The Lessons I Took Away from Not Being Signed by Rick Rubin
Rick Rubin is an accomplished music producer with an impressive career, and I had the opportunity to meet him after responding to a label deal fax. Unfortunately, the A&R manager who introduced me to Rubin left the company soon after, and I was not able to maintain contact with him. I often reflect on what could have happened if I had signed with Rubin, but I have come to terms with the fact that I am content with my current situation. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and perhaps my life would not have turned out as well if I had pursued a career with Rubin. In the end, I am grateful for my experiences and the opportunities that have come my way, and I am happy with where my music has taken me.
(Me acting cool at the Hyatt on Sunset a.k.a. “The Continental Riot House”, 1993)
A Brief Introduction to Rick Rubin
Rick Rubin, a renowned music producer hailing from New York, has had an illustrious career in the industry. He co-founded DefJam Records while still in college, beginning the label’s operations from his dorm room. Some of the most iconic names in music, including The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, and Slayer, owe their success to Rubin’s discovery and production talents. Rubin was also the first producer to merge rap and rock, an innovation he demonstrated by pairing Run DMC with Aerosmith to record Walk This Way, which paved the way for acts like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Linkin' Park.
After separating from DefJam and starting American Recordings, Rubin continued to produce hit records for some of the biggest names in the business, such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Audioslave, System Of A Down, and the classic American Recordings album by Johnny Cash. Responding to the upcoming rave scene in LA, Rubin established the ‘White Labels’ label. With such an impressive body of work, it’s no wonder that Rubin has become a legend in the music industry.
Lesson 1: Seize Opportunities as They Arise
In 1993, I was employed as a graphic designer at Mid-town Records, where I had previously achieved global success as a recording artist. Despite the label operating out of a small warehouse with a tiny office, I managed to work on graphic designs from the recording studio’s control room, where we recorded, mixed, and mastered tracks from new artists. Thanks to my familiarity with the studio, I would assist the “bedroom producers” with the higher-end mixing console and speakers, regularly programming the samplers and synths and co-producing the tracks. Being technically knowledgeable in the latest music technology made me one of the more valuable artists on the roster. It was an ideal balance of music production and graphic design work, despite the pay not being fantastic. However, my health insurance was covered, and combined with DJ gigs, I was able to make a decent income each month.
One day, while at the office, I noticed a fax message come in. For those unfamiliar with fax machines, it’s like sending an email straight to someone else’s printer via a phone line. The device only prints the complete page, so you can’t see what you’ve received until then. In this case, the fax was a label deal for releasing the Rotterdam Records catalogue, offered by Warner Brothers in America, and sent from Rick Rubin’s office. I inquired with my boss about the deal, but he stated that they would not accept it since Warner Brothers did not offer enough. Rotterdam Records only licensed their more successful tracks to Watts Music in New York, with Mid-town selling the rest via their export channels for a more significant profit.
(Posing at the first Mid-town Records studio in Rotterdam, 1994)
Despite knowing that Mid-town Records wouldn’t take the deal, I took matters into my own hands and responded to the fax myself. I introduced myself as a producer on the label, responsible for a significant number of releases. Since I signed deals per release, I was free to work with other labels at any time. I decided to offer my services directly to Rick Rubin, bypassing Mid-town Records entirely.
After a few days, I received a call from Gary Richards, also known as DJ Destructo, who was the A&R manager at White Labels. Weeks later, I found myself on a plane to Los Angeles. As I walked out of the terminal building at LAX airport, I was immediately struck by the city’s fresh scent and comfortable temperature. A white Porsche 911 Targa pulled up in front of me, and to my surprise, Gary informed me that it belonged to Rick. Even though I was tired from the long flight, the prospect of riding in Rick Rubin’s Porsche filled me with enough excitement to stay awake for the short journey to Sunset Boulevard.
I asked Gary about the pleasant smell in the air, and he speculated that it might be from the eucalyptus trees. He dropped me off at The Hyatt on Sunset, affectionately known as ‘The Continental Riot House,’ which was situated on the Sunset strip. Curious about my surroundings, I asked Gary if it was safe to walk around on Sunset Boulevard. He assured me that it was and then drove off.
Lesson 2: One Chance Might Be All You Get
The next day, we had lunch with Rick Rubin at an Italian restaurant on Melrose Avenue. Gary and I arrived early and had a drink while we waited. A little while later, a Rolls Royce pulled up in front of the restaurant. The driver, who had a large beard, dark sunglasses, a white T-shirt, old jeans, and no socks, didn’t look like someone who typically drove such a car. It was the legendary music producer, Rick Rubin. We had lunch and were only interrupted once by a kid who asked for his autograph. I was so nervous that I could hardly eat, and I apologized for not finishing my lasagna as we left the restaurant.
We drove for a few minutes and arrived at Rick’s house on a hill overlooking Sunset Boulevard. As soon as we entered, I was in awe of the life-size bear in his study, an impressive piece of taxidermy. In his living room, there was a DAT machine next to his sofa and modest speakers on his coffee table. I handed him my demo tape, and he played it. Parts of my ‘Sunset Party Slamm’ EP on Rotterdam Records were played loudly through his speakers. Gary had a vision of a live act where I played a large snare drum in time with the music. As we listened through my tape, he expressed interest in my ‘44 Mag’ track and asked about the sample. After the listening session, he gave me a few CDs from his collection and suggested I listen to them for inspiration. These included CDs by Slayer, Danzig, and other acts he had produced.
I left his house feeling inspired and convinced that I would meet him again in the future. My initial assumption was incorrect.
Upon returning home, I dove headfirst into creating fresh material and eagerly awaited the opportunity to update Gary on my progress. However, my hopes were dashed when I was informed by the receptionist at American Recordings that he had left the company to take up an A&R manager role at EastWest. I attempted to contact him at his new job, but he never responded. Subsequently, I dialed the American Recordings office again and asked to speak with Rick. The receptionist informed me that he did not have a designated workspace and that I could leave a message for him. And that was essentially the extent of our interaction in 1993.
(Devnull Days: at the Grote Prijs van Nederland (semi-finals), 2004)
Lesson 3: Positive Outcomes Can Arise
For years, I had aspirations of making it in Los Angeles, and I dedicated myself to creating music that would capture Rick’s attention. One of my efforts resulted in the ‘Devnull’ project, which I produced in 2003. This style combined breakbeats, guitar riffs, and rap vocals by Zeno Zevenbergen from T99. Although, listening to it now, it seems like an attempt to imitate Linkin' Park’s style. Despite this, the project made it to the semi-finals of the Dutch talent program ‘De Grote Prijs van Nederland’, a national showcase where new and experienced bands present their work for media exposure and cash prizes. I sent this demo to Rick, but I knew deep down that I wouldn’t get a response without an invitation. Instead, I pitched the project to a Dutch company called ‘Roadrunner’, which has an impressive roster of artists in the louder category. While the A&R was excellent, they attempted to refine our sound a little too much for our taste. Nevertheless, if we had decided to pursue it, it could have led to an album release on an excellent label.
Lesson 4: You’re Not the Only One
Later, I discovered that even the artists who had the opportunity to work with Rick, such as Praga Khan and Joey Beltram, didn’t achieve much success. So, I wasn’t the only one. I sometimes ponder what might have occurred if I had signed with Rick in 1993. I likely would have ended up broke and unhappy, like many artists who’ve reached their peak. I console myself by thinking that in this version of my life, I’m probably healthier, wealthier, and happier than I would be in an alternate universe where I’m just another burnt-out producer in LA.