You may not know what he looks like, but you know who Rick Rubin is. In fact, you’re probably listening to something he wrote or produced while you read this right now. For the past 30 years, Rubin has been one of the most influential and important figures in music. From co-founding Def Jam records to producing albums for artists such as AC/DC and Justin Timberlake, Rubin’s impact on the industry is unparalled.
Most recently, Rubin had a big hand in producing Kanye West’s Yeezus. The producer sat down with The Daily Beast for a fascinating interview, during which he discussed his involvement in West’ record, his take on the industry today, and stories from his lengthy career. Check out some highlights below:
On how he came to work on Yeezus:
Kanye called me. I’d just finished working at the studio for about two months on another album, and I was getting ready to go away on vacation for a couple weeks. Then he called up and said, “Can I just come play my album?” And I said, “Sure.” I always like to hear what he’s working on. So he came over to my house in Malibu. We listened. I thought I was going to hear a finished album, but actually we listened to probably three and a half hours of works in progress. I assumed that the album was scheduled to come out next year. So I said, “When are you thinking of finishing up?” And he said, “It’s coming out in five weeks.” Like completely confident and fine.
On how down to the wire Kanye’s Yeezus really was:
Three days before Kanye had to turn the record in he tells us, “I’m going to Milan tonight.” There are probably five songs that still need vocals at this point. Two still need words! So he says, “I have to go to this baby shower before I go to Milan. I’ll be back at 4 p.m., and from 4 to 6 I’ll do the vocals. Then I have to go.” I say, “OK,” thinking it’s not OK, and he says, “Don’t worry. I’ll score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.” Again it just seemed impossible, but that’s basically what he did. He didn’t come back until after 4, and we probably didn’t start until after 5. He said, “I have an hour and 10 minutes. Let’s go.” And then it was full-on NBA finals [laughs]. It probably ended up taking two hours. Five vocals. He wrote two lyrics on the spot.
On the possibility of a follow-up Yeezus:
Initially, he thought there were going to be 16 songs on the album. But that first day, before he even asked me to work on it, I said, “Maybe you should make it more concise. Maybe this is two albums. Maybe this is just the first half.” That was one of the first breakthroughs. Kanye was like, “That’s what I came here today to hear! It could be 10 songs!”
On his admiration for The Beatles:
It transcends everything. It’s much bigger than four kids from Liverpool. For me the Beatles are proof of the existence of God. It’s so good and so far beyond everyone else that it’s not them.
On his role of an “outsider” when he first crossed over to hip-hop:
The thing is, when you’re a fan from the outside of something, you can embrace it in a different way than when you’re a fan from the inside. Run-D.M.C. could be sort of gangstery in their own way, pre-gangster rap, because they were suburban kids. Kurtis Blow, who was from Harlem and really around gangsters, he didn’t want to be a gangster. He wanted to look above it and wear leather boots and be more like a rock star. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were really inner-city, hard-life guys, and they wanted to be from outer space.
On why taking time to record an album is important to him:
From the beginning, all I’ve ever cared about is things being great. I never cared about when they were done. Because I also feel like I want the music to last forever. And once you release it, you can’t go back and fix it, so you really have to get it right. And that takes time
On trying to sign N.W.A:
I remember hearing the song “Straight Outta Compton” for the first time and I couldn’t believe it. Loved it. And I remember going to see them play. I think it was in Inglewood. It was the first time I saw a lot of guns in hip-hop. Before N.W.A went out on stage, a guy came around with towels, and he opened up the towels and there were loaded guns. And everybody got loaded up to go out on stage. It was unbelievable. And I remember Eazy-E walking around backstage watching a portable TV and holding a machine gun.
On his best memory of working with Johnny Cash:
On our first album, there was a song he wrote, I can’t remember which one it was, but I listened to it and said, “Do you think you could take some of the ‘I’s and ‘me’s out of it?” And he thought about it and he was like, “Yeah, I think I can do that.” And he did. So 10 years later, I’m visiting him in Nashville. He’s in a wheelchair. He’s blind, pretty much. It felt so awkward. So I said, “What have you been working on lately?” And he said, “I’ve been working on using ‘I’ and ‘me’ less.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah. Remember? You gave me that comment on the song? That’s what I’ve been working on.” Incredible. He didn’t mean it in the context of songs. He meant it in the context of life.
On what’s wrong with the music industry today:
People are willing to get short-term gains at the risk of long-term choices. So, if someone can do something to sell a few more records now at the expense of the artist, even if that artist will sell a lot less later, they’ll make that choice. A lot of it has to do with structure, because the structure of the music industry is rooted in a corporate structure. It’s a quarterly business, but art is not a quarterly business. It has a different ebb and flow. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. You have to look at it as a longer-term game.