Music Business Masterminds: Rick Rubin

The man who made Metallica great again.

Ultimate Guitar
Music Business Masterminds: Rick Rubin

What does any legendary band start from? Exceptional talent? Luck? Set of circumstances? Maybe… But one thing is certain – you need the best producer to help you to maintain the “legendary” part. We feel that producers are key members of a band and it’s ridiculous that most of the time they remain in the shadows. To restore justice we want to start a series of features to highlight the legendary producers for the UG community.

You’ve heard about Rick Rubin, haven’t you? If you haven’t, just take a look at your iTunes. Slayer, Beastie Boys, Metallica, Jay-Z, System of a Down, Kanye West, Johnny Cash, Slipknot, Kanye West, Black Sabbath, Frank Ocean, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Diamond, Chance the Rapper... Whoever you have there, great chances are that they are Rick’s clients and students. Rubin client list is so diverse that it's safe to say that any music geek will absolutely hate 50% of his work.

Here’s what Slayer’s Tom Araya has to say about working with Rick.

YouTube preview picture

First as co-founder of Def Jam Records, famously founded in his college dorm room in 1984, then in his role as head of American Recordings, Rubin has produced some of the most important albums of the last 20 years. In 2007 he was named co-president of Columbia Records. The same year MTV called him “the most important producer” and The Times included him in the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Rubin has received eight Grammy awards, including Album of the year which he won with the Dixie Chicks and Adele in 2007 and 2012. His achievements have impacted the culture in profound ways.

Here is Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s Interview on the birth of Def Jam Recordings:

YouTube preview picture

Rick helped the Justin Bieber to make his latest studio album “Purpose” (2015). The album debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200, selling 522,000 copies in its first week of release, giving Bieber the largest first-week sales of his career and his sixth number-one album in the United States. Elsewhere, it reached the top of the charts in other eleven countries.

A debut studio album by System of a Down was produced by Rick Rubin (as well as most of their successful albums). It went gold on February 2nd , 2000 and two years later, after the success of Toxicity, it became platinum. It was a great career start, wasn’t it?

Rick Rubin about his collaboration with Jay Z: “Jay Z was coming out of retirement and asking different producers that he liked to each do a track. We went in several times. He had started something that was more rooted in the old Def Jam sound. He suggested using 808s, so we came up with a polyrhythmic beat that functions in a similar way to "Going Back to Cali." The idea for the song was Chris Rock's idea. He said, "Ice-T has a song called '99 Problems.' It's a great title: 'I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one.' It's a great phrase. Jay Z could make a great record out of that." I told that to Jay, and he wrote the song based on the title. The idea was, it's the opposite song. In the Ice-T original song, it's all about the girls. Our idea was, "OK, this will be a song with the same hook about the problems."

In 1994 Rubin began a working relationship with Johnny Cash that continued until Cash’s death in September of 2003. The four albums that they have released constitute some of the most timeless music of the past half-century. Rubin said: “I think the idea to work with Johnny Cash appeared because at that point in my career, I had worked pretty much exclusively with young artists, either making their first album or their second album. There might have been minor exceptions to that, but I really felt like it would be an exciting challenge to work with an established artist, or a legendary artist who might not be in the best place in his career at the moment. The first person who came to mind was Johnny, in terms of greatness and in terms of maybe, at that moment, not doing his best work.”

YouTube preview picture

  Part of Rubin’s approach to producing is to get an artist to write more songs than they need. So that is what he said about working with Black Sabbath: “They probably wrote more than 20 (songs). We probably recorded 16. And there are eight on the album. But it made sense to me because in the past they were on a roll from album to album, and now they haven’t been a band together in 35 years. The idea that after 35 years the first 10 songs you write are perfect is unrealistic. It took two years, two years from the time we first met to the time the album was finished. Back in the day, Black Sabbath was essentially a jam band. That’s how they wrote. And they had gotten away from that. They were used to making demos: here’s a click track, here’s where the guitar riffs are. But what made Black Sabbath Black Sabbath was the way each of them interpreted what the others were playing. Those reactions create tension—they create the band’s sound.

YouTube preview picture

He also worked with Metallica on their Death Magnetic album. In one of his Rolling Stone interviews he said: “The main goal of our work together was to get them to re-embrace being Metallica, feeling OK to be a heavy metal band. In some ways, they had already done that, but before that, they had tried to reinvent themselves in different ways. I tried to get them to re-engage with everything everybody fell in love with, with Metallica, in the first place. I got them to listen to the music that they were listening to at the time that they made Master of Puppets, those influences. I asked them to live with those influences and spend more time playing together as a band.

They'd fallen into a trap of using the studio more as an instrument and punching in parts to get the perfection they were looking for than they were getting through raw performance power. It was about getting them to not try ideas by editing them together with a machine, but to try playing them in different orders to see what they felt like. And they really ended up getting back to being a band.”

YouTube preview picture

Rick Rubin sincerely believes that doing business means making a dream come true, not just milking money. He considers "The Beatles" the ancestors of all modern music industry. He explains his attraction to different musical styles and genres as a desire to evolve, to keep pace with the times, to look for variety and inspiration and to be mobile in the modern world. His work is a permanent search for balance, a way to help a musician to be their best selves.

Rick Rubin likes to use "soft power", not compulsion. I guess it might be considered as his secret weapon. But at the same
time, he is known as a man of principle and a warrior of the truth, which is very rare in the music business.

What are your favorite Rubin’s projects? Do you agree that producer plays a huge part in a musician’s success? What producer would you like to read about next time?

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

    From what I can tell from previous articles, the biggest achievement Rick Rubin has ever accomplished, is making the world believe that he is a great producer.
    That article doesn't say anything about him being a bad producer. It just talks about how much he likes to lie down and has become "known" for it.  From what I understand, Rubin has a very unique style of producing that people either hate or love. My personal take on it, from the various articles and interviews I've heard with either him or artists who have worked with him, is that he doesn't focus so much on molding the music itself but molding the musician, instead. This seems to lead to interesting results. Like Metallica's Death Magnetic for instance: the final mix was terrible. But the music was solid and felt like the return of Metallica. Rubin helped Metallica find themselves again but, unfortunately, dropped the ball during the mixing and/or mastering (seems to be a debate where it got screwed up).  In any case, I don't think his faults disqualify him as being a great producer. Not when his name has been on some of the best music to come out in my lifetime. His mixes might not be the best, but his albums always stand out and are always solid. For those that truly think he is a highly overrated producer, I still don't personally think Rubin would deserve the shit he gets. Let's assume Rick Rubin does suck as a producer and is nothing but a lazy phony. Wouldn't said shit would be better directed at the artists for choosing to work with a crap producer? A phony could only fool people for so long before you'd have to start blaming the artists for using him. Or maybe he fools the artists into thinking he is a good producer? In that case, Rick Rubin is a genius for turning himself into a placebo that, at the the very least, has fooled the artist into thinking it is producing results. 
    I don't think there is (or should be) a big debate where it got screwed up. To me it's pretty clear that whoever mastered this album compressed the fucking hell out of it and made it absolutely painful to listen to it. The mix is pretty solid though, just listen to the "remastered" version (I guess you heard about the guitar hero story)
    From a technical point, I think that Rick Rubin is an average producer and thus just overhyped. There are a lot of people who could satisfy the minority of audiophiles in this world better, but there are also a lot who could do worse. He just had the opportunity to work with well known bands. And that's where I think adamjones77 could have made a fair point ("In that case, Rick Rubin is a genius for turning himself into a placebo that, at the the very least, has fooled the artist into thinking it is producing results.") Just my opinion, though. 
    I agree with you that the mastering is where that album got screwed up. And its pretty much because of the Guitar Hero version of the songs that don't have distorted drums and all kinds of clipping occurring. I just didn't want to open up another potential debate in the event people were still arguing that it was the mix, not the master, that was the problem. 
    That's why Greg Fidelman was the producer of Hardwired. Like Corey said, Rick is/was rarely in the studio, but he knows how to catch that sound and dictate what's sounds good for a band. I have no opinion about Rubin, a lot of his artists mention he's a phantom producer.
    How about we dont base our opinions on people based on what we read in UG "articles" with quotes from a guy who wears a mask all day
    Trust me, Not just Corey, some of his client was pretty upset with him. or else Metallica would work with Rubin instead of Greg, or Slayer would stay in American Recording instead of Nuclear Blast
    Wrong. The great producers are those who make subtle things in a song. Not overproduced bullshit so they try to be in the spotlight instead of the band itself. Rubin is a great producer.
    "They'd fallen into a trap of using the studio more as an instrument and punching in parts to get the perfection they were looking for than they were getting through raw performance power." Seems like they are still in this trap - it's clear from the making-of videos on both Death Magnetic and Hardwired that they really only play a few samples of each section and repeat/cut/mix them on hardware until it looks like a full song, rather than play mostly a full song in a few takes.  This is why they need to practice a song like Spit Out the Bone so much since they've never actually played it as a band.
    But what I really want to know is what Corey Taylor thinks about... Oh, wait.. He already told us xD
    Rick Rubin is such a great producer that people have finally taken for granted how great he is. Hes at the level of Spielberg in directing or Lebron in basketball where nobody appreciates what he does anymore because their so used to seeing it. Its not a coincidence or luck that the guy has more successful albums under his belt than any other two producers combined
    Can we as a society PLEASE stop using spins on 'Make America Great Again"? Not only does it immediately conjure up our joke of our president, it's just lazy, uninspired writing. 
    I don't know, for me, Rubin just seems to attach himself to the right names. He hasn't done anything extraordinary as a producer, he just happens to be the producer for bands that release highly regarded albums. 
    Rick Rubin has destroyed the bass on the albums he's "produced". And for what its worth, he destroyed Linkin Park. Well, there it is.
    Wut? Minutes to Midnight was a great album. Unless you're talking about the new one, I haven't paid attention to the band in a bit.
    The man has such a wide-ranging affect on modern music, it can't be denied he does something for the artist's music. From putting Slayer on the map, to producing some of the greatest Metal, Hip-Hop, and Pop albums (Produced not Mixed) you can't say he "does nothing" or whatever Corey Taylor said that one time. I think his role as a producer is a little deceiving, he doesn't sit there at the mixing board and say "Do another take, that wasn't good enough" like a typical producer. Rubin seems more like a councilor or coach/guru who focuses a bands effort as a whole, and not just in the studio production. 
    He produced Reign in Blood, so I can't really bring myself to hate the guy for what he did with Death Magnetic. Plus the backlash from that brought about a fantastically produced album like Hardwired, so in a way we should be thanking him.
    As far as Metallica goes....what Bob Cock destroyed, at least Rubin got their balls back.  Granted, the recording wasn't perfect but the songs got better.
    uh! Please do one on Flood! He produced Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and i wuvs the sound very much. And most of the other stuff too! Flood is GOD!
    Ask the beatles if a producer is important, George Martin was essentially the 5th beatle
    Really, of all the things Rick Rubin has done, a jab at Metallica is what you went with for a subtitle?
    Rebel Scum
    And many artists have tried to get him into Hendrix and failed. Its very sad.
    Going to school for production, so thanks for this new series UG! Brendan O'Brien next please
    A question from my own inexperience: What exactly does a producer do? I figure asking someone who's going into the field would have a pretty good concept, rather than asking the general cesspit of the internet.
    Lol no problem! A producer does a lot, in my school (Full Sail) they try to teach you every skill that one could do. But it all comes down to what kind of producer you want to be. So I have learned the highly extensive ins and outs of recording, including using software such as Pro Tools and Logic Pro. And then you have to learn mic techniques, how to record certain instruments, how rooms and elements within them fit together for the final product. The producer is essentially the extra member to the artist (they give them advice and try to take the band to the next level by shaping their ideas). Depending on who you listen to you can always hear their signature sound on them. And some people who go into production just settle for engineer, which is someone who sets up all the gear and then runs the mixing board while artists record. Then there are people who specialize in mixing and also those who specialize in mastering. So for example, on Avenged Sevenfold's new record, The Stage, they had an engineer, who recorded the raw audio of the band. A mixer, who got all the instruments at the right levels relative to one another. And finally a mastering person, who essentially professionally boosts the volume of the track and does any final EQing so it is read for radio, streaming, vinyl, etc. And an overall producer who oversaw the operation, gave input to the band, told the engineer what to fix and all that jazz. But the producer could also do all those four parts by them self, but that's pretty rare. Then, you have to learn how to write and compose music/lyrics, almost 100% of the pop songs you hear on the radio were written or co-written by producers (just like in the old days). Scoring and composition for film, television, commercials, and video games. They have to understand social media and how to properly promote artists. etc. etc. etc. But again, it all comes down to what you want to do as a producer at the end of the day. So yeah hopefully I didn't make that confusing and could help clarify that for you. Or at least give you a basis. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask!
    So, in short, a producer is someone who should be able to write, record, mix, master, advertise and manage all in one? Wow. That's a lot.  Have their been any self-produced bands that were successful (I think I might know of a couple but just curious)?
    A lot of bands coproduce with the producer. One that comes to mind is Muse. Steven Wilson and Devin Townshend do all production by themselves I believe. Van Halen is another, on 1984 Eddie took over as producer of the band and has recorded every album since I think. But he definitely did 1984. Jimmy Page has done like all the Zeppelin records. Outside the realm of rock, a lot of rappers self produce all their material.
    I don't think I ever liked his producing, just he happens to be put on successful records. He's like if you took the fangs off and replaced them with fillings.
    He just happens to produce a TON of commercially and critically acclaimed albums. And it just so happens nobody is even anywhere NEAR his level of success. Ok.
    I don't like the sound of his records at all, but I like the songs. There's a difference to me. 
    The only ones I genuinely like are the Johnny Cash's American records and that's primarily because Johnny Cash had so much talent even a shit producer couldn't make him sound bad. Upon listening to Audioslave again while mourning Chris Cornell I realized just how brickwalled those albums are which is a shame because they don't need to be.
    Johnny Cash has released some pretty mediocre albums. He is a legend, but let's not kid ourselves.