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Rick Rubin listens better than you do
Building partnerships doesn't make you an artist. But uniting two companies around a shared goal is a creative act.
That's why the role of partnerships is sometimes compared to the work of a producer.
A music producer assembles the singers, musicians, songwriters, sound engineers and studio time needed for an album to come to life.
Similarly, a partnership leader assembles those from Product, Sales, Legal, Marketing, Finance in order to finalize a deal.
Rick Rubin is one of the greatest music producers ever … and most interesting people in entertainment today. Let's dig into his secret sauce and what it means for you and your deals.
The birth of a producer
In 1981, Rick Rubin enrolled at NYU at a critical moment in music history. Hip-hop was migrating from New York City’s neighborhood block parties into its dance clubs. Rubin was fascinated by what he heard.
“It wasn’t shiny. It wasn’t polished. It was raw. It felt more poetic and personal. No one got into rap music at that time thinking it was their road to success.”
During his junior at NYU Rubin started a music label from his dorm room (Def Jam). And he found a business partner with more credibility on the streets and in the clubs (Russell Simmons).
Together, they discovered and produced artists including Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. The albums they produced with these artists inspired a new genre of music that defined my adolescence and (arguably) my entire generation.
In the late 1980's Rubin moved to Los Angeles and started his own music label where he worked with artists across genres.
Rubin has produced albums with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, Neil Diamond, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Lady Gaga, Adele and others. He also helped a new generation of rappers, including Jay-Z, Eminem and Kanye.
Why do all these artists want to work with Rick Rubin? Part of the answer can be found in Rubin's partnership with Johnny Cash.
Rubin Revives Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash’s first hit song in 1955 when he was 23 years old. He won his first Grammy at 35. By 42 years old, he had won six Grammy Awards and six Country Music Awards
But by 60 years old, Johnny Cash had been dropped by two record labels. He had not released a hit song in many years.
Rick Rubin recalled thinking to himself …
“Who is the best adult artist who isn’t doing their best work? The first person I thought of was Johnny Cash. At the time I read that he was performing in dinner theatres … it just seemed like the world has passed him by, and he believed the world has passed him by.”
Rubin, half his age, approached Johnny Cash backstage and invited him to his house.
Cash was skeptical at first.
"He didn’t know who I was. But he wanted to understand why I [Rick Rubin] would want to work with him because why would anyone want to work with him?"
I said, ‘Well, let’s just sit down and play me songs you love, and we’ll figure out what to do.’ He sat in my living room and he just started playing me these songs, most of which I had never heard - old country songs, or old folk songs, and it was magnificent."
For months, Rubin recorded Johnny Cash playing songs on an acoustic guitar as they sat together on the couch in Rubin's living room. Eventually, Rubin booked time in a recording studio and assembled a world-class band to accompany Cash. But when Rubin listened to the songs they had recorded in the studio he realized something:
“Over time it became clear to me … that the solo acoustic performance on the couch was the most interesting stuff, even though when it was happening I had no idea it would ever be a record.”
Cash admitted to Rubin that he had long wanted to release a solo acoustic album but lacked the confidence since he had always played with a band. He told Rubin,“but if you think these songs are better than when the band is playing … I’m willing to try it.”
Rick Rubin’s gift is in his listening and sharing what he heard. He didn’t produce Johnny Cash so much as he listened to him and then gave Cash the confidence to be himself.
Over the next twelve years, Cash release seven albums alongside Rick Rubin. Four of those albums went gold. For the first time in decades, Johnny Cash won awards and his songs ranked among the top 10 hits again.
How Rick Rubin Listens
For Rick Rubin, listening began at a young age with listening to himself, to his own body.
At 14, Rubin went to see his doctor about a pain in his neck. The doctor explained that the pain was due to stress and that he should meditate. This began a life-long practice of transcendental meditation.
[Meditation] allows me to be very present with the artists I’m with. I think transcendental meditation has trained me to be a very good listener. It’s a big part of the job.
Listening is foundational to how Rubin builds relationships with artists:
“If you really listen to what people say, usually they tell you everything. I just really pay attention to what people say and through that I can reflect back thoughts that they’ve told me about themselves that they don’t know about themselves.”
He views this approach - both noticing and sharing - as central to creating anything:
“Creativity is acts of noticing. Nothing comes from us. The creator isn't making the thing. The creator is recognizing the thing, noticing the thing and then sharing it in a way that the audience can hopefully get a glimpse of what we've noticed.”
Keep in mind, Rick Rubin does not play any instruments. He cannot even read music. He listens with deep focus. Just as important - he then shares what he has noticed in a way that moves others. He didn’t simply listen to Johnny Cash. He shared his perspective in a way that helped Cash find the confidence to play solo.
Listening and your work
You are probably not a music producer. But your first task in building a partnership is similar. Listen to your partners.
Just as Rubin isn't a musician, you don't need to write code as well as your partner in Engineering or build models as well as your partner in Finance. But to get a deal done you need to really understand and help them achieve their goals.
A practice of meditation can help you learn to listen better, allowing you to clear your mind and be present.
Reflect on what you've heard. To find the path forward, you'll need to share your own perspective on how you and your partner can both succeed together.
Creating something new, a piece of music or a partnership starts with listening, the most important skill in business. And in life.
As Rick Rubin writes, “Listening without prejudice is how we grow and learn as people.”
Rick Rubin the philosopher
Below are sources that informed this post, where you can learn more about Rubin’s approach to creativity:
The Creative Way: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
Note: this is an unusual book. Rubins describes it as “a philosophical book on how to make beautiful things.”
Podcasts interviews with Rick Rubin