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What does Rick Rubin actually do?

The star producer’s supremely vague manual on creativity does nothing to explain his craft.

By Kate Mossman

One complaint, down the years, from some of the bands Rick Rubin has produced is that he doesn’t do much producing. Slipknot, a clown-masked heavy metal nine-piece from Iowa, said they only met him four times when they paid for his services in 2004, and claimed that he was overpriced. The British rock trio Muse acknowledged him at an awards ceremony for teaching them “how not to produce”. Rubin said this month that he knows nothing about music and can barely play an instrument: an affectation of course, but it makes you rethink the concept of his “stripped down” sound.

As far as most of us are concerned, getting Rubinised means getting the treatment he gave Johnny Cash in 2004, turning an almost washed-up country star into a portrait of painful authenticity by wiping away the Nashville paraphernalia, the reverb and the string sections, and uncovering the grizzled face in the rock. Rubin’s simple trick was to suggest that Cash cover a song, “Hurts”, by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. In the moment of surprise, the exhilarating clash of genres, a new voice rang out. Many producers have nicked the idea, and the careers of several old legends have been extended by a decade.

[See also: How the Strokes’ Is This It captured the short-lived optimism of the millennium]

Mashups, of a kind, were the currency Rubin dealt in. In 1984 he set his fellow New Yorkers the Beastie Boys against an illegal sample of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” for the single “Rock Hard”: the album they made together – a white band and a white producer – would be rap’s first number one in the US. He started his label, Def Jam, in his New York University dorm when he was 23, studying philosophy, large of frame and baggy of pant, and he only wanted to work with the music he liked, which was rap and heavy metal (“teenage stuff”). He has said that his greatest strength is his confidence in his own taste. If only we all had that! The audience don’t know what they want, he explained. Tell them something works, and it does.

Rubin brought Public Enemy together as a band and released their debut album, then declared he’d lost interest in rap by the time it came out. Mick Jagger and Bryan Ferry approached him but he turned them down, wary of being flavour of the month. Instead he was driven by the idea of finding something volatile and making it commercial: “to take someone who can channel all these wild energies and, without watering it down or changing it, figure out how to frame it in such a way that other people could look at it and say, ‘Look, that’s a beautiful piece of art,’ instead of, ‘That guy should be locked up.’” He introduced more conventional song structure to hip hop and cut tracks down in length. He made some questionable signings as his fame rose, such as the American comedian Andrew Dice Clay, creator of the Diceman, rich in sexist and homophobic jokes. He told journalists, back in the day, that racism and misogyny in rap bothered him not at all, as long as he liked the music.

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Unfortunately, none of the above is covered in Rubin’s new book. It is a cloth-bound instruction manual about creativity, compiling “78 areas of thought” including Self Doubt, Spontaneity, Play and Why Make Art? There are very few anecdotes: you scan the pages for proper nouns. In a chapter on inspiration Rubin reveals that “one of the most-loved singer-songwriters of all time” is apt to leave the dinner table to tend to a song when the muse strikes him. Now, a top producer, like a therapist to the stars, is never going to divulge much detail about his clients, but it takes real confidence to divulge nothing at all.

Instead, the manual is apparently aimed at all of us, and at every art form: I picture a poor soul knitting a scarf, or making a pot, in front of a yellow Post-it on which they’ve scratched, “The artist’s work is to take seeds, plant them, water them, see if they take root.” There is something smug about very successful people giving vague instructions to the rest of us. When Rubin advises readers to chase the moments in which they “hit the magic note”, the only people who’ll understand are those who are already good at being creative.

Rubin is now 59. He has never drunk or taken drugs, is a fan of mineral water and yoga. His only vice – his addiction – is wrestling, and he once considered buying the National Wrestling Alliance. What a book he could have written, positioned at the heart of rap and rock, of 1980s New York and the record industry in its most lucrative era. There is even a market for a nerdy book on music production – and he hasn’t written that either.

The Creative Act: A Way of Being
By Rick Rubin
Canongate, 432pp, £25

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[See also: Why Jeff Beck was the best guitarist in the world]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con