The Creative Act by Rick Rubin review – life lessons from the bearded beat master
The co-founder of Def Jam Records and the man behind countless hits, from the Beastie Boys and Jay-Z to Neil Young, offers artistic wisdom that is both gnomic and pertinent
If Rick Rubin were to write a memoir, it would be quite a tale. The American super-producer co-founded the hip-hop label Def Jam from his college dormitory in the 1980s and produced early records for LL Cool J (the credit ran: “Reduced by Rick Rubin”) and the Beastie Boys.
Swiftly, though, Rubin began deploying his signature pared-back essentialism to amplify other loud genres, to great commercial success. Slayer’s classic Reign in Blood was one of his, as was Walk This Way, the inspired pairing of Aerosmith and Run-DMC that ushered in rap rock. The blame for six albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers also sits squarely at his door.
In recent decades, Rubin’s lairy reductivism has mellowed into something more akin to sage-like gravitas. The barefoot, bearded enabler is now perhaps most renowned for his work coaxing late-life classics out of Johnny Cash and having a hand in Adele’s 21 and 25, and Neil Young’s latest, World Record.
The Creative Act is, then, not an account of Rubin’s ripsnorting career, wrangling 36th takes out of entitled guitar heroes. It names no names. Rather, it is a distillation of the wisdom Rubin has accrued over decades of bringing records to fruition. If it has an unignorable precedent, it is Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, a set of artistic challenges the British producer concocted alongside Peter Schmidt in 1975 to break through creative blocks (now an app).
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Buddhism, management theory or the self-help shelf will also find plenty that feels familiar in Rubin’s modus operandi. That’s not to say that Rubin is unoriginal or indeed wrong, only that occasionally, these 400-odd pages can read a little like “the 73 unexpected practices of successful creatives”. The tone is gnomic and epigrammatic, and Rubin’s elevation of artistic endeavour to the highest status of human achievement reverberates with a solemn quasi-religiosity – one befitting a hardback with a fabric bookmark – that is hard to square with his ballsy production work on Jay-Z’s epic banger 99 Problems.
Read through in toto, Rubin’s advice can occasionally seem contradictory. He counsels the artist to live a life that questions all limitations. Later, however, he advises actively embracing some limitations, Dogme-style, before once again placing the artistic life as a higher calling that should be unbounded by rules of any kind, particularly the self-limiting voices in the artist’s own head.
Having “a practice” is a good idea, he says. So is abandoning all routine. Rubin is big on following instinct. He is equally big on letting go of ego in the quest for a fuller flourishing of the work. That can be a particularly tricky circle to square. Does the artist stick to their guns or compromise? The answer seems to be that it depends on the situation. And likewise to some, this book will read as a series of cagey California new age nostrums that bolster the Rubin brand.
But to others, particularly creatives in need of a spur – or anyone in proximity to a client, or loved one, approaching a deadline – The Creative Act has just the right level of confident loftiness to provide succour and useful ways of recontextualising problems.
So, yes: cultivate a beginner’s mind, keep your antennae tuned to “the Source” 24/7, go for a walk. Nothing is real, our consciousness just creates projections. Being famous is not as great as it’s cracked up to be.
Once past these generalities, which may well be revelatory to someone who has not met them before, useful strategies do bubble up, both granular and philosophical. Listening back to a piece of music through speakers is better than listening on headphones. When flowing, keep going. Make the loud bits quiet, and the quiet bits loud, and see what happens.
To a cynical reader, The Creative Act might feel like a series of self-actualising niceties. Until, that is, these are just the prompts you need to hear, when you need to hear them. I’ve underlined rather a lot.
It’s sensible to raise an eyebrow when Rubin, that most commercial of producers, claims to disregard commerce in the service of art. But his words can be seductive. I’m now off to replace my own scarcity mindset with one of abundance. I will strive to make the ecstatic my compass, and see how that goes.