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Daniel Scrivner

Who is Rick Rubin? Lessons on Creativity and Craft from the Music Producer who Shaped Artists from Johnny Cash to Metallica

This is part of my profiles on history's greatest innovators, founders, and investors. Check out the profiles of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Bernard Arnault, Steve Jobs, or browse them all. You can also browse my collection of the greatest speeches, interviews, and letters of all-time.

Rick Rubin is an American record producer and former co-president of Columbia Records. Along with Russell Simmons, he is the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings and also established American Recordings. With the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Geto Boys, and Run-DMC, Rubin helped popularize hip hop music. He also produced a number of top-selling artists from a variety of other genres including heavy metal (Danzig, Slayer, System of a Down, Metallica), alternative rock (The Strokes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, The Cult), country (Johnny Cash, The Chicks) and R&B (Adele).

In 2007, MTV called him "the most important producer of the last 20 years," and the same year, Rubin appeared on Time's "100 Most Influential People in the World."

On This Page

How Rick Rubin Works

Here's what I've learned about how Rick Rubin works with artists and musicians:

  • He works on one thing at a time and gives it his undivided attention.
  • He only works with A Players who are willing to put in the work.
  • He tries to get his thinking as clear as possible and is often founding in recording sessions laying down on a couch thinking.
  • He calls himself a reducer not a producer.
  • He believes that less is more BUT that to get to less you have to do more.
  • He pushes his artists to put in the work—recording every song 50 times to find the best composition, and writing 100 songs to find the best 15.

Quotes from Rick Rubin

All of these quotes are Rick Rubin in his own words describing his philosophy of making music and his creative process.

“I’m not a producer. I’m a reducer.” — Rick Rubin
“It’s only done when it can’t be done any better.” — Rick Rubin
“I would love for it to be done. But the reality of the creative process is that it takes however long it takes.” — Rick Rubin
“Less is more. But you have to do more to get to less.” — Rick Rubin
The Ruthless Edit: “You made 25 songs, you need 10. But do not pick 10. Ask yourself, ‘What 5 songs can I absolutely not live without?’ And then before you add anything else think, ‘What could I add to these 5 songs, that I cannot live without, that would make them better and not worse?” — Rick Rubin
“If it could be better, it’s not done.” — Rick Rubin
Rick Rubin asks every musical artist he’s about to work with the same question: What the first thing that got you into music? — Rick Rubin
“Negativity is the enemy of creativity.” — Rick Rubin
“The amateur mind possesses a valuable lack of knowledge about rules. When matched with passion and gumption, gravity ceases to exist and new things take flight.” — Rick Rubin
“All the most interesting things happen when you are making stuff no one else is making.” — Rick Rubin
“Mainly, I’m a researcher. I am always looking for a better way to do everything. And I never accept, whatever the accepted version of something is, as the way anything is supposed to be.” — Rick Rubin
“It doesn’t matter who I am working with. I use the same basic formula: keep it sparse. Strip down the sound to something straightforward but powerful.” — Rick Rubin
“It’s not about being fancy. It’s about serving the song.” — Rick Rubin
“The newest sounds have a tendency to sound old when the next new sound comes around. But a grand piano sounded great 50 years ago and will sound great 50 years from now. I try make records that have a timeless quality.” — Rick Rubin

Quotes From Bands and Musicians on Rick Rubin

Some of the best insights into Rick Rubin come from the musicians and artists that he's worked with including:

  • Many bands recalled being put through a recording regiment where Rick made them record every track about 50 times each to attain the good dynamics in their sound.
  • “What you hear is 14 songs, but there’s 86 songs that you haven’t heard. Once the project began I started writing daily. I wrote 100 songs over a period of a year and a half.” (Donovan?)
  • System of a Down: “Production with Rick doesn’t mean you’re going to sit in the studio. It might mean you go to a record store, or to the beach, or for a drive. You bond as people first and then you put songs together. Rick is like the song doctor. If you play something for him, it’s like going for a checkup. He’s like, ‘Here, take a couple of these vitamins and see how you feel.’ And the songs always feel better after his suggestions.”
  • “We found that for us, we need a producer to be devoted to us for a few months. That’s what Rick does—we’ve got his undivided attention. He doesn’t do any disciplining, we do it ourselves. I love making music and I love writing music. Nobody needs to push me to do that. He’s not the kind of person who gets distracted or comes to the rehearsal studio with something else on his mind—carrying his personal life into the studio. He is very focused. He’s got a clear head about everything going on.”

Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin

Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin had a special relationship. Rick Rubin pitched Johnny Cash on working with him after he decided that he wanted to find older artists who weren't making new music but had spectacular early careers. After Johnny Cash said yes the pair produced two albums, American Recordings and Unchained, of which American Recordings won the Grammy for Best Country Album in 1998.

  • “Rubin had a real simple plan: Wherever the magic is we will follow it.”
  • Johnny Cash recorded Hurt in Rick Rubin’s bedroom. Johnny Cash recalled, “There was no echo, no slap back, no overdubbing, no mixing. Just me playing my guitar and singing. I didn’t even use a pick. Every guitar note on the album came from my thumb.”
  • Rick has always been described as having extreme confidence. Along with the ability to rub that confidence off on the artists and musicians that he’s working with. Johnny Cash famously said, “Rick made me have faith in myself again. He made me believe in myself and my music, which I thought was gone forever.”

After Johnny Cash's second album (American Recordings) with Rick Rubin won the Grammy in 1998 for Best Country Album, Rick Rubin took out a full page ad in Billboard magazine to say thank you to the country radio stations who refused to play any of Johnny Cash's new music. The ad alone is an all-time great.


All of the books, documentaries, and podcasts I used to compile these quotes:

See Also

For more explore lectures, profiles, interviews, and books related to Rick Rubin:

Related Collections

For more, check out my collections of interviews, speeches and lectures, letters and memos, and profiles:

About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer and angel investor. He's led design work at Apple, Square, and now ClassDojo. He's an early investor in Notion,, and Anduril. He founded Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Apr 28, 2024

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