If you could put a face to this year’s eclectic crop of Grammy nominees, it would have an overgrown beard and black shades.
Rick Rubin not only produced, or had a hand in producing, three of the five Album of the Year contenders, but for the fifth time in his esteemed career, he earned a Producer of the Year nomination (see “Mary J. Blige, Chili Peppers Top Grammy Nominations List” ).
Between his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dixie Chicks, Justin Timberlake, System of a Down, and U2 and Green Day, he’s connected to more than 15 nominations, more than any other artist. Not bad for a year the low-key producer described as “not unusually special.”
“I have to say, usually when I’m in the studio, it feels special,” he clarified, calling from his Malibu, California, home. “In fact, I try to work on projects that feel special before we get in the studio whenever possible.”
And “special” might be the only word that fits all of Rubin’s varied projects. While his look is signature, his sound is certainly not, which is how he ends up overseeing rock, country, pop, hip-hop and metal albums — sometimes on the same day.
“I love having a variety, as far as styles go,” he explained. “I feel like it keeps me fresh. I get to work a lot, but I never really get bogged down, because every time I go to the studio with a different style of artist, it forces me to start from square one and really tune in to what the artist is about. If all I did was make hip-hop records or metal records, I feel like it would run its course.”
Rubin picks all of his projects, whether it’s Mick Jagger, Shakira or Andrew “Dice” Clay, using the same simple guidelines. “I have to really like them as people first and foremost,” he said. “Then I talk to them and hear their vision for the project, see what’s going on in their life and see if it feels like a potential there for great work to come.”
Once he does sign on, his priority is not production but rather pre-production and songwriting. “It’s different for every artist, but I tend to believe overall in the quality of content over everything else,” Rubin said. “So we spend a great deal of time working on material long before we ever think about going into a recording studio. It’s about finding songs and writings songs and really exhausting that before thinking about things like performance and what the album’s going to sound like.”
Rubin doesn’t follow a set songwriting formula; he just offers opinions based on his personal tastes, and as Justin Timberlake put it, “Rick Rubin doesn’t ever do anything bad” (see “Don’t Expect Justified 2: Timberlake Enlists Rick Rubin For New LP” ).
“The cool thing about Rick,” the pop star said, “is when we first met, he said to me, ‘Look, I don’t influence you one way or the other. You do whatever it is that you do and I’ll just come in and tell you what I think and move stuff in a direction that seems conducive to what you do.’ And that’s such a comforting thing because you know you’re in good hands.”
Although he’s certainly made millions in the music industry (dating back to his massive successes with the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and Public Enemy), Rubin basically ignores the business side of record-making.
“He’s just so focused on the music, he doesn’t care when the label wants it done, he doesn’t care if there is a format that plays you or doesn’t play you,” Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines said. “I think [the Chicks’ Grammy-nominated Taking the Long Way] was really the first time that I ever made a record where I just loved the process, because there was no pressure, no stress, there was no rules. We used to have rules for ourselves just about being the Dixie Chicks … she had to play something and she had to play something on the same song, and we all three had to sing on the choruses. And Rick just throws all of that out.”
“So much of what we do is not premeditated,” Rubin explained, also speaking on behalf of the artists he works with. “We really show up and try to do our very best and get it flowing, and then when it’s flowing, we try to let it flow until it runs out and then we see what we got. It’s not dictated by us.”
Although he works with new artists every year, Rubin also reserves studio time for his close friends, whether it was the late Johnny Cash, Slayer or especially the Red Hot Chili Peppers (see “Peppers Say Return To Sex Scene Yielded Different Magik“ ).
“I talk to Rick almost every day of my life,” Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis said. “He really has earned his place as the producer of this band. He has improved his game consistently. He just gets better and better and he’s willing to work harder and harder. His intuition flourishes.”
Interestingly, of all the projects Rubin’s produced over the past couple of years, the one that stands out is Neil Diamond’s critically acclaimed 12 Songs (see “How Jay-Z’s Producer Brought Neil Diamond Back To The Future” ).
“It really touches a spot in me,” the producer said. “He hit a sweet spot in his writing, and there’s an intimacy and vulnerability to how it was recorded and a natural quality to it that really affects me when I hear it. We went in with no expectations and it turned into what it is. I’m really proud of it.”
Oh, and as for those four previous Producer of the Year Grammy nominations — in 1994, ’95, ’99 and 2004 — he lost them all.
For more on Rick Rubin, check out the feature “What’s Up With That Bearded Guy in the ’99 Problems’ Video?”
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