Music fans of all demographics have associations with Rick Rubin. Whether you love him for his work with Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sir Mix-a-Lot, or another group or artist, it’s likely one of your favorite artists or songs has been impacted by his experienced hand.
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To wit, the 60-year-old Rubin, in his early days living in New York City and working for the burgeoning rap label Def Jam, which he co-founded, got a chance to collaborate with—and specifically write with— some giants in the hip-hop genre, from the Beastie Boys to Run-DMC. Rubin often provided the beats and production for the songs, as you’ll see below, along with other refinements along the way.
Below, we will go through three of those songs, along with one more that was released more recently by another New York icon, Jay-Z. Let’s dive in.
1. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Beastie Boys
Written by Rick Rubin, Mike D, Ad-Rock, MCA
From the New York-born trio’s 1986 groundbreaking debut album, License to Ill, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” is a song of perseverance. The Beastie Boys toured hard coming up, and this song is all about getting through the rigors before getting home—to Brooklyn, in their case—to rest. For the track’s beat, Kerry King from Slayer, whose album, Reign in Blood, Rubin had worked on around that time, played the guitar riff and the solo for the track. Some have compared it to the Australian band, AC/DC.
Foot on the pedal, never ever false metal
Engine running hotter than a boiling kettle
My job ain’t a job, it’s a damn good time
City to city, I’m running my rhymes
Another plane, another train
Another bottle in the brain
Another girl, another fight
Another drive all night
2. “Can You Rock It Like This,” Run-DMC
Written by L.L. Cool J, Rick Rubin, Larry Smith
This 1985 song was the third single from the iconic rap trio’s album, King of Rock. The guitar for the track was played by session player Eddie Martinez, who has also worked with Mick Jagger, Meatloaf, and more. He was a favorite of Rubin’s. This track, in particular, which Rubin assembled and produced, is all about the hard lifestyle of being a music star. Yes, there are benefits but mostly it’s a slog. In that way, the song is similar to the one above.
If I eat, a little kid, sticks his finger in my plate
I be signing autographs, for three months straight
I got jet-set women, who offer me favors
My face is a thousand lipstick flavors
Need a sip of lemonade, I’m a slave to my trade
From all these lights my complexion might fade
Secretary overworked, by a money hungry jerk
Got a letter, answer woman, won’t you freak out on my shirt?
Well can you rock it like this?
I can rock it like that
Can you rock it like this?
I can rock it like that
3. “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” L.L. Cool J
Written by LL Cool J, Rick Rubin
From the rapper’s debut 1985 album, Radio, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” is all about L.L. Cool J’s love affair with his jam box. At the time, hip-hop was not the global force it is now and many people looked down on the music, culture, and aesthetics, including the penchant of some to carry around large boomboxes to listen to their favorite cassette tapes.
My radio, believe me, I like it loud
I’m the man with a box that can rock the crowd
Walkin’ down the street, to the hardcore beat
While my JVC vibrates the concrete
I’m sorry if you can’t understand
But I need a radio inside my hand
Don’t mean to offend other citizens
But I kick my volume way past 10
4. “99 Problems,” Jay Z
Written by Jay-Z, Rick Rubin
This 2004 song, like others on this list, is about the hurdles in a busy person’s life. Whether that be the police on your tail or someone trying to start a fight with you, it seemingly never ends. Even for someone as rich and famous as Jay-Z—perhaps especially so. Therefore, Jay uses this track, produced by Rubin with signature big buzzy electric guitars, to air his blues and also note that while he might have issues to deal with, his lovely and talented wife, Beyonce, is not one of them. From Jay’s The Black Album, this song was a classic as soon as it hit speakers.
I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol
Foes that want to make sure my casket’s closed
Rap critics that say he’s “Money Cash Hoes”
I’m from the hood, stupid, what type of facts are those?
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You’d celebrate the minute you was having dough
I’m like, “Fuck critics” you can kiss my whole asshole
If you don’t like my lyrics, you can press fast forward
Got beef with radio if I don’t play they show
They don’t play my hits, well, I don’t give a shit, so
Rap mags try and use my black ass
So advertisers can give ’em more cash for ads, fuckers
I don’t know what you take me as
Or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has
I’m from rags to riches, niggas I ain’t dumb
I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one, hit me
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Spotify