Podcast #99: Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin on Music and Meditation

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
February 16, 2016

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In 1983, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin co-founded Def Jam, one of the most prominent hip-hop labels in the American music industry today. At Def Jam, Rubin produced myriad artists, from Run-D.M.C. to the Beastie Boys. For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin discussing music and meditation.

Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons LIVE from the NYPL

Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons LIVE from the NYPL

To Simmons, music and meditation go hand in hand, two ways of making experience more immediate:

"Music is one of the most transformative things in terms of happiness or presence—you want the world to move slow so you can watch it unfold, and music does that. The notes, in between spaces there are notes. There’s this awareness, all the other shit disappears, it’s just the music. And making that great record, there’s no thoughts of, 'Wait till I get this money, I’m gonna get this payback, I’m going to do this shit.' It’s like, 'Wow, music.' It awakens you. People use it as a transformative thing. That’s why music is so powerful, it brings you to the present. Meditation is a practice that brings you to the present, it’s the same thing. You want the world to go—you drive your car, you see every flower, every cute butt, everything, you see it. And that’s what meditation is for, is so you can see the world unfolding, a miracle."

Simmons framed hip-hop not simply as not simply a musical genre but as a countercultural expression. Early experiences of hip-hop were couched in clubs outside the mainstream and attracted a different crowd:

"The hip-hop explosion was people who didn’t want to join the mainstream, or really weren’t accepted anyway. That’s why downtown Rick experienced hip-hop before they let hip-hop into those kind of mainstream clubs that we were starting to frequent, you know, the Bentley’s and Leviticus and Justine’s. There was all these black clubs where guys would have like Louis Vuitton clutch bags and shit and shoes with no socks, and it was a different kind of dude. So we did something, and it was counterculture to the extent that we wanted to do our shit and we like had disdain for—. And I think even the music we produced—and Rick did the same from a rock example, I think, but he’ll tell you about that—I felt the records I produced, I didn’t want to hear anything that sounded like—because there was now developing an R & B trend as I started to make records, and that R & B trend was all that soft, happy, and it was really something... [T]he records we made, we didn’t use any instrumentation on any of our records that were anything to do with black radio, so there was a counter thing, but it was ours, I didn’t feel—it was counter to them, but it was ours, and it was us intentionally, you know, being young."

Rubin spoke about his goal for Run-DMC's "Walk This Way." He viewed it as an opportunity to connect with listeners who hadn't yet been moved by hip-hop:

"Up until that point, rap music was so alien to anyone who wasn’t in the hip-hop culture. I remember I was in California and talking to these people at this record company who were fans of what we did because of the success we were having, and they said, you know, 'Why do people like this?' These were people who were being nice to me, they said, 'Why do people like this? It’s not music.' And I realized, you know, there’s a pretty big gulf between how we felt about this and how people perceived it other than our small little world. And I wanted to find a song that would help bridge that gap so that people understood it really wasn’t that different, it really wasn’t. And the Aerosmith song, 'Walk This Way,' that was just the Run-D.M.C. version of it, is very close to a rap song already in its Aerosmith version. And I thought if Run-D.M.C. did a cover of that song, as Run-D.M.C., just like Run- D.M.C. would do it, people would make the connection like, 'Oh, well, I’ve heard Aerosmith do this and now Run-D.M.C. are doing it.'”