Can This Record Producer’s Book Really Turn You Into An Artist?

The Rick Rubin method: It’s not for everyone. Warm-voiced, flowing, bearded like a deity, the legendary record producer (nine Grammys) is about mindset. He’s about essence. He’s hands-off, allowing the possibilities to manifest, and then abruptly, disorientingly, hands-on, demanding take after take of a guitar solo or vocal line. And if you are, for example, a late-stage rock star from the postwar slums of Birmingham, England, it might all tend to make you a bit grumpy. “I still don’t know what he did,” Geezer Butler, the Black Sabbath bassist and lyricist, told SiriusXM a few years ago, recalling Rubin’s work on Sabbath’s 2013 comeback album, 13. “It was a weird experience … He played us our very first album, and he said, ‘Cast your mind back to then, when there was no such thing as heavy metal or anything like that—and pretend it’s the follow-up album to that,’ which is a ridiculous thing to think.”

Ridiculous? Perhaps, perhaps. But if you’ve read Rubin’s mega-selling artist’s manual, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, you’ll recognize the strategy. Inviting Black Sabbath to forget heavy metal—which, by the way, the band invented—would come under the rubric of, in Rubinspeak, “detaching from the story.” Which is one of his techniques or mystical protocols for dumping artistic baggage and reconnecting to (more Rubinspeak) “Source.” If it gets between you and Source, Rubin says, it must be discarded. “Any label you assume before sitting down to create,” he writes with his co-author, Neil Strauss, “even one as foundational as sculptor, rapper, author, or entrepreneur, could be doing more harm than good. Strip away the labels. Now how do you see the world?” Are you listening, Geezer Butler? The past 50 years don’t exist. Heavy metal is a figment. The Big Bang never stopped: It’s happening every second. Now pick up your bass and play, daddy-o.

The Creative Act is three books in one, really: a how-to for aspiring or faltering artists, an opening-up of Rubin’s own bag of tricks as a producer/cosmic facilitator, and an account of the spirituality that defines his method. (That subtitle is a missed opportunity, by the way. My suggestion: The Creative Act: How to Be Transcendental and Still Make Records With Sir Mix-A-Lot.) It’s been a fixture on the New York Times best-seller list since its publication in January of last year.

Why? Why is there such a turned-on audience for a book that contains lines like “The outcome is not the outcome” and “We’re on a distant metaphysical journey from the here to the now”? Well, partly because there’s always an audience for that kind of book. But more specifically, because Rick Rubin knows what he’s doing. His discography is too massive and various for there to be a distinctive Rick Rubin sound, but there is a Rick Rubin feel, and you can locate it somewhere between Slayer’s South of Heaven, LL Cool J’s Radio, and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. It’s a thrilling, ageless sense of presence, of instrumental friction, of waves pushing through space. Stripped-back but superabundant, the elements laid bare and the fundamentals boosted,
from John Christ’s guitar tone—dark blue, luridly defined—on the first Danzig album (1988) to the roof-falls-in percussion of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (2004). Rubin, in this respect, is the true heir to the mighty essentialist Mutt Lange, producer of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and Back in Black: Each whump of the kick drum seems to carry a statement about the nature of the universe.

And the fullness of the kick drum expresses the fullness, the all-in-ness, of the artist. Genuine expression is a totality. “Creation is original freshness related to God,” as Thomas Aquinas put it. And Run-D.M.C.’s Tougher Than Leather is original freshness related to Rick Rubin. He’s been a serious innovator in the realms of hip-hop and metal, and also—with those Johnny Cash albums particularly—a gifted expediter of the American tradition. When it comes to getting the best out of an artist, in other words, Rubin can teach.

Also: His book is not just for musicians. It’s for everyone. To a slightly insane degree, in my view. We’re all artists, Rubin says, all creators, every one of us, because—as human beings—we perceive. “In each moment,” he writes, “we are immersed in a field of undifferentiated matter from which our senses gather bits of information. The outside universe we perceive doesn’t exist as such. Through a series of electrical and chemical reactions, we generate a reality internally.”

Now, call me old-fashioned, but I find this claim—that we are all adrift in a species of electrified data-porridge, inexplicably endowed with something between our ears that converts it into trees, boyfriends, penguins, slices of pizza, etc.—rather astonishing. (Technically I believe it’s called subjective idealism: You can find it in the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley and the Yogācāra school of Buddhism.) Only a little less astonishing is the fact that most readers, if they pause over these lines at all, will do so only to award them a grunt of unruffled assent: Yup. Sure. But there we are. Or here we are: America, 2024, up to our eyeballs in the primacy of individual experience, each of us bubbling around in our personal truth, our privately generated reality.

Nevertheless, from this (to me) dubious starting place, Rubin proceeds to lay out a very clear and helpful and thoroughly road-tested vision of the stages of creativity. Energy, the raw stuff of creation, is coming at you all the time, in hints, clues, rhymes, or blasts of inspiration. The trick—or the great task—is to make yourself available to it, and then, with craft and cunning and stamina, convert it into art. And although stylistically The Creative Act has a light furring of New Age waffle—there are warm breezes, and hummingbirds, and flowers blooming in the trueness of their flowery nature—once you go through that, it’s bare-bones practical, even stern.

Excessive complaining is a sideshow: “We’re not being ordered to do this. If we’d rather not do it, let’s not do it.” Open yourself up. Be fearless. Be attentive. Tune out the bullshit. Do whatever you have to do to maintain yourself in a state of receptivity. And get the job done, bring it to completion. Don’t piss about, or that original creative impulse might curdle or back up on you: “Think of inspiration as a force not immune to the laws of entropy.”

There’s a time—a moment in the process—for distraction, and a time to put distraction away. There’s an Experimentation phase, during which you note carefully your body’s reaction to an idea and postpone the “head work” of analysis, and a Craft phase, where you get down to business. Then this, which I find fascinating: “Think of an artistic impasse as another type of creation. A block of your own making. A decision, conscious or unconscious, not to participate in the stream of productive energy that is available to us at all times.” Writer’s block as inverted art project: a willed thwarting of the celestial flow.

Being so bearded, being so zen (he’s a lifelong meditator), Rubin is determinedly nondogmatic. This might be true, but so might that. Try one thing, then try another. Get comfortable with paradox. “Self-awareness is a transcendence. An abandonment of ego … This notion may seem elusive, because in the same breath, it includes tuning in to the self and surrendering the self.” After 400 pages of this, or variations of this, you’ll be an accidental adept in what Keats called “negative capability”: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

For all that, Rubin’s book will charge you up. With art, the stakes are high. In fact, they could scarcely be higher. You will be attacked by self-doubt, by the pressure to make a living, by a vulgarizing commercial system, and by “undermining voices.” The sensitivity required to make good art can leave you feeling … sensitive. But—for your life to fulfill itself—you’ve got to do it.

That’s the neural message, that’s the stimulus, that I took from The Creative Act. And it all brought me back to a scene from Funky Monks, the 1991 documentary that tracks Rubin and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as they bounce around a mansion in Laurel Canyon recording Blood Sugar Sex Magik. In this scene, John Frusciante, the Chili Peppers’ wayward guitarist, barely 21 at the time and worryingly handsome, is talking to someone behind the camera. Frusciante is stretched on a couch or bed, propped against a wall, cigarette in hand, pale-chested under a silken-looking robe. Half-avatar, half-casualty. And he’s holding forth with beautiful, drastic earnestness: “Anything at all that I thought wasn’t directly aimed at helping my creativity come out,” he says, “I treat it as if it was a knife to my heart.”

The Creative Act – A Way Of Being

By Rick Rubin

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