-- by Corey Moss
Just to be clear, the bearded mountain of a man riding shotgun with Jay-Z in the video for "99 Problems" is not there for protection.
While the hulking 40-year-old metalhead with the ZZ Top beard, black cowboy hat and ankle-length fur might look out of place rolling with Jay, it makes perfect sense that the rapper handpicked him to produce his supposed last single and to appear in his final video.
Jigga what? Sure it sounds odd, but by collaborating with the hirsute Rick Rubin on "99 Problems," hip-hop's finest freestyler is truly going out in style.
Rubin's name on a track won't excite the ladies the same as Pharrell's, but the Neptunes' influence on popular music pales in comparison to Rubin's. Rick Rubin is simply the most important producer of the last 20 years.
If Ozzy is the godfather of metal, then Rubin is its Iron Chef, having honed the sounds of everyone from Slayer to System of a Down. And forget Eminem — Rubin's the most important white boy in hip-hop, even if he went 15 years without touching it. And, oh yeah, rap-rock? His idea.
Ask anyone to name the essential albums of the last two decades and chances are several Rubin projects will turn up. Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, Run-DMC's Raising Hell, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The list goes on. And remarkably, Rubin brought something different to each of those seminal works. He doesn't have a particular sound or method, he just somehow always brings the missing piece of the puzzle.
Growing up in Long Island, New York, Rubin was an only child, so he never had an older brother or sister telling him what music was good. Instead, he trusted his ear, an approach he's relied on his entire career.
"I'm not trying to find great new stars, I'm just being true to what I like," Rubin told MTV News back in 1989.
Rubin, a film student when he cut his first record, is not a creature of the studio. He's always emphasized preproduction and songwriting. When he does get around to recording sessions, he's more of a sit-back-and-listen kind of guy than an obsessive knob-twiddler.
He worships the Beatles, but not for their studio ingenuity so much as their catchy songs and prolific pace.
In 2004, the self-described workaholic's name will appear on albums by Slipknot, Weezer, System of a Down, Nine Inch Nails, Audioslave, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash and others. Impressive, but the way to truly appreciate his impact is to know his past.
As a teenager, Rubin was drawn to rebel music, mainly punk (he includes both the Beatles and another favorite, AC/DC, in the category) and hip-hop, which he considered the black punk. When he got to New York University he met another hip-hop fan, Russell Simmons, and the duo started a record label out of their dorm room, Def Jam Records.
The label's first release was the 1984 single "It's Yours" by T La Rock. There were other rap songs on the radio at the time, but Rubin felt even hits like the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" dragged on and lacked identifiable choruses. So he applied the song structure he learned from the Beatles and found instant success.
One year and seven Def Jam singles later (including two from a group of white rappers he discovered called the Beastie Boys), Rubin produced his first album, the debut release from another Long Island native, LL Cool J. Titled Radio, it was one of the first hip-hop albums from a solo artist. And while other rappers at the time were hiding behind showboating DJs, Rubin stripped the songs down to LL's voice and simple beats. The liner notes credited him with the words "reduced by Rick Rubin."