Ever since founding Def Jam Records from his NYU dorm room and catapulting the careers of the hip-hop, punk and heavy metal greats (with a few pop stars sprinkled in), Rick Rubin has been one of the most well-known producers in the music industry. Working in a role that typically goes unrecognized in the realm of music creation, Rubin and his beard, his monk-like philosophy and his penchant for going barefoot have made him an icon in his own right.
Much of this fame is deserved — Rubin has produced some incredible songs and albums. Much of it is due to his mystique, as Rubin’s role in an album’s production is not always clearly defined. Sometimes he’s a major influence, sometimes he’s just nodding his head on the couch. Rubin is the man behind Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” a good portion of Danzig’s discography, and Lil Jon’s Crunk Juice (none of which made it on this list, but are noteworthy). Although the list of his contributions is large, these are what I consider to be the best ten albums in which he’s played a role.
10. Jay-Z — The Black Album
Rubin only produced “99 Problems,” but no matter. What’s The Black Album without “99 Problems?” Just as Rubin’s simple act of listening to Magna Carta Holy Grail probably helped boost sales or public regard for Jay-Z’s latest, Rubin’s sole contribution to the Black Album significantly added to what was supposed to be Jay-Z’s last. It may be a reach to consider this one-track selection ahead of some of his more classic hip-hop albums, but if you’ve got a problem, I feel bad for you son (sorry).
9. Kanye West — Yeezus
Included only because of the folk legend-status Rubin achieved with his role in the album. Kanye, scheduled to deliver an abundance of over-extravagant, probably “H.A.M.”-esque tracks, calls in Rubin 15 days before the album is scheduled to hit shelves. Rubin switches up the entire game, reworking elements to create the album’s minimalist, electro-grating sound. Saved by the beard.
8. System of a Down— Toxicity
Rick Rubin has been a creative force behind many of System of a Down’s albums, but this is the LP that brought the world “Chop Suey.” This, the band’s sophomore effort, was the group’s breakthrough album, and it arrived in September 2001, a turbulent time in recent American history. The country (and the globe) needed to let loose some aggression, and this album of Armenian-American rock allowed that to happen. Also this album’s just good, and the band underrated.
7. Public Enemy— It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
In an interview with XXL Magazine, Rubin himself claimed that he “played more of an advisory role with Public Enemy.” For that reason, it occupies the lower end of this Top 10 (or higher end, depending on which way you’re counting). But sometimes it’s Rubin’s zen-like presence that can alter the course of the recording sessions. Whatever Rubin did to help create this brutalizing classic of socially-conscious hip-hop, he did it well.
6. Rage Against The Machine— Renegades
While this album of covers nowhere near approaches the quality of Rage’s original songs, the band’s approach to this list of song’s was so distinct that, for a while, tracks like “Renegades of Funk” seemed like the band’s own work.
5. LL Cool J — Radio
Rubin founded Def Jam Records while he was a student at New York University, and LL Cool J’s “I Need A Beat” was the first song the label released. That song’s remix found its way onto Radio, LL Cool J’s debut album and one of hip-hop’s most influential early works. Curiously, the Rubin-produced Eminem track “Berserk,” the first single from the forthcoming Marshall Mathers LP 2, features similar artwork as well as a throwback sound.
4. Run DMC — Raising Hell
The three song run (tracks 2-4) of “It’s Tricky,” “My Adidas” and “Walk This Way” are legendary. This album changed the course of hip-hop forever.
3. The Avett Brothers — I And Love And You
Something clicked when The Avett Brothers got in the studio with Rubin. While the producer is usually an adamant preacher of minimalism, the folk rock band’s sound somehow expanded on this LP. Pianos, drums and cello round out the space previously dominated by the more stripped-down lineup of guitar, bass and banjo. This album remains The Avett Brothers’ best, and it deserves the attention received by its lesser but more popular folk rock contemporaries.
2. Beastie Boys — Licensed To Ill
Without the Rubin connection, there would be no “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn.” The producer enlisted the help of Slayer’s Kerry King to provide that track’s guitar riff, because Rubin was also in the process of producing Slayer’s Reign In Blood. This debut effort from the Beastie Boys catapulted the group to fame and resulted in some of hip-hop’s best, most classic tracks of all time.
1. Red Hot Chili Peppers — Blood Sugar Sex Magik
By The Way and Californication could both be considered contenders for Best Rick Rubin Album designation, but Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the first album for which the Red Hot Chili Peppers enlisted the producer. Rubin beefed up the funk and lessened the heavy metal riffage, shifting the Chili Peppers’ sound away from the tone heard on its previous four albums. Per Rubin’s suggestion, the band holed up in a mansion formerly occupied by Harry Houdini to record the LP during the early 90s. They worked for over a month in the house, convinced it was haunted. The sessions gave way to some of the band’s best and most well-known songs, with “Suck My Kiss,” “Give It Away,” and “Under The Bridge” comprising only three of the 17 tracks.
Regardless of your opinion on Rubin and his approach to the production role, the man has done some impressive work throughout his years. That’s undeniable.