Rick Rubin’s 10 Greatest Musical Contributions
At the end of the film Krush Groove, a then-unknown Rick Rubin stood behind the rappers wearing a Husker Du shirt. It was a fast shot, but it was a statement of the future the man would have and his ability to cross genres with ease. For all those who have helped push music along, Rick Rubin is one of the most unsung. His production work and eye for talent have been giving us genre-changing records for the last three decades. From hip-hop to rock to metal, Rubin is responsible for some of the most important contributions to the world of music.
It’s not just the albums that Rubin produced, but also his ability to take stagnant or forgotten musicians and reinvent them. To many he’s the guru of bringing a band back from the brink of destruction. Cue Black Sabbath, the latest band looking to return with the help of Rick Rubin. Since the original members began their on again/off again reunion they have yet to release an album worthy of their combined talents. So the band now looks to the doctor of recharging the creative batteries. As Rubin heads into the studio with the gods of heavy metal, I decided to look through his incredible career and find his ten most important contributions to music.
10. Metallica: Death Magnetic
I don’t like this record. In fact, on a personal level, I haven’t much cared for anything Metallica has done since Master Of Puppets. However, this album is significant for several reasons. It’s the one where long time producer Bob Rock was replaced by Rick Rubin. It was also the first to feature new bassist Rob Trujillo. More importantly it brought Metallica back from the absolute failure of St. Anger, an album that sacrificed production to a point that it became comical. Rubin stepped into a situation with a band that were notoriously hard to work with, who were bringing in a new bassist and trying to re-discover their voice. Rubin helped them do that, he helped them realize the mistakes of St. Anger and make Death Magnetic a record that would launch the next phase of the band’s existence. Even if you don’t like Metallica now, you can’t deny the importance of this album.
09. Red Hot Chili Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magik
There are those of us who remember the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a strictly fun party band that made music to get drunk and dance to. The more serious and developed musicians they became didn’t happen until later in their career. The first indication of change was Mother’s Milk but the true discovery of what the Peppers were capable of came with Blood Sugar Sex Magik. While Mother’s Milk featured the debut of Chad Smith on drums and John Frusciante on guitar, it was Blood Sugar Sex Magik that solidified the new line up. Rubin took the band to a house and let them create the music they wanted to, not what they felt the genre wanted. The result was a seminal album that helped launch the alternative explosion of the early nineties as well as giving out Red Hot Chili Pepper’s classics like “Under The Bridge”, “Give It Away” and “Breaking The Girl”.
08. LL Cool J: Radio
For the ladies it might be all about the abs, for the fellas we might think fondly back to songs like “I’m Bad” or “Big Ol Butt”, but this is the album that launched James Todd Smith, aka LL Cool J into our hearts and minds. Rick Rubin helped begin the career of one of the most successful rappers in history by bringing some minimal production and maximum DJ scratching to Radio. His knowledge of pop song structure helped create the radio friendly sound that LL would use throughout his career. This iconic record was also the first full-length release of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons Def Jam label. LL Cool J’s first single, “I Need A Beat” (also produced by Rubin) is on Radio as well as the title track and “I Can Give You More” the first attempt by LL to write a love song.
07. The Cult: Electric
This one of the best examples of Rick Rubin being hired to revitalize a sound. Pre Electric, The Cult was a gothic band, very dramatic and a bit pretentious. Heading in to make Electric, The Cult brought Rick Rubin in to redesign who and what they were. It resulted in the most important album The Cult has made to date. This is the one that changed the game, which brought The Cult into a new level of existence. A chunk of that credit goes to Rick Rubin. His expertise in production and crafting a band’s sound helped give fans one of the few flawless hard rock albums released. Rubin was not only involved in production on Electric, he was given his first real test in turning the life of a band around.
06. Danzig: Danzig
The post Misfits years were a tough haul for Glenn Danzig. He needed a new vehicle and just couldn’t find it. Sure there were the Sam Hain recordings, but really, they weren’t all that good. Enter Rick Rubin, who took Danzig’s unique voice and propensity for dark lyrics, and combined it with rock n roll. Rubin helped put together a band and a style that Danzig would continue to use in his career. A strange hybrid of punk, hard rock and gothic themes can be found on this first Danzig album. It’s another example of Rick Rubin helping to give a new lease on life to an iconic figure.
05. Public Enemy: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
What can you say about this record? It’s the one; it’s the bar by which all other hip-hop albums must be held to. The combination of Public Enemy’s lyrics, the music of the Bomb Squad and Rick Rubin’s production unleashed on an unsuspecting world the Master Of Puppets of hip hop albums. Nobody had attempted anything like this before. From the rough and often spare production of most hip hop in that era, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was a nuclear bomb dropped in the middle of a genre. Everything changed and Rick Rubin helped to push that sound along. He brought the element of punk rock to Public Enemy and he allowed the Bomb Squad to go ape shit with their combinations of samples and beats. This is one of the top five greatest hip hop albums ever conceived and Rick Rubin was there to help guide it.
04. Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill
Licensed To Ill not only gave us one of the greatest groups in the history of hip-hop, it also effectively broke down the walls between the underground and a world tready to discover this music. If had not been for Licensed To Ill and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, hip-hop would never have become what it is. Using a film reference, they were the Jaws and Star Wars of the hip hop world, the two things that broke the back of a small industry and put the world on notice that it had arrived. Rick Rubin not only produced this album, he helped write a lion’s share of the rhymes and had control over the music. Only Rick Rubin would have had the balls in the eighties to let three white kids rhyme over heavy metal guitars and weird loops. Kerry King from Slayer to bust a solo on a rap record? No problem, Rick Rubin has got it under control. Licensed To Ill is a classic album, not just in hip hop but in music across the board. That and the success it led to for hip-hop in the mainstream can be traced back to Rick Rubin.
03. Slayer: Reign In Blood
The greatest heavy metal record ever recorded, period. That’s all we need to say about this album. You can’t argue that fact and if you do, you’re wrong. Slayer effectively redefined the entire idea of thrash metal and Rick Rubin was there to help. This is another example of Rick Rubin being part of something this is absolutely iconic. Reign In Blood is not just a record; it’s an institution, a holy grail of extreme music that still holds up today. Rick Rubin helped Slayer take giant steps forward musically. The album was Rubin’s first real encounter with heavy metal and that new perspective allowed him to help Slayer create faster, slicker and meaner songs. Reign In Blood is perfect from start to finish; there is not one wasted second in any of the songs. Like Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, nothing has come close to Reign In Blood and it continues to be the bar by which everything else is judged. On a personal note, this album is also responsible for the greatest mosh breakdown ever in “Angel Of Death”.
02. Run DMC: Raising Hell
There are two eras of hip-hop. That which came before Raising Hell and that which came after. The aftershocks of Rick Rubin deciding to bring Aerosmith into the recording sessions for the cover of “Walk This Way” are still being felt. This album not only launched Run-DMC into a new plain of fame and notoriety, it also helped jump-start Aerosmith’s career. Without even being involved Rick Rubin’s ideas gave back one of the seventies most powerful recording groups. Some say that Raising Hell is too commercial, and I will agree with that, but it isn’t the point. Rick Rubin took all the lessons of hip hop’s past, combined it with what Run DMC were looking to do and created the battering ram by which hip hop knocked down the mainstream world’s door and took over. Every multi-platinum rap star, from Method Man to Jay Z to Kanye West owes their careers to this album and, partially, to Rick Rubin.
01. Johnny Cash
This one is the one, the feather in the cap of Rick Rubin’s career. This isn’t so much about a record as it is about a man who had been lost in his own grandeur. A man returned to true greatness. Johnny Cash didn’t need Rick Rubin; he was a legend long before Rubin produced his first demo. Johnny Cash had become a victim of all that came before. His drug issues, his variety show, even his legend had eclipsed the true soul of one of the greatest songwriter’s in the history of recorded music. Rick Rubin had the presence of mind to see that Johnny Cash didn’t need a full band, didn’t need the “Man In Black” persona or all the western films he had done. Cash was becoming too much like latter day Elvis and Rubin wanted to rescue him from that.
Taking an acoustic guitar and a microphone, Rick Rubin recorded some of the most personal and vital work in Johnny Cash’s career. Even the covers that Rubin had Cash record in order to introduce him to a younger generation were still uniquely Cash. Rick Rubin didn’t change the man or try to update him; he knew that the pure soul and honesty of the songs would speak to anyone. From the first album, American Recordings, to the brilliant cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” towards the end of his life, Johnny Cash rediscovered who he was and discovered a whole new generation of fans. It’s this gift of music and of the redemption of one of the greatest ever that will forever solidify Rick Rubin as an essential part of the musical landscape.
There are those who naysay Rick Rubin and there are stories of his producer style that aren’t always complimentary. None of that matters. The man has been part of some of the biggest events in music history and has helped create albums that are bigger than just single recordings; they are real tent poles in the forward movement of the medium. For all his many contributions, I thank Rick Rubin for all of us.