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The 'Song Doctor' Is In
From Audioslave to Neil Diamond, Recording Artists Know Producer Rick Rubin's Touch Is a Powerful Tonic

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

LOS ANGELES It's impolite to stare, but since Rick Rubin is in a meditative state, his eyes sealed, there's little chance he'll catch you gawking.

And so you lean forward to study the iconoclastic record producer's beard up close. What a sight!

Rubin's hirsute hallmark is wiry and unruly, its craggy tips resembling a seismic reading. Nearly as long as it is wide, the salt-and-pepper beard droops to Rubin's chest; given his sprawling bald spot, it's as if there'd been a hairslide on his ample mug and nobody bothered to clean up the mess.

Maybe they were all just afraid: With his similarly unkempt hair, Rubin can appear ridiculously imposing, almost Hell's Angelic -- though in his current state of tranquillity, he sort of resembles Confucius, or maybe David Crosby during his nodding-off days.

And . . . and suddenly Rubin is staring right back, with piercing blue-green eyes.

Gulp .

"Isn't it beautiful?" he says softly.

He smiles. You nod.

He nods. You blink.

"It really feels like we captured a moment in the studio," he finally says.

Oh, right -- he's not talking about his beard , silly! It's the Neil Diamond song that's been thundering over the outrageously high-end stereo system here in the library of Rubin's magnificent Hollywood Hills home.

Rubin is playing one of his favorite tracks from "12 Songs," the riveting album he coaxed out of Diamond last year. It was the crooner's best-reviewed work in decades, landing on more than a few music critics' best-of-2005 lists; "12 Songs" also resonated with fans, reaching the No. 4 Billboard ranking -- Diamond's highest chart position in 25 years.

Not that the success was a surprise, given Rubin's record for producing critical and commercial hits -- particularly in 2005, when the sonic swami sandblasted the upper reaches of the charts and repainted them in all of his favorite colors. Gold and platinum, to be precise.

You may not have heard of Rick Rubin, but you've definitely heard Rick Rubin, whose variety-pack soundtrack has become inescapable. The mercurial master of many domains, from rap and metal to country and Top 40, Rubin is probably the only producer in pop music capable of restoring Diamond's relevance while also making the art-metal band System of a Down sound sublime. Twice.

Two System albums ("Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize") headbanged their way to No. 1 last year, and Rubin had a hand in five more albums that reached the Billboard Top 5, plus an eighth that narrowly missed the Top 10.

Few producers have that sort of success in a career, let alone a single year. And certainly none do it working with such a broad range of artists: Dubbed "the king of rap" two decades ago by the Village Voice, Rubin has traded up to "the most successful producer of any genre," according to Rolling Stone. (Whether most successful means most moneyed, though, is unclear. Asked later what his net worth is, Rubin says, through a publicist, "No idea.")

The scorecard doesn't lie. Rubin's hits last year also included Audioslave's hard-rock album "Out of Exile," which went to No. 1, and Weezer's alt-rocker "Make Believe," which hit No. 2. There were also the two albums Rubin executive-produced for the hip-swiveling Colombian pop star Shakira ("Fijacion Oral Vol. 1" and "Oral Fixation Vol. 2," both Top 5 U.S. entries), plus "The Legend of Johnny Cash," a country retrospective that included six songs produced by Rubin. The Cash collection reached No. 11.

There was so much success that Rubin sometimes employs the royal we in discussing it.

"It feels nice that all the work we've done over the last 10 years has built up to this point," he says. "It's a testament to hard work; we're really not fooling around."

He adds: "I'm just trying to make my favorite music. That's how I work; I just do things based on the way they feel to me. I want to be touched by the music I'm making. Luckily, other people have shared that response to my work over the years."

And here, by the way, is how Rubin responds to his own work: While Diamond's song "Oh Mary" plays, its producer is entranced, his eyes closed, his bearish body swaying as he sits on a couch, barefoot, legs folded in the lotus position. As the track reaches a crescendo and Diamond's portentous baritone soars over a swelling string arrangement, Rubin leans back, as though floored by the emotional power of the song.

And he strokes that beard vigorously.

It's great to be Rick Rubin!

The respect! The royalty checks! The Rolls-Royce! The painstakingly restored 1923 mansion perched above Sunset Strip! The weekend house up the coast! The assistant who can be summoned from the next room via BlackBerry when he's thirsty for a bottle of organic unsweetened iced passion-fruit green tea! Ah, trappings.

Then again, there's work itself. That part is not so great, Rubin laments.

"I've really lived the last 20 years of my life in a recording studio," he says. "It's yielded great artistic results, but I don't know how good it's been for my life. I can't say it's always the happiest existence."

His sorrowful eyes seem to confirm this.

Rubin has a girlfriend and plenty of pals -- many of them famous. (Actor Owen Wilson, Rubin says, is "probably my best friend.") But he's consumed by his work, of which there's plenty. Just consider his current schedule: He's producing something like a half-dozen projects, for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dixie Chicks and former boy-band idol Justin Timberlake.

"We put everything we have into it all the time, whatever it takes," he says. "If we're going to do it, let's aim for greatness. Because, honestly, the physical act of documenting the ideas that you have is not fun. So if it's not going to be great, I'd much rather go swimming. Really. I might rather go swimming anyway. But at least aiming for greatness is a good foil for not being in the water."

The Tao of Rap

Since Rubin produced his first two rap singles in 1984, while attending film school at New York University, he's amassed a discography that's more than 90 albums long, a catalogue that's sold in excess of 100 million. What is the Rick Rubin sound? There isn't one. Just that signature standard for greatness, as Rubin's résumé includes more than a few classic albums.

There are the early rap masterworks (L.L. Cool J's "Radio," Run-D.M.C.'s "Raising Hell," the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill") and the landmark rock albums (the Chili Peppers' "BloodSugarSexMagik," Slayer's "Reign in Blood," System of a Down's "Toxicity"), plus the series of superlative recordings Rubin made with Cash over the last decade of the country legend's life.

"Rick is a brilliant producer, probably the greatest producer alive," says Dan Charnas, a music journalist who worked as vice president of A&R and marketing at Rubin's American Recordings label in the 1990s. "He's fantastic with sound and arrangements, and he's tremendous with artists. They love him. He shows them how to make it better, and he gets more honest and exciting performances out of people than anyone."

Or, as Timberlake told MTV News this month: "I saw Chris Rock out one night, and he said, 'You know who you should work with? Rick Rubin. He never does anything bad.' I was like, 'You've got a point.' "

If you enter Rubin's inner sanctum expecting to find chaos, mayhem and noise, you're bound to trip over your own disappointment.

He might still have an affinity for the kind of loud, confrontational music that makes adults twitchy. (See: Down, System of a. Or Slipknot.)

And the formidable man once dubbed "The Devil" by co-workers might look like a ZZ Top roadie, given his Buddha belly and beard, plus his penchant for wearing shades, jeans and oversize T-shirts. (Cash, upon first meeting Rubin, thought the producer looked like a hobo, in "clothes that would make a wino proud.")

But Rubin, at 42, is a man in search of peace.

The first sign is literally a sign as you enter his multilevel house, which also doubles as Rubin's primary recording studio: "Quiet Please, Meditation in Progress," it reads.

Inside, the place reeks of antiques and incense. Rubin apologizes for being wet, saying he's just taken a swim. He then leads you past the den, where a massive Buddha statue sits between two speaker towers, and into his library. There are black-and-white photos everywhere of Hendrix, Churchill, John and Yoko, and the bookshelves are heavy with path-to-enlightenment volumes, among other topics. A small dog follows Rubin to the couch, passing a taxidermied polar bear along the way. The bear, it's worth noting, is missing the middle digit on one of its paws.

Outside the French doors, beyond the twin palm trees, you can see L.A. in all its seedy, hazy, gridlocked glory. But you can't hear it; save for the sound of a helicopter that passes overhead, it's quiet in here. And bright. The room is bathed in sunlight, which is surprising given Rubin's reputation for leading a vampire existence.

"It's part of my constant move toward better things," he says. "When I wake up in the morning now, I even spend 20 minutes in the sun. When it was suggested to me, it sounded like jumping off a cliff. I always slept late, wore dark glasses, spent more time up and out at night. But I changed my hours two years ago, so I wake up in the shock of the sun before 9, and there's more natural light, and I really love it." He adds that he even takes two hours of "quiet time" when he wakes.

As his words trail off, the house falls eerily silent. Rubin seems to revel in the complete absence of noise -- a somewhat peculiar thing given that his life and livelihood revolve around sound, much of it "noizy."

But Rubin, who calls himself "a spiritual quester," says his favorite place to be these days is his second home in the coastal California town of Point Dume. "It's so quiet there," Rubin says. "I love that."

When he does venture out, it's often to dine at his favorite organic vegan restaurant in West Hollywood. (Rubin is a vegan, albeit one who wore a floor-length fur coat in Jay-Z's "99 Problems" video three years ago.) Mostly, though, he's home reading. Or listening to Bach. Or meditating.

"It's a big theme in my life, learning about myself and being a better person," he says. "I'm a work in progress; I have revelations every day."

Rubin is engaging, thoughtful and warm. He seems . . . sweet.

The cynic in you begins to wonder if he's putting you on.

This is, after all, the same guy who used to date a porn star, who once owned part of a wrestling league, who went to the First Amendment mat for Slayer, Geto Boys and Andrew "Dice" Clay -- abrasive artists who recorded, under Rubin's production guidance, some of the most shocking, controversial albums of the past 25 years, with unflinching tracks about murder, Satanic worship, necrophilia and Nazism.

So you check one of Rubin's references. Over the phone later, Neil Diamond says that the New Agey Rick Rubin is real.

"Despite his appearance, which can be really intimidating, Rick's a really good, sweet person," Diamond says. "He's really likable and sincere, and he's very easy to be with."

He laughs, then offers an addendum: "He certainly wasn't easygoing in the studio. He's a passionate, obsessive person, like I am. But I have so much respect for the guy. He's talented, and he knows music and he brings a fresh perspective." Diamond says he's itching to work with Rubin again: "I'm already writing songs for the next album."

The Tracks Ahead

What direction that project might take is anybody's guess. Including Rubin's.

"I never have a preconceived idea," he says. "I think that's one of the secrets of doing it, is not having any expectation of what it's supposed to be. You just let it take on a life of its own. Our job is to pay attention and watch and know when it's good. We just wait for those moments and try to capture them."

For Rubin, the production process begins well before entering the studio downstairs.

Songwriting is critical, he says. Always has been.

In 1984, when Rubin was trying to launch a record label out of his dorm room at NYU, he implored an aspiring teen rapper to add traditional song structure to his work, figuring that if it worked for the Beatles, it should work for everyone else. Rubin signed the artist shortly thereafter, and L.L. Cool J would become rap's biggest solo star. (Def Jam Records, the label Rubin founded with rap impresario Russell Simmons, didn't do so badly, either.)

A few years later, while working as a freelance producer for the Chili Peppers, Rubin was intrigued by an entry he'd discovered in one of lead singer Anthony Kiedis's notebooks. It was a poem about overcoming heroin addiction, and Rubin talked the reluctant singer into presenting it to the band. "Under the Bridge" would become the Chili Peppers' breakthrough hit.

"I don't even know what a traditional producer is or does," says Rubin, who unlike many other producers doesn't do the hands-on work with sound boards and such. "I feel like the job is like being a coach, building good work habits and building trust. You want to get to a point where you can say anything and talk about anything. There needs to be a real connection. My goal is to just get out of the way and let the people I'm working with be their best."

Says Daron Malakian, the principal songwriter for System of a Down: "Production with Rick doesn't mean you're going to sit in a studio. It might mean you go to a record store or to the beach. Or you go for a drive. You bond as people first. And then you get these songs, and Rick's like the song doctor.

"If you play something for him, it's like going in for a checkup. He's like, 'Here, take a couple of these vitamins and see how you feel.' And the songs always feel better after his suggestions. And so do you. He's just so easy to be around. That's why people keep going back to him."

Frederick Jay Rubin grew up in Long Island, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. He was, he says, smothered and spoiled by his parents, Mickey and Linda. His father worked in the wholesale shoe business, but his parents hoped their only child would become a doctor or a lawyer.

A fan of hard rock (AC/DC, Aerosmith) and punk (Black Flag, the Germs), Rubin was something of an outcast in school, wearing black leather and sunglasses and playing guitar in a hardcore band that landed a few gigs at the legendary New York rock club CBGB. He enrolled at NYU and had every intention of applying to law school until rap got in the way.

Enamored of what he considered to be black punk rock, Rubin was a regular at hip-hop clubs throughout New York but was disappointed by most of the studio recordings coming out of the burgeoning rap scene. So he began shopping his services as a producer.

"I'd buy the new hip-hop records -- and in those days you bought all of them, since there were only between three and five singles every week -- and they'd be these disco songs with guys rapping on them," he says. "And most of them were not good. I wondered what it would be like if a record felt and sounded like being at a club instead of trying to sound like a record."

In 1984 Rubin produced his first single, "It's Yours," for T La Rock and Jazzy Jay. Within two months the spartan song -- built around beats, rhymes and little else -- was one of the biggest rap hits in New York. Among those taking notice was Russell Simmons, a music promoter from Queens who also managed his kid brother's group, Run-D.M.C.

Simmons was shocked to discover that "It's Yours" -- which he'd declared the "blackest" song he'd ever heard -- was produced by a Jewish kid from Long Island. "For a long time I was the only white person in that world," Rubin says. "But it wasn't like I was let into a secret society. I was just the only one who cared. It was such a little underground scene at that point."

Room 712

Not for long.

In late 1984, Simmons and Rubin joined forces to launch Def Jam out of Room 712 at NYU's Weinstein Hall, with Rubin's parents fronting $5,000 for the venture. Soon, Def Jam landed a $2 million distribution deal with Columbia and the hits began coming, including L.L. Cool J's marvelously minimalist 1985 album "Radio" ("reduced by Rick Rubin," according to the credit).

At the age of 22, Rubin graduated from NYU and began working on albums by Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys. Obnoxious and bratty, the Beasties' 1986 debut, "Licensed to Ill," exploded rap's sonic boundaries (adding punk and metal to the mix) and blew up its demographic demarcations, too, by hooking masses of white suburban kids. "Licensed" became the first rap LP to land atop the Billboard pop chart. Along with "Walk This Way," the groundbreaking rap-rock summit recorded by Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith at Rubin's behest, the Beastie Boys album helped shove hip-hop into the mainstream.

As Def Jam flourished, though, Rubin's relationship with Simmons suffered. He also began turning his attention back to rock. By late 1988, Rubin divorced himself not just from Def Jam but from the East Coast entirely, moving to Los Angeles to launch Def American, "a label about American values." Hah!

Def American -- which eventually dropped "Def" from its name -- hardly trafficked in the sort of stuff you'd expect to find on William Bennett's iPod. Not with a controversial roster that included the Geto Boys, Slayer and such.

"I guess edgy things tend to get my attention," Rubin says. "But it wasn't the fact that it was offensive that made me like it. There were other offensive records that came out that I didn't like and wouldn't support, like 2 Live Crew. The music is what drives me; I just like great art and music, even if it's great and ordinary. But if it's great and it happens to be offensive, too, then that makes it even more exciting."

Rubin entered into a partnership with Time Warner that was reported to be worth between $75 million and $100 million, and his label jumped out to a fast start with bestsellers from the likes of the Black Crowes and Sir Mix-a-Lot. But the hits eventually stopped coming, even as Rubin was having success producing work for artists signed to other labels (Mick Jagger, the Chili Peppers, Tom Petty). And by the mid-'90s, he was in a dark place emotionally -- though it wasn't necessarily the stuff "Behind the Music" is made of, given that Rubin doesn't drink and says he's never done drugs. But still.

"We were going through a cold period, and it didn't feel good," he says. "I'd never had to deal with anything like that in my life. My work was being questioned, and it really shook me. It's a normal real-world experience, and if I'd had a different upbringing, it probably would've been nothing. But I was a spoiled only child, and I'd had success professionally from the beginning. There were certain issues that I didn't have to deal with before that were stirred up. I went through a period of depression."

Here, Rubin takes a deep breath, as if instructed by a yogi.

"I think I probably relate better to some of the artists now," he says after a few beats. "Because when they're in pain, I know what it feels like. . . . I'm definitely a different person now, and in a lot of ways I'm a better person. Probably not universally. But I like where I am."

Eventually the talk returns to music and to the country legend with whom Rubin forged a special bond. He offers to play a song from the posthumous Johnny Cash album he's readying, then digs through a stack of CDs and cues up the stereo.

As Cash's haunting spirit fills the room, Rubin again shuts his eyes. And this time, you do, too.

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