Rubin was born in Long Beach, New York and grew up in Long Island, New York, in a Jewish family. His father was a shoe wholesaler and his mother a housewife. While a student at Long Beach High School he befriended the school's AV Director Steve Freeman who gave him a few lessons in guitar playing and songwriting and helped him create a punk band called "The Pricks". At school, Rubin was unpopular among the other musicians due to his complete lack of musical ability beyond a few rudimentary guitar chords. During his senior year Rubin founded Def Jam Records using the school's four track recorder. Moving on to New York University he played guitar in an art-punk band called "Hose", influenced by San Francisco's Flipper. In 1982, Hose became Def Jam release #1, a 45 rpm 7" vinyl single in a brown paper bag, and no label. The band played in and around the NYC punk scene, toured the Midwest and California, and played with seminal hardcore bands like the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, the Circle Jerks and the Butthole Surfers. The band broke up in 1986 as Rubin's passion moved towards the NYC Hip Hop scene.
Having befriended Zulu Nation's DJ Jazzy Jay, Rubin began to learn about hip hop production. By 1983, the two men produced "It's Yours" for rapper T La Rock, and released it on their independent label, Def Jam Records. Producer Arthur Baker helped to distribute the record worldwide on Baker's Streetwise Records in 1984.
Jazzy Jay introduced Rubin to concert promoter/artist manager Russell Simmons in a club, and Rubin explained he needed help getting Def Jam off the ground. Simmons and Rubin edged out Jazzy Jay and the official Def Jam record label was founded while Rubin was still attending New York University in 1984. Their first record released was LL Cool J's "I Need a Beat". Rubin went on to find more hip-hop acts outside The Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem including rappers from Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, which eventually led to Def Jam's signing of Public Enemy. "Rock Hard"/"Party's Gettin' Rough"/"Beastie Groove" EP by the Beastie Boys came out on the success of Rubin's production work with breakthrough act Run–D.M.C. His productions were characterized by occasionally fusing rap with heavy rock.
It was the idea of Rick Rubin's friend Sue Cummings, an editor at Spin magazine, to have Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith collaborate on a cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" in 1986, a production credited with both introducing rap-hard rock to mainstream ears and revitalizing Aerosmith. In 1986, he worked with Aerosmith again on demos for their forthcoming album, but their collaboration ended early and resulted in only rough studio jams.
In 1987 The Cult released their pivotal third album Electric. Produced by Rubin, the album remains one of The Cult's trademark and classic works. Rubin would later work with The Cult again for the single "The Witch".
Rubin is credited as "Music Supervisor" in the movie Less Than Zero and is the producer of its soundtrack.
Rubin portrayed a character based upon himself in the 1985 hip-hop motion picture Krush Groove, which was inspired by the early days of Russell Simmons' career as a music producer. He then wrote and directed a second Run-D.M.C. film, Tougher Than Leather in 1988.
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