How Red Hot Chili Peppers Busted Out With ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’
By the time Red Hot Chili Peppers released their 1991 album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the band had already experienced a dizzying array of highs and lows.
Over their first seven years of existence, the group cut its teeth in the Los Angeles music scene, earned a reputation as an explosive live act, collaborated with funk legend George Clinton, lost one bandmate to a heroin overdose (guitarist Hillel Slovak) and had another one quit (drummer Jack Irons). Somehow, they managed to keep going, recruiting John Frusciante and Chad Smith and releasing 1989’s Mother’s Milk. The album proved to be their biggest commercial hit to date, thanks largely to their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” As the ‘90s dawned, the band was poised to take the next step toward superstardom.
Achieving such a lofty goal would require the right producer. When Rick Rubin’s name came up, the group was initially reluctant.
“Wow, Rick Rubin, I don’t know,” singer Anthony Kiedis recalled to BAM magazine in 1991. “He’s into all of those negative bands like Slayer and Danzig. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have always been totally into positive energy. It’ll never work.”
Indeed, Rubin’s resume didn’t seem aligned with the Chili Peppers’ style. In addition to the bands Kiedis mentioned, the producer had worked with hip-hop acts like Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. None would be considered in the funk-rock airspace that the Chili Peppers filled.
Despite this, the band met with Rubin and immediately developed a rapport. “They didn’t really fit into the category of any of the type of music I’d dealt with before,” the producer admitted on VH1's Behind the Music. “I thought it’d be a really fun record to make.”
Eschewing the typical studio setting, the band decided to take up shop in a Hollywood mansion. Claims that the property was formerly owned by Harry Houdini were untrue, but the site certainly came with its own unique atmosphere.
“The nature of it was so special: living in this ramshackle, old 1920s mansion in the Hollywood Hills that hadn’t been lived in for years,” Kiedis recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “It was this big, ghostly abandoned structure that we readily moved into and built a makeshift studio [in].”
The bandmates lived there together, minus Smith, who opted to commute instead (allegedly because he believed the house was haunted). For two months, the group’s world revolved entirely around the new album’s creation. That’s not to say the Chili Peppers weren’t having fun. Pauses in recording allowed the band time to watch its beloved Los Angeles Lakers on TV or even engage in silly antics like a facial-hair competition. They also had at least one semi-regular visitor.
“We all knew this girl who worked on Melrose Avenue and was a supporter of the band,” Kiedis recalled in his autobiography Scar Tissue. “While we were in the house, she’d come over and visit. At night it was just the three of us [Kiedis, Frusciante and Flea], there was no security in the house at all. And like in some weird scene out of a movie set in the countryside of England, this very young, very self-assured girl would come and spend time with each of us, one by one. She was getting sexed in every room she visited, but it wasn’t purely sexual; she’d hang out and talk and spend time with each of us.”
Watch the Video for Red Hot Chili Peppers' 'Suck My Kiss'
Extracurricular activities aside, the band was a productive force. Many of the songs had initially been penned on the road, but in the studio with Rubin the Red Hot Chili Peppers brought them to life. The band adopted a try-anything attitude, willingly experimenting with their sound more than ever before. “Being a Red Hot Chili Pepper is about being free and not being tied down to anything,” Flea explained in the documentary Funky Monks, adding that the band was “not trying to fit into any mold or any style or any category.”
For Flea specifically the album would prove evolutionary. The bassist had always jumped at the chance to spotlight his skills but instead opted to a more focused team approach on what would become Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
“Instead of me trying to prove myself as like, ‘Hey, I’m the bitchin’ bass player, and I can do this and I can do that and I’m the fastest and the hardest,’ was to not think of playing, but just to think about listening,” he explained. “And to just play what was right for the song to make the song good.”
Even while the Chili Peppers explored new sonic avenues, the band didn’t stray too far from its familiar style. Funk still provided the basis for their tunes, while sexually provocative lyrics - a calling card of the group from day one - remained throughout the LP.
Inspiration would come from everywhere. “Give It Away” developed out of advice given to Kiedis by Nina Hagen. “It’s always important to give things away,” the German singer once told him. “It creates good energy. If you have a closet full of clothes and you try to keep them all, your life will get very small. But if you have a full closet and someone sees something they like, if you give it to them, the world is a better place.”
Watch the Video for Red Hot Chili Peppers' 'Give It Away'
A different leading lady would inspire “I Could Have Lied”: Sinead O’Connor. The Irish singer and Kiedis had been in “the most wonderful nonsexual relationship” before she abruptly ended things with an answering-machine message.
Though they reportedly recorded around 25 songs, the Red Hot Chili Peppers whittled their album down to 17 tracks. Among them would be several future classics.
“Breaking the Girl” was arguably the band’s most experimental track. Delivered in 6/8 time signature - a style more customarily heard in waltzes than rock songs - the track found Kiedis chronicling his toxic relationship with a former lover. To get the distinctive percussion right, the band pulled in random metallic items - like trash cans and hubcaps - and proceeded to pound on them.
Watch the Video for Red Hot Chili Peppers' 'Breaking the Girl'
Still, it was the ballad “Under the Bridge” that would become Blood Sugar Sex Magik’s crown jewel. The track began life as a poem, with Kiedis reflecting on a rock-bottom moment when he was shooting heroin with a Mexican mafia member in downtown Los Angeles. Rubin stumbled upon the words prior to the band’s recording sessions.
“I’d gone to Anthony’s house to discuss lyrics with him, and he was showing me his notebooks of different lyrics he had written. And I found 'Under the Bridge’ and asked, ‘What’s this?’” the producer recalled. “I could just tell that he was opening his heart. And they were beautiful words. And it wasn’t sung yet, all it was was words on the page. You could just tell by looking at the words it was special.”
The song would become the band’s most successful single and one of the defining tracks of the era.
Watch the Video for Red Hot Chili Peppers' 'Under the Bridge'
Released Sept. 24, 1991, Blood Sugar Sex Magik marked the Red Hot Chili Peppers mainstream breakthrough. The LP peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard chart, on its way to selling more than 7 million copies in the U.S.
Even with massive success, the Chili Peppers couldn’t avoid drama. Feeling suffocated by the band’s newfound fame, Frusciante exited the lineup less than a year after Blood Sugar Sex Magik’s release.
Still, the LP will always represent a major turning point in the group’s ascent to rock royalty. “With that album, we really grew into being the band that we always wanted to be,” Flea admitted decades later to Guitar World. “It was like we took what was great about us and just gave a lot more depth to the instruments and structure. The album really captured a space and a time that was exciting and fun.”