What You Can Learn From Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is one of the most successful and lauded producers of the modern age. With eight Grammys to his name from producing albums including Adele’s ‘21’, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ and ‘Stadium Arcadium’, to a pioneering role in the mainstream acceptance of hip-hop and hundreds of other credits producing artists as diverse as The Strokes, Kanye West, Rage Against The Machine, James Blake and Justin Timberlake, he is one of the real titans of music production.


Famed for a “less is more” approach that seeks to cut the fat away from songs to let their essence breathe, he is called upon by many of the world’s greatest artists to provide his expert touch. He has proved a divisive figure in the past on occasion, but over his career he has displayed plenty of innovative thinking that every musician can learn from. 


Explore the unexpected


It was allegedly the idea of Rubin’s then-Spin magazine editor friend, Sue Cummings, for him to unite the worlds of rap and rock on Run-DMC & Aerosmith’s rework of the latter’s 1977 hit ‘Walk This Way’, in 1986. For him to actually present it to the hip-hop trio as an idea was another thing entirely, and one that was met with resistance right up to the recording process.


The idea was in no small part inspired by the instrumental drum break at the start of the original record, which DJs used to loop using two copies for MCs to rap over in the formative days of hip-hop. The rework was a continuation of that heritage, and one that was shrewdly aimed at helping Run-DMC cross over into the mainstream. 


It worked like a charm, giving them their first ever Billboard Top 100 hit (#4) and breaking the Top 10 in countries across the world — as well as helping to restart Aerosmith’s career which had taken a nosedive over the decade leading up to this smash. Along with his role producing Beastie Boys’ early albums, this unlikely pairing helped to break the doors down for hip-hop to enter the wider public consciousness and acceptability in America and across the world, paving the way for the domination of the modern age of hip-hop. 


He also pulled a similar trick in convincing country music legend Johnny Cash to cover Nine Inch Nails’ morbid ‘Hurt’ for his 2002 album of cover versions ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’. On paper it was probably the most unusual of the song choices on the album, but Cash was soon convinced about what a brilliant song it was and that he could bring something new to it. His fragile version became possibly his best known song, turning new generations onto his music and bolstering his legacy in a big way after a long stretch of his career being in the wilderness.


How you can apply this: experiment with unlikely combinations of sounds, genres and collaborators. Especially in an age when it’s very hard to dream up an entirely new sound, cross-pollination of genres, cultures, eras and perspective is where the most exciting music usually happens. Step out of your comfort zone and embrace something unusual. 


Make time and space to listen to music (and to your brain)


A quote attributed to Rubin on the website of Pitchblack Playback — who host album listening sessions in the dark — reads:


When I listen to music, I close my eyes, and it takes me away. The better the music sounds the easier it is to disappear into it. Pick the best listening environment, get comfortable, close your eyes, and really try to feel the music with your body.


In our hectic modern world, it can be very hard to find the time and space to give music the full attention it deserves. Even in our homes we find ourselves distracted by our devices, other people, oddjobs and so on. If you can dedicate some time each week to pure, undistracted listening, you’ll really thank yourself. 


As well as giving yourself a sense of presence and calm in the same way that meditation does, it will give you a much more intense and rich experience of the music you’re listening to. You’ll notice new elements and appreciate lyrics more. Think about how much time and effort goes into making an album, or how much you put into each track you make. Wouldn’t you want others to acknowledge that by listening to your music with their full attention? 


You also may find new thoughts and creative inspirations coming to you during your focused listening session. Clearing your mind of all other distractions and stimuli allows your brain to explore creative pathways that will not be available to you if you’re listening to an album while working or reading a book or playing on your phone. We all need to make space for creativity to blossom.


It’s no coincidence that Rick Rubin has been meditating since he was 14. “I’ve made albums where we would meditate before each session” he told Transcendental Meditation. “When we made ‘Californication’, we meditated before each session. At least two [of the Red Hot Chili Peppers] every time, sometimes three, rarely four. Tom Petty, when we made ‘Wildflowers’, we often meditated before we started each session. The more you understand silence, [the more you understand] that’s where the balance comes [in music].

How you can apply this: set aside an hour each week for undistracted music listening with your eyes closed, and consider taking up meditation as both a wellbeing practice and a creative one.

Flee (Flea?) from predictability


Rubin’s career ethos has been to do the opposite of whatever his last success was. After his co-founding Def Jam Records and producing seminal crossover hip-hop acts like Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and LL Cool J, his next move was into rock and metal. In 1986 he began a long relationship producing albums for Slayer, and when things went sour with his Def Jam partners in 1988, he moved to Los Angeles and set up his Def American Records label, signing acts like The Jesus and Mary Chain and even a stand-up comedian. Producing Red Hot Chili Peppers was his next mega success, and across the ‘90s he worked with legends of the ‘60s and ‘70s like Tom Petty, Mick Jagger and the aforementioned Johnny Cash. 


The artists he worked with became ever more eclectic and diverse, allowing him to transcend genre and simply be known as a very effective music producer rather than being known for a particular sound. Not only has this helped keep him interested in his work, but it also means that he has been able to avoid the pitfalls of trends coming and going.


How you can apply this: if you have some success with a track or an album, don’t feel that you need to serve up more the same next time. Just because it worked once doesn’t mean it will work again, and the most important thing is to make music for yourself and no-one else. If you make what you think fans want to hear instead of what you want to hear, you might back yourself into a corner and end up resenting what you’re doing. 


Embrace impermanence


His approach to social media is refreshingly different, and one that might well be linked to his Buddhist influences. His channels post various pearls of wisdoms he has shared, and each post is deleted before the next is posted – meaning there’s only ever one post on his channels at any one time. It’s the polar opposite of most people’s attitudes to social media, where people look to catalogue their lives and memories. And aside from this unusual attitude to posting, the posts themselves are full of great advice. Follow him on Instagram to see what we mean.


How you can apply this: live for the moment when it comes to your music and creativity. Don’t think about past successes or failures or what you might achieve in the future. Do the thing that makes you excited right now. And if you’re experiencing some level of success, appreciate it and relish it instead of worrying about who’s ‘doing better’ than you or always wanting more. 


Look far and wide for influence


As well as his love of Buddhist practices, Rubin’s influences have ranged from the art world to wrestling. Not many music producers can say that. “We were as inspired by pro wrestling and Monty Python as we were music” he said about Beastie Boys in an interview with Rolling Stone, citing old skool wrestlers like Roddy Piper and Ric Flair as influences for their raucous, theatrical personas. “The idea of being bad-guy rappers, saying really outlandish things in interviews, that all came from a love of pro wrestling“.


When he started his stint as the co-chairman of Columbia Records in 2007, he arranged a private tour of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art for some of his employees.

The idea was to remind everyone: we’re in the art world” he told Wired. “It’s not purely a business transaction that we’re thinking about. We’re curators of great art. Surround yourself with great art; feel the power of it and how it’s presented. That’s how we treat our artists, and that’s how we treat our music.” This eclectic approach to soaking up influence is definitely reflected in his diverse discography. 


How you can apply this: the wider you cast your net in terms of your influences, the more open you’ll be to working with different people, styles and opportunities. Find inspiration in books, films, podcasts, travel, art, science, sport, nature, cuisine… anywhere. Be open and receptive to inspiration from any walk of life and make notes on your phone any time something interesting strikes you. The more you do this, the more inspiring ideas you’ll start seeing everywhere.


Speaking of inspirational podcasts, we highly recommend subscribing to Rick Rubin and Macolm Gladwell’s Broken Record series. Guests ranging from Tame Impala to the RZA and XL Recordings’ Richard Russell talk to Rubin on the podcast about all manner of music-related topics in free-flowing conversations, with plenty of wisdom shared in the process.