Nathan S. 's avatar

Is Rick Rubin the Most Under-Rated Producer of All-Time?

Posted by Nathan S. on 04/25/13 | Filed under Top Stories, Opinion, Rap Nerdery

First and foremost, these greatest/most conversations are pointless when everyone's working off a different set of criteria, so before we really dig into this, I need to establish some ground rules. I'm serious about this shit, I'm moving through it methodically.

1) We're considering two factors: music and success/impact. If you forgot about everything else and just put the artist's music alone against the someone else's, how would it stack up? On the flip side, forget about the specific music, how much success did the artist have? How much impact did they have on hip-hop and the general culture? Add those two factors up, and you've got their overall score.

To use a relevant example, the other day someone asked me who the better producer was, J Dilla or DJ Premier? Dilla has the edge when it comes to the music alone, his instrumentals were absolutely ground breaking, but Premo has the edge when it comes to success/impact (in part simply because he's lived longer).

How you score an artist in each of those factors is completely subjective, as is how much weight you give to each factor, but those are the two criteria we're working off.

2) "Under-rated" is the gap between an artist's overall score (music x impact) and how often they're mentioned in greatest/most conversations.

To continue the same example, DJ Premier's overall score is pretty damn high, and he's pretty consistently mentioned in greatest producers of all-time discussions. So while he may be under-rated to some degree (you might have him at #5 while someone else has him at #2), his "under-rated" gap is still relatively minor. On the whole I'd say he's pretty properly rated.

Got it? Good, now we can get into Mr. Rubin.

What's not open for debate, and what I think is so consistently under-rated, is Rubin's impact score. Without exaggeration, if it weren't for Rubin, hip-hop may not exist as the global and commercial force it is today. Let's review the facts.

While most people associate Def Jam with Russell Simmons, it was founded by Rick Rubin. At the time he was a broke college student at NYU who might have literally been the only person in NYC at the time equally into punk rock and hip-hop (his previous music experience consisted primarily of a failed punk rock group, The Pricks). Up until that point Simmons was going from minor success to minor success, and recognized in Rubin someone who could create a truly original sound. The two joined forces under the Def Jam name, and in short order the label dropped LL Cool J's "Radio" album, Run-DMC's "Raising Hell" and the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill", all three were produced, mixed and/or heavily influenced by Rubin's rock influenced sound.

For the record, at the time hip-hop albums didn't go platinum, let alone triple platinum like "Raising Hell". They just didn't. LL Cool J, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys were literally the first artists to prove that hip-hop was more than a fad, it was a commercial force that demanded to be taken as seriously as rock or pop. We could do the "what if" scenario thing to death, I'd like to believe that if Def Jam didn't establish hip-hop commercially someone else would have, but that's by no means a guarantee. The simple truth is that nearly every rapper who has sold an album after 1985 owes a debt of gratitude to Rubin. If Rubin doesn't essentially re-invent hip-hop's sound by giving it some real crossover appeal, and open up a space for more aggressive lyricism and flow (as opposed to the disco-influenced sound behind rap's other early commercial successes), hip-hop could easily still be a sub-culture.

So yeah, by any measure the man's impact score has to be through the fucking roof.

In terms of his music, this is where things get tricky, and why Rubin is so often under-rated. By the '90s Rubin was essentially finished producing hip-hop albums, in part because he found it musically limiting, in part because of differences between he and Simmons. Over the last two decades he's almost exclusively focused on heavy metal and rock (with really only one truly notable exception), producing albums for Metallica, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, Adele and too many more to name.

You can argue that he deserves credit for being the only person alive with the talent to produce for Adele, Slayer and Run DMC, but even if we only focus on his work in hip-hop, the man was still incredibly influential. To modern ears "Rock the Bells" might seem simplistic, but at the time (1985) it's hard to overstate just how revolutionary it was. No one had ever really heard hard rock chords blended into a break beat like that, it was truly one of rap's first "bangers", and that sound would serve as to date the best pure rock-rap song ever produced.

It's not hard to see why Rubin is so under-rated. From the beginning he was an outsider, a long-hiared white guy who looked like he belonged more at Slayer concerts than the board room of the biggest rap record label on the planet, and over time he just got weirder. Essentially leaving hip-hop in the '90s means that he's essentially unknown to anyone under 20-years-old, and even among older heads like myself, it can be easy to discount the past and over-inflate the importance of the present.

I'm not sure I can put Rick Rubin number one on my all-time best producers list, in part I'm writing this to figure out where I'd place him, but he's certainly in my top ten, and I'd be hard pressed to leave him out of the top five. Yet, if you were to walk down the street and ask your average rap fan to name the ten best producers to ever live, how many times will Rubin's name be mentioned? 20 percent of the time? 10 percent? Less?

And there you have the, the recipe for the most under-rated producer of all-time.

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