Rick Rubin: Reducing Down To The Essence

Music producer* Rick Rubin has made a career of capturing “that special thing” on a recording. He helped define the sound of early hip-hop, changed how heavy metal was recorded, and even left a mark on classic country. Rubin’s got a way of getting to the essence of an artist like no one else. We can learn a lot from his skills, well beyond the recording studio. The act of understanding the purpose an idea serves is the act of bringing meaning and life to work in any field.

Rubin gave a fascinating long-form interview on the Questlove Supreme podcast. He said people often have a hard time looking at a thing for what it is. Usually, people see what they want to see or already know. The first hip-hop records featured rappers and studio bands. Rubin had fallen in love with DJs, samples, and drum machines in the clubs, and he brought that to life in his recordings. Heavy metal bands were being recorded like traditional rock bands, but he recorded them to be directly in your face. Johnny Cash just needed a guitar and a mic as far as he could tell, and it was that no-frills production style that reinvigorated Cash’s career.

Every problem, every question, every situation has an underlying essence. It’s normal to default to the familiar or the same old way of doing things. But sometimes, the old way doesn’t quite feel right. Noticing that feeling is our intuition trying to tell us the essence of the problem or solution isn’t matching up. This is when we should experiment. Rubin’s lesson is to tinker until the feeling is right. It’s no different than how any product or service is built and refined. Reduce down to the essence, focus on the feel, stay true to the experience of it, and capture that lightning in a bottle.

*or “Reducer,” as he likes to be known

2 thoughts on “Rick Rubin: Reducing Down To The Essence

  1. One of my favorites yet.  Question is — is this a ‘teachable’ skill/art/practice? Or is his lesson … “… to tinker until the feeling is right. It’s no different than how any product or service is built and refined. Reduce down to the essence, focus on the feel, stay true to the experience of it, and capture that lightning in a bottle.”  something that has to be ‘within’ a certain ‘kind’ of person……… and THAT person can then focus and develop that trait? I wonder if everyone has the capacity to “:…. Notic(e) that feeling….is our intuition trying to tell us the essence of the problem or solution isn’t matching up.”…………..understand what this means and hone “it”? 

    Enjoying the posts – ! L

    1. My best guess: it’s teachable, but largely you’ve got it or you don’t (and by “it” I mean passion and curiosity for some specific topic). Natalie Nixon’s definition of creativity is that to have it you need the capacity for both wonder and rigor. If you’re insatiably curious and also have the rigor to bring the vision into existence, you can create something a la Rubin. That capacity to create can be trained/coached/coaxed at least to some degree, especially if the person is interested or passionate in the subject. Over time, the intuition gets honed, and the larger the capacity, the better the output. Probably where most people fall short is when they pick something they’re passionate about the output of instead of the process (money/fame vs. putting in the work). That’s a formula for failure. However, wonder + rigor and a desire to hone that intuition? I have to believe we all have it if we want to work on it. We got 99 problems, just need to focus on that one.

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