A Conversation With: Rick Rubin On Crashing Kanye’s Album In 15 Days
How did you come to work on Yeezus?
Kanye called me. I’d just finished working at the studio for about two months on another album, and I was getting ready to go away on vacation for a couple weeks. Then he called up and said, “Can I just come play my album?” And I said, “Sure.” I always like to hear what he’s working on. So he came over to my house in Malibu. We listened. I thought I was going to hear a finished album, but actually we listened to probably three and a half hours of works in progress.
What did the album sound like at that point?
Kind of meandering, unfocused, usually without his vocals. I assumed that the album was scheduled to come out next year. So I said, “When are you thinking of finishing up?” And he said, “It’s coming out in five weeks.” Like completely confident and fine.
He wasn’t stressed.
Not at all. I said, “I have a record coming out in November that’s a lot further along than this.” He said, “Really? What are you doing for the next five days?” I said I was going to go away. Then he said, “Please help me. Would you be open to fixing it and shaping it and finishing it off?”
What was the process like during those 15 days? How did you find a direction for the album?
There was so much material we could really pick which direction it was going to go. The idea of making it edgy and minimal and hard was Kanye’s. I’d say, “This song is not so good. Should I start messing with it? Can I make it better?” And he’d say, “Yes, but instead of adding stuff, try taking stuff away.” We talked a lot about minimalism. My house is basically an empty white box. When he walked in, he was like, “My house is an empty white box, too!”
It’s a good thing you were on the same wavelength, because the sheer logistics of finishing the album must have been daunting.
Three days before Kanye had to turn the record in he tells us, “I’m going to Milan tonight.” There are probably five songs that still need vocals at this point. Two still need words! So he says, “I have to go to this baby shower before I go to Milan. I’ll be back at 4 p.m., and from 4 to 6 I’ll do the vocals. Then I have to go.” I say, “OK,” thinking it’s not OK, and he says, “Don’t worry. I’ll score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.” Again it just seemed impossible, but that’s basically what he did. He didn’t come back until after 4, and we probably didn’t start until after 5. He said, “I have an hour and 10 minutes. Let’s go.” And then it was full-on NBA finals [laughs]. It probably ended up taking two hours. Five vocals. He wrote two lyrics on the spot.
When he came to you with the record, did you have a sense of what needed to be done?
Initially, he thought there were going to be 16 songs on the album. But that first day, before he even asked me to work on it, I said, “Maybe you should make it more concise. Maybe this is two albums. Maybe this is just the first half.” That was one of the first breakthroughs. Kanye was like, “That’s what I came here today to hear! It could be 10 songs!”
So there might be another Yeezus in the pipeline?