Rick Rubin’s past collaborators had no trouble testifying to the impact he had on their music and their lives at the Recording Academy’s 9th annual Producers & Engineers Wing celebration, held Feb. 12 at The Village studio in Los Angeles, where he was presented with the President’s Merit Award.
“Rick changed my life,” Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo told Billboard. “In addition to helping us make one of our most successful records (2005’s Make Believe) and one of our most successful songs with ‘Beverly Hills,’ he suggested I try meditation 13 years ago and I’ve only missed one day since. It’s been totally life changing.”
For Josh Groban, who worked with Rubin on 2010’s Illuminations, Rubin taught him to believe in himself. “He basically said, ‘When everybody else is zigging, it’s ok for you to zag,” Groban said. “You’ve got a big voice. Don’t be afraid to be on that pedestal and sing that stuff. I don’t want you singing, ‘Baby, I’m going to go out and get a cold burrito for us’. At a time when I was feeling really unsure about what to do next, he was somebody who gave me a great deal of confidence.”
Artist after artist talked more about eight-time Grammy winner Rubin’s magical command of bringing the best out of artists. Rubin, 52, co-founded Def Jam Records with Russell Simmons and produced such artists as Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Dixie Chicks, Adele and Black Sabbath.
Lana Del Rey, who worked with Rubin on her 2012 EP Paradise, said she was surprised by “how much room [Rubin left] for the artist to still have their own vision come through. He’s kind of a facilitator. He doesn’t really push anything on anybody. His presence is sort of famously inspirational.”
Both Groban and Cuomo talked about how Rubin gave them poetry’s (Rumi for Groban, Hafez for Cuomo) when he sensed they were vexed either with their creative process or a bigger life issue. “He was just like, maybe you should check this out’,” Cuomo said. “That’s what got me into the whole idea of maybe it’s time to I let go to the party lifestyle and get a little more serious and hardcore about my art.”
Engineer Al Schmitt, who worked with Rubin on the VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson album, said Rubin’s love of music and attention to detail stuck with him. “He just knows everything that he’s going to do on a record. No details go by,” Schmitt said. As far as his working style, Schmitt said, “he’s pretty knobs off as long as everything is going well. And if things aren’t going well, he’ll speak up and say, ‘I don’t like that. We’ve got to do something else with that’.
Jimmy Jam served as a genial stand-in host for the evening after Timbaland had to drop out. Jam said he tried to explain to his kids who Rubin was on their way to the event, but was failing. His son finally piped up, “Is he the guy that looks like a homeless guy who was in the Jay Z video?”
Rubin proved an elusive figure all evening. He popped onto the red carpet, dressed in his trademark hoodie, shorts and flip flops, just long enough for a photo opportunity, then sequestered himself in a private room for the bulk of the event, only coming into the general area when his award was to be presented. Even then, he remained apart. As Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow praised him from the stage, Rubin sat on a couch against the wall, flanked by Groban, Regina Spektor and Del Rey, cordoned off by a velvet rope and security guards. Portnow hopped off the stage to hand Rubin the award. Rubin declined to give an acceptance speech.
Instead, he let his artists do the talking. He used the evening as an opportunity to introduce two new signings to his American Recordings: 19-year old Canadian Colter Wall, who sang a murder ballad and was a ringer for Johnny Cash with his lonesome baritone, and the politically-charged British spoken word artist Kate Tempest.
Among the artists and industry notables present were Macy Gray and Lindsey Stirling, Columbia Records Chairman/CEO Rob Stringer, producers Jake Gosling, Dave Aude, Peter Asher and Ed Stasium, engineers Ed Cherney, Boo Mitchell, and Charles Moniz and songwriters Dan Wilson, Darrell Brown.