Swami Rock

 

To meet the master, one must climb the mountain. From the foothills of the Sunset Strip, up the West Hollywood incline, past shrub, Porsche and Humvee, and on to the wrought iron gates of an umber Moorish caste. Somewhere therein, far from the cravings of our earthly sphere, Rick Rubin sits contemplating the Tao of Rock.

A sign at the entrance asks visitors to remove their shoes, a pile of Pumas and flip-flops attesting to devout compliance. Another says, “Quiet, Meditation in Progress” – this, after all being home to the producer of Slayer’s Reign in Blood.

One quails at entering the dark, spacious mansion, guarded by a giant Buddha flanked by a grand piano and harpsichord. If Rubin’s public image weren’t imposing enough – in his video cameo for Jay-Z’s Rubin produced “99 Problems,” he looks like a big, bearded, sunglassed Rosicrucian mobster – the man’s professional stature is even more daunting.

Rubin, 42, is a maker of not just great albums but careers and even genres. Co-founding Def Jam Records in the mid-‘80s, Rubin crafted radio-ready songs out of New York’s underground hip-hop, steering early albums by Run-DMC, L.L. Cool J, and the Beastie Boys. With his label Def American (later American), he set a new standard for loud, confrontational music with acts from Danzig to the Geto Boys. He took the Red Hot Chili Peppers from a splintering group of ‘80s burn-outs to ‘90s pop stars, helmed top-selling albums by Audioslave, Weezer, System of a Down, and Shakira, and rejuvenated no less an icon than Johnny Cash, assisting the brilliant final stage in his career. He’s a studio sensei. A music mandarin. The King of Rock (there is none higher).

So who’s this merry, rotund figure, barefoot in jeans and white T-shirt, sitting half-cross-legged on a brown velvet sofa?

“Hey,” Rick Rubin says softly and warmly, leaning over to shake hands. His beard and face-framing frizz are mottled auburn and grey. His eyes are bright blue, and his mellifluous voice and easy manner recall less a rock wizard than a celebrity chef or New Age doctor. The room-lining shelves in this library are filled with hundreds of books on spirituality (The Sign and Seal, The Bhagavad-Gita, Beyond Gurus, The Universe. A giant stuffed polar bear [named Harry] looms over the sofa and a black Hungarian Puli [named Monday] trots by the door.

Rubin sips a bottle of passion fruit green tea and fingers a string of Lapis prayer stones. “It’s a stone that’s supposed to bring wisdom,” he explains. He wears no jewelry but a small, framed microchip pendant around his neck. “It’s supposed to amplify your aura,” he says, shrugging.

Cynics might snicker at a New York rap maven gone so Cali-transcendental — with his veganism, wind chimes and a meditation practice that sent Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo into 20-day Vipassana retreats spent in total silence, in a closet. Rubin is drug-free, has been drunk once in his life, and only recently reintroduced fish and eggs into his diet, which he says has noticeably impaired his meditation. “It’s a give and take between physical strength versus spiritual connection,” he explains. “When I was a vegan, I found myself going to deeper places than I can when I’m eating some animal stuff.”

What all this has to do with rocking’ might seem elusive until you consider the nature of Rubin’s job. Attentiveness to spirit and inner balance are crucial when your sole purpose – the engine of your empire, the butter on your bread – is listening.

“That’s really my job,” he says. “I’m an audience more than anything else.” As he talks, an old, Jimmy Van Heusen-produced big-band song plays through a stereo most audiophiles only dream of: zebrawood-paneled speakers, custom-made in Germany by Audio Physic, glass-encased Howland tube amplifiers, an Ayer CD player.

“This is my reference system,” Rubin says. “I do all my listening here.” It’s hooked up to high-speed phone lines so he can monitor mixes from remote studios in real time. “I can listen from here and phone with suggestions, so I can be working on three different records at once without ever leaving the spot.”

Rubin is not a studio virtuoso in the Phil Specter or Daniel Lanais mode. “He’s a guy who’ll never touch a single knob,” says Audioslave and former Rage Against the Machine guitarist, Tom Morella. There is no “Rubin sound” per se. “It’s more about aesthetic than anything else,” Rubin says, then struggles to describe his.“Stark maybe? Direct? In your face?” Such impulses was forged in hip-hop, when Rubin was charged with making three-minute songs out of then-standard single-groove, nine-minute storytelling raps. “I grew up on the Beatles, with a song-structure mentality then was attracted to the rhythm and the purity of hip-hop – the punk-rockness of it.” Hip-hop also taught him, he says, “how to make a finished-sounding record out of very little.”

These necessities matured into an enduring ethic of Zen minimalism. “When you have the multitracks of our old rap records and listen to what’s there, people are often surprised by how it’s composed of so little,” he says. “Even to this day when I make records, I feel that the less you can get away with, the better. The space that you have is as important as the notes.”

Rubin points to a few works that approach rock’s Platonic ideal — George Martin’s Beatles records, Mutt Lange’s AC/DC work. (Tom Morello sums up Rubin’s guitar-solo aesthetic as follows: “The more the solo sounds like [AC/DC’s] Angus Young, the better it is. The less it sounds like Angus Young, the worse it is.”) “They’re the perfect rock band.” Rubin explains. “If you took another great band and had them play exactly the same thing, it wouldn’t be anything like it. lts pure. And it’s an accident, in a way.

“All the very best music is an act of God,” he continues. “l mean, what are the chances that the four Beatles would happen to be in this little backwoods country town? The Beatles are the best proof of God’s existence.”

He asks if we can take a quick break so he can listen to some mixes from an ongoing project — a new record by onetime pop giant [and fellow NYU student] Neil Diamond. Rubin takes a CD from an engineer, puts it on, and from the speakers comes a pristine rendition of Diamond’s husky croon, singing a tender ballad over acoustic guitar and xylophone. “Save me a Saturday night… Leave me some room at your table…” It’s gorgeous -– a far cry from the hairy-chested Atlantic City belter who sends himself up in movies like Saving Silverman. “Slip into our heart if I might…stay here as long as I’m able.”

Rubin nods along, eyes closed. Lips slightly parted, recalling the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan- -whom Rubin has also produced — swaying to a devotional qwali chant.

“This,” he tells the engineer. “This is more right. You can hear the edges of the vocals better.” You also hear the soft whistling of fingers of frets. Rubin insisted Diamond accompany himself on guitar. “I haven’t done that since ‘Kentucky Woman’ and ‘Cherry Cherry,’” Diamond tells me. “Rick wanted the connection between the guitar and the performance, like they weren’t separate things. It was a real insight. He wanted to get down to the essence. Bring my work to where it was without the bells and whistles.”

Rubin squints. “His vocals are just a touch more sparkling here,” he says, gesturing like Paul Giamatti parsing a Pinot in Sideways. The engineer nods.

During their work together, Diamond developed a deep reverence for Rubin, despite some key lifestyle differences. “Rick is very much into natural forms of food and I’m more a junk-food guy,” Diamond reports. But one night in the studio, Diamond`s half-joking offer of a pizza slice was accepted. “And that one act proved to me that Rick Rubin is human,” Diamond says. “He’s just like the rest of us, only smarter and more talented.”

A similar endorsement would surely come from Rubin’s famous resuscitation, Johnny Cash, who was a faded giant when Rubin met him in 1993, after which the two formed a very close friendship and made five studio albums, one of which included a devastating version of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” A final album from the Cash sessions, American V, remains to be released and will include “Like the 309,” the last song Cash wrote before he died in 2003. “All I can say is it’s very personal and very good,” says Rubin.

Rubin attributes his renowned skill at coaxing greatness from performers to simple respect. “I’m just concerned with documenting the best version of the artist l’m working with,” he says. Among his many performance-enhancing techniques is what psychoanalysts call the “non-directive response.” When Rubin began work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1999, he spied a bit of confessional verse Anthony Kiedis had scrawled in his notebook, convinced him to sing it, then quietly suggested he bring it in to the studio. It ended up becoming the band’s biggest hit, “Under the Bridge,” but Rubin never once used a hard sell.

“You could do the greatest thing you’ve ever done and he doesn’t react any differently than if you’re sucking that day,” marvels Kiedis. “When he hears something that stimulates his interest, he knows right away – before I do –if it’s right or wrong.” Rubin’s motivational force is his own enthusiasm, Kiedis says. “And you it’s know it’s a very genuine enthusiasm.”

How genuine? When my stray comment slights hip-hop producer Lil Jon. Rubin doesn’t just protest, he takes us to the Tower Records on Sunset, buys me the Lil Jon CD Kings of Crunk, and minutes later we’re rolling down Sunset, blasting it at top volume, Rubin’s head nodding to the merciless, mid-tempo onslaught. “…Back up, bitch/Get the fuck out my way,” screams a ragged Lil Jon. “Move the fuck back, bitch/Move the fuck back –”
The song’s power, Rubin explains, is in its dogged adherence to theme. These lyrics are screamed at one pace, at one volume, without variation for an entire verse. After which verse two explores another motif: “What you lookin’ at, nigga, what you lookin’ at, nigga?/What you lookin’ at, nigga, what you lookin’ at, nigga?” And so on for another minute.

“Throughout my time in hip-hop, there were people who understood hip-hop and people who didn’t,” Rubin says. “And the pcople who didn’t, hated it, and thought the worst of it. And what those people thought hip-hop was? That’s this album.” He means this as a compliment. “It’s taking it to such an unmusical extreme that it’s fantastic.”

The next song plays, and again: no chorus, no melody, no rapping even. It’s just hollering beef over a thick, harrowing groove. “Man, fuck that shit, nigga, fuck that shit/Man, fuck that shit, nigga, fuck that shit…” See?” Rubin says as the line keeps repeating. “It’s like a mantra.”

As we pass the Beverly Hills Police Department, another song starts. “You ride up to the club, nigga/I don’t give a fuck!/Sit yo’ ass in the club, bitch/I don’t give a fuck!/Drinkin’ Cris in the VIP/I don’t give a fuck!” When the six-song tour-de-force finishes, one thing is apparent other the artist’s not giving a fuck. What Rubin calls the Ramones Effect is in full bloom. One or two such songs and their creator is clearly a talentless hack. Six such songs in a row, without variation, and you sense the slowly accuring force of a new ars poetica from a diabolical genius.

We pull up to a stoplight. “It’s perfect,” Rubin says of this violent, militantly moronic music from the young century. “It’s transcended rapping, even. Now it’s just screaming and yelling the same thing over and over. It’s what I’ve been waiting for.”

Naturally, Rubin has already produced a song with his new favorite, having just finished a new Lil Jon CD. “He congratulated me on helping him take crunk to a new level,” Rubin says, chuckling. Since he has so many ongoing projects (the Dixie Chicks among them), Rubin’s a bit fuzzy on this recent opus’s title. He thinks for a moment, strokes his beard, and stares into the distance.

“l think it’s called ‘Fuckin’ With Me,”‘ he says at last. He makes a right on Sunset, then heads off to the East.

 

 

2008