Rick is one of the most important people in the music business you have never heard of! He has already won nine Grammys. MTV said he was “the most important producer in the last 20 years.” And Time magazine even named one of “the 100 most important people in the world!”
Rick is not short for “Richard” in his case but “Frederick,” and we have to admit “Rick Rubin” sounds better than “Fred Rubin.” But, just like with his name, Rick knows what people want to hear. Over the years, Rick has produced pretty much every kind of music, from hip-hop to heavy metal to country, usually with the biggest stars in those fields.
Rick liked music even in high school in Long Beach, New York, where he learned to play guitar, had his first band, and founded Def Jam Records. He cut his first record in college, of his own punk band. The band went on to play with major acts, like Husker Du.
Then he discovered hip-hop. He and a rapper friend produced a record that went worldwide! This friend introduced Rick to Russell Simmons, who promoted musicians and concerts, and the two of them went on to make music history. Now Def Jam was a real label, even if it was run out of Rick’s dorm room!
Now, Rick is Jewish, and Russell is African-American. Their first two acts were LL Cool J and Public Enemy, also African-American... and the third was The Beastie Boys, also Jewish. Now that hip-hop is one of the most important kinds of music in the world, we think it’s pretty cool that it was about inclusion from the very beginning.
Here’s what Rick’s bio from the site allmusic.com says: “Rap broke worldwide in 1986 as a result of two landmark LPs, the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill and Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell, both of which Rubin produced. A year later, he also helmed Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the debut record from arguably the most pivotal act in hip-hop history, the renowned Public Enemy.”
But already, Rick was fusing his rock past with the rap present. So the next natural step was to merge Run-DMC with the hard rock band Aerosmith for the breakthrough hit “Walk This Way.” The line comes from a joke the band liked from the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein .
Speaking of movies, Rick was even in a movie Def Jam produced called Krush Groove based on his friend Russell and the birth of hip-hop.
By that point, more people wanted in with Def Jam, and Rick was edged out by another Jewish producer, Lyor Cohen. But Rick was already, as usual, on to his next idea.
And that was a new label called Def American. There, he focused on the hard-rock side of his tastes, signing Slayer, Danzing and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. But he still kept producing albums for his old hip-hop friends.
Then Rick realized that the word “def” had become so common it was even in the dictionary! So he held a funeral for the word “def” (no, really! He put the word in a tiny casket and buried it!) and changed his label’s name to just: American Recordings.
Those two words were also the title of the first album on that label. It was for country great Johnny Cash, who despite his legendary status had had a string of records that did not sell well. Johnny made four albums with Rick, which completely saved Johnny’s career and reputation before he died (the movie Walk the Line about Johnny, played by Joaquin Phoenix, came out 2 years after). On these albums, Johnny did his own songs, some traditional favorite, and even some hard-rock numbers Rick showed him.
Rick followed this series up with other albums for great-but-older artists, including Neil Diamond, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty, Donovan... and even heavy metalists Metallica.
Mostly, Rick is known for taking away background singers, violins, and other schmaltzy elements to let the performer’s personality and voice come through. Maybe it’s something he learned from all those years working with rappers... who just had their voices and a beat!
At the Grammys, 2007 was really Rick’s year. Before that, he got Grammy-wining performances out of Slipknot, System of a Down, and Shakira. But that year, he won Best Producer, mostly for his work with the Dixie Chicks on their Taking the Long Way album, which won Best Country Album and also the biggest Grammy of all: Album of the Year!
We already mentioned many acts Rick has produced, but here are some more: hard rock's AC/DC, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day and ZZ Top…hip-hop’s Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z… acts that merge rock and rap like Linkin' PArk and Kid Rock... world music’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan… alternative acts like Weezer and and Adele... other mega-popular acts like Sheryl Crow, Josh Groban (who is Jewish!), Justin Timberlake, Jakob Dylan, and U2!
Bonus:Like they did the movie industry, Jewish chance-takers practically invented the modern music industry, creating record labels and studios that gave musicians the resources they needed to become international sensations.
Some of these people were businessmen who understood promotions, some were musical craftsmen who actually helped shape the musician’s sound in the studio, and some were a lot of both! Here are some of the Jewish music-biz people who were so important they made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with the great musicians they produced (just a note-- most acts have different producers at different times):
Clive Davis— Rock legends like Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, The Grateful Dead, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Santana, and Billy Joel, and soul singers like Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, but also Sara McLaughlin (folk), Diddy (hip-hop), and Alan Jackson (country).
Leonard Chess— Landmark blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Willie Dixon, plus jazz singer Etta James and rock-n-roll pioneer Chuck Berry.
Jerry Wexler— Soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and The Drifters but also Dire Straits... and Bob Dylan.
Phil Spector— Studio genius who created the “Wall of Sound” sound for The Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner, and Ben E. King.
Milt Gabler— Jazz royalty like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Louis Jordan, and the folk stalwarts The Weavers.
Syd Nathan— Many names known mostly to R&B fans but also James Brown.
Mo Ostin— Classic rockers like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and The Kinks, but also folksier acts like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and James Taylor… and songwriter Randy Newman.
Seymour Stein— Major punk and ’80s acts like The Ramones, The Talking Heads, The Pretenders, The Replacements, The Smiths, The Cure… and even Madonna!