Rick Rubin talks about his creative evolution, personal influences, crashing the production for Yeezus and continuing to make music history in an interview with The Daily Beast. Rubin talks about the minimalist traits of hip-hop that initially drew him to the genre; the stylistic approach Rubin has mastered is what prompted Kanye West to request an audience with the Def Jam founder in his Malibu home. He goes on to discuss the power of the less is more edict and explains how his childhood love of The Beatles influenced his approach to songwriting in hip-hop – a change that would affect the structure of the average track for the foreseeable future. From starting a record label in his NYU dorm room to signing Public Enemy and being present for the recording of N.W.A.‘s Straight Outta Compton, it is obvious that Rick Rubin is a pillar of the rap world at the very least. What may not be as obvious is the amount of projects, artists and concepts that have managed to benefit from his sage advice or the acute sensibilities of his legendary ear and approach to production. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that he is an omnipresent and priceless force in modern music. Examine where he’s been to understand where he’s going and why so many people remain in line to follow him.
How did you come 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.
What did the album sound like at that point?
Kind of meandering, unfocused, usually without his vocals. 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.
He wasn’t stressed.
Not at all. I said, “I have a record coming out in November that’s a lot further along than this.” He said, “Really? What are you doing for the next five days?” I said I was going to go away. Then he said, “Please help me. Would you be open to fixing it and shaping it and finishing it off?”
Did he realize how much more work it needed?
To me it seemed impossible what he was asking. I remember I wasn’t feeling that well that day, and I was thinking, Is the music making me sick? I don’t feel good about this. We ended up working probably 15 days, 16 days, long hours, no days off, 15 hours a day. I was panicked the whole time.
Each song on the Beastie Boys’s debut album, Licensed to Ill, has “a life of its own.”
What was the process like during those 15 days? How did you find a direction for the album?
There was so much material we could really pick which direction it was going to go. The idea of making it edgy and minimal and hard was Kanye’s. I’d say, “This song is not so good. Should I start messing with it? Can I make it better?” And he’d say, “Yes, but instead of adding stuff, try taking stuff away.” We talked a lot about minimalism. My house is basically an empty white box. When he walked in, he was like, “My house is an empty white box, too!”
It’s a good thing you were on the same wavelength, because the sheer logistics of finishing the album must have been daunting.
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.
When he came to you with the record, did you have a sense of what needed to be done?
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!”
So there might be another Yeezus in the pipeline?