In his autobiography, the famous artist and producer Brian Eno wrote, “Value the ears that things sound good through.” This principle has provided Rick Rubin his livelihood: he has no formal musical training, yet he’s one of the world’s most famous producers. He’s been at the top, or close to it, ever since he arrived in 1984, with a label named Def Jam and a single, LL Cool J’s “I Need A Beat.” He seems to be experiencing (yet another) career renaissance, because the things that sound good through his ears often sound good through everyone else’s.
Rubin’s story in many ways resembles a classic American fairytale. He set up shop in his college room and received a demo from a young LL Cool J. With the help of Russell Simmons, he got the label Def Jam up and running, and Rubin produced a game-changing hip-hop trifecta in 1985 and 1986: LL Cool J’s Radio, Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, and the Beastie Boys Licensed To Ill. Rubin advocated for shortened song lengths and powerful hooks, favoring smashing drum-machine beats punctuated with sudden bursts of noise: gnarled explosions of guitar (Run-D.M.C. ), screeches and squawks (the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey”), and of course, record scratching (LL Cool J). These were elegant records that sounded rough and packed a punch—not only musically, but commercially. Licensed To Ill sold millions of copies.
Rubin expanded into other genres, and he soon became famous for career resuscitations. He sent the Red Hot Chili Peppers towards pop in 1991, reintroduced Johnny Cash to the world in 1994, and rejuvenated Neil Diamond in 2005. During the ‘00s, he mainly focused on rock, producing multiple albums for the Chili Peppers’, System of a Down, Slayer, and Weezer. His occasional excursions from this routine were more fruitful: Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” Shakira’s Oral Fixacion (Volumes 1 and 2), and Justin Timberlake’s Future Sex Love Sounds. Variety and first-encounters often lead to Rubin’s most inspired work.
This is why 2013 felt like a new burst of energy for him: he played an important role in a diverse set of albums from a heterogenous group of artists. Some of these were revitalization jobs; both Black Sabbath and Eminem were in need of new spark. Others were new connections that helped massive stars: he worked on Lady Gaga’s “Dope,” one of the most affecting songs on Artpop, her critical and commercial flop, and he provided 11th hour assistance to Kanye, whose Yeezus was critically-acclaimed but undersold. Other work may for the basis for future longstanding relationships, like when Rubin worked with a young English singer, Jake Bugg, on his second album.
Rubin’s first producer credit for LL Cool J, “Reduced by Rick Rubin,” is a nice blurb, but it only captures part of his approach. The revitalization process has little to do with minimalism. It’s more like a sort of musical therapy—either coaxing a band back into its old habits, or encouraging a single-sided artist to explore new contexts. Black Sabbath’s 13 was the band’s first album since 1995. In an interview, Rubin noted, “My goal was to get Black Sabbath back to performing together—to jamming—because they are experts at it.” With Eminem, a solo performer stuck in a rut, he took a different tack. Rubin produced four songs for him; two in particular, “Rhyme or Reason” and “Love Game,” are unlike anything Eminem has done. Rubin places the rapper next to famous ‘60s pop samples, contrasting rapid-fire vitriol with expressions of golden-age pop innocence. This stands out next to many of the plodding, monochromatic beats on the rest of the album.
Rubin’s reduction narrative applies best to his productions with big stars. His work with Kanye has been well documented. It’s worth noting that when Kanye approached Rubin and played him an early cut of what would become Yeezus, Kanye instructed Rubin to think in terms of subtraction an taking things away. Instead, Rubin pointed out that the album might benefit from being 10 tracks instead of 16—an increasingly rare phenomenon in most genres, since the space constraints of vinyl no longer apply. “Dope,” the only tune on Gaga’s Artpop produced by Rubin, also reaches back to old principles of simplicity. A full-throated ballad, played largely on piano, with menacing touches of synthesizer, it derives its strength from a basic concept: sing about falling apart over love, and drive it home by sounding like you are indeed falling apart over love.
Rubin also has the ability to hone in on a particular aspect of an artist’s sound and bring this to the forefront, to aid in a process of focusing and expanding. The first album from Jake Bugg tended towards strum-driven tracks, often with acoustic openings. A few songs were rock played at quick tempos, but a folksy feeling dominated. Working with Rubin on his second album, Shangri-La, Bugg went into overdrive—things feel faster, electrified, bashed out. Bugg bruises the listener with an opening suite of aggressive tracks, and even when he slows things down, the sweet Everly Brothers-like harmonies that he displayed on earlier tracks are mostly gone, replaced by nasal, cutting vocals. This doesn’t mean Shangri-La is compelling—it’s a schizophrenic album from an artist torn between his softer past and his hard-edged present—but it certainly packs a wallop.
Already in 2014, Rubin’s work continues: he produced the solo debut from Jennifer Nettles, a country singer famous for her duo Sugarland. Just as he did with Bugg, Rubin heard a side of Nettles that wasn’t always apparent in her country work—she’s got a voice for blue-eyed soul, a consistently commercially successful genre over the years. And like with Shangri-La, That Girl is uneven, lacking consistently strong songs. But in the title track, Nettles sings over a smart handclap beat with the rasp and steam. It’s not so much a reduction as a shift in priorities. And it sounds like a smash.