Rick Rubin: the guru. The Def Master. The hand’s off spiritually-guided producer who has made some of the most legendary albums of all-time.
Diverse artists like Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, and Slayer have all found success under the tutelage of Rubin’s production technique, and even as bands like Slipknot and The Black Crowes have been less than keen on his involvement (or noted lack thereof) on their LPs, it’s hard to argue with his hit rate.
In an interview with guitar company Gibson back in 2008, Rubin took the time to list eight of his favourite albums of all time. An unapologetic classic rock fan and metalhead, Rubin’s personal tastes would somehow both defy and inform his later production career.
What the albums listed do illustrate is a verse palate that favours intensity and experimentation over anything else. These are the eight albums that Rubin has called his favourites. First up, is The Beatles 1968 smash known as The White Album.
Whenever you look at Rubin’s discography of production work, the most immediately striking thing about it is how disparate certain artists on it are. How could a guy who produced LL Cool J, Slayer, and Johnny Cash all on the same label? His favouritism towards The Beatles most eclectic release helps reveal his mindset and values when producing.
“This one may not be as polished as some of the other Beatles albums, but I like how personal it feels, and the fact that you can hear the individual styles of each of the guys. It sounds as much like four separate people, as it does a band. I like seeing their individual personalities coming through in the music and in the playing.”
Rubin often uses terminology and references the have nothing to do with music when describing his own production style. His array of culture intake, which includes literature, film, and art, is as intrinsic to the way he works as any musical influences. That can be shown in the way he describes Neil Young’s heroic record After the Gold Rush.
“I like the natural mood of this one,” he shares. “Like the Beatles’ White Album, it has almost a documentary feel. It feels like it’s capturing a moment in time, and not trying to be perfect. It’s not trying to be glossy, or pretty. It has a real, soulful truth in it.”
Rubin has a little bit of everything in his arsenal and now, we’ve arrived at the metalhead portion of our list. Rubin was a guy who liked aggression, heaviness, and immediate power chord-filled rock music. It’s part of his core makeup, and he often brings out the more rock and roll aspects of whatever artists he’s working with. “This album is really the beginning of riff-rock, which I really like. It sounds huge and scary, and slow and sludgy, and has a kind of otherworldly aspect to it that moves me.”
One of Rubin’s most notable production trends is to strip away the excesses and overproduction of an artist’s sound and leaving just the bare-bone elements. This fondness for direct impact was likely informed by Rubin’s love for AC/DC, specifically the final Bon Scott-led album Highway to Hell. Rubin’s remarks on the album, like the band itself, are simple and to the point: “A timeless and natural-sounding rock album.” That’s all it takes to make a classic record.
Rubin’s relationship with rap legends Run-D.M.C is one of the more legendary pairings in popular music. The group’s desire to bring their hard-hitting hip hop to the masses coalesced with Rubin’s desire to mix in rock elements to make hip hop more marketable. Rubin’s admiration for the group’s first LP led to his partnership with them in the mid-80s. “This album is very bare-bones,” he recalls, “it probably influenced my hip-hop production more than anything else.”
When Rubin’s productions are criticised, detractors directly involved often point to Rubin’s lack of sophistication or knowledge regarding traditional musicianship. He’s a guy who goes for things like feeling, mood, and intent rather than actual harmony, melody, or traditional arrangement. This alternative approach to music comes through when describing Gang of Four’s Entertainment! “I like the sparseness of this one, and the emotion behind it. It sounds like something really important is happening on this album.”
The image of Rubin back in the ’80s was as a metalhead, but his sensibilities were equally informed by New York’s legendary punk scene. Frequently sporting a leather jacket and a no-bullshit attitude, Rubin’s favouritism for intensity was equalled in punk rock. It’s no surprise then that Ramones had a major impact on him. Rubin’s thoughts are simple and potent: “This one is a sort of document of a moment as well. It’s raw, powerful, and it doesn’t sound like anything else.”
When it comes to de-evolution, Rubin’s desire to strip everything back to it’s barest elements and most basic structures likely found some conceptual influence in Akron art punks Devo. Rubin doesn’t actually comment on Devo’s debut album during the interview. He simply lists it as a favourite. Perhaps that’s because the album needs no introduction: thirty minutes of uncompromising intellectual aggression and goofiness that no doubt left an indelible impression on Rubin.
There is a lot that goe sinto becoming one of the greatest producers of the modern age. Judging by this list, one thing that is an essential component is a wonderful taste in music.
Rick Rubin’s 8 favourite albums of all time:
- The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)
- Neil Young – After the Gold Rush
- Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
- AC/DC – Highway to Hell
- Run-D.M.C – Run-D.M.C
- Gang of Four – Entertainment!
- The Ramones – Ramones
- Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!