The Beat Goes On

Rick Rubin must’ve had a crap stereo when he was a kid. Listened a lot in the car, too, the way you do. The difference between him and many other producers is that he never forgot the power of a simple song bashed through cheap speakers. Not a technician, he’s just a dude who loves music.

How funny yet how obvious that a guy like Rubin would become history’s most successful multigenre producer, his consistency right up there with Phil Spector, Berry Gordy, Nile Rodgers or Ted Templeman. And he’s run his own labels — Def Jam, Def American, American Recordings — since 1984. After Rubin hit mass consciousness with pal Russell Simmons, launching late-’80s rap breakthroughs for LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys, most observers figured that would be about it for him. They figured the same when he switched to metal with Slayer. Then they had to keep refiguring after the Cult, Danzig, Masters of Reality, Andrew Dice Clay, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Crowes, Tom Petty, AC/DC, System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Slipknot and the Mars Volta. Rubin’s long-running relationship with Johnny Cash was as productive and necessary an alliance as you can find. Within the last year, in case you thought he’d stopped growing, he’s worked with Shakira and Neil Diamond. Up soon, Dixie Chicks and, yes, Justin Timberlake.

If Rubin has a formula, it’s simple: the best songs and the best performances. He drills artists in rehearsal till the steel is honed, then points them at a recording studio and lets the talent rip — hands off the reverb; overdubs B-gone.

There are two ways to listen to a Rubin recording, and both work. On good equipment, you hear every damned nuance, strong and straight and framed by space; there is no margin for sucking. You hear it as a whole, not a patchwork of parts. In your jalopy, you take a trip with Rubin back to the ’70s, when he was cruising around Long Island, rocking hard to the spare Aerosmith albums produced by Jack Douglas. A master of the midrange, Rubin has learned exactly what frequencies — not too much bass, not too much treble, heavy on the kick — will transform your RadioShack speakers into brass-knuckle fists, and if you can’t quite discern the singer’s sniffling during the guitar solo, well, boo-hoo.

Meditating behind shades in his Hollywood Hills home, flirting with the surf at his Malibu studio/office, sipping tea and eating vegan, Rubin is far from finished. His next major band — and what took so long? — is a little combo called Metallica. They say they thought they’d give a rookie a break.

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