He may not always look the part with that trademark wild beard of his, but Rick Rubin is nothing short of a genius. Over his lengthy career, the megastar producer has worked on albums by Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., Johnny Cash, Adele, Kanye West, Weezer, Slayer, and countless other big name acts. So it’s no surprise that he has a lot of interesting and insightful things to say about the work of these artists and others. Recently, he (fittingly) created a profile on the lyric annotation site Genius and commented on a number of tracks by some of the artists above and some he hasn’t even worked with, like Vampire Weekend, Hozier, and Beck.
Below, read some selected highlights, which include revelations about some of Kanye, Jay Z, and Beasties Boys’ biggest hits.
On “Bound 2” by Kanye West:
Something we talked about with Kanye was doing an alternate version of Yeezus, because there are so many versions of songs, great versions. There are versions just as good as what’s on the album, just different. I know as a fan of the album, I’d like to hear that. Maybe some day, whenever he wants. But it exists! That shit exists.
On “Guilt Trip” by Kanye West:
Kanye told me Yeezus was the first album where he was happy with the way it came out.
On “Only One” by Kanye West, ft. Paul McCartney:
I was in St. Barths two days before the single came out. Kanye said, “I’m thinking about putting out ‘Only One’ tomorrow at midnight.” I said, “Should we mix it?” He was like, “It hasn’t really changed — it’s pretty much what it was.” I hadn’t heard it in almost two months, so I asked him to send it to me, and he did. And I said, “I think this can sound better than it does.” We never really finished it finished it.
So we called all the engineers — and I’m trying to get all this to happen all remotely — and we got maybe three different engineers. This is the day before New Year’s Eve, and we’re all finding studio time, getting the files. Then they all start sending me mixes. I thought one was better than the others, and Kanye agreed. One guy mastered it, because it was due, and they turned it in. I had another guy master it, and it was better, but it was already too late. I think it switched the following morning. It was in real time! Like as soon as it was better, we had to switch it.
That’s how it works in Kanye world. It used to really give me anxiety, but now I just know that’s what it is. That’s how he likes to work.
Kanye is a combination of careful and spontaneous. He’ll find a theme he likes quickly, and then live with that for a while, not necessarily filling in all the words until later. At the end, he’ll fill in all the gaps.
He was upset at one point when I said that he wrote the lyrics quickly. He’s right — they percolate for a long time, he gets the phrasing into his brain, lives with it, and then lines come up. It definitely starts from this very spontaneous thing.
On Only One, a lot of those lyrics came out free-form, ad-libs. The song is essentially live, written in the moment. Some of the words were later improved, but most of it was stream of consciousness, just Kanye being in the moment.
On “Girls” by Beastie Boys:
Adam Horovitz and I wrote “Girls” on a train. We trained down to DC to record with the Junkyard Band, this band of kids who played D.C. go-go on garbage cans. We put out a Junkyard Band single on Def Jam.
On the train back, we wrote “Girls”. It was rooted in an Isley Brothers song, “Shout.” It was written with that music in mind and then we sort of did our version of what that would have been. We just wrote really stupid, offensive words.”
On “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” by Beastie Boys:
Kerry King did the solo right here, much to the dismay of Adam Yauch. He hated Slayer. He didn’t like metal.
On “Rock Hard” by Beastie Boys:
I cleared the use of “Back In Black” with AC/DC and they loved it.
But this was in the days where no one knew what sampling was. I remember playing it for Malcolm Young on headphones backstage at an AC/DC concert, and he was like, “Who played guitar on that?” And I was like, “I did.”
I mean it’s a combination — there’s samples involved too, but I’m definitely playing. And I programmed the drums.
You couldn’t do it today.
On “Rhymin’ and Stealin'” by Beastie Boys:
For the most part, with Licensed To Ill, I did the majority of the music, and we all brought in lyrics. Usually, we’d be hanging out all night at Danceteria looking at girls, trying to make each other laugh with lines and writing them down. We were there every single night.
I remember a time when I couldn’t get in.
On “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” by Johnny Cash:
Something that I learned through the process is that when artists have done it for a long time, a certain pattern takes over their lives. They’re on the road, and then there’s a window where they can make a record. It’s just a function of the schedule. The album is what happens between those two weeks of touring: that’s your record. Not a lot of care goes into it.
My job is often just breaking that pattern. We’re going to take as long as it takes, like it’s the most important thing in the world, and make the best record of your life. When I said that to Johnny, he looked at me like I was insane. It was just such a foreign concept that he could do something great.
People didn’t care about Cash for a minute. People hadn’t cared for long enough that he was dealing with that reality. It’s like that with so many grown-up artists. They feel this fear of competing with themselves. The thing that he needed to know was that all he needed to do was make great music that reflected who he was at that moment. He didn’t need to compete with himself.
I think he was still in a mindset of like, “My chances aren’t good for having a number one single, so why would I write songs if I can’t have a number one single?” It was just changing the philosophy — none of that matters.
On “99 Problems” by Jay Z:
Jay came into my studio every day for like a week, I kept trying things that I thought would sound like a Jay record, and after like three or four days he said, “I want to do something more like one of your old records, Beastie Boys-style.” Originally that’s not what I was thinking for him, but he requested that vibe, and we just started working on some tracks.
Musically, there were a couple of different ideas that [engineer] Jason [Lader] and I were working on independently that we played back together, and the way the beats overlapped was really interesting. It wasn’t planned out, it was more experimenting.
There was a part where it really sounded crazy and the beats were fighting each other. Jason was operating the Pro-Tools, and I’m saying “Move to the left, move to the right, try this beat, add this, do this,” and then he makes it do it. There’s nothing live on the track.
It’s a combination of three samples — “The Big Beat” by Billy Squier, “Long Red” by Mountain, and “Get Me Back On Time” by Wilson Pickett — and two programmed beats coming in and out.
Jay wrote the first verse in about twenty minutes, sitting in the back of the control room. He would just be kind of humming, and we’d keep looping the track, and maybe after thirty minutes he jumped up and was like “We got it!” And he did it ten times, and every time he did it, it was different. Most of the words were the same, but the phrasing was different. He’d written and memorized the words and then was playing with different ways of doing it. It was incredible.
On “Cycle” by Beck:
I absolutely love Morning Phase. Probably my favorite album of 2014. It’s definitely his best. I like it a thousand times better than Sea Change.
On “Obvious Bicycle” by Vampire Weekend:
An album gets me really excited is Modern Vampires of The City. I love it. I love it. What I like about it is that it sounds completely modern and it sounds completely traditional. It could be a Paul Simon record, but it sounds really modern. And no one else who’s doing modern has that much tradition in it. And that combination really speaks to me.
On “Take Me To Church” by Hozier:
It’s a classic, great song. Just the way it makes me feel. It’s a guitar-based song that is acceptable in today’s world. That’s interesting. I love the dynamics in it. The lyrics are dark, but spiritual.
It’s one of the songs where if Johnny was alive, we might try that one. It’s a weighty song.