Rubin the Wrong Way–a book review

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Rick Rubin: in the studio, by Jake Brown. Toronto: ECW Press. 254 pp, $17.95

The 25th anniversary of Def Jam Records presents music fans with a unique opportunity to appreciate the career of its co-founder Rick Rubin. His long-time collaborator Russell Simmons recently took the opportunity, during a “VH1 Honors” special devoted to the pioneering hip-hop label, to declare Rubin “the greatest producer of all time.” Of course, there are a number of legendary producers whose acolytes would raise vigorous objection to that idea, but you can make a pretty strong case on Rubin’s behalf.

A practicing Buddhist, known as much for his long beard, his omnipresent mala beads and typically barefooted lotus posture, Rubin–the winner of seven Grammy awards–is surely not concerned with anyone’s production-chops hierarchy. His reluctance to engage in the usual industry crossfire is as much a factor in the legend as the intense work ethic he’s displayed during three decades in the business. Few have worked with a vaster array of talent, very few have contributed to more classic records, and no one has put together a resume quite like Rick Rubin’s. Nor would anyone have ever thought to.

Rick Rubin: in the studio (ECW Press) is not a book worthy of its subject, and it’s a terrible advertisement for its author. Jake Brown has written a number of books about major figures in American music, including Alice In Chains, Biggie Smalls, Suge Knight, 50 Cent, Kanye West, R. Kelly, Jay-Z, Motley Crue, Black Eyed Peas, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rick James. (His “In the Studio” series also has volumes on Heart, Prince, Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur.) This one feels like something he put together within a few weeks for money on the side. One hopes there is more to it than that, but I doubt it.

If any first-hand reporting went into this book, there is no way to tell from the way it’s organized. All of the cited quotes were cribbed from other sources, mostly interviews with specialist music magazines. Any original insight is subsumed to a fan-boy ethic that pervades the text. His book is constructed in such a way that Brown somehow manages to make Rubin come off as overrated. However, the nine-page “selected discography” included at the end of the book, is interesting, if only for the revelations of work one didn’t know Rubin did.

The text itself runs 225 pages, of which exactly 30 deal cover the Def Jam years. This earlier material is handled much more ably; this, along with the Johnny Cash stuff, is the music Rick Rubin will be remembered for. Interesting tidbits abound. For example, Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys discovered LL Cool J’s demo tape while hanging out in Rubin’s dorm room/office. Conversely, Rubin (the group’s original DJ) was the impetus behind their decision to drop drummer Kate Schellenbach and focus on rap. He was the label’s in house producer for its first five years.

When Rubin speaks of crying on an airplane as he listened to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the book—if not the story it chronicles—reaches its narrative peak. From that point neither Rubin, nor this book, are the same. Rubin’s moves to start his own Def American Recordings and shift the focus of his production from rap to rock sparked a new era in his own career; he would go on to achieve commercial and critical heights unseen among his generation. It doesn’t work out so well for the book.

Later chapters dealing with Tom Petty, Slayer, Danzig, AC/DC, System of a Down, The Cult, Mick Jagger, Weezer, Dixie Chicks and Metallica will simply fall flat; even acolytes of those specific artists will be hard-pressed to extract any fresh tidbits from this compendium of public sources. Rubin’s work with Neil Diamond makes for an interesting five pages, while the Audioslave chapter is most notable for the constant subtle digs at former Rage Against the Machine singer Zach de la Rocha.

The book’s author, like its subject, is a big fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have retained Rubin as their primary producer, and whose albums take up 50 pages of the book. A Peppers fan can probably glean some useful insight about the band’s gear and working methods; John Frusciante’s evolution within the larger group dynamic comes through well. But one-fourth of the text? Questionable.

What ultimately sells this book, and cements Rubin’s hall-of-fame credentials, is the Def Jam material, and the stuff on Johnny Cash. Brown devotes 22 pages to the near-symbiotic relationship between artist and producer, who together collaborated on four albums that encompass arguably the finest work by either man. The success of the Cash-Rubin recordings (which can now, thankfully, be had as a single box set) led countless musicians, fans and record labels to revisit the work of past masters and present these voices to a new generation of music consumers. As such, many older artists got the best and/or last payday of their careers as an indirect result. Surely the major Cash scholars will cover all this in greater detail, but Brown writes a nice introduction.

It’s unfortunate that Brown didn’t do the extra work of compiling a fuller listing of Rubin’s credits–more than 100 albums so far, including four this year and seven in 2008. Hell, his resume makes a fine outline for a book. One can think of several artists who’ve worked with Rubin, barely mentioned in this book, that would be worth hearing a little more about: U2, the Gossip, Wu-Tang Clan, Shakira, Saul Williams, Cheryl Crow, Andrew Dice Clay, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Although some of these collaborations yielded only singles, they could also yield some savory anecdotes; surely some of them would be happy to put the guy over in print. Hell, there is nothing about Rubin’s crucial role producing Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”, although, for the record, Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” beat was better. For millions of music fans who missed the rise of Def Jam, the only time they’ve ever seen him was in the video. Worth a mention.

On the whole, Rick Rubin: in the studio is probably not worth the $17.95 it’s asking for. As a survey of his career, and a sampling of the techniques he brings to bear in the studio, it’s merely a passable stopgap. The major writing on Rick Rubin remains to be done, hopefully by Rubin’s own rock-steady hand. But until then, this will do.

www.ECWPress.com

sdh666@hotmail.com; October 27, 2009

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About Shelton Hull

I'm a writer/journalist with over 20 years experience covering all types of subject-matter, with a specialization in politics, music, food and dance. My work has been published in nearly 40 different magazines, newspapers, websites and zines, in addition to occasional forays into radio, TV and spoken-word. Former candidate for City Council District 14 in Jacksonville, FL (2011), and a proud member of Gator Nation.

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