Posts Tagged ‘Def Jam’

Rick Rubin: In the Studio

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

RickRubin_InTheStudioHagiography constructed from existing interviews

Author Jake Brown seems to have synthesized this book almost entirely from other people’s interviews with Rubin, his mentors and partners, and the broad range of musicians with whom he’s worked. The only new interview Brown lists in his extensive bibliography is with Rubin’s early protégé George Drakoulias. The bulk of the book is a series of quotes artfully selected and stitched together from newspapers, music magazines and websites. Brown’s research is extensive, and organized into coherently themed chapters the material paints a broad-brush portrait of Rubin. But with only one original interview, Brown adds few new insights to the record.

Brown neither interviewed Rubin, nor actually watched him work, nor – other than Drakoulias – appears to have spoken with anyone who worked with Rubin. The quotes are all presented at face value, with no dissenting or contrasting opinions, and by sampling from other people’s interviews, Brown robs himself of the opportunity to interact with the sources and ask specific follow-up questions. He cleverly synthesizes conversational back-and-forth between principals (e.g., Rubin and Johnny Cash) by weaving together quotes from multiple sources, but in the end it’s a simulation rather than real-life interplay, and though a nice writing trick, it’s not satisfying.

The existing materials that Brown could find, or his own personal interests, color the depth and breadth of the book’s coverage. Individual chapters on Public Enemy, Mick Jagger and the Dixie Chicks are short and shallow, while multiple chapters on the Red Hot Chili Peppers wander away from Rubin into fetishistic, over-long explorations of guitarist John Frusciante’s equipment. There are a few obvious typos, such as the use of “peak” in place of “pique,” and at least one ill-chosen presumption: the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster is mentioned without explaining why it would have made Rubin nervous – those who’ve never seen the film are left in the dark.

Readers are left to synthesize the larger themes from Brown’s reporting. Rubin emerges from the quotes as a transformative figure that brought rap to the mainstream, revitalized rock production, resuscitated moribund and damaged musical careers, and pried mature artists from their ruts. The diligence of his pre-production, particularly his focus on selecting and preparing material, is shown to free musicians to be emotional performers in the studio rather than technical craftsmen. Rubin himself is only rarely glimpsed in the studio, a by-product of both his working method and Brown’s method as a writer, but he’s pictured as listening intently and nudging (or jolting) artists with his ideas.

Drawing views from multiple sources might give readers a chance to triangulate on Rubin, but the vantage points are often too similar to create real dimension. The sampling of quotes doesn’t bring the author, and thus the reader, close enough to really feel Rubin’s character. The numerous in-line citations, laudable for their accuracy in accreditation, leave the reader feeling one step removed from the book’s subject. The breadth of Brown’s research shows a deep passion for Rubin’s work (particularly with the Red Hot Chili Peppers) that would have paid greater dividends via first-person access to the producer. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]