I spent last Friday hanging out with legendary record producer Rick Rubin at The Band’s old clubhouse in Malibu. He was just about to notch his second No. 1 album in a row: first Black Sabbath’s 13, then Kanye West’s Yeezus. We talked about those records, but we spent most of the day discussing the rest of his career—discovering LL Cool J, writing “Girls” with Ad-Rock, stalking Chuck D, convincing the Red Hot Chili Peppers to record “Under the Bridge,” running Columbia Records. Rubin was a marvel: wise, generous, and just really, really cool.
Here’s a short excerpt:
I know it’s an impossible question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, because you’ve helped create a lot of them: what makes a great song great?
I don’t think you can define what it is, but you know it when you hear it. It’s amazing that sometimes you might hear a song that, knowing what you know, won’t make sense—and yet it will still be great. There are songs that can transcend whatever genre limitations they have or style limitations they have.
So you don’t believe that, say, a great melody is necessarily part of a great song?
No, no. I think one of the things that really drew me to hip-hop was how you could get to this very minimal essence of a song—to a point where many people wouldn’t call it a song. My first credit was “Reduced by Rick Rubin.” That was on LL Cool J’s debut album,Radio. The goal was to be just vocals, a drum machine, and a little scratching. There’s very little going on.
Why was that so important to you?
There’s a tremendous power in using the least amount of information to get a point across.
Read the rest—all 5,000-plus words—in the latest digital issue of Newsweek.
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