Rick Rubin enjoys long walks on the beach, sushi dinners and hugs that warm the corners of the soul. Behind the ZZ Top exterior lurks the soul of a Playmate. Rubin is also the most widely accomplished record producer of the past 20 years, getting career-best work out of everyone from the Dixie Chicks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Justin Timberlake--all of whom are vying for Album of the Year at the Grammys on Feb. 11. He's able to do this largely because his teddy-bear sensitivity defies every stereotype of his profession. Unlike Phil Spector, who allegedly motivated the Ramones by having them play at gunpoint, Rubin is neither crazy nor intimidating. Unlike Robert (Mutt) Lange, the obsessive genius behind AC/DC and Shania Twain, he has never ordered 80 consecutive vocal takes of a one-syllable lyric. "Those guys have made some of my favorite records," says Rubin. "But they had their method, and I have mine."
Rubin doesn't read music or write lyrics, and has no idea what the knobs on a mixing board do. "I had my doubts," says the Dixie Chicks' Emily Robison. "How do you produce music if you can't say, 'O.K., from the D chord I want to hear going to the G?' But somehow it just works." Rubin's dominance of this year's Grammy Album category is unprecedented. So is the fact that other than platinum sales, his nominated discs--one country, one rock and one pop/soul--have absolutely nothing in common. Factor in his other big releases of the past two years--albums by Weezer, Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash--and it's clear his aesthetic range is essentially limitless.
"That's why he deserves Producer of the Year," says comedian Chris Rock, a close Rubin friend and fan. (Rubin is nominated for a Grammy in the category and appears a lock to win.) "Most producers have their own sound, and they lease it out to different people, but we know it's still their record. The records you make with Rick are your records. He makes it his job to squeeze the best out of you--and not leave any fingerprints."
Combine artistic success with the fact that he rarely strikes out commercially and it's no surprise that Rubin is also highly sought after by record companies. He's currently discussing a role as co-chairman of Columbia Records. A Rubin associate says, "Negotiations are going on, but there's still ground to cover," while a source close to Columbia says, "Rick is a transcendent creative force. He'd be a huge hire."