Simply calling Rick Rubin a “producer” misses what has made him such an important modern musical figure: He has been a guru, shaman, caretaker, curator, therapist and friend for many artists, coaxing some to produce their greatest music ever. What he does simply cannot be reproduced.
Using already-published interviews as a backbone, author Jake Brown constructs a discography-based look at Rubin’s career in the recently released book “Rick Rubin: In the Studio” (ECW Press). Not a tabloidy tell-all, “In the Studio” instead is a gearhead’s delight, giving some insight into the famed Rick Rubin recording process.
Red Devils fans, however, will be let down — the Devils’ Rubin-produced “King King” is not mentioned save for a discography at the back of the book. The lone mention of the Devils in the text is a graph about the Mick Jagger blues sessions, not even noting that this “Los Angeles blues ensemble” was a Def American band.
However, there are some insights that can be gleaned into “King King” by studying Rubin’s other works and his philosophy — his less is more, or “production by reduction,” style.
Adhering to a strict chronological narrative, “In the Studio” is essentially two books in one. The first — and better — half details Rubin’s rise through the New York hip-hop underground, founding Def Jam Records in his dorm room with Russell Simmons. Rubin seems a product of his times; growing up on classic rock, but finding himself in the outsider worlds of early ’80s punk, hardcore and hip-hop.
It’s these diverse influences that inform his early work with LL Cool J and Run-DMC. Here, the classic Run-DMC-Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way,” one of the most important rock tracks of the day, is dissected yet again, but with a fly-on-the-wall approach that makes the oft-told story fresh.
Pushing the rap-rock concept even farther, Rubin finds his perfect musical partners in the Beastie Boys, a hardcore band in love with the burgeoning rap scene, where there were few rules to follow. Rubin is literally the fourth Beastie: A DJ and producer crafting their sound on a classic rock foundation. And Rubin began a close relationship with Beastie Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, according to Def Jam publicist Bill Adler: “I think pretty early on Rick decided that Ad-Rock was the dominant, creative force in the group, and so he was just gonna get very tight with Ad-Rock.” Devil Dave Lee Bartel echoed these sentiments in Dan LeRoy’s “The Greatest Music Never Sold”:
To the annoyance of the Devils, the producer now seldom deigned to make contact with anyone but [Lester] Butler. “He would take one person out of a band and only communicate through him,” says Dave Lee Bartel. “Usually the lead singer, who isn’t always the best leader.”
By 1988, Rubin had split with Simmons and formed his own Def American (later American) record label in California. This is where Rubin’s talents really shine, as he is exposed to a wide variety of music, and given lots of latitude for the work he chooses from distributor Geffen Records. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Crowes, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Danzig, Slayer — and, yes, The Red Devils — were some of his early projects in Cali.
It’s in the second half that the book’s greatest flaw is revealed: The reliance of previously published material rather than original reporting. Rubin productions that have garnered press coverage are given more weight than those recordings that were smaller or perhaps ignored at the time. This explains the M.I.A. status for the woefully underheard “King King,” and why minor records by Donovan and Audioslave, for example, are so disproportionately represented, whether they are the best or most representative of Rick Rubin or not. There seems to have been very little editorial oversight to help guide the reader through the real milestones of Rubin’s career.
As Rubin became more famous, he also became more reclusive, forcing Brown to look to more and more esoteric sources to round out the narrative. Much of the later material is drawn from guitar magazines, for instance, with pages and pages of detail on every guitar and bass and amp and microphone and technique used by Flea and John Frusciante on “By the Way” and “Stadium Arcadium.” Pages go by without any mention of Rubin at all.
Some details — including how Rubin always “serves the song,” and Metallica’s noting that Rubin only gets involved in the process when needed for a critical ear — are illuminating. That Metallica wanted to get Rubin cohort George Drakoulias to produce “Death Magnetic,” but Rubin himself took over, mirrors the Red Devils’ experience exactly, according to “The Greatest Music Never Sold.”
Certainly, not every record could make the cut in this bio, and the Devils are noted in the discography. However, when the book’s premise is Rubin’s love of and success over all genres, ignoring the only blues band he produced, and a small “local” band at that, might seem to be a critical omission.
Publicly, Rubin has always spoken highly of “King King.” In a 2006 USA Today article, Rubin noted “King King” as a favorite of his, along with albums by Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and the Chili Peppers. And some of his comments even contradict “In the Studio”: While the book says Rubin was “closed off” to live performance, Rubin in the Sept. 6, 1992, New York Times said, “I wanted people to get to hear them the way I heard them. … And it’s kind of unusual to do a first LP as a live album.”
That Rubin selected the Devils to work with both Mick Jagger and Johnny Cash, however, is the real testament, and their work with the producer puts them in very good company, whether or not this book explicitly demonstrates that.
If the premise of using previously published stories was of such importance, a better book might be a Rick Rubin reader, with full, unique articles culled to create a mosaic of the producer.
Thankfully, author Dan LeRoy came at the Devils thoroughly, and with original interviews with several of the players. The best “In the Studio” does is reinforce much of what LeRoy has already written.