The Producers

by David Hajdu | May 29, 2006

ON THE SEATING CHART of the creative fraternity, record producers occupy one of the rows behind film directors and in front of book editors. In recording, it is the performers who are the "artists," as the music press and the people who run the Grammys like to remind us. Producers, as a rule, are hired by record companies to produce in a fundamentally commercial sense: to supply product. The task involves extraction (from the artists), organization and supervision (of those artists and their work), and collaboration (with the artists), in varying measures; the producer's job is essentially sustentative. Still, with every movement in popular music--and, on occasion, in other kinds of music--we tend to find at least one celebrated producer, whose output is distinctive and individualistic enough to foster claims of nothing less than authorship.

Since the first years of rock and roll, when Sam Phillips of Sun Records dissuaded Elvis Presley from recording the gospel standards and romantic ballads that the young singer loved in favor of the country blues that Phillips preferred to hear him do, the notion of the ministerial, even wizardly producer has become a fixture of pop-music iconography. After Phillips came Phil Spector in Brill Building pop, Berry Gordy at Motown, George Martin with the Beatles, Billy Sherrill in Nashville, Gamble and Huff in Philly soul, Robert Stigwood in disco, Brian Eno in new wave, and countless others revered in the innumerable substrata of recorded music. More than a few have hopped several rows ahead of the performers whom they have produced, in critical esteem if not in fame. Indeed, we are now in a day when one of the most acclaimed figures in popular music, the producer Rick Rubin, does not perform, and one of the most successful performers in pop, the rapper Kanye West, made his reputation as a producer of other acts.

RUBIN, WHO RECENTLY WON an award from Esquire for being the "Best Visionary" of 2006, has become the preeminent producer of the day by employing an aesthetic that pre-dates recording. His primary concerns as a producer are composition and performance, and his main objective is to capture the sound of people in the act of music-making. He thinks of recording as Edison did, as the documentation of an art made by others rather than as a creative act in itself. To Rubin, the performance, not the record, is the art form. In this, he is more a reactionary than a visionary.

Now forty-three years old, Rubin has made more than seventy albums in the past twenty-four years, and from the first, his work has been an act of self-abnegation. He began producing singles for a record company that he formed with a friend, Russell Simmons, while he was still an undergraduate at New York University. Rubin ran the label, Def Jam Records, out of room 712 in Weinstein Hall--paltry quarters, even by New York City dorm standards. (I know, because I had a girlfriend on the same floor of Weinstein a few years earlier, when I was living around the corner in Rubin Hall.) And Def Jam's recordings were more spartan still--prototypal hip-hop, undoctored, unadorned.

Rubin, a Jewish kid from Long Island welcomed into the society of African American street music because of his ardor for and knowledge of the genre, made restrained, unprepossessing records in service to the musical culture he found. "I wondered what it would be like if a record felt and sounded like being at a club instead of trying to sound like a record," he has explained. The results, which included LL Cool J's breakthrough, "Radio," presented hip-hop as it was then being created, by a rapper working with no more than a turntable and a drum machine. The label on "Radio" said "Reduced by Rick Rubin." But what Rubin did was not an act of reduction; it was a refusal to inflate--or to intercede in any way. It was clearly a mark of respect, even selfless passion, and also the surest way to share in the glory of a daring new music without the risks inherent in attempting to make an original contribution.

Before long, The Village Voice enthroned Rubin as "the king of rap." As such, he was an heir to Alan Lomax and John Hammond, white advocates of black music who had recorded blues and jazz pretty much as they had found it, and became renowned for their good taste, prescience, and egalitarianism. As rap evolved into hip-hop, taking up sampling, growing denser and more complex sonically, its mise en scéne shifted from the street to the studio, and Rubin lost interest. "My goal is to just get out of the way and let the people I'm working with be their best," he later said. When hip-hop began requiring a great deal more of its producers than affectionate impassivity, Rubin got out of its way, left Def Jam and New York, and started a new record company called Def American (later renamed American Recordings) in Los Angeles. Through the 1990s, he concentrated on arena rock, recording the music that he loved first as a boy in Long Island, making blunt, gutsy records for the likes of Slayer, Danzig, and AC/DC, as well as albums for somewhat more venturesome bands such as Rage Against the Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (a West Coast group that he discovered and nurtured at his label). Rubin focused primarily, but not exclusively, on touring bands who were devoted to live performance, and who worked in modes so overwrought and extravagant that what they needed most was to be reduced by Rick Rubin.

Like Phil Spector, "Shadow" Morton (Spector's Brill Building colleague and the producer of the top-forty soundscapes "Leader of the Pack" and "Society's Child"), and many rock producers to follow, Rubin maintains a fastidiously crafted aura of eccentric genius. He has a frazzled, nesty beard that hangs down to his ample belly, and he nearly always wears dark sunglasses, old jeans, and baggy t-shirts--"clothes that would make a wino proud," as Johnny Cash wrote in his memoirs. Rubin's face is nearly impossible to read behind all that cover. A practicing Buddhist, he embodies the asceticism at the heart of his music and his adopted faith. He neither smokes nor drinks, and he says he has never used drugs. When Rubin takes on a recording project, he starts spending time with the musicians before the songwriting, taking walks along the beach, sharing natural food and drinking herbal tea, talking about "anything." By the time he and the musicians enter the studio, his work is largely done; he has inspired the artists by his presence, and the players are now ready to go forth and justify his faith in them. In the recording booth, he never touches a knob. Indeed, he professes to care nothing for the technicalities of recording. As John Hammond was known to do, Rubin often lowers his head and closes his eyes while his artists play; unlike Hammond, Rubin is understood to be in a state of meditative rapture, not sleep.

"I want to be touched by the music I'm making," Rubin has explained. And "luckily, other people have shared that response to my work over the years." Apparently his selflessness has not undermined his perception of the recordings he has undertaken as his work, the music that he has been making. The secret meaning of Rubin's professional altruism, clearly, is what in the film world is called auteurism.

SINCE THE MID-1990S, WHEN Rubin began recording Johnny Cash, he has been best known for his seemingly sorcerous ability to revive waning careers. He has become the re-animator of American music. With Cash, Rubin did not have to do much, fortunately for them both.Cash's appeal had always been uncommonly broad for a country artist, and his brooding outlaw persona had long helped him connect to the rock audience; on the television variety show that Cash hosted from 1969 to 1971, he sang his country hits and did comedy sketches, and also pulled off duets with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. When Rubin took on Cash, he sat him down in the studio with his guitar and had him run through songs--dozens and dozens of them, with little rehearsal. To augment Cash's vast old repertory, Rubin suggested some recent material by young writers, such as "Hurt," by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.

The idea was scarcely radical; Cash had been doing tunes by rock-era songwriters (such as Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe," Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle") for decades. Still, the new recordings helped to introduce Cash to another generation of listeners, and the tracks had a rare poignancy. Cash was aged and ill with Parkinson's disease, and he nearly whispered the songs in a fragile croak, salvaging thin material through patination. In a month or so, nearly three years after Cash's death, another CD of Rubin's recordings of Cash will be released as American V. From resuscitating the careers of fading artists, Rubin has advanced to reviving the dead.

Rubin's effort to rejuvenate the Dixie Chicks, by steering them away from the sound of contemporary country toward music indebted to traditional bluegrass, is now high on the record charts, and Rubin has been working on a new album to reposition Justin Timberlake. Both of these projects, like the CD that Rubin made for Neil Diamond last year, called 12 Songs, are acts of revivification through purification; they are cleansings, deeds of atonement for past sins of musical excess, artifice, or commercialism. Of a piece with the popular ritual of opulent transgression, public apology, and purging, they are the musical equivalent of a good cry on Oprah or Larry King Live.

 

RUBIN'S WORK IS A fetishization of authenticity, which he conflates with simplicity and ruralism. For 12 Songs, he persuaded Diamond to accompany himself on guitar (for the first time on record since the 1960s), and he augmented Diamond's singing and playing with just a few acoustic instruments, strummed and plucked quietly in the background. The record includes snippets of studio chatter and ambient noises. It is a sedate, homey album--and nothing like Diamond's usual work, a fact that raises crucial questions about Rubin's conception of authenticity. On the first night of Diamond's series of concerts at Madison Square Garden last summer, I sat a few seats behind and to the right of Rubin. Diamond appeared on stage, in a flash of laser light, to the pounding electronic beats and synthesizer strains of "America." He was standing on the top of a tower in the center of the stage, bedecked in black and silver glitter, with his right fist thrust high in the air. I looked over at Rubin, who was shaking his head in disapproval. About an hour into the show, Diamond did a brief acoustic set ("And the Grass Won't Pay No Mind" and "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow," the latter written for the Monkees), and I noticed Rubin leaning forward in his seat, suddenly enthralled. There was no doubt which Neil Diamond appealed to his record producer. But which is the truer one, the more authentic? That is a separate matter.

 

Having listened to "Shiloh," the early Diamond song about his imaginary friend, the only one in his life whom he could ever trust, I am inclined to suspect that Diamond's demons are such that he will never reveal to us the inner Neil. The Diamond of "America"--the glitzy, mannered, and grandiose self-parody, the Jewish Elvis--is the Neil he has devoted a lifetime to devising and presenting to the public. If the artist's own intention has primacy in authenticity, Rick Rubin has done his client a disservice. The synthesizers of "America" are as authentic in their intentional artifice as the acoustic guitars of 12 Songs are artificial in their enforced authenticity.

 

With few exceptions--among them Oral Fixation 2, the delightful, hard-grinding dance album that Rubin produced for Shakira last year--most of Rubin's recent productions have the casual raggedness of Abercrombie's "Ezra Fitch Premium Destroyed Boot Jeans," which are factory-made to appear worn, dirty, and ripped, and are sold at $168 per pair. For all their apparent earthiness, Rubin's records are calibrated to precise specifications, and every loose thread, every hole, is there by design.

 

KANYE WEST IS THE ANTI-Rubin. He revels in excess, and appears to care less about authenticity and spontaneity than Rubin does about equalizing filters. A proud dropout from Chicago State University, where his mother was chair of the English department, West began producing (in collaboration with others) in 1997. He had his first hit as a solo producer, "Chyna Doll" for Foxy Brown, the following year.West relishes sampling--indeed, he has played a key role in the return of sampling to prominence in hip-hop--and he is a relentless, insatiable tinkerer. For "Bring Me Down," a song he produced for the singer Brandy, West utilized 107 tracks of samples, instruments, effects, and vocals. Forty of those tracks were takes of Brandy's voice, all of them used in the finished recording. "The way he works, he just isn't content until he's tried recording and mixing a song every conceivable way," an engineer told a music magazine. "I was getting calls [from the record company] saying, `We have to stop him. We have to cut him off.'" West treats production as composition, and, like Charlie Mingus and Gil Evans in jazz, his artistic method is trial and error.

 

As a producer, West has created a small body of hip-hop records that are orchestral in their density and textural complexity: "You Don't Know My Name" for Alicia Keys, "Slow Jamz" for Twista, and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and "Takeover" for Jay-Z, the rapper and impresario who currently heads Rick Rubin's old label, Def Jam. The lyrics are banal--mostly about sex or macho posturing, like so much hip-hop--but they are decidedly secondary to the swirling, extravagant music and the beats, which are fresh and exciting.

As a rapper West is good, though not as good as he thinks. (No one is as good at anything as West believes he is at everything.) He has a soft, boyish voice, and his words are perfunctory, not remotely as poetic and inventive as the jagged layers of sound behind them. I caught him performing at a university concert in late April, and the highlight was a set of his renditions of tunes that he had produced for others, including "You Don't Know My Name" and Brandy's "Talk About Our Love." The music was luxurious and full of surprise--exhilarating tangents, strains of irresolution, delightful incongruities. It was also generated electronically: the only musicians on stage were a turntable artist and a seven-piece string section (three violins, two violas, and two cellos), whose playing was buried deep in the mix. Was it, for that reason, inauthentic? No: it was new and lavish, and neither trait makes it bad or wrong.

 

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