"HE'S THE KING OF RAP, THERE IS NONE HIGHER. CBS EXECS ALL CALL HIM SIRE." The words ran across the Village Voice’s November 4, 1986 cover like a telegram to the music industry. Russell Simmons would have been flattered—if the story had been about him. No, the “the king of rap,” according to the Voice, was really Rick Rubin. Even though Simmons was declared rap’s “mogul” just two years earlier by The Wall Street Journal, it seemed that the industry was starting to look at Rubin as the pre-eminent hip hop producer, if not the spokesperson for the entire hip hop scene. (Or as one reporter sarcastically described it, the Voice profile “credited him with everything but freeing the slaves.”)
There was no question that Rick was a young, maverick producer, busy with different projects: Licensed To Ill was about to be released, Slayer’s Reign In Blood was ready to hit stores in December, and he was starting work on the Cult’s new album. He had just added Public Enemy and Slick Rick to the roster, and had already produced two gold rap albums and dozens of singles. After the incredible success of Run-DMC's Raising Hell, Rubin was such a hot property in the music industry that Mick Jagger—now recording solo for CBS Records—asked him to produce his second album, Primitive Cool. “I don’t think our schedules are going to work out,” Rubin said, nonchalantly. “I don’t even own a Stones record.” (The album would become one of the biggest stiffs of 1987.) Despite his status, however, Rubin was not “the sole force behind Def Jam,” as Ric Menello points out, and that false assumption certainly irked a few people in the Def Jam family.
“If anybody’s the King of Rap, it’s Run-DMC,” wrote Run in a letter to the Voice the following week. “And if it’s not us, it’s my brother Russell Simmons, who’s charted twenty-one singles this year. Rick Rubin is not just a very close friend of mine, he’s a great multi-talent deserving of acclaim. But it fucks me up that anybody thinks that he made my album. When I write my lyrics, I write the music and the final mix at the same time, and that’s the motherfucking truth!”
“I felt bad,” Rubin recalled of the reaction of his colleagues to the article. “It did kind of hurt my feelings, ’cause I felt like we were all on the same team. And if anything good happened to any of us, it furthered our cause. It’s not like I had my own publicist working for me.”
But others remember it differently: “Rick and Lyor would both hire publicists to hype themselves up back then, and deny it to no end,” remembered Scott Koenig. Cohen denies it. “I was the anonymous one,“ he says. “There were a lot of secrets back then, a lot of jockeying for position between Lyor and Rick,” says Koenig. “I think it was because [Lyor] had Russell’s ear.” Indeed, it was Cohen, not Rubin, who constantly pushed Simmons’ pet projects, his R&B acts. “I remember Lyor being really aggressive with the radio promotions department on some of these R&B records,” Jeff Jones recalled.
The week of the Village Voice article, production for Tougher Than Leather started. Rubin, Simmons and Run-DMC were so hot that a few movie studios started calling the office offering to buy the movie sight unseen. But the partners were not interested. They wanted to produce the film themselves, finance it for $500,000 of their own money (half of it was contributed by Run-DMC), and then find a distributor—but there would be a price for that kind of ambition. With that in mind, he and Simmons formed Def Pictures, a production company which they temporarily ran out of the third floor at Elizabeth street.
“The idea of making a movie, having no experience as a director and working all with nonactors, was a real questionable choice that we made,” said Rubin, whose only experience as a director consisted of a few student films. On the eve of the first shot, the crew list was still being revised (the “third electric/driver” was a young guy by the name of Andy Hilfiger; his brother Tommy was developing a fledgling fashion line). Just before shooting was scheduled to begin, some of the crew had to be replaced at the last minute. They'd threatened to quit if they didn't get raises, and when they didn't—because the budget wouldn't allow for it—they walked away. Directing a film, as Rubin discovered, was an entirely different animal from producing a record. “We were in over our heads,” he admitted. “I was opposed to [the film],” Cohen recalls. “I believe in commodity economics: do what you do best, and let whoever does it best, do it.” Rick was not the best director. As a record producer, he was used to getting up at noon, showing up at the studio in the evening, and working with a small staff of three or four people. But as a film director, he had to be on set early in the morning, ready to manage a crew of at least thirty. Because of the modest budget, Simmons and Rubin were forced to hire inexperienced crew and actors, which Rubin thought would be fine. “We don’t need actors! We’re gonna get killers to play killers,” he would say jokingly of the mostly non-professional cast. On a typical day, the crew showed up at six in the morning, with Rubin nowhere in sight to set up the first shot. A production assistant was sent over to Rubin’s apartment on Broadway. “Um, the door’s locked, he’s not answering,” the P.A. radioed back to Vincent Giordano, the film’s producer. “Break the fucking door down and drag him out to the set!,” Giordano screamed back. Eventually, Rubin opened the door and the P.A. told him that they needed the first shot. “Call Menello,” Rubin said as he slammed his door shut.
Ric Menello, who lived in Brooklyn and still worked his night shift job at Weinstein, would get woken up just as he was going to sleep, and asked about the first shot. “How the fuck am I supposed to know?” Menello screamed back. “Tell Rick he’s an asshole!” But he relented and gave the Director of Photography some direction. As soon as Rick showed up on set, however, around 9 a.m., "he would tell them to change everything," recalled Adam Dubin, who was the film's assistant production manager. “They were losing time like crazy."
The production quality and acting were mediocre. Rubin, who “liked the idea of acting,” as Menello recalled, played a bad-guy record executive named Vic. Simmons played himself, but poorly. The actors improvised most of the dialogue—which “probably hurt the story,” Rubin admitted—and what started out as a funny script, ended up weak on film.
By the second week of the shoot, Rubin was exhausted. “Waking up at six a.m., and going out into the cold, and showing up on the set with fifty people, saying, ‘What do we do?’ and having no idea what anyone’s supposed to do. My creative clock doesn’t operate at six a.m., unless it’s still from the night before,” Rubin recalled. “It was brutal.”
Instead of treating directing like a full-time job, Rubin approached it more like an extra-credit school project. “Rick, in his pursuit to make all the money and have all the creative control, did not get as good of a project as we wanted,” says Lyor, “and put us in financial risk.”
While Rubin was trying to hold it together on the set of Tougher Than Leather, LL Cool J was looking for a producer for his next album. Even if he hadn’t been busy with the film, Rubin still wouldn’t have worked with LL. Their relationship had experienced such a dive over the past several months that LL, who was originally supposed to be in the film, was taken off the project. “There was stuff going on in LL’s world that made me uncomfortable,” recalled Rubin, who felt that the “pure, naive energy” of their early collaborations could never be repeated. Furthermore, LL Cool J’s father, Jimmy Nuna, came seemingly out of nowhere to manage his son. It was a shock to anyone who knew LL’s history with his father: 10 years earlier, Nuna (formerly known as James Smith), had almost shot shot LL’s mother to death.
Even more surprisingly, it was LL's mother, who up to that point was helping her son manage his finances, who had reached out to her ex-husband, in hopes that he would exert some control over LL’s spending. But what LL was looking for was not a manager but a father. “It doesn’t matter how rotten or how much of a lowlife a child’s father is, a kid wants to point to a man and say, ‘That’s my daddy,’” LL wrote in his autobiography. He was also facing a legal issue. A Virginia man named Larry Humphrey was threatening a lawsuit against LL and Def Jam, claiming that he was the real LL Cool J, whose stage name was stolen by LL and put on Radio. “It’s totally ridiculous,” Simmons told a reporter. “He might as well be suing Bruce Springsteen. He’d probably get farther.” Still, the lawsuit was holding up work on LL’s next album, and he was getting anxious to get back in the studio. “I want you to work with these new producers that I have,” Simmons finally said to LL. The producers were Dwayne Simon and Darryl Pierce, the two guys he had met in L.A. over the summer and invited out to New York with their rapper, Breeze. “I want you to call LL, and I want you to set up studio time and go into the studio with him,” Simmons instructed Simon and Pierce a few days later.
“It was very uncomfortable,” recalled Simon of their first meeting with LL. “This guy’s a star. We’re nothing.” Wow, he’s a businessman, thought Simon when LL walked in with a briefcase—even though it turned out to be filled with just pages of lyrics. After the meeting, the producers decided to follow LL and check out what kind of car he drove. But he was already gone. So they walked to the subway to catch the train back to Brooklyn, and when they got to the platform, they saw a familiar face on the opposite side, waiting for the uptown train. It was LL Cool J. “LL was still catching the train,” Pierce marvelled. From that moment on, the three of them became more comfortable with each other.
For two weeks, the producers worked with LL, feeling out their process, drinking beer and smoking a lot of weed, recalled Pierce. “It got us in a comfort zone,” he says. Before they knew it, the guys had produced four tracks. Then they started calling LL by his real name, Todd, which only those who knew him well did. “He knew how to record vocals and all that stuff,” Darryl recalls. “We learned a lot from him.” They continued writing, until they had about sixteen tracks.
When they weren’t working, the producers and LL would talk and the producers learned that Rick and Russell weren’t that “pleased with LL,” recalled Simon. “I guess LL had an abrasive, cocky attitude. And all he really wanted was a little respect.” The level of success that Run-DMC was enjoying at the time just wasn’t happening fast enough for him. Walking from Elizabeth street down to Chung King one day, he complained to Dwayne, “I just gotta get this Adidas off my back!” he complained. Adidas represented Run-DMC, and he wanted to have his own trademark, to stand on his own. “You know what, let’s do this! Let’s take the Adidas off your back,” replied Dwayne. “And you put a Nike on your back, and let’s go!” From that moment on, Nike became LL’s signature brand.
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