Mr. Big: How Rick Rubin went from hip hop to country, cleaned up at the Grammys - and became the biggest noise in pop

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The Independent Culture

In 2005, the Dixie Chicks had gone from being the darlings of the country music world to its biggest pariahs. The band had endured death threats, cancelled tour dates and the unbridled hostility of country radio hosts in the wake of the lead singer Natalie Maines' now notorious offhand remark - made at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London 10 days before the outbreak of the Iraq war - that she was ashamed President George Bush was from her home state of Texas.

The Chicks had tried everything to keep their chart-busting career on track. They had started out meek, by way of a contrite press release. Then they turned defiant, continuing to play, even in venues where they had been told they faced death threats. They were bold, appearing naked on the cover of Entertainment Weekly with the epithets of their more hysterical critics ("Dixie Sluts", "Saddam's Angels", "Hippies", "Traitors") branded on their flesh.

And they weren't afraid to be confrontational, starting a very public feud with the country music golden boy, Toby Keith.

The big question, though, was what to do next. And for that they turned to a very unusual man indeed - the prolific and highly eclectic record producer Rick Rubin, who made his name with rap and heavy rock acts during the 1980s and early 1990s. It might not have sounded like a good fit at all, except that Rubin had also earned a reputation for rescuing the careers of more seasoned artists looking for a new direction - everyone from Johnny Cash to Tom Petty and Neil Diamond. One of Rubin's clients once described him as a "song doctor", and that's exactly what the trio from Texas now needed.

The Chicks had material for a new album but they weren't at all sure what to do with it. Should they revert to the pure country sound of their origins, in an effort to woo back the fans they had lost? Or should they step out in an entirely new direction at the risk of alienating more of their core base without winning over a new audience?

The Chicks' British manager, Simon Renshaw, thought it was time for a gesture of reconciliation, but Maines was having none of it. She was still mad, still indignant at the way she and the band had been treated, and thought that offering conciliation would only be a cop-out to the very people who had trodden over their lives and careers over the previous two years.

Rubin did what he now does with almost every artist or band who comes to him at his sprawling, oddly noiseless house high in the west Hollywood hills. He listened. He sought a personal connection with the Chicks, to see if he could understand who they were as people and what the real musical passion firing them might be. And so Maines' most deeply held feelings about her life since the Shepherd's Bush incident turned into a stream of consciousness that would, in turn, become "Not Ready To Make Nice" - the hit record on the album the Chicks and Rubin ended up recording together.

The album was perhaps the perfect musical expression of where the Chicks' audience was moving. As Rubin told Rolling Stone magazine while the Chicks were still in the recording studio, the idea was to move beyond the concept of a country album with a rock beat, which is what the Chicks had done with their 2003 album, Home. Rather, he said, "we wanted to do a rock album that leaned country, like Petty or Gram Parsons." Something, in other words, that could win fans in Canada or Australia or New York as well as Tennessee or Mississippi.

Yesterday, all of them were basking in the glory of a clean sweep at the Grammies. The album, Taking The Long Way, was named album of the year and best country album of the year - the latter a real coup since the Country Music Association snubbed the Chicks at its awards ceremony a few weeks ago. "Not Ready To Make Nice" was record of the year, beating the hot favourite, Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy". And Rubin, who has never won a Grammy before, was producer of the year.

It was quite the night for Rubin all round. He had produced one of the other nominees for album of the year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' hit Stadium Arcadium, and produced two of the tracks on a third - Justin Timberlake's Future Sex/Love Sounds. And that's not to mention Neil Diamond's big comeback, 12 Songs, and the last, posthumous instalment of Johnny Cash's American Recordings series, A Hundred Highways. Both were released during the Grammies' eligibility period, which runs from October to September, rather than the previous calendar year.

Not too many people outside the music industry have heard of Rubin. And even the Chicks themselves weren't too sure who he was. They just noticed his name on a lot of the albums they were listening to. Among those he has worked with, he is regarded with deep awe and reverence. And it's quite some list by now, spanning everyone from Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys to Slayer, System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine, by way of Mick Jagger, Donovan and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Physically, he is little short of arresting - a big man, with a yawning pot belly and a beard so wide and long it could be its own ecosystem. He looks like a roadie for ZZ Top who stumbled into the wrong room.

The Washington Post once wrote of Rubin's beard that its craggy tips resembled "a seismic reading". He also has a reputation for a being a bit of a tyrant in the recording studio, unafraid to tell big-name bands that their material simply isn't good enough, and being generally forthright in his willingness to impose his musical vision on the bands he works with.

Almost everyone ends up thanking him, though. Emily Robison, the fiddle player from the Chicks, told one reporter: "He's the exact opposite of what you would think he would be. With the hard rock and rap background, this guy with the long hair and big beard, everyone was a little intimidated by him at first. But when you realise what he's like, he's just a big teddy bear." Robison added: "I think he knows when it's right and he's very decisive, which is refreshing. But he's also a very good listener. You just respect his ears and his taste so much. That's an earned trust. We knew the legend but we didn't know the actual reason.... We came to learn that it's just that he has great ears."

Rubin has been cultivating those great ears since he was a student at New York University in the early 1980s - he's now 43 - and became enamoured of the nascent rap scene. He couldn't help noticing that the live rap performances he attended had a raw energy that was lost in the recording studio, not least because the recorded songs lacked structure and direction. So he cultivated a friendship with LL Cool J, then an aspiring teen rapper, laid down some well-organised tracks with just the simplest of back beats and quickly found himself the champion of the biggest solo rap star in the world. The liner notes for the first album they made, Radio, says "Reduced by Rick Rubin" - a nice encapsulation of his working method.

It might have seemed odd that a Jewish kid from Long Island would become one of the leading lights of the rap world, but Rubin's explanation has always been very simple. Not many people were listening to the music when it first emerged, but he was. Success engendered success with lightning speed: he co-founded Def Jam records with Russell Simmons, set the Beastie Boys on the road to stardom and revived the fortunes of Aerosmith by mixing a version of "Walk this Way" with rap backing from Run-DMC - a singularly audacious exercise in genre-bending that not only worked but broadened the audience for rap and Aerosmith's brand of heavy rock.

In 1988, Rubin and Simmons fell out and he moved to the west coast to work as a freelance producer under the Def American label. Slowly, he expanded his repertoire of styles, dropping the word Def - which he thought had become so overused he actually conducted a funeral ceremony for it, complete with coffin and grave. By the mid-1990s, he had established American Recordings instead.

Rubin is the musical equivalent of a great, modern chef - not only able to make magic with any given set of ingredients, but bold enough to mix styles and cultural origins in ways that enhance each element without betraying its authenticity. That helps explain his extraordinary range. He is, as The Washington Post wrote, "probably the only producer in pop music capable of restoring Diamond's relevance while also making the art-metal band System of a Down sound sublime. Twice."

His house, according to those who have visited, is striking not for its abundance of music but rather for its absence. A sign near the entrance reads: "Quiet please, meditation in progress." A large Buddha statue gives a further clue to his personality. He defines himself as a "spiritual quester". He spends hours of his otherwise frantically busy days seeking out quiet time. His idea of relaxation is reading, or listening to Bach, or spending time at his beach house at Point Dume, a beautiful rocky promontory in Malibu.

"I don't even know what a traditional producer is or does," Rubin told the Post in one of his rare media interviews. "I feel like the job is like being a coach, building good work habits and building trust.

"You want to get to a point where you can say anything and talk about anything. There needs to be a real connection. My goal is to just get out of the way and let the people I'm working with be their best."

The winners at the Grammys

* RECORD OF THE YEAR: Dixie Chicks - Not Ready To Make Nice

* ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Dixie Chicks - Taking the Long Way

* SONG OF THE YEAR: Dixie Chicks - Not Ready To Make Nice

* BEST NEW ARTIST: Carrie Underwood

* BEST FEMALE POP VOCAL PERFORMANCE: Christina Aguilera - Ain't No Other Man

* BEST MALE POP VOCAL PERFORMANCE: John Mayer - Waiting On The World To Change


* BEST POP VOCAL ALBUM: John Mayer - Continuum

* BEST DANCE RECORDING: Justin Timberlake & Timbaland - Sexy Back

* BEST ELECTRONIC/DANCE ALBUM: Madonna - Confessions On A Dance Floor

* BEST TRADITIONAL POP ALBUM : Tony Bennett - Duets: An American Classic

* BEST SOLO ROCK PERFORMANCE: Bob Dylan - Someday Baby

* BEST R&B ALBUM: Mary J Blige - The Breakthrough

BEST ROCK SONG: Red Hot Chili Peppers - Dani California

BEST ROCK ALBUM: Red Hot Chili Peppers - Stadium Arcadium

BEST ALTERNATIVE ALBUM: Gnarls Barkley - St Elsewhere

BEST R&B ALBUM: Mary J Blige - The Breakthrough

BEST R&B SONG: Mary J Blige - Be Without You