The Profile Dossier: Rick Rubin, the Creative Genius Behind the World’s Biggest Artists
“You can’t make art with someone else in mind.”
Rick Rubin is a legend.
As one of the most renowned music producers of all time, he’s known for finding and developing new artists after launching his iconic record label Def Jam. He holds nine Grammy Awards, winning his first as a producer in 1997 for Best Country Album for Johnny Cash's Unchained.
Rubin is largely credited for helping take hip-hop mainstream in the late 1980s. His production discography is a star-studded list containing artists like Jay-Z, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Slayer, Metallica, Run-DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, AC/DC, Nine Inch Nails, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Macy Gray, Aerosmith, Kanye West, Ed Sheeran, U2, Black Sabbath, and Eminem.
But Rubin isn’t like your average music producer. He’s a producer, yes, but he’s also something of a philosopher. His hidden genius lies in that he can get inside the brains of artists and help them find and develop their own unique voice. He’s been called “a psychological-problem solver” who gets artists to tap into their most creative place and produce their best work.
His superpower? Listening with intent.
“If you listen to people, if you really listen to what people say, usually, they tell you everything,” he says. “If you really listen and pay attention to what people are saying, they’ll let you know a lot of stuff. I just really pay attention to what people say, and then through that, I can then reflect back thoughts that they’ve told me about themselves and that they don’t know about themselves. [It allows] them to unlock those doors, to allow them to go to the places where they wanna go, artistically.”
Here’s what we can learn from Rubin about tapping into your creativity, building momentum, and generating new ideas.
On Rubin’s rise: This 1986 profile documented the rise of Rick Rubin when he was only 23 years old, calling him, “rock’s hottest producer.” At the time, Rubin was behind the sales of about three million records, including a top 10 single (Run D.M.C.’s summer hit, “Walk This Way”), a double-platinum album (Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell), and one gold album (L.L. Cool J’s Radio).
On his biggest hits: From LL Cool J to Kanye West, Slayer to Tom Petty, Johnny Cash to Dixie Chicks, Rubin is a legend. In this piece, he tells the stories behind 21 of his most remarkable recordings, as well as the story of how he left his New York dorm for California and how he realized that producing albums could actually be a career.
On being hip-hop’s shaman: This documentary follows the rise of Rubin and details how he shepherded many artists to multi-platinum records. Rubin has worked across genres like no other producer – metal, hip-hop, country, and even comedic albums. Artists love working with him because he doesn’t focus on the end result. He is obsessed with the journey of creating.
On rebellion and conformity: In this longform interview, Rubin explains the tension between rebellion and conformity. “To conform to someone else’s idea to what you should be doing doesn’t make sense,” he says, adding that he doesn’t feel like he’s part of any societal “system.” This is a must-watch.
On the power of experimentation: In this interview, Pharrell and Rubin sit down at Shangri-La to have what can only be called an epic conversation. In this wide-ranging mutual interview, the two cover everything from the Blurred Lines lawsuit to how the LL Cool J album Rick produced influenced Pharrell. Sit back and enjoy, because this epic conversation is a ride.
On the creative process of the world’s best rappers: In this Joe Rogan podcast episode, Rubin breaks down the creative process of some of the greats, including Eminem, Jay-Z, and Anthony Kiedis. Eminem is constantly scribbling in a notebook, while Jay-Z never writes down a single word. This is a fascinating in-depth look at the making of a hit.
On his definition of success: To Rubin, success isn’t synonymous with status or wealth. Success, he says, is contentment. He’s worked with some of the world’s top performers, but the ones he’s truly impressed by are the ones who prioritize their well-being and happiness over everything else. “Successful is someone who enjoys their life, is great at what they do, is curious, and continually pushes forward, and wants to be better than they were yesterday without beating themselves up about it.” he says.
Don’t judge an idea prematurely: The key to any creative endeavor is the willingness to experiment. So much of what gets in the way of things being good is thinking that we know before we try. “I never decide if an idea is good or bad until I try it,” Rubin says. “And the more that we can remove any baggage we're carrying with us, and just be in the moment, use our ears, and pay attention to what's happening, and just listen to the inner voice that directs us, the better.” The secret to tapping into your creativity is the simple act of being curious. If you can approach your life as a scientist — experimenting, learning, and applying — then you just might unlock your creative potential.
Build on your momentum: Once you’ve gained momentum, Rubin believes you should do everything in your power to keep it going. He refers to a great piece of art as “a chapter or a moment in your life.” In other words, they’re small chapters that are part of a bigger book. As you finish one and start working on the next, your work will reflect your state of mind in that particular moment. “There is something about there being another chapter and saying, ‘This is where I am now. And this is where I am tomorrow. And this is where I am next time,’” he says.
Control your art to a point: One of the most important lessons Rubin tries to impart to new artists is this: Control what you can, and then set your creation free. He says, “You can't control people's interpretation. And why would you want to?”
Implement some ‘mood elevators’ in your life: Rubin learned how to meditate at age 14, and he credits the practice for his calm demeanor. Of course, like all of us, sometimes he gets blindsided by life by unexpected obstacles, which he calls “internal disruptions.” So when he gets disrupted, he immediately goes to one of his “mood elevators,” which include exercise, transcendental meditation, or an ice bath. “It’s just magic, sauna/ice, back and forth,” he says. “At the end of the fourth, or fifth, or sixth round of being in an ice tub, there is nothing in the world that bothers you.” Make a list of three or four “mood elevators” that have the power to shift your mindset and use them as soon as you feel an internal disruption.
Aim to get 1% better every day: When you’re getting started on a new venture, Rubin offers a dose of harsh truth: Be realistic about your goals. Rubin says most people quit too early, and that’s likely because of the grandeur of their ambitions. “If you say, ‘I don’t want to write songs unless I can write songs better than the Beatles;’ it’s a very hard road,” he says. “But, if you say, ‘I want to write a better song tomorrow than the song I wrote yesterday, that’s realistic – that’s something that can be done.’” Remember, you’ll make more progress by making small steps every single day than by making big steps occasionally.
Turn your world into an idea-generating sensorium: For Rubin, inspiration can be manufactured. “Going to museums and looking at beautiful art can help you write better songs,” he says. “Reading great novels, reading great works of art, seeing a great movie could inspire a great song.” Ideas can come from the most unlikely sources — from reading books, admiring sunsets, observing animals in nature, or listening to the sound of waves. “Those are all inspiring things, and help turn on the muse of recognizing kind of a greater vision of what’s possible,” Rubin says. Use your five senses to pay attention to the world around you because the next great idea may be hiding in plain sight.
Be selfish in your creations: Rubin has some advice that I wholeheartedly believe in: “You can’t make art with someone else in mind.” Engage in what interests you and you alone. If you have good taste, others will find value in it as well. But if you’re only creating something with the hopes that it pleases an “audience,” then that is likely to lead to a dead-end road. “You can’t second guess your own taste for what someone else is going to like,” he says.
More insights here:
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“There’s tremendous power in using the least amount of information to get a point across.”
“When receiving suggestions, you can also try the exact opposite and see what happens.”
“Taste is a practice you can develop and strengthen. It's a reflection of who you are.”
“There's a good time to impose a deadline. That time is not at the beginning of the process.”
“It’s [about] getting closer to the source and not being distracted by any nonsense.”