You really have to admire a guy like Rick Rubin. As Jake Brown's new semi-biographical book Rick Rubin: In The Studio makes abundantly clear, the key to his success isn't so much anything about his ability to twiddle the knobs in a recording studio, as it is his ability to render an opinion that his rap and rock star clients have ultimately come to trust, admire, and respect.
As one such client puts it in the book, "He becomes the fifth Beatle." Which essentially means that Rubin is the guy who tells the artist exactly what is working and what isn't.
Rick Rubin's producing style may have as much to do with making sure there are enough pillows to ensure his comfort as it does with any technical expertise. But whatever the case, it works. His platinum successes with a wildly diverse group of artists ranging from the Beastie Boys and Metallica to the Dixie Chicks and Neil Diamond pays solid testimony to that.
In Rick Rubin: In The Studio, Jake Brown traces Rubin's history as a college student and hardcore music fan who started Def Jam Recordings out of his dorm room in the '80s, right up to his present status as the head of Columbia Records. In doing so, several things about the keys to his success become clear.
First and foremost is the fact that Rick Rubin has never lost sight of his inner music fan, and that when it comes to what he likes or doesn't like, he steadfastly sticks to his guns. This sort of fan's eye view toward the artists he produces plays a key factor in how he gains their trust — call it that "fifth Beatle" factor, I guess.
As the book reveals account after account of Rubin's studio experiences with the artists he has produced, it is always augmented by testimonies from the artists themselves. The commonality lies in the way that Rubin essentially becomes as much that fifth member, or friend to the artist, as he does their de facto boss. The other common thread is that Rubin, while always offering his ideas, always listens to the artists themselves first.
He also invariably allows them all the time they need to make "the record of their lives." With Rick Rubin in the studio, there are no such typically pesky corporate annoyances as schedules or timetables.
In the case of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, this might mean spending as much as a year on writing and pre-production, as it does on the actual recording process. In the case of the final years of the great Johnny Cash, it might mean doing everything necessary to restore the shattered confidence of the artist (which in the case of Cash, helped result in a particularly strong bond between artist and producer).
Fans looking for the sort of juicy tidbits or salacious details one normally finds in a rock bio might likewise be disappointed to find that Rick Rubin: In The Studio is somewhat lacking in that department. As a strict devotee of new age spirituality and transcendental meditation, Rubin's story is long on details of the recording process and quite short on any sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well okay, there actually is plenty of rock and roll. But for Rick Rubin, the music itself provides the high.
The jury is still largely out on Rubin's present stint as label head of Columbia. But however this pans out, Rubin's story is the stuff of legend, and his place in the music history books is all but assured. Brown's writing style here is likewise breezy and easy to follow, particularly given all the studio details. For students of the recording process, I can't imagine coming across a better read than this one.