What do Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash, the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and Red Hot Chili Peppers have in common? Rick Rubin produced their best work
By Barry Didcock
FOR a long time, the only Rubin in Neil Diamond’s address book was Eddie Rubin, a member of his backing band in the late 1960s. Not any more. Joining Eddie is Diamond’s new best friend, Rick Rubin – a semi-reclusive millionaire who hides behind a wild beard and a pair of sunglasses but whose musical vision and Midas-fingered production skills have just given the singer his most successful album in decades.
It’s called 12 Songs and it was released in America to immediate critical acclaim last November, putting Diamond in the top 10 for the first time in 13 years and securing him his highest chart position for a quarter of a century. Under Rubin’s direction, the record consists of Neil Diamond singing 12 songs accompanied by himself on guitar. Instrumentation, where it does creep in, is sparse and tightly focused. The suite’s late-night feel is made even more intimate by Diamond’s habit of counting himself in. It will be released in Britain later this month.
What a change from a few years ago when, far from dropping off the radar, Diamond wasn’t even in the air. His back catalogue was formidable, of course – among the pop classics he has penned are I’m A Believer, Sweet Caroline and Both Sides Now – but the one-time housewives’ favourite was struggling for relevance as the 21st century dawned.
In 2003, however, Rubin began making overtures to Diamond. He wanted to produce new work that the singer would write. They agreed to meet and were soon spending hours just sitting around listening to music. Diamond liked to play rock and roll classics but Rubin was soon turning up with Diamond’s old records under his arm. It was, as Diamond has admitted, ‘mostly stuff I hadn?t listened to in years’. Things he liked, things he didn’t like, and things that made him ‘want to know what the hell I was thinking’.
Something unlocked inside Diamond and for a year afterwards he wrote: just him and a guitar and some pencils and the yellow legal pads he has always favoured for composition. When Rubin came they would talk and play and when Rubin agreed Diamond was ready, a small hand-picked band of musicians was hired, among them Beck’s guitarist, Smokey Hormel, and Benmont Tench, formerly of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.
Today, the results are obvious . Rolling Stone magazine, CNN and Oprah are all falling over themselves to talk to Diamond. With Johnny Cash gone, will the iPod generation choose this 65-year-old Brooklynite as its new favourite elder statesman?
And why not? It was, after all, Rick Rubin who resurrected Cash’s career with the legendary quartet of albums he began in the mid-1990s with American Recordings (1994), named after Rubin’s own record label. As he has just done with Diamond, Rubin put Cash in a room with just a guitar and a tape recorder, and waited for the right moment before pressing record. The result was some of the best music Cash ever made and, importantly, a new, younger audience eager to hear country music’s original outlaw singing songs by their own heroes, people like Nick Cave, Depeche Mode and Trent Reznor of US rock band Nine Inch Nails.
Other Cash/Rubin albums followed : Unchained in 1996; American III in 2000 (on which Cash covered Neil Diamond?s Solitary Man); and American IV in 2003. Each was critically acclaimed and sold by the bucketload. Underlining the impact Cash’s late flowering has had in the US is the fact that a film of his life, Walk The Line, is in the running for an Oscar. Hollywood A-lister Joaquin Phoenix has also been nominated for his role as Cash. America’s darling Reese Witherspoon plays his wife, June Carter.
Would any of this have happened without the telephone call Rubin made in 1993 asking for a meeting with Cash? Probably not. But then Rick Rubin has always had a talent for making the unlikely happen – a Jewish rock fan and college graduate from Long Island, he founded seminal hip hop label Def Jam in the 1980s, turning Run-DMC into the first rap superstars and discovering LL Cool J, Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys along the way. Splitting from his Def Jam partner Russell Simmons in the late 1980s, he founded American Recordings and continued to produce acts as varied as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mick Jagger, hardcore rockers System Of A Down and Slayer, as well as right-wing stand-up Andrew Dice Clay.
Cash’s first impressions of Rubin were not good but are worth noting. ‘He was the ultimate hippy,’ he wrote in his 1997 autobiography. ‘Bald on top but with hair down over his shoulders, a beard that looked as if it had never been trimmed (it hadn’t), and clothes that would have done a wino proud.’
Today Rubin operates out of a 1920s mansion overlooking LA’s Sunset Boulevard rather than a New York University hall of residence, but the look has changed little since the NYU student started out in the music business in the early 1980s. Others who have visited him in the Hollywood Hills echo Cash , describing Rubin as a ZZ Top roadie, a biker Bhudda, an ageing Hell’s Angel.
Born Frederick Jay Rubin in 1963, he grew up in Lido Beach on suburban Long Island, an hour from Manhattan. The only child of well-to-do Jewish parents, he had to find his own way musically and was drawn to rock bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Later he discovered punk rock and the music of Black Flag, the band which so influenced the young Kurt Cobain. Rubin has said: ‘Typically, people learn about music from older brothers and sisters, and I didn’t have that, which forced me to create my own taste . [I] was searching for things that appealed to me . Which is why I got into punk . I know I didn?t get my taste from anybody else.?
In 1981, the year he enrolled at New York University to study film, that eclecticism led him to hip hop, then still an underground movement confined to areas such as the Bronx. His questing ear took him to Negril, one of the first downtown clubs to feature hip hop DJs, and there he met hip hop pioneer Jazzy Jay. A door opened: Jay took him to the legendary Bronx ‘jams’ ? outside sound systems set up in housing schemes where DJs battled it out on the decks until the police came – and from there to uptown clubs such as Disco Fever and Broadway International.
‘I think I was kind of a novelty,’ Rubin told author SH Fernando Jr in his hip hop history The New Beats when asked about his entry into the nascent hip hop scene. ‘They appreciated the fact that I was such a fan and that I knew so much about the music.’
But what Rubin really wanted to do was make music . So one day in 1984, he and Jazzy Jay went into PowerPlay studios in Queens with rapper T LA Rock, handed over $300 and recorded It’s Yours. Def Jam had its first single and an empire was born – even if its head office was Rubin’s term-time residence: Room 712, Weinstein Hall, New York University.
The song was a hit in the clubs and brought Rubin and Def Jam to the attention of ambitious black impresario Russell Simmons. He provided cash, contacts and kudos and became a partner in Def Jam. The musical direction, though, was all Rubin’s.
Run-DMC and a 15-year-old Queens street kid called LL Cool J were early Def Jam successes. Later recruits would include Public Enemy, who were political, aggressive, anti-authoritarian and whom Rubin viewed as a black version of The Clash, a band he loved. White record buyers loved them too, lapping up albums with titles like Fear Of A Black Planet and Public Enemy remain one of hip hop’s most iconic acts. Rubin’s genius, as the hip hop critic Nelson George has observed, was to add ‘heavy metal timbres to the beat emphasis of old-school DJs, creating a new way of hearing hip hop’.
Rubin also signed former punk act The Beastie Boys and masterminded the success of their 1986 debut album, Licensed To Ill, which sold four million copies and made them rap’s first white stars. In the same year he teamed Run-DMC with hoary old rockers Aerosmith to create Walk This Way. It was a masterstroke: hip hop’s first crossover hit and a seminal moment in the history of the form.
In the same year, Def Jam cemented a lucrative deal with media giant Columbia and on November 4, 1986, New York’s Village Voice newspaper ran an article on Rubin in which he was billed ‘the King of Rap’.
Two years later it was all over. Rubin had walked away, moved to California, set up a new label (Def American, later American Recordings) and submerged himself in projects closer to his first love, rock music.
He signed bands like The Cult and hard rock acts Slayer and Danzig, and in 1991 he teamed up with LA funk-rock outfit Red Hot Chili Peppers, persuading their singer Anthony Kiedis to set one of his poems to music. In doing so he gave them their first top 10 hit – Under The Bridge, a ballad about heroin addiction. The album it came from, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, went on to sell seven million copies and Rubin has produced each of their albums since. A new record, Stadium Arcadium, is released this spring.
Now 42 years old, Rubin has produced more than 90 albums in a variety of genres which have sold 100 million units between them. Visitors to his LA home are met with a sign which says, ‘Quiet please, meditation in progress’, and, when not working, the vegan Rubin passes the time swimming. Or hanging out with friends like actor Owen Wilson. Or reading. Or listening to Bach.
Actually it’s hard to see how he has time for any of those things as his work rate appears to be increasing rather than decreasing. As well as 12 Songs there were a further seven Rubin-produced albums in the US top 10 last year, two of which went to number one. Moreover, it was announced recently that Rubin would produce the next album by Justin Timberlake, quite probably the hottest male artist on the planet today.
Rick Rubin may claim to have no idea of his net worth, surrounding himself with a Zen-like aura which affects to be above such mundane things as cash flow and bottom lines, but there is no doubt that the man with the Midas touch is one of the most powerful figures in music today. So if Neil Diamond wants those 12 songs to become 24, 36 or even 48, he’d better not lose that number.
Twelve Songs is released on February 20