular rave-up; the Rubin touch is also felt in the texture of the guitars. Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts was the band’s belated second and last album, from 1999; the band suffered from a lot of negative press from frontman Crispin Mills’ public personality.
25. The (International) Noise Conspiracy: Black Mask
The (International) Noise Conspiracy is a Swedish supergroup that produces 60′s-sounding pop/garage-band flavored music. “Black Mask” is a stunner in its authentic sound; crunchy guitars, bouncing bass, bashed drums and tambourine, hard Zombies organ and snotty, screaming lead vocals and attitude laden “woo-hoo’s” Intrusive production is minimalized; effort goes into tone, echo, and overall feel. Great cut from Armed Love, released in 2004; garage rock fans will surely like this inspired simulation.
26. Chef: Chocolate Salty Balls (P.S. I Love You)
South Park vulgarity is given a faux-Isaac Hayes spoof treatment by none other than Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef on the show. As an Isaac Hayes record, it takes every Hayes cliche in the book and includes them as sort of a career shorthand; fat bass, disco-ball synth strings, Stax horns, gruff vocals with leer. However, it’s not an Isaac Hayes tune; it’s written by one Randolph S. Parker, aka Tey Parker, the show’s writer/director. As such, it’s a little dumb. But Rubin’s production job is pretty funny, funnier than the lyrics.
27. System Of A Down: Sugar
“Sugar” is a chainsaw of noise metal guitar with a surprisingly sprightly rockabilly rhythm underneath, and almost avant-garde lead guitar and vocals from Armenian-Angeleno System of A Down. Serj Tankian’s rapid fire vocals are ramarkable in themselves. From System of a Down, the band’s 1998 debut. This marked something of a resurgence for Rubin, whose label and relevence were withering at the time; System of a Down’s metal reached #1 with their next release, Toxicity, released on American records, in 2001.
28. Limp Bizkit: Behind Blue Eyes
Fred Durst dusted off Pete Townsend’s anthem to self pity in 2003, on Results May Vary. The album was done without guitarist Wes Boreland, and was largely panned. For sure, the production is the star of the show on this cut, with its swirly druggy sound effects, and its strange use of a talking dictionary as something of a rhythm track. Limp Bizkit’s commercial muscle collapsed entirely in 2005 when The Unquestionable Truth, Pt. 1 tanked.
29. Saul Williams: Lalala
Saul Williams often gets lumped in with rap, but he isn’t rap; he began as a poet and recites poetry more than raps in the conventional sense, in the tradition of Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets. His debut, which appeared on American, was Amethyst Rock Star a literate but tough album. The production is key to Williams’ style; this opens with a muted, discordant violin that sounds like Philip Glass before the vocal from Williams jumps in; the violin becomes the key sonic touchstone. Weird child-like backing vocals sound drugged on codeine; truly kooky production quirks punctuate key phrases from Williams.
30. Ozzy Osbourne: I Don’t Know (live)
Rubin was originally supposed to produce a Black Sabbath studio reunion album, but for whatever reasons, that never came about. Instead he recorded Ozzy’s 2002 Live at Budokan album, although by the time the album was released, he wasn’t listed among the production team. Nothing special here; it’s a relatively strong rendition of the song that undoubtedly underwent a lot of airbrushing in the studio. The album had a negligable effect on anyone’s career.
31. Rage Against The Machine: Kick Out The Jams
“Kick Out The Jams” appeared on Rage Against The Machine’s post-split Renegades, released in 2000; the album consisted solely of covers. “Kick Out The Jams” was Detroit-rock legends MC5′s classic; here it is given an immense heavy metal riffjob, with some excellent, sinewy bass. Oscar le la Roche’s roaring vocal gets a little filter distortion. A good cover; they stretch out a little more than one might expect. In fact all of Renegades is pretty good fun; it’s worth picking up even for non-RATM diehards.
32. American Head Charge: A Violent Reaction
American Head Charge was formed in rehab; the Minneapolis metal group is like a superheavy Husker Du crossed with Slayer. Rehab didn’t work out; the band was famous for fighting, brawling, getting loaded. “A Violent Reaction” reflects all this; it also has some surprises in the production including a bizarre pause in the mayhem for a few disembodied bleeps. It leads off The War of Art, from 2001; in some ways, this is almost a return to Rubin’s roots.
33. Linkin Park/Jay-Z: Numb/Encore (Explicit Version)
Rap/rock/electronica pioneers Linkin Park teamed with Jay-Z on the 2004 mash-up release Collision Course. “Numb/Encore” is something of a latter-day triumph for Rubin, who is in his perfect idiom here. A mash-up takes two songs from different artists and blends them together; the pair are a pretty good fit, and Rubin ties them together well, emphasising an eerie sample to hang the hook from, bringing up the drums, using plenty of electronica tricks. Purists will decry the project as crass commercialism, and a co-opting of mash-up (a folk art, in a way) for MTV. But a good production is a good production.
34. T.H. White: 1973
“1973″ is a cut from More Than Before, a 2004 album that is White’s only album to date. White, whose pop/rock voice accompanies an urban/electronica backing, circumvented normal distribution channels by marketing this at clubs, fashion shows, restaurants, beauty salons, and other chic places. It’s a fairly minor effort, although the sales ploy succeeded; the album got lots of play in clubs, bistros, and hair salons. Arguably the least street-credible production job in Rubin’s career.
35. Slipknot: Opium Of The People
Des Moines, IA metal outfit Slipknot had emerged from the cornfields as a real threat; their over-the-top bombast was part of an elaborate scheme as crafty as Kiss or Marilyn Manson to capture the hearts and minds and wallets of the faithful. However, by the time Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses came out in 2004, their schtik had started getting old; Rubin was a good choice to remind them of their strnegths. “Opium of the People’ is a roar-fest with oppressive guitars, just the way Rubin likes them. The approach is toward crystal clarity in the instrumentation in almost a Butch Vig sort of way; it works.
36. Donovan: Deep Peace
The 1996 comeback album by Donovan, who hadn’t had a hit since 1969, and who had barely recorded since the mid-1970′s, Sutras was supposed to do for him what Rubin had done for Johnny Cash. It didn’t work out, and it backfired on Rubin, who was looked upon as out of it when the album utlimately tanked. Actually, it’s not a bad job at all; Rubin’s talents are well suited to the hippie mysticisms of Donovan; the problem really lies with Donovan, who just isn’t quite up to the task. “Deep Peace” is a dirge-like acoustic number, recorded close, while muted organ and other instruments appear towards the end. It’s a good sound, but a silly song.
The original Blogcritics.org article by Robert Burke is here.
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