Rick Rubin has Malibu’s greatest beard. It’s expressive, luxuriant, yet well-trimmed. Three times over the course of an hour-long conversation at an espresso bar just off the Pacific Coast Highway, beard adulators stop dead in their tracks and stare, speechless, lost in the harmonious interplay of form and formlessness that cascades down from the lower part of Rick’s face—the upper part being dominated by his piercing blue-green eyes—to the midway-point of the music producer’s chest. His beard is a little shorter than the beards on the guys in ZZ Top, but a little longer than the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s beard, both of which I have had the pleasure to see close-up and in person. Growing a beard like that is a notable achievement, their gazes suggest, even in a community of show-biz types with both the time and the means to grow their beards long. After not having seen Rick in person for 20 years, I am seized by the urge to gently touch or stroke his beard, in the hopes that maybe some of Rick’s holiness will rub off. I am also struck by the undiminished clarity of his eyes, which is in part the result of his life-long abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
Rubin is the greatest studio producer of American music of the past 50 years. His gift, aside from the combination of patience and branding genius for which his beard acts as semi-deliberate visual shorthand, is that he can listen from inside and outside his own head at the same time, which is a gift that great musicians and zen masters and showmen have, Rick being a little bit of each. Meticulous in his attention to how even minute passages and effects can alter the dynamics of a song, he can also extrapolate song-ness from the conjectural noise and sonic lint that artists produce while playing around in a studio, which is why musicians as various as the Beastie Boys, Slayer, Johnny Cash, the Jayhawks, Mick Jagger, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sheryl Crow, Jay Z, and Kanye West have beaten a path to his doorstep in order to be governed by his feel for their art. He is an enthusiast who is beholden to his own sense of amazement, whose records have sold in the tens of millions and, very rarely, not at all.
Rick’s original act of culture-shaping genius came at the age of 19 when he captured the way hip-hop music, which was born in the parks and nightclubs of New York City in the mid-1970s, actually sounded on tape, and then reshaped that sound in a way that was true to itself and at same time appealed to a predominantly white-skinned, record-buying, middle-class, suburban audience. The records Rick put out under the Def Jam label, which he created in his dorm room at NYU, sounded nothing like the rap music that had enjoyed a brief commercial success on Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill label. They were better. They were records that kids in inner-city housing projects and suburban kids out on Long Island, where Rick grew up in the town of Lido Beach, could all agree were cool.
Rick’s main source for rap music was Mr. Magic’s radio show on WHBI, which Biggie Smalls was also listening to in his Bed-Stuy bedroom. Rick’s music became LL Cool J’s music, which became Run-DMC’s music and the Beastie Boys’ music, which begat Public Enemy’s music, which, in turn—collectively and with an assist from the West Coast—begat Biggie Smalls, which begat Jay Z and Eminem, which begat Kanye West and his dozens of acolytes and heirs, as well as most of the rest of the hip-hop that people around the world have listened to for the past 30 years. Rick’s records brought people together because they conveyed the raw brilliance and power of the American imagination. The were commercial artifacts that never stopped being art, no matter how hard and how often the record executives, critics, pundits, tenured academics, virtue-signalers, and other hustler-types insisted that hip-hop was simply the “black CNN”—as if music was essentially a product of an artist’s race rather than his or her individual genius, and “CNN” represented the kind of high aesthetic bar that Herman Melville and Louis Armstrong and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Ralph Ellison and David Foster Wallace might all have aspired to clear.
Which is why the question of what, exactly, constitutes “the first record on the Def Jam label,” which passed muster as my excuse for an audience with Rick, is more than just a music-history footnote, of interest to record-collectors and trivia fanatics. It is germane, if sideways, to any number of serious thoughts and arguments about what is referred to by serious people as “American culture”—which, like other ideas that refer to any larger inclusive vision of Americanness, looks like an abandoned junk-heap, with something dangerous crawling around the edges. For those who will accuse me of staring way too hard at 30-year-old record labels in search of keys that will unlock our current mess, I might adduce as evidence the fact that the name Rick Rubin chose for the label he started after he left Def Jam and moved out to Los Angeles was American Recordings. So, what is American? Or, what kind of Americans do you mean?
After some nostalgic preliminaries, I start in on my question, which must be handled with Talmudic care so that its significance doesn’t evaporate on contact the Malibu sunshine, which is what often happens to significance out here, and because Rick Rubin’s brain works that way. “The first record you put out was your own band,” I offer. More precisely, it was a punk band called Hose, which, judging from what I remember hearing 30 years ago and the one time I saw Rick pick up a guitar, probably wasn’t bad. “But that didn’t have the label on it.”
Rick looks pleased. He parses and parries. “It had the name Def Jam Recordings but it didn’t have the logo,” he replies. “And it didn’t have the actual, physical label because, if you remember, what we did on that record was, it was etched,” he says, in a way that makes me think once more about the rabbinic overtones of his beard. “It was like a label without a label.” Hose was the first band that Rubin recorded, and the first record he put out, but it wasn’t the first Def Jam record, he decides, a statement that is important because of the relationship it implies between punk rock and hip-hop, which can be seen from more than one angle as versions of the same musical and social impulse, shaped and coded along racial lines—this is America—but products of the same place and time in America, of course. They are cousins, and their relationship is important—but not close enough to share the same label.
The fat “D” and “J” on the Def Jam logo purposely emphasized the importance of the DJ in the music that Rubin heard at a club called Negril on Tuesday nights before the downtown Manhattan hip-hop scene moved over to the Roxy. “The rap records that were coming out at that time were all about MCs. And they were usually an MC playing over an R&B band,” he recalls. Rubin and fellow downtown clubgoers like Adam Horowitz, later of the Beastie Boys, could hear that the DJ was as important musically and to the people in the club as the rapper, if not more important. “I wanted to make records that sounded like what I heard in the club,” Rubin says. Even though he then released a second Hose record on Def Jam, neither one, he submits, should be counted as the first Def Jam record—not simply because they weren’t hip-hop records but because they didn’t have the actual Def Jam label on them.
Rick’s records brought people together because they conveyed the power of a raw and brilliant product of the American imagination that never stopped being art.
Rubin designed the Def Jam label himself in the offices of his aunt, Carol Tomberg, a stylish single career woman who lived in Manhattan and rose to become head of creative services at Estée Lauder. “She never had kids, and I was an only child,” he recalls. “She took me to museums and took me to the theater and got classical music for me, and all these things I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.” When I ask Rubin whether he got his early feel for visual art and aesthetics from Tomberg, he nods. “But I wasn’t in any way a snob, because I was coming from Long Island,” he says, adding, with a guru-like nod: “You can’t be a snob on Long Island.”
Rubin liked to hang out at Estée Lauder with his aunt and watch the graphic designers at work. One weekend, he went into her office to create his own logo, assembling the words “Def Jam” from press-on letters according to his own already-evolved concept of what a label should do and what his own label should look like. The typeface and look of the old Smash Records logo appealed to Rubin, but the Smash logo didn’t have big letters that were emphasized over the other letters, which is what he wanted; when he tried to do the Def Jam logo all in lower-case letters, it didn’t look right. He then played with the size of the D and the J, starting off with fat, oversize letters and shaving them down by hand until they looked right. “I liked the way the big D and the J kind of hooked together and made what seemed like a solid block,” he recalled of the distinctive final form he gave to his capitals. “It had some weight and mass about it. They fit together like a puzzle.”
Rubin knew that designing a logo was about more than just finding a cool typeface and then scraping at the letters with an X-Acto knife to make it cooler. The meaning of a record logo, even a really cool one, is largely determined by context; if it didn’t suit the space, it would be lame. “Like maybe they had this cool logo, but now they’re putting it on this round thing,” he explained. “Some cool logos looked really good on a record label but didn’t look good anywhere else. So I had this thought: I’d seen an English import 12-inch that had a special sleeve that only had a hole on one side, and the other side was silent. My idea was to do a closed side, where the logo could be featured in all of its glory.”
The first record that bore the actual Def Jam logo that Rubin designed was hip-hop record “It’s Yours” by MC T La Rock and DJ Jazzy Jay, who was Rubin’s partner in Def Jam before Russell Simmons. “It’s possible—it’s possible—that T La Rock was first,” Rubin answered when I pressed him on whether “It’s Yours” should count as the first Def Jam record. He met the MC, he tells me, because his favorite group, like everyone else who loved hip-hop back then, was the Treacherous Three. So he called the group’s leader, Kool Moe Dee, and asked him to make a record. “I didn’t know anything about the record business, I didn’t know anything about contracts, I didn’t know what a label did, I didn’t know anything. I just knew that they were great,” he says. “He came to my dorm room, and we met there, and I remember he asked me if I had lotion. I didn’t know what lotion was. He explained that his skin was ashy. I didn’t even know what ashy meant.”
Kool Moe Dee explained that the Treacherous Three was signed to Sugar Hill, which made the kind of records Rubin didn’t want to make, but that Treacherous Three member Special K had a brother who was also a really good rapper. “So I talked to Special K, and [he] said, ‘Well, I wrote this rhyme, it’s yours. And my brother T La Rock can do it,’ ” Rubin recalls. “And that was how we did it.” They recorded in the same crappy $30-an-hour studio in Long Island City where Rubin recorded his first two records with Hose and released the record, which no one particularly cared about for almost a year.
As it happens, I had gone out drinking the night before with a friend who told me a story that I had heard 15 years earlier from Lyor Cohen, the record magnate and Def Jam’s former tour manager, about T La Rock’s amnesia. “I didn’t know he had amnesia,” Rubin says, looking concerned and delighted at the same time. “That’s amazing. I love anything with amnesia.”
I tell Rick the basics of the story I heard, which involved T La Rock coming to the defense of a young girl in front of his grandmother’s house in the Bronx, and then being savagely beaten by the man who was harassing her. Stripped of his memory by massive cerebral trauma, the spiritual originator of Def Jam’s brand of hip-hop was moved from hospital to hospital until he woke up one morning in a facility equipped to provide long-term care for people with serious memory problems—a Jewish home for the aged near Coney Island. “So basically, T La Rock wakes up, and starts to come to himself, surrounded by mostly elderly Holocaust survivors, who are reliving all their insane memories of Poland and ghettos and concentration camps, mostly in Yiddish,” I explain. “Meanwhile, T La Rock is trying to remember who he is, which means he has to recall the entire history of hip-hop from scratch.”
“That’s an unbelievable story,” Rubin says, with a Buddha-like sparkle of gratitude in his eyes. “Thank you.”
We go back and forth for a while on the variations of “It’s Yours” (“Myth-seeking people of the universe, this is yours!”), which was issued under the Party Time label, with the Def Jam logo appearing in smaller type, until Rubin arrives at a place that feels right. “Spiritually, it’s the T La Rock record,” he agrees, “but really, the first one is the LL Cool J record with the maroon cover,” he answers.
“It’s Yours” took about a year to start getting any serious play in clubs, where it found its audience, which included a 16-year-old kid in Queens who gave himself the name LL Cool J (“Ladies Love Cool James”), locked himself in his bathroom with a tape recorder and recorded himself rapping a cappella, and then sent the tape to Rick Rubin’s dorm room. “He called every day, although I don’t remember that, I didn’t really answer my phones,” Rubin recalls.
When I press him for more details about the cassette he received in the mail, he smiles. “I mean there’s a line on the Beastie Boys album [Paul’s Boutique] that’s kind of well known, ‘Let me clear my throat,’ ” Rubin offers. “That came from LL’s demo where he just happens to say, ‘Let me clear my throat.’ He didn’t mean it as part of anything, he was just preparing to perform. Me and Adam Horowitz just laughed when we heard that. Just like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ We would always look for things that were mundane things in hip-hop culture that we could appropriate into the Beastie Boys. I mean, it didn’t mean much, but it really meant something to us.”
LL Cool J’s first record on Def Jam, “I Need a Beat,” was the first release to feature the iconic logo and packaging that signified the absolute best in hip-hop music for the crucial decade of the music’s birth as a popular American art form. Every one of those elements was carefully chosen. “The main elements of that were the maroon sleeve with the hole on one side, with the logo big on the other side,” Rick explains. “What was on the record on both sides was listed on one side, and that was visible through the hole. The hole was on the sleeve on only one side, which had the vertical Def Jam printed in type, and the schematic for the tone arm, which was just the tone arm from my home stereo. I drew a very bad version of it, and then a girl in the dorm named Gretchen, a friend of mine who was an art student, drew a better version of it. That’s the real tone arm, on the maroon records. When we moved over to Columbia, they did a more-professional-looking version of it.”
The colors of the label and the record sleeve spoke to the culture that Def Jam saw itself as representing, and they helped to signal that the records were authentic. “The maroon and the gray were colors you would often see in the clothing at Negril and Roxy, and they’re not colors that you would normally see outside of hip-hop culture,” Rick explains. “You’d see like a maroon or burgundy leather jacket, whereas everywhere else you’d see a black leather jacket. You’d see a gray leather sports coat. That would be hip-hop.” When Def Jam moved to Columbia, it switched the color scheme to black from maroon. “I don’t know why,” Rick answers, when I ask him about the shift. “I felt like we were going from this sort of indie, free world into this big-time world, and there should be a visual transition.”
It’s a transition that still bothers me, I tell Rick. We talk for a while about how good it felt to be in a shared space of people who loved hip-hop music and were excited by it. Housing projects never scared me, I told him, because I lived in one when I was a kid. Black people were my neighbors, and the people who worked with my parents. The kids I was afraid of were Irish kids, not black kids, which wasn’t true at the Ivy League college I attended on a scholarship, where I learned the importance of race-based fear in determining the experiences, the politics, the erotics, and even more subtle textures of self-awareness for white kids and black kids alike. Even then, I don’t remember feeling any stress around the fact that I was a white kid when it came to the music I liked. But then, at some point, that flipped.
“It did,” Rick acknowledges. “But I felt like when it flipped, it didn’t even flip because we were white. It flipped because the scene got a little crazier. All of a sudden, people liked guns. People didn’t have guns in the beginning. It really was like kids in the park. I don’t know enough about it because I’m not a drug person, but I imagine the drugs might have shifted, and that affected what people made. I can remember when Jam Master Jay got a gun because he had money all of the sudden. In the beginning, there wasn’t even any expectation of success. No one that I knew was making that music thinking they were going to be successful doing it. There was no upside because there were no people who sold millions of records. It wasn’t like, ‘Well, doing this, we’re going to turn into Sly and the Family Stone or the Jacksons.’ That was not the expectation. It was, ‘This is music for the neighborhood.’ ”
Another thing that changed, I offer, was that, in the days before the major record labels and MTV, and everything that came after, you had to physically get on the subway, which smelled like pee, and go to a place where, if you were a white kid from Brooklyn, or especially Long Island, maybe you didn’t feel physically secure, and where you stuck out like a sore thumb. And once you took that risk, most people were generous in return, because everyone had skin in the game. “Hey, I’ve got some music, do you want to come up to my place in the Bronx and hear it?” someone might offer (I heard three of the tracks on Jay-Z’s Blueprint that way). If you made the trip, that was a meaningful kind of contact with a person from a neighborhood that wasn’t yours, but with whom you shared something real.
Rick pauses, and runs his fingers through his beard. “I can remember all the places, like it was the Disco Fever in the Bronx, it was Broadway International in Harlem. There was Brad’s Record Den, which I think was in the Bronx. I went to all those places all the time. So I, on the one hand, felt like an outsider. But as soon as we started talking about music, it was good.” He pauses again. “Another important point is that Run-DMC were suburban kids. And even though they were black and had tough images compared to say Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, they were all suburban kids making suburban music. Whereas N.W.A. really was from the ’hood and they really were drug dealers. They were documenting a lifestyle that was very different.” He pauses again. “And it became competitive. And the whole thing changed. It changed from a family feeling of everyone working together to kind of get hip-hop seen, to a lot of people working against each other, and that just turned me off. The energy shifted. It felt like it was less about art. I just didn’t like that.
“The last thing that I was really involved in back then was Public Enemy. Which I really loved. I can remember when I was on a plane to California and decided I was leaving Def Jam, and listening to, I think it was the second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions [to Hold Us Back]. I listened to it on the plane going back, and I cried through the whole thing. And I thought it was so beautiful, so amazing. That was unbelievable. Not long after that, I remember I was with Chuck D in L.A., in the Mondrian Hotel, and we listened to Paul’s Boutique for the first time. And that was another experience of just being like, ‘Oh my God, we’re seeing the future. This is unbelievably great. Unbelievably inspiring.’ And that led back to those feelings that I had of, like, ‘This is why we’re doing this.’ It was for the moments where boundaries are being expanded.”
Rick smiles ruefully. “And if you remember, Paul’s Boutique came out and it was a flop. Everyone at the label who was involved in that record got fired. The A&R guy got fired, marketing got fired. And it was one of the most beautiful records ever made. I think the first Beastie Boys record sold over 10 million copies, and Paul’s Boutique sold like a 20th of that.”
A woman in black yoga pants ambles over and listens in for a while on our conversation.
“I really look up to you as a producer,” she offers.
Rick smiles beatifically. “Thank you so much,” he replies.
“And also, you meditate, right?” she asks, seeking further affirmation.
“Yes, I do,” he answers, still smiling, as the great wheel of validation turned in the sky above Point Dume.
“Right on, dude!” she replies, and swans off.
We talk about our shared love for the early Wu-Tang records, and for Kanye, and I try to interest him in Earl Sweatshirt, until we arrive at Jay Z, who is the embodiment in all the best ways and some of the worst ways of the corporate-industrial hip-hop complex that was built on the thing that Rick Rubin helped create in his dorm room 30 years ago. I notice that while Jay Z is absent from Rick’s list, he is also the voice on “99 Problems,” which is the last real hip-hop hit that Rick Rubin made.
“The story of me meeting him was interesting,” he says. “I didn’t know he was Jay Z. We were sitting on an airplane and, I can’t remember the specifics of it, but I was sitting somewhere where I didn’t want to sit. I had a back problem and the seat didn’t recline. And this person who I didn’t know came over and said, ‘Oh, I’ll switch with you.’ ‘Oh, great, amazing, thank you so much,’ ” he recalls. “And then I went to visit Chris Rock at his TV show, and his musical artist was Jay Z, and out came the guy who switched seats with me. I said, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable. What a cool guy.’ That was the first time I met him. So, just on a human level, I had a positive feeling about him. Then I met him at this party, and then he said that he was going to retire and wanted to make songs with a handful of his favorite producers, and would I consider doing it? And I said, sure, because, on a human level, I had liked him.”
Yet when it came to making a song, the two men didn’t quite mesh. “I started making a bunch of tracks in a lot of different directions, and he kept saying, ‘Something more old, something more like you would have done back in the day,’ ” Rubin recalls. So the superstar mimed an old-school beat that recalled the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, Rick programmed the beat, and Chris Rock contributed the hook—“I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”—and everyone was happy. Then Rick played with the dynamics of the record—which, after all, is what he gets paid for—everyone made money, and Jay Z continued making hits.
Dynamics is a great word, I say, lazily, enjoying the sunshine. It’s a word that’s practically useful in thinking about why songs work and how to make them better. “Yeah, the things that make it feel like a roller-coaster ride instead of, like, a tram ride,” he answers, nodding. “The ups and the downs. And the space and then the density.”
The vocabulary, and the entire aesthetic universe, that dynamics comes from was generous and inclusive, like Rick Rubin is, and like most of the artists whose work he produced. It’s a universe that feels harder and harder to reach in America these days, in part because we are dumber than we were 30 years ago, in part because our language and our politics are constantly being torqued by people who are more comfortable with putting people in boxes than they are with art, because making art necessarily involves taking risks and crossing boundaries that someone tells you should never be crossed. Unless you are content with bad art, great quantities of which can be produced without risking anything or offending anyone. I despise the new vocabularies, which are engineered by politicians and morons, and aim to push all of us back into the ghettos from which the idea of a more broadly American culture once represented some plausible form of escape—escape from the narrowness of one’s own ghetto being a goal broadly shared by white people, black people, yellow people, brown people, punk people, rock people, and hip-hop people alike. We talk a little bit about Farrakhan, and Russell, and Kanye, and I am tempted to ask him more, but it seems that Rick is as baffled as I am. Neither one of us is from Chicago. We are both enjoying the sunshine in Malibu.
“This has been really fun,” Rubin says with a smile, after I turn off my recorder. “Let’s catch up like this every 20 years. I think it’s a good way to mark the time.”
This article originally appeared in Volume 2, Issue 4 of Tablet’s print magazine.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor, and the Editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th century newspaper.