Creativity & Consciousness with Rick Rubin
AUTHOR: Liz Goldwyn
PHOTOS BY MAX VADUKUL
Prolific music producer and record executive Rick Rubin co-founded his first label, Def Jam, out of his 1984 dorm room at New York University.
Rick helped hip-hop reach mainstream in the late 1980s through his stable of artists, including Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC. He was also present during the recording of N.W.A’s seminal album, Straight Outta Compton. As a solo producer, Rick has produced iconic albums and tracks with artists like Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, ZZ Top, AC/DC, Slayer, Metallica, The Gossip, The Dixie Chicks, Adele, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, Kayne West and dozens more.
While an executive at Columbia Records, Rick pushed the company to go green and be more environmentally conscious, abolishing plastic jewel cases for all its CDs.
A meditator since he was a teenager, Ricks emits a powerful aura of calm, cool, and control. I wanted to know how Rick taps into his consciousness to help navigate the creative and business worlds he’s dominated for over 30 years— and get the recipe! An edited version of our phone conversation between us follows.
Rick Rubin: Hello it’s Rick.
Liz: Hi, Rick. It’s Liz.
RR: Hey. How are you?
L: Good. How are you?
RR: Everything’s cool. I’m just in the studio working on a record. And it’s coming good.
L: A lot of the music that you produced was the soundtrack to my youth. I was driving along listening to the Geto Boys...
L: Beastie Boys, LL Cool J. I have to ask you about the Geto Boys. [Laughter]
L: I know you took a lot of heat working with them, right?
RR: I had to really fight to get the record distributed because the record company that distributed my records were offended and were sensitive and didn’t want to be associated with it and took their names off it. It was just difficult even being able to get it out. But I always believed in artists, artists being able to say what they wanted to say and the pure expression of the artist regardless of whether it was stuff I agreed with or not. And I just thought they were a radical group and really original at the time because gangster rap was new but they had a different slant on it where it seemed more almost like watching horror movies. It wasn’t as reality based more um over the top and theatrical, and I thought it was interesting.
L: Yeah and some of the tracks on those records with the long intros were kinda like what the Wu-Tang Clan was doing years later— all the references to Japanese cinema.
RR: Yeah. True.
L: A group like the Geto Boys or an artist like Johnny Cash who is exploring scenes of hurt, loneliness, violence — subject matter that reflects the dark side of humanity. But you seem to maintain such a dedicated personal balance throughout all these projects. I’m wondering how you balance the light and the darkness of the material you work with and the artists’ material that you work with.
RR: I feel like an outsider myself. I’m drawn to music made by outsiders and sometimes that might be in the form of Krishna Das — to hear him chanting Hindi names, Hindi names for God — and a band like Slayer who are singing violent lyrics or satanic lyrics whatever it is —they’re both outsiders, neither of them are average [Laughter] or or regular. So I like the stuff that’s not regular and that’s irregular. I’ve always liked the things that don’t fit obviously—those are the things that interest me and draw my attention. I feel like Johnny Cash fits into that. He was always an outcast figure and in the country world he was banned from the Grand Ole Opry when he was young. Even in his success in the earlier days there was always a love hate relationship between the country music community and Johnny Cash. Lots of people loved him but the community, the system did not love him. I tend to like those kind of artists, they are interesting to me. I think that’s sort of the spirit of Rock and Roll. It’s like the rebellious and the new fighting. Interesting to hear.
L: The rebellious and the new. Did you always see yourself as an outsider even when you were just a little kid?
RR: Yeah I always was. For one reason or another I always felt like that like I didn’t fit. I felt different.
L: What did you want to be when you grew up?
RR: I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I know my parents had me on a track to become a lawyer, which I was going along with with not knowing any better. I always knew that music was the most important thing to me and I assumed it would play a big role in my life but I didn’t know it was a job or didn’t know it possibly be a job. So, the fact that it happened was really was remarkable and it really happened by itself. I did do things in music as hobbies, but I never thought they would be my job. I never thought it was possible.
L: Do you need to be working on different things at the same time to be creative?
RR: I think it works as a palate cleanser. When you are only working on one project and it goes on for a long period of time, It's easy to get tunnel vision to where you are so intimate with the project that you are seeing it in a way that other people who get to see it down the road won’t have that relationship with it. It’s really the producer role. It’s like if you have written a song and have an idea of how to present it — that’s somewhat having a producer does; it is someone who is not so close to the material; it’s like being a professional fan. And the same is true even for me going between projects, like if all I did was focus on one thing,I could easily lose perspective on okay which of these details I am hearing are actually making it better or worse, and how do other people hear those things, or do other people hear those things? I find by going from project to project, every time I show up, it’s like hearing it for the first time; it’s new. There’s an incredible power in hearing something for the first time and being able to know how you feel. Even as a fan of something if you listen to something, let’s say you are not involved at all, you just buy an album and you listen to it a hundred times. The hundredth time you listen to it is very different than the first time you’ve listened to it. And sometimes it’s like a ramping up process and sometimes it’s a ramping down process. Sometimes the first time you hear it you love it, and then every time you hear after that, less and less. And sometimes you hear something and you don’t really get it at first and then you by accident you don’t even choose to hear it again and by accident you hear it again it’s like, oh it sounds better than I remember it being. And then you listen to it again and you’re like, oh wow I might really like this. And then it’s not until the seventh or eighth listen or until a year later where you love it. And that has happened more of things that have really moved me over a long period of time are the ones that at first I might not get. And and I think it’s that the point of reference isn’t there. You know I remember the first time I was in junior high school I heard the Ramones for the first time and there was no point of reference for music that fast at that time. They were the first one to play like punk-rock style fast. And when I first heard it, it made me laugh. It just seemed ridiculous because there was no point of reference. Once I got past that, it became something I really loved. And when I first heard Nine Inch Nails, I didn’t really like industrial music, and I didn’t like much electronic music, but I had to get past those things to understand —oh — I really like this guy’s songwriting. Then I grew to love that genre of music through him than through all the music that came before him.
L: Interesting. And, and in your process of working with people, you seem like a very present person, do you operate a lot on intuition …
RR: Very much so.
L: How do you stay in that zone? How do you how do you filter out everything else so that you can focus on your intuition?
RR: I think it’s something I practiced from the beginning and a combination of mediating. I want to say this and knowing this about doing it, when you do it for a long time, you get in the habit of relying on your instincts. You’re just in tune with them. I also think from a young age, and maybe it comes from being an only child, I very much relied on my own opinions. I’m not sure why it is, but I, It’s easy for me to make creative choices in a clear and decisive way. It comes very naturally. I think starting to mediate at the age that I did, being an only child, I’m sure there are many things that played into it.
L: How old were you when you started meditating?
RR: I was fourteen.
L: Wow. That’s young. Was it something that you thought out on your own or was it something your family…
RR: No. Not at all. Neither. My neck use to feel stiff a lot when I was in school, and I went to see my the doctor who delivered me, my pediatrician, and he was just a cool doctor. I told him that my neck hurt, and he told me that it was stress and I needed to learn to meditate, and I thought, wow I don’t think my parents are not going to like this.
RR: [Laughter] and I told my parents because know one we knew did that. I told my parents about it and they said, well whatever the doctor says is what we do. And I found a TM teacher, and that’s how I learned.
L: Well, I was going to ask you how you unwind, but I’m wondering if that’s what you use meditation for as well.
RR: I would say I unwind walking on the beach, stand-up paddling, and um I do uh I use a sauna and ice baths and that will unwind you [laughter] really whether you want to unwind or not.
L: I want to go to spa Rubin [laughter] sounds pretty awesome.
RR: [Laughter] It’s really fantastic. We do four rounds of like fifteen minutes in a very hot sauna could be as much as 220 degrees and then get in a metal tub filled with ice and it’s really radical and use the tub for about 5 minutes and then go back in the sauna and do that back and forth. At the end of that you really feel good.
L: I’m sure.
L: I wanted to ask you about raising social consciousness over the music industry in general. I know that you had a great deal to do with abolishing plastic jewel cases for CDs. How much you think feel a sense of responsibility in your position?
RR: It’s more of a question of I choose to to be of service when I see the opportunity to. I think it’s the best way to say it. When I see something that feels like we can make things better, I will try to do that. The nature of the job it’s on a one-on-one basis, but a lot of the work is being there for the artist —sometimes it’s almost like a job of a therapist. I think even on a one-on-one basis you can help somebody that counts. I’m not looking at ways of changing the world. It’s more on a one-on-one basis to make things better I guess.
L: The music industry is changing and you’ve been on so many different ends of it. What are your thoughts on the streaming model?
RR: I don’t know enough about the business side of the new model, but I will say from a fan’s perspective, streaming is a great way to listen to music, and the idea that all music is available at your fingertips on demand wherever you are in the world without having to carry any extra stuff is a really remarkable thing, and worth its weight in gold. That’s the way I listen to music. I subscribe to many download services and I use them all pretty constantly. It’s definitely upped the variety of the music I listen to and the discovery process as well, hearing about things through Songza or Pandora —those are probably the ones I’m using right now. Then if I’m listening to music through Beats or through Spotify. It’s just an amazing time for a listener to get everything.
L: No more vinyls?
RR: I like the way vinyls sounds but it’s frustrating because we put so much effort into making the way that people hear it sound as good as it can. Then when I listen to vinyls and it sounds different and it’s a little frustrating. I try to listen in the mainstream way that people listen, with the best equipment that I can, but in a mainstream way.
L: Do you remember the first vinyl record that you bought?
RR: The last record I bought? Probably not since college…
L: No. The first one that you bought, the first one that you saved your money and bought yourself.
RR: Oh the first one. Might have been Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron.
L: [Laughter] That’s the one where he wears the cape, right? He’s got the goggles on.
L: Do you have any vices?
RR: Hmm. Let’s see. Not that I am aware of. Name some and I will tell you have them [laughter]
L: I guess anything can be considered a vice. You got candy bars hidden under your bed or you are a hoarder or you go crazy over women’s shoes or you love rare books. I guess vice and collecting are…
RR: I have an interesting relationship to collecting. I use to collect a lot of things. In the past I have been a hoarder.
RR: Oh absolutely. If you go to my parent’s house I still have probably every issue of The Village Voice from my childhood just stacked up in piles in my room um because I might want to reference back to an article at some point.
RR: But I’ve really changed in that respect. I use to collect guitars and music instruments and now we have what we need for the work we do, but I try not to have more than that. If you come to my house it’s basically an empty white box with almost no things in it. Very little furniture, very little stuff. There is a good sound system; there is a comfortable bed. Not much else honestly. I feel most comfortable living with space and being drawn to being outside more than being inside. That’s what feels most comfortable for me now. It’s different because when I lived in a house filled with stuff, antiques and all those things…
RR: But at this stage of my life…yeah books. I still have a lot of books and I love reading on the Kindle because then I don’t have to have books. Although I do love them as objects, I like no stuff better than stuff. So same is true even with vinyls. I had thousands and thousands of DVDs and tens of thousands of CDs. It’s so nice not to have that stuff. It’s great.
L: I think the one thing I could not get rid of is books probably.
RR: Yeah. I understand. And they are beautiful and they’re nice to hold. I still; I don’t know; I don’t know.
L: You like it all streaming.
RR: I really do. Do you do you…
L: I love going to the bookstore. I love going to the library; it’s a treasured time for me. And in terms of vinyl, I have my dad’s Harlem Renaissance records, which I could never give up. I mean just the way they sound.
L: But I agree. I agree. Gotta embrace technology, embrace the 21st century. Stream everything. Take our vitamin pills. [Laughter] Get with the program.
RR: All of those things.
RR: It’s fun also finding the new things. Looking at the cutting edge technologies and being an early adopter and seeing what works and what doesn’t and sometimes you know finding a way to help make things better.
L: True. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. You’ve inspired me to get much deeper into my own mediation practice if I can have half the ounce of balance you seem to have.
RR: [Laughter] Cool. Thank you very much.
L: Hope you have a great day.
RR: Thank you. We will talk soon.
L: Thank you. Bye, Rick.