Category Archives: music

Music. Reviews. Reminiscences.

Taste, Culture, and Balance: The Work of Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin has been called “the most important producer of the last 20 years” by MTV. Time Magazine listed him among the 100 Most Influential People of 2007. He has worked in such diverse areas a hip-hop, classic rock, heavy metal, and country. Yet his stripped-down approached to music production — one that focuses on artists and not artifice —is a signature sound that crosses all genres of music. And it makes him one of the most sought-after producers in the music business.

Rick Rubin with Jay-Z
Rick Rubin with Jay-Z

Johnny Cash. System of a Down. Jay-Z. Adele. The Dixie Chicks. Rarely would those acts be placed in the same article together, let alone worked with in a studio by a man who helped redefine each of their sounds. But that is quintessential Rick Rubin. Not defined by limitations of genre or confined to what’s popular on the charts, Rubin has spent the last thirty years getting the best out of artists by having them step outside of comfort zones, strip down to essentials, and open up with an honesty that few, if any other producers could obtain. In the process, he has, consciously or not, challenged the status quo.

“I don’t know anything about music,” he told Esquire Magazine (https://www NULL.esquire NULL.com/entertainment/interviews/a2294/esq0107rickrubin/) in 2007. “My job has very little to do with music. It has more to do with taste and culture and balance.” A difficult combination to quantify taste, culture, and balance would seem to suggest that Rubin is part fan and part philosopher. He knows what he likes to hear, and senses what the rest of us want as well. His is not a music landscape of similar-sounding acts that define a genre, but an ideal where the most talented artists are able to sound their best in a studio where Rubin can bring out the best in them. His methods are often considered unconventional — especially when it comes to stripped-down instrumentation and full-presence with little effects of an artist’s vocal — but the results are unquestionable.

Beastie Boys & Rick Rubin
Beastie Boys & Rick Rubin

His career started with LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Run DMC. Following the foundation of Def Jam records (from his NYU dorm room) in 1984, Rubin —with eventual help from Russel Simmons — tapped into a cultural revolution where rap had become the music of the streets, and a generation of kids, from New York City to suburban America, were hungry for it. These acts were outsiders, and Rubin found a way to raise their relevance by doing little more than giving them crisp instrumentation over which the impact of rapped lyrics could be clearly heard. But it didn’t begin and end with rap; Def Jam found other disenfranchised acts that had difficulty getting attention from other labels. Most notable was Slayer, a metal band that was a huge departure for the label, and the Cult  — whose 1987 Electric transformed them into a stripped-down, kick-ass rock ‘n roll band from which Rick cultivated songs like “Love Removal Machine (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=C_EQ9Gr9bfU).”

In 1988, Rubin quit Def Jam and headed to Los Angeles, where he founded Def American (which would eventually become American Recordings in 1993 — after Rubin rejected the then cultural implications of the word “Def”). Continuing his success with heavier rock bands, Rubin turned to Danzig. And that opened the way for more traditional rock bands like The Black Crowes, whose 1990 album gave American their first major success, and whose follow-up, 1992’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, gave the label its first #1 album. There was hip-hop, too: Sir Mix-a-lot got a lot of attention for “Baby Got Back,” that same year.  He also gained notoriety for the meteoric rise of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose firth studio album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) — produced by Rubin — gave the band their first hit “Give it Away (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=Mr_uHJPUlO8),” a song that won a Grammy Award in 1992 for “Best Hard Rock Performance With Vocal” and became the band’s first number one single on the Modern Rock chart. Rubin’s association with the Chili Peppers would go on to be one off the more successful of his career.

Rick Rubin with Johnny Cash
Rick Rubin with Johnny Cash

The other association with an artist — and the one for which Rubin may best be remembered — is his work with Johnny Cash. Cash, coming out of a lost period where his record company had dropped him and his relevance had seemed long past, was encouraged by Rubin to record many of his old songs (like “Delia’s Gone”) alongside covers of works by Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen — even Glen Danzig. These “American Recordings” would be released throughout the nineties and into the new millennium, outliving even Cash himself with two albums released after his death (American V: A hundred Highways and American VI: Ain’t No Grave).

It is with Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (in 2002) that both the man in black and the man with the beard each may have found the most powerful and profound recording of their respective careers.

For Rubin, it is a career that took him well — successfully well — into the new millennium. And found him working with one of the most charismatic and popular artists of the last twenty-five years: Jay-Z. Their collaboration, The Black Album (2003) produced a song only second to “Hurt” in its mastery: “99 Problems (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=go8ljH1P3_0).” Rick’s suggestion that “99 Problems” start a-cappella was a masterstroke.

Rubin’s methods may not always be met with instant positive reaction from artists; many struggle with his opinions. As Billboard reported (https://www NULL.billboard NULL.com/articles/columns/pop-shop/6752944/adele-talks-album-delay-regret-damon-albarn), Adele had to re-record and reconsider elements of 25 because of Rubin’s advice. But she acquiesced, and all parties now seem happy about it. Arguably, it’s the push and pull he has had with many artists that have helped them produce their best work.

Over the course of thirty plus years, Rick Rubin has had his hand in one way shape or form in over 200 releases by radically diverse artists. Too many to document here, his production discography can be found (like most things!) on wikipedia (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Rick_Rubin_production_discography). Most recently, he has helped Smashing Pumpkins dig deep to find their purest alternative rock roots on “Solara (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=Do3tSdZucyA),” a song set to appear on one of their planned upcoming LPs.

Who will he turn to help transform next?  To paraphrase his own words, it would most likely be an act of taste, important to culture, and one in need of the balance that only Rick Rubin as producer can bring.

Gonna Die Young: Stiv Bators & the Dead Boys

Among the many American bands that played CBGB in the late seventies and have gone on to take their place in history as pioneers of punk rock, the Dead Boys are often overlooked. With only two albums to their name (one of which the band themselves disliked because of its producer), they were eclipsed not only by CBGB regulars like the Ramones and Television, but by punks across the pond: the Sex Pistols and the Damned, especially, with whom the Dead Boys shared a sound that was more angry and arrogant than most of their contemporaries.

When and where the punk movement began is a matter of great debate among music historians. Critics have applied the term “protopunk” to everything from sixties garage bands and seventies Glam to Detroit’s MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. But most cite the formation of the Ramones in January 1974 — with their first gig, at Performance Studios, on March 30 — as a good a place to start as any. Television took to the stage at CBGB the very next day. And Blondie (billed as Angel and the Snake) would do the same in August — quickly followed by the Ramones themselves. All would become CBGB regulars. But CBGB in the mid 70s was not packed with fans, clamoring for these bands. Most artists were paid in beer, and crowds often numbered little more than the members of the bands themselves, their friends, and roadies. Punk had started, but very few outside of New York and London knew.

Except in Cleveland. Rocket From the Tombs (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Rocket_from_the_Tombs) — formed in 1974  — shared the same DIY ethic with bands from the east, and would oddly enough put Cleveland on the map of punk hotspots. Despite never going into the studio and leaving behind only a handful of poorly recorded live songs, RFTT had talent. And out of their ashes came Pere Ubu (in 1975) — and the Dead Boys (in 1976).

The original Dead Boys line-up included two RFTT alums —  Cheetah Chrome on guitar, and Johnny Blitz, on drums. They would even play a few RFTT songs, including Dead Boys‘ classics “Sonic Reducer” and “Ain’t It Fun.” But finding gigs few and far between in Cleveland, they picked up and moved to New York in July 1976 (with the encouragement of Joey Ramone, coincidentally, who got them their first CBGB gig).

It was at a CBGB gig that the the Dead Boys opened for the Damned — three nights a week. By the time 1977 rolled around, the band had a record deal with Sire.

Dead Boys' Young, Loud and Snotty
Dead Boys’ Young, Loud and Snotty

Released in October 1977 (the same month as the Pistols’ seminal Never Mind the Bollocks), Young Loud and Snotty — arguably a better album — was met with minimal commercial success. That same Fall came support of the Damned on a UK tour, and though “Sonic Reducer” would get crowds cheering (and, in true punk fashion, jeering), few if any Dead Boys‘ work made it to the radio, or the newspapers, for that matter. They always seemed to be in the shadow of The Damned and The Sex Pistols overseas, or the Ramones at home. Despite Cheetah’s Chrome’s blistering guitar work and Bators’ anarchic, nihilistic, almost punchdrunk energy, it would take years before the Dead Boys began to get the credit they deserved. Pearl Jam and Guns and Roses would cover their work in the decades that followed (“Sonic Reducer” and “Ain’t it Fun” respectively). Fans like Henry Rollins would keep their memory alive in interviews and cover versions, too (in an age before YouTube where everyone can live on and on). But there wasn’t enough of a following to keep the band afloat. A breakup was inevitable. Disappointment with the mix of their second album, We Have Come for Your Children, and a grueling U.S. tour that left them, for the most, broke, spelled the end for the band in 1978. A contractually-obligated live album was released, and there were a couple of attempts at reunion. But by 1979, the Dead Boys were essentially, um, dead.

Stiv Bators
Stiv Bators

Stiv Bators would go on to record some solo work and play with other bands. He eventually found some critical and commercial success with ex Damned guitarist Brian James in the punk / new wave / hard rock hybrid that was Lords of the New Church (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/The_Lords_of_the_New_Church).

It was with LOTNC that Bators would continue his on-stage antics, including hanging himself by a microphone cord, tied to a lighting rig. In 1983, the trick went bad and Bators turned blue. He was taken to the hospital and told he had been clinically dead for a few minutes. But Bators shrugged it off and joked: “Once you’ve actually died on stage…, I mean, how do you top that?”

Stiv lived his last years in France. In June 1990, just standing on a sidewalk in Paris, Stiv was hit by a car. He walked away from the accident — checking into, and then later released from a hospital —but he died later in his sleep at home. He was 40 years old.

Brought together by guitarist Cheetah Chrome, the Dead Boys would reunite in 2017 with a guy from a Dead Boys‘ tribute band on vocals. But like the man says, you can’t go home again. CBGB is gone. Punk rock has been absorbed into the mainstream, and John Lydon makes butter commercials (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=7mSE-Iy_tFY).