Photo © Glen E. Friedman
Rick Rubin works harder than you. He’s wiser, more interesting and way more connected than you, too. Just ask Kanye West, who recently took a trip to Rubin’s Malibu home as he wrapped up his sixth solo LP, Yeezus. During his visit, Kanye let Rubin hear a disorganized “mountain of music,” which Rubin then proceeded to sort through and refine until he and West came up with the challenging, thought-provoking and critically-acclaimed Yeezus. Some have been quick to call Rubin the savior of the album, but really, that’s just what Rubin does: he helps major artists focus, finds their strongest suits and in the process gets them to make their best possible work.
More recently, Rubin has been seen in a series of commercials promoting Jay-Z’s forthcoming Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay’s 12th studio album. In the commercials, Rubin goes from listening to the album while laying on a couch barefoot to listening to Jay describe the album while sitting up on said couch barefoot. It might sound weird, but it’s exciting; you not only get to see Jay in his element, you also get a glimpse of the typically reclusive Rick, doing what one assumes he does best—listening. While Rubin had no hand in actually producing the project, as Jay’s longtime friend he listened to most of Magna Carta and agreed to appear in the documentary to discuss its songs. As far as obsessively-private public figures go, there’s no way to peg Rick Rubin, or guess what he will or won’t do.
There also really isn’t much to say about the man that hasn’t been said. He was an early adopter and curator of modern hip-hop culture; he’s a visionary producer who discovered a young and aggressive LL Cool J, a wily bunch of punk kids named The Beastie Boys and the outspoken radio DJ Chuck D and released their early works via Def Jam Recordings (a label he founded in his NYU dorm room); and he’s a mythical zen master who helps create timeless, cross-generational music all while sitting in the Malibu sand and stroking his flowing beard (well, that last part may be an exercise in myth-making).
In his nearly 30-year career, Rubin has not only been instrumental in helping hip-hop cross over into the mainstream, he’s also followed his unfaltering instincts into working on some of the genre’s most important works. Simply put, Rick Rubin’s got a golden ear, and more importantly, a golden intuition. He doesn’t simply understand the zeitgeist—he embodies it. And by chasing the songs that move him, he’s happened upon some of hip-hop’s most progressive and commercially successful artists and projects.
In a candid phone interview, the living legend took a retrospective look back at his storied career and spoke to XXL about his contributions to ten of the most important hip-hop albums ever released, from LL Cool J’s Radio to Lil Jon’s Crunk Juice to Jay-Z’s The Black Album.