Category Archives: pop culture

Pop culture observations.

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.

Queen of All Scream Queens: Barbara Steele

Black Sunday (1960)
Black Sunday (1960)

With wide, dark and haunting eyes, Barbara Steele is known to horror fans worldwide as the “Queen of all Scream Queens.” Having starred in Mario Bava’s highly praised 1960 Italian film, Black Sunday (a.k.a. Mask of Satan), Steele cemented her place in horror movie history by playing the dual role of Princess Asa Vajda — a witch / vampire hybrid — and Katia Vajda, her victim. Despite being dubbed in England and America, the movie made Steele an international star, and the film became an almost instant cult classic. In the decades that followed, she would be sought out by the likes of Roger Corman, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme — even Ryan Gossling — for her often odd, mercurial presence.

Barbara Steele
Barbara Steele

Born on December 29, 1937 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, Steele studied paiting at both the Chelsea Art School and the Sorbonne; but her first love was acting. Reportedly the last person to be signed as a contract player for the Rank organization, Steele began her film career in the late 1950s, mostly in bit parts in forgettable films. She eventually signed to 20th Century Fox, and spent time in Hollywood. Yet little work came here way. Flaming Star (1960), a western vehicle for Elvis Presley, was her big chance at Hollywood fame; but, reportedly due to her thick British accent, she was replaced by Barbara Eden. Steele claimed she quit the production. Whatever the cause, she left Hollywood in 1960 for Italy. Her first role there was in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

It was Black Sunday that brought her to the attention of Roger Corman, whose Richard Matheson penned mishmash of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) was her very next film. As Vincent Price’s wife Elizabeth, she is a spectral presence — seen mostly in flashback — for much of the movie. But a memorable ending, with Steele’s piercing eyes peering from behind the small slit of an Iron Maiden, was enough to further build her reputation in genre pictures. Once again, her mere presence in even a small scene demanded attention, though Corman — believing her working-class English accent too big a distraction — had her voice later, ironically (as it was an American production), dubbed.

Moving on to the truly terrible Italian film The Horrible Doctor Hitchcock (1962) and a small but critically noted part in Fellini’s (1963), Steele was underused. Many Italian films followed, including more forgettable horror films (The Ghost, and Long Hair of Death), then an odd turn as a suspicious wife in a short vignette that was part of 1964’s I Maniaci. Her presence, once again, sets her apart from other actresses in the film — perhaps the very reason why her image was placed squarely on the movie’s somewhat salacious poster where men stare at her (a feminist field day for those who study the male gaze).

Again, as before, Italian horror films followed, including the more notable Castle of Blood (1964), and Nightmare Castle (1965).  In 1966, she would make her last “Italian Gothic” film: An Angel for Satan —though the Italian-British production of The She Beast could also, technically, have that distinction. Shot in only 21 days, She Beast saw Steele paid just $1,000 for a single day’s work.

Work followed in the 1970s in the form of exploitation (in Jonathan Demme’s 1974 directorial debut: Caged Heat) and b-grade horror — including David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978). She would close out the seventies with a starring role as a psychotic killer in one of the first “slasher” flics ever made: 1979’s The Silent Scream.

She would retire from the screen for the entirety of the 1980s, and the 90s, with the exception of a role in Dan Curtis’ early nineties remake of Dark Shadows for television. It wasn’t until the 21st century that her career would be revived in two of her most well-reviewed roles: 2012’s The Butterfly Room, an American-Italian thriller, and 2014’s bizarre fantasy noir Lost River, as a MIss-Havesham-esque grandmother in Ryan Gossling’s directorial debut.

The Ghost (1963)
The Ghost (1963)

Italian director Ricardo Freda —who inexplicably used the English sounding pseudonym of “Robert Hampton” to direct Steele in 1963’s The Ghost — wrote glowingy of the actress in an article for Mid-Miniut Fantastique published that same year; he remarked that “her eyes are metaphysical, unreal, impossible… [and] there are times in certain conditions of light and color, when her face assumes a cast that doesn’t appear to be quite human, which would be impossible for any other actress.”

That Barbara Steele stare
That Barbara Steele stare

Indeed, it is her visage — her eyes, her expression, and a glance that could be both inviting and dismissive— that has defined her career. Early on, she was never much given the opportunity to speak. But those eyes. Those eyes told stories.

Though she would never become a household name outside of genre films, her fans are obsessive. Black Sunday posters like the one at the beginning of this article still sell well to this day. And up until just a few years ago, she attended conventions, drawing large crowds of autograph hounds. If she had begun and stopped with Black Sunday alone,  her place in horror movie history would have been secured. But her vast body of work over several decades has earned her the right to be called not only a scream queen, but their Queen.

For it is her ability to express without words the terror of both monster and victim that sets her apart from so many other actresses. As Freda put it, she can assume an expression “that doesn’t appear to be quite human.”

Is it any wonder then that so many directors of horror films over the last fifty years have sought her out. Horror is unsettling when it challenges our preconceptions of what it is to be a monster. What it is to be the victim.

Indeed, what it is to be human.