Rick Rubin
Credit: Photograph by Howard Schatz

A few hours later, it's wake-up time. I'm trying to keep up with the Range Rover as it barrels along a Malibu canyon road. This time Rick is driving, much to the chagrin of a cyclist who gets a close shave and flips the bird at the man responsible for the Beastie Boys. Rick doesn't seem to notice.

We pull up to a modern white mansion. Rick is in the same white T-shirt and black shorts. This being Malibu, he doesn't train with some anonymous guy catering to sagging trophy wives. No, Rick Rubin's personal trainer is extreme surfer, paddleboard evangelist, and shiniest-teeth possessor Laird Hamilton.

They met, of course, through mutual friend Kid Rock. We walk around to the back, past a giant pool, and into a posh, spotless gym. Donovan sings about Jennifer on the stereo. The vibe is groovy-jail. Hamilton's tractor-beam smile and Rasputin eyes immediately suck us in.

"Hey, man," Rick says. "Anything special on the menu today?"

Laird smile-snarls.

"Oh, yeah, a hundred reps."

Rick is confused.

"Of what?"

"Everything!"

Rick's face falls for a moment.

"That's the same look everybody gave me when I told them! Get to work!"

There are some distractions. A few feet away, John C. McGinley of Scrubs is kneeling on a giant exercise ball and juggling while staring at himself in the mirror. Rubin gets to work, and Hamilton offers me a beverage.

"It's air water. It's made by a machine that sucks water out of the air."

Air water tastes like stink water. Rick stretches for a while, then stands barefoot on golf balls and does arm curls with light weights. His feet slip and slide as he lifts. Hamilton thinks the balancing keeps Rick engaged.

"If you're doing just curls, you start zoning out," says Hamilton. "Routine is the enemy." We talk about Rick as if he's not there, but he's here, at our feet, doing a hundred push-ups. Then he's behind us, doing a hundred sit-ups on the McGinley ball.

"A lot of these exercises come to me in dreams," Hamilton says.

Rick's white T-shirt is soaked, and sweat rolls down from the black shorts. He is smiling. Hamilton fiercely nods approval.

"No one does what he's done in his life without having focus and drive," says Hamilton, speaking more intensely than is humanly possible. "He's just implemented the discipline that he used to make a great album to remake his physical health. This isn't just about Rick losing weight. It's about the transformation of his personality."

Hamilton excuses himself to do some other Superman-like tasks on his daily agenda. Rubin points toward the pool.

"You ready to get in?"

Now the shorts make sense! By the time I've changed, Rubin has removed the cover of a 25-meter pool and slipped a swim mask over the non-bearded portion of his face. He tells me we're going to walk slowly with 10-pound weights in each hand into the deep end.

"See how far you can get."

It seems simple. We get halfway across to where the water is eight feet deep. Bouncing up to the surface for air. Soon, I have to drop the weights at the bottom and fly up for air. Rubin chides me slightly.

"Don't drop the weights. You have to put them down, or you could scar the pool."

I apologize and suck air. We eventually get to the 14-foot-deep end of the pool.

"Okay, here we pick up the weights from the bottom, jump-swim to the top, and then dive back down with the weights."

This seems simple. Then I try it. I manage to do two of them. I grab the side of the pool gasping while Rick goes up and down with the optic yellow weights. He does it for 15 minutes and isn't winded at all.

"The water was the best thing for me," he says. "In the gym, I was so weak – the guys can lift hundreds of pounds more than me. Out here, the difference wasn't so great. I do this with 10-pound weights. Laird does it with 20 pounds."

We dry ourselves and drive off for some breakfast. Howard Stern is blasting from the stereo. "Do you listen to Stern? He's gotten funnier. And less mean."

We arrive at Coogie's Cafe, a regular Rick hangout. Rubin orders first: "I'll have four eggs, with asparagus, broccoli, kale, zucchini, basil, tomatoes and onions, peas, olives, spinach, no mushrooms, double veggies. Well-done on the eggs, scrambled, side of salsa and side of guacamole, red bell peppers."

I order three eggs scrambled with cheddar.

The waitress has a question.

"Are we using your eggs for both?"

Rick says yes. The waitress walks away, and he explains.

"I use special eggs. They're better. Organic, super-duper eggs. From Santa Barbara. I got four dozen because I'm here a lot."

A few minutes later, the eggs arrive. Famished from my two reps, I dive in, but Rick pokes at his plate and furrows his forehead. He calls over the waitress.

"I think there's cheese in my eggs. It tastes like there's cheese."

Rick Rubin eats no cheese. The waitress goes for the manager, who runs into the kitchen and then over to our table.

"I checked with the cook. No cheese came close to your eggs. We know how important that is."

Rubin's concern lifts, and he smiles. He gives a seated version of the Buddha bow. He begins to eat and then asks me a question."

How are your eggs? Amazing, right?"

It's easy to forget that today is a workday and organic egg–eating Rick Rubin is the head of a record label. He took the job four years ago when the music industry was flatlining. The era of the album was dead. Record execs were desperate, so desperate that Columbia hired him as co-chairman with terms that give unconditional surrender a bad name.

Their new hire was free to keep producing other artists whether they were on Columbia or a competitor. He would never have to come to the office or even have an office phone. However, he stipulated that Columbia move the office he would not frequent from Santa Monica to a more – according to Rick – karma-cool I.M. Pei–designed space in West L.A.

He flashed a vexed look when I asked about the move. "Wouldn't you want to get out of a space with bad memories and go to a place full of promise and happiness?"

Hiring Rick Rubin wasn't a foolish idea. In the 1980s, he started Def Jam with Russell Simmons and then ran Def American Recordings after he and Simmons had a falling-out. In 2007, the 'New York Times Magazine' put Rick on its cover and grandly asked, "Can Rick Rubin Save the Music Business?"

The answer turned out to be a resounding no. In his first three years on the job, Rick Rubin produced bands that have sold eight million units, but only 1.5 million of them were for Columbia. The ledger is balancing out this year, with the multiplatinum sales of Adele's 21 – largely produced by Rubin. But his connection to Columbia is vague. He hasn't left the company, but his phone doesn't ring very much.

"The job isn't complicated," says Rick. "Help good bands do great work. I have no interest in fighting. If someone brings me in to help make a change and inspire and make things better, I'm down. If someone brings me in to do that and then doesn't want me to do that, well, that's okay, too."

I asked him if that was what had happened at Columbia.

"It hasn't been completely open-minded." He then tries to turn his frown upside down. "In some ways, not having free rein to do what needs to be done at work allowed me to do the physical transformation. I have all this energy for positive change. I'm in a situation where I'm under contract to do this work that often people don't like me to do."

No one has ever described a corporate freeze-out in such a benign way. It's now noon, and Rick's breakfast plate is clean.

"You ready to go paddle-surfing?"