What I learned from not getting signed by Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is a legendary music producer from New York. He co-founded DefJam Records, which he started from his dorm room. He discovered and produced The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J and Slayer. Rick Rubin is also the first producer to combine rap and rock when he paired Run DMC with Aerosmith to record Walk This Way, paving the way for Limp Bizkit, Korn and Linkin' Park. After he separated from DefJam and started American Recordings, he produced The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Audioslave, System Of A Down and the classic American Recordings album by Johnny Cash. Rick had witnessed the upcoming rave scene in LA and responded by starting the ‘White Labels’ label.

(Me acting cool at the Hyatt on Sunset a.k.a. “The Continental Riot House”, 1993)

Lesson 1: seize opportunities when they arise

It was 1993, and I worked as the in-house graphic designer at Mid-town Records. Yes, I got a day job at the company where I just had a global hit record the year before. The label operated from a small warehouse which included an even smaller office. So I worked on the graphic designs from the recording studio’s control room, where we used to record, mix, and master tracks from new artists. I knew my way around the studio, so I would often help the ‘bedroom producers’ around the ‘higher-end’ mixing console and speakers. I would regularly program the samplers and synths and co-produce them. I was very much into all the new technology back then, and I was one of the more technical knowledgeable artists on their roster. It was an excellent way to spend my days alternating between music production and graphic design. Of course, the pay wasn’t that great, but at least I had my health insurance covered, combined with the DJ-gigs; I was making a fair amount each month.

One day at the office, I caught a glimpse of a fax message. For the younger audience that doesn’t know what a fax is, think of it as sending an e-mail straight to somebody else’s printer via a phone line. You can’t tell what you received until the device prints the complete page. In this case, it was a label deal for releasing the Rotterdam Records catalogue offered by Warner Brothers in America, and it was coming from Rick Rubin’s office. I asked my boss about it, and he said they wouldn’t take the deal because Warner Brothers didn’t offer enough. At that point, Rotterdam Records was only licensing the more successful tracks to Watts Music in New York; Mid-town sold the rest via their export channels for a more significant profit.

(Posing at the first Mid-town Records studio in Rotterdam, 1994)

Knowing that Mid-town Records wouldn’t take the deal, I responded to the fax myself. I wrote that I am one of the producers on the label, responsible for a significant number of releases. I would sign deals per release, so I was free to go at any time. So I decided to offer him my services as a producer directly, bypassing Mid-town Records altogether. After a few days, I received a call from White Labels' A&R manager, Gary Richards, and a few weeks later, I was on a plane to Los Angeles. When I walk out of the terminal building of LAX airport, I am overwhelmed by LA’s fresh scent and comfortable temperature. A white Porsche 911 Targa pulls up in front of me, and Gary Richards, a.k.a. DJ Destructo, greets me. I compliment him on the nice car, and he tells me that it’s Rick’s. I’m still tired from the long flight, but the fact that I’m on my way to Hollywood in Rick Rubin’s Porsche fills me with enough adrenaline to stay awake for the short journey to Sunset Boulevard. I ask Gary about the fresh smell in the air; he thinks it’s from the eucalyptus trees. Gary drops me off at The Hyatt on Sunset, also known as ‘The Continental Riot House’, located on the Sunset strip. I ask Gary if it’s safe to walk around on Sunset Boulevard. He reassures me that it’s safe and takes off.

Lesson 2: you only get one shot

We had lunch with Rick Rubin the next day at an Italian place on Melrose Avenue. Gary and I are there early and are having a drink. A while later, a Rolls Royce parks in front of the restaurant. The driver doesn’t look like somebody who usually drives a car like this. Instead, he has a large beard, dark sunglasses, a white T-shirt, old jeans and no socks in his shoes. The man is legendary music producer Rick Rubin. We talk over lunch, interrupted only once by a kid who asks for his autograph. I could hardly eat because I was so nervous. I apologised for not finishing my lasagne as we headed for the door. We drive for a few minutes and arrive at Rick’s house on a hill overlooking Sunset Boulevard. We enter the place where I am in awe of the life-size bear in his study, taxidermy at its finest. We sit in his living room, where he has a DAT (digital audio tape) machine next to his sofa and modest speakers on his coffee table. I hand over my demo tape, and he plays it. His speakers blasted what would later become parts of my ‘Sunset Party Slamm’ EP on Rotterdam Records. Gary starts envisioning a live act where I would be hitting a large snare drum and beating it in time with the music. I nod as we skip through my tape. He seemed interested in my ‘44 Mag’ track and asked about the sample. After the listening session, he gave me a few CDs from his collection and told me to listen to them for inspiration. These were CDs by Slayer, Danzig and a few other more brutal acts he produced. Finally, I left his house inspired and convinced I would meet him again in the future.

I was wrong.

When I got home, I immediately went to work on new material and wanted to tell Gary about my progress. My heart sunk when the receptionist at American Recordings told me he had left the company. He took a job as an A&R manager at EastWest. I tried to call him there, but he never replied. So I called the American Recordings office again and asked for Rick. The receptionist said that Rick doesn’t have an office and could leave a message. That’s pretty much where it ended in 1993.

(Devnull Days: at the Grote Prijs van Nederland (semi-finals), 2004)

Lesson 3: there are positive side-effects

Dreaming about making it in Los Angeles, I spent years attempting to make music that Rick eventually couldn’t ignore. One of these attempts resulted in the ‘Devnull’ project that I produced in 2003. The style incorporated breakbeats, guitar riffs and rap vocals by Zeno Zevenbergen of T99. If I listen to it now, it sounds like an attempt to copy the style of Linkin' Park. It got us as far as the semi-finals of the Dutch talent program ‘De Grote Prijs van Nederland’, a national showcase where new and experienced bands exhibit their work to get media attention and cash prices. I sent Rick this demo too, but I already knew that this wouldn’t work without an invitation. I ultimately pitched the project to a Dutch company called ‘Roadrunner’, which has an incredible artist roster in the louder category. The A&R was great, but he tried to polish our sound a bit too much to our liking. It could’ve led to an album release on a fabulous label if we had chosen to pursue that.

Lesson 4: you are not alone

I found out later that even the acts that made it into the studio with Rick, including Praga Khan and Joey Beltram, didn’t get far. I was not alone. I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I had gotten a deal with Rick in 1993. I would’ve probably ended up broke and miserable like many artists after their peak. I comfort myself with the thought that I’m probably healthier, wealthier and happier in this version of my life compared to the alternate universe where I am just another burned-out producer in LA.