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The rock band Rick Rubin called "the greatest of all time"

May 18, 2023

For the past few years, Rick Rubin has felt more like a shaman of music than he is a producer. From resurrecting the career of Johnny Cash to his early days working with the old-school titans of hip-hop like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, there are only a few genres that Rubin hasn't dipped his toes into over the years. Regardless of where his muse takes him next, Rubin will always have a taste for old-school rock music.

Long before he started making hip-hop beats out of his dorm room at NYU, Rubin was starting to get in tune with the sounds of rock and roll, calling The Beatles one of his most important memories of listening to music. Although the Fab Four may have played a hand in his musical development, the next few years saw him embracing the world of hard rock.

Whereas most of his friends were gravitating towards the bluesy bands out at the time, such as Led Zeppelin, Rubin found himself venturing down under to get his rocks off, telling Rolling Stone: "My classmates all liked Led Zeppelin, but I liked AC/DC. They were rooted in American R&B, but they took it to a minimal extreme". As much the Australian heavyweights brought more attitude into rock and roll, they never actually thought along those terms.

As far as the Young brothers were concerned, they were following in the footsteps of some of their heroes like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, taking the building blocks of rock and roll and putting a healthy snarl behind it with both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson behind the microphone. For all the mayhem they stirred up in their time, Angus Young became the gold standard for the young guitar hero, looking like he was unleashing demons from his body when playing songs like ‘Problem Child’.

Once Rubin started to make his name as a producer, he began to fuse his love of rock and roll into hip-hop beats, building some of the first drum samples out of songs like ‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Led Zeppelin and convincing Run-DMC to remake their version of Aerosmith's ‘Walk This Way’. Despite the focus on hip-hop, Rubin always referenced Highway to Hell when making some of his future classics.

While AC/DC had their definitive sound, their understanding of simple arrangements stuck with Rubin, explaining: "I try to create albums that sound as powerful as Highway to Hell. Whether it's working with The Cult or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I apply the same basic formula: Keep it sparse". It's easy to see what he's talking about based on his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, including a scene from their documentary Funky Monks where he teaches Flea to tone down the bass part for what would become ‘Give It Away’.

That exercise in restraint wasn't just limited to the thousands of rock bands Rubin worked with. When listening to some of the final songs he worked on with Johnny Cash, the concept of less-is-more is perfect on ‘Hurt’, as ‘The Man in Black’ recounts the last parts of his life in grave detail.

For all the great artists that have sought the advice behind Rubin's grey beard, he still goes back to AC/DC as one of the foundations of music for him, saying, "They’re the greatest rock and roll band of all time. They didn't write emotional lyrics. They didn't play emotional songs. The emotion is all in the groove, and that groove is timeless".