The Music Man – Profile of Rick Rubin

For the complete and lengthy feature click here

Published: September 2, 2007

Rick Rubin is listening. A song by a new band called the Gossip is playing, and he is concentrating. He appears to be in a trance. His eyes are tightly closed and he is swaying back and forth to the beat, trying at once to hear what is right and wrong about the music. Rubin, who resembles a medium-size bear with a long, gray beard, is curled into the corner of a tufted velvet couch in the library of a house he owns but where he no longer lives. This three-story 1923 Spanish villa steeped in music history — Johnny Cash recorded in the basement studio; Jakob Dylan is recording a solo album there now — is used by Rubin for meetings. And ever since May, when he officially became co-head of Columbia Records, Rubin has been having nearly constant meetings. Beginning in 1984, when he started Def Jam Recordings, until his more recent occupation as a career-transforming, chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning producer for dozens of artists, as diverse as the Dixie Chicks, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond, Rubin, who is 44, has never gone to an office of any kind. One of his conditions for taking the job at Sony, which owns Columbia, was that he wouldn’t be required to have a desk or a phone in any of the corporate outposts. That wasn’t a problem: Columbia didn’t want Rubin to punch a clock. It wanted him to save the company. And just maybe the record business.

What that means, most of all, is that the company wants him to listen. It is Columbia’s belief that Rubin will hear the answers in the music — that he will find the solution to its ever-increasing woes. The mighty music business is in free fall — it has lost control of radio; retail outlets like Tower Records have shut down; MTV rarely broadcasts music videos; and the once lucrative album market has been overshadowed by downloaded singles, which mainly benefits Apple. “The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content,” David Geffen, the legendary music mogul, told me recently. “Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it’s no longer about making music, it’s all about how to sell music. And there’s no clear answer about how to fix that problem. But I still believe that the top priority at any record company has to be coming up with great music. And for that reason, Sony was very smart to hire Rick.”

Though Rubin maintains that his intention is simply to hear music with the fresh ears of a true fan, he has built his reputation on the simultaneously mystical and entirely decisive way he listens to a song. As the Gossip, which is fronted by a large, raucous woman named Beth Ditto, shouts to a stop, Rubin opens his eyes and nods yes. This is the first new band signed to Columbia that he has been enthralled by, but he is not yet sure how to organize the Gossip’s future. “Let’s hear something else,” Rubin says to Kevin Kusatsu, who would, at any other record company, be called an A & R executive. (Traditionally, A & R executives spot, woo, recruit and oversee the talent of a record company.) “We don’t have any titles at the new Columbia,” Rubin explains, as Kusatsu, the first person Rubin hired, slips a disc out of its sleeve. “I don’t want to create a new hierarchy to replace the old hierarchy.”

Rubin, wearing his usual uniform of loose khaki pants and billowing white T-shirt, his sunglasses in his pocket, his feet bare, fingers a string of lapis lazuli Buddhist prayer beads, believed to bring wisdom to the wearer. Since Rubin’s beard and hair nearly cover his face, his voice, which is soft and reassuring, becomes that much more vivid. He seems to be one with the room, which is lined in floor-to-ceiling books, most of which are of a spiritual nature, whether about Buddhism, the Bible or New Age quests for enlightenment. The library and the house are filled with religious iconography mixed with mementos from the world of pop. A massive brass Buddha is flanked by equally enormous speakers; vintage cardboard cutouts of John, Paul, George and Ringo circa “Help!” are placed around a multiarmed statue of Vishnu. On a low table, there are crystals and an old RadioShack cassette recorder that Rubin uses to listen to demo tapes; a framed photo of Jim Morrison stares at a crystal ball. In Rubin’s world, music and spirituality collide.

“That’s why they call him a guru,” Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, explained to me in August, calling from her home in Los Angeles. Maines, who has been with the label since 1997, first worked with Rubin in 2004. “At first, I didn’t know if I was down with all that guru stuff. I thought, We’re making a record — I don’t want to be converted. But Rick’s spirituality has mostly to do with his own sense of self. When it comes to the music, he’s so sure of his opinion that you become sure of his opinion, too. And isn’t that what gurus do? They know how to say the right things at the right time and get the best out of you.”

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