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Episode Transcript

My guest today, Rick Rubin, has been a major player in the music industry for four decades. He started Def Jam Records out of his college dorm room. And in 2007, M.T.V. called him the most important music producer of the last 20 years. And he hasn’t slowed down. He’s been a producer for everyone from Metallica to Adele, from Jay-Z to Johnny Cash, from Public Enemy to The Chicks. And now for the first time, he’s put on paper the ideas driving his creative process.

RUBIN: The ideas in the book are like smoke. They’re very difficult to grasp. Stuff that when you read it, you feel like you already know it, but it’s difficult to hold onto.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

His new book is entitled The Creative Act: A Way of Being. And it’s not at all the book you might expect from a bigwig in the music industry. It’s a book about… I honestly can’t even explain what the book is about, even though I loved it. I’m going to need Rick Rubin to do that for me. But before we get into the book, I’m hoping he’ll explain to me how a white college student in the early 1980s became foundational to the development of hip-hop.

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LEVITT: So Rick, I spent some time on the internet learning about you in preparation for our conversation, and I actually laughed out loud at one point because the same adjective is used over and over to describe you. Legendary. The legendary Rick Rubin. Do you like having legendary as your adjective, or would you prefer a different one if you got to choose?

RUBIN: I would prefer none. Just my name is fine. It’s odd having any label attached to anything that we do.

LEVITT: So I have to confess, I know very little about the music industry and it never would’ve occurred to me to invite you on the show. But as we were brainstorming potential guests, someone in the meeting noted that Rick Rubin’s got a new book out and he’s legendary. I picked up a copy of your book knowing literally nothing about it. And I was honestly shocked. This book isn’t a memoir or an expose. It’s a book of philosophy; a meditation. And it spoke deeply to me from the very first pages. I got to say, rarely have I been so surprised by a book in such a positive way.

RUBIN: That’s beautiful. I’m so happy that it gave you that experience. The hope in writing it was that somebody would feel that way. So at least I know one person does. It’s great.  

LEVITT: I can’t believe I’m the first to say that to you, let’s pretend that I am. Before we talk about the book, can I ask you an embarrassing question? It’s embarrassing for me and not for you.

RUBIN: Sure.

LEVITT: I don’t really even know what it means to be a music producer. Could you explain that to me?

RUBIN: The closest thing I can compare it to would be a movie director. It’s not like a movie producer, it’s like a movie director. We’re responsible for the overall creative content. So that could include performance, it could include hiring musicians or putting a band together. It could include hiring the technical people. Editing the material or finding the best material or helping the artist write the best material. Whatever’s necessary for a project. If you know anything about movie directors, they run the gamut of different styles. One can be really into the performance of the actors, and another could be really into C.G.I. and they know how to do C.G.I. well. And another one like Alfred Hitchcock would storyboard every frame of the movie. So he knew exactly visually what an entire movie looked like before shooting a scene. Music production is like that. And there are some producers who are experts at one thing. They make beats, they make the musical track. Some are experts at working with super pop artists. So I can’t say there’s like one thing that we do. Each one has their own way in and also depends on how they became a producer. Some start as music studio engineers and then work their way up. Some start as musicians and work their way up. I came at it from fandom. I was really a fan of music and have become like a professional fan.

LEVITT: I love ideas. I especially love simple ideas. And the hallmark of a simple idea is that even though they’re incredibly hard to come up with, as soon as someone has the idea, everybody says, “Oh, that’s obvious. Of course, that’s true.” So it’s a paradox where something is right there. It’s hidden in plain sight, but no one can see it until someone who thinks differently, who has a special way of seeing, points it out. And I feel like, and I mean this in 100 percent a complimentary way, that simple ideas are one of your specialties. The first one that comes to mind is when you’re working with Rum DMC on the Raising Hell album back in the mid 1980s. Can you try to transport us back to that time? I think people forget just how marginalized hip-hop was back then.

RUBIN: At that point in time, there were people who liked hip-hop music — we loved it, but it was a very small community. And it was an outsider group. And to everyone else, including the recording industry, radio stations, they didn’t view it as bad music. They didn’t view it as music. Run DMC were the biggest and best rap group at that time and are still considered, one of the greatest of all time — maybe the best group of all time. And we had finished their — it would’ve been their third album. It was my first album with them, and I was still going to N.Y.U. at the time, and I would meet with them at the dorm room and we would talk about these ideas there.  

LEVITT: So, wait, how did you — I mean, you’re a white guy. I presume you were one of the few white guys who was in hip-hop at that time. You were a college student. How in the world were you the one who’s producing Run DMC’s third album?

RUBIN: It’s an incredible series of events that led to it. The first hip-hop recording I ever made was called It’s Yours by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay. I’d made a couple of recordings of my punk rock band before that. So I knew how to make a recording in the studio. Not by any technical way, but just I went through that process before as an amateur and understood enough to be able to do it, ‘cause I’d done it. I’d done it two times. But I had that experience — I recorded It’s Yours by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, which ended up being a hit. A hit in the way that any rap record could ever be a hit at that point in time, which means it got played in the three or four clubs that would play hip-hop music. That would be a hit. There was no airplay for hip-hop it was before those things. There was one show on WHBI that had one one-hour hip-hop show called “Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack.” That was the only place you could hear hiphop at all. So I made this record and people liked it. And the address for the record company, which I called Def Jam, was 5 University Place, which is my dorm at N.Y.U., Weinstein Hall. And I started getting demo tapes sent to the dorm room because people liked the first record. And then I got a demo tape from an artist named Ladies Love Cool J, who was a 16-year-old kid from Hollis, Queens, and decided to make a record with him. And then he turned out to be LL Cool J.  

LEVITT: Yeah, that turned out to be a good choice.

RUBIN: Yes. So those were the first two things that I did. And then based on the success of the first record, It’s Yours, I met Russell Simmons, who was five years older and he was actually a big deal in the hiphop world already. He was Run from Run DMC’s brother. And he managed Run DMC and Curtis Blow and Houdini and all of the top rap groups at the time. And I met him at a party, someone introduced me to him and said, you know, this is Rick. He made that record It’s Yours. And he looked at me and he did a double take. And he is like, “You — you’re white.” I said, “I know.” And he said, “How did you make It’s Yours? It’s the Blackest record I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s the Blackest rap record ever made.” And said, “I don’t know, I just did what felt natural to me. I didn’t have that conversation in my head. I just made what sounded good.” Then he heard what I did with LL Cool J and that led to us starting Def Jam. And then based on that, he said Run DMC — he and they asked me to produce their next album.

LEVITT: Okay, so you produce this album. What you were saying before was that people didn’t even think of rap music as music.

RUBIN: Correct. 

LEVITT: And that created a problem for you.

RUBIN: Well, it just seemed like there would be some way to demonstrate that rap music was music. And we had already finished the Run DMC Raising Hell album without the song “Walk This Way” on it. And, I was just thinking I feel like there’s some way to tell this story that this is music. And I thought, well, if I could find a song that people are familiar with, that they accept his music, and we did it with Run DMC and we didn’t change it from music into non-music, but did it true to the song, yet with the hip-hop inflection integrated into it, that people would hear it and say, “Oh, I see what rap music is. I always knew what rap music was. I just didn’t know I knew it.” So that was the idea. And I just looked through my record collection and found “Walk This Way” because I was looking for a song that had memorable verse phrasing that wasn’t melodic, because that’s basically what rap music is. It’s based more on the phrasing, you know, the meter of the words, instead of the melody. And that’s the way the phrasing of “Walk This Way” works. At that point in time, you could probably find a rap song that had phrasing like that, that wouldn’t have been unusual. So, recorded the song with Run DMC.

LEVITT: You came to them and said, “Hey, I want you to do an Aerosmith song,” and they said, “Yeah, good idea. That sounds great.” Do they know who Aerosmith was? Aerosmith was this really washed up band by then, right? 

RUBIN: Yeah. They were not into the idea at first, although, there’s always this element in hip-hop where you can use a reference from something else to make something new. That’s kind of what the basis of hip-hop is, it’s a form of a montage. So you take an element like four bars from an old James Brown song and you loop that up and then you do something new on top of it. And the song is nothing like the James Brown song, but you’re inspired by some little quirky moment in it, and make it into this whole new thing. No one knew it as “Walk This Way,” even though that’s the name of the song. In the hip-hop world, that was called the “Toys in the Attic break,” ’cause the name of the album it’s on is Toys in the Attic. And DJs would play the intro beat, just a [sings]. So when I said, “We’ll use the ‘Toys in the Attic break.’” They’re like, “Oh, we love the ‘Toys in the Attic break.’ Of course we’ll do that.” And I said, “And here are the words.” And I played him the song and they’re like, “What is that? We’re happy to write a rap record and put it on the ‘Toys in the Attic break.’” I said, “But that won’t explain hip-hop. What’ll explain hip-hop is if you say Steven Tyler’s words like Run DMC and people can say, ‘Oh, I know this. I already know what this is.’ And that will allow people to understand and accept hip-hop.” I didn’t do it thinking it was going to be a hit or anything like that. It was more just a demonstration, just to play for the people who would say to me, “What is this? I know it’s not music. How do you think of it?” I thought that if I could play somebody this, they would understand.

LEVITT: And did the recording go smoothly? Did it just work?

RUBIN: Yeah. It got recorded easily. And it ended up being impactful in the world.

RUBIN: But again, none of that was — there’s never been a time in the history of my career where I’ve made anything and felt like, “Oh, this is going to be big.” I just try to make very interesting things that I love. And maybe, like in the case of this song, has some purpose to it; trying to make some point. But that’s all I want it to do. And at that point in time the glass ceiling was very low for hip-hop music; incredibly low. The music was reviled by the people who were not making it. 

LEVITT: Yeah, I was one of those people I was not an early understander of hip-hop. But that song turned out to be roughly one of the biggest songs, most important songs ever in hip-hop. Both in terms of sales, but also it did change people’s view of the world. And it changed, I think, what future artists were doing. And what’s interesting is how quickly it happened. That’s why I call it this simple idea because it wasn’t like you did this and it took 20 or 40 years for people to catch on. It was instantaneous, which is what makes it so interesting that no one could see it ahead of time.

RUBIN: Yeah, it was instantaneous and it was right in front of us the whole time. Really a big part of what the book’s about, is that the artist’s work is to live in the world in a way where you notice the thing that no one else notices. It’s all right there. The best ideas are always simple. We just are in our own way a lot of the time and miss it. Or we think it’s impossible because often the obvious thing seems ridiculous.

LEVITT: So can I highlight another thing you did, which really does seem ridiculous?

RUBIN: Sure.

LEVITT: That was when you hooked up with Johnny Cash. So Johnny Cash had been a big star in the 1950s and ‘60s, but by the 1970s, I was a kid, I remember he was doing T.V. commercials for S.T.P. and Lionel Trains. And by the ‘80s he must have been virtually the definition of a has-been. But what did you see in him that no one else could see?

RUBIN: The idea didn’t start with Johnny Cash. I was a young record producer and I had all of this success, incredible success, and all of the bands I was working with were young bands. Everybody was kids, like my age and, most of the people I was working with, they were making their first album or second album tops. I hadn’t worked with anyone with experience at this point, based on the success, I was wondering, I don’t really know what it is that we’re doing, but I wonder if whatever it is that’s working would work with a grownup artist. That’s how it started. And then I started thinking about who’s a legendary artist who hasn’t done their best work for a while? I didn’t want someone who was doing their best work because that wasn’t the test. Again, I was like testing this principle of: we’re doing something new. I have no experience. It’s coming from this naive place. Is it only going to work with other kids or might this work with a grown adult? And the very first person I thought of was Johnny Cash because he has this mythological quality about him even though he was viewed, even in his mind, as past his prime.

LEVITT: What was he doing when you found him?

RUBIN: I got to see him playing at a dinner theater in Orange County for about 200 people who were, you know, eating dinner while he was playing.

LEVITT: What did you say to him?

RUBIN: I don’t remember so much about the meeting. Both of us are shy people. and we sat on a couch together. And I remember we sat there for a long time and we didn’t say very much, but being in each other’s presence felt good. Like it felt like not so much had to be said. I remember he said, “I hear you want to record me? Why do you want to do that?” And I said, “I think we could make something really great. I don’t know exactly what that would be, but I’m interested in going on the adventure with you to figure out what it would be.” And he said, “Well, so many people have tried, nothing’s worked. What would you do different?” And I said, “Just come to California and come to my house and we’ll sit in the living room and you could play me songs on the guitar that you love, that you grew up listening to. And I can get some understanding of who you are musically; who you really are musically. Not just about the records you’ve made, but play me what inspires you and what you like.” It’s exactly what we did. He came to California, we sat on the couch in my living room. And I recorded everything we did with no idea of thinking it would ever be public. they were essentially demos for us to just go on this song hunt. We were looking for songs. And he probably, you know, played a hundred songs. And then we looked at all the songs like, hmm, this one is good and this one and this one together is good, and this one. And then we went into the studio with a band and we did that one time. Then we went into the studio with a different band — and I’m talking about the greatest bands in the world, the greatest players in the world. And for some reason, none of the recordings that we did when we thought we were making a record sounded more interesting than what was recorded in the living room when we weren’t making a record, when we were just documenting what we were doing, so we’d have something to refer back to. There was just something about that, and it sounded different. We’ve never heard Johnny by himself before playing guitar. It was intimate I believed everything he said. It became clear and then we made these albums and people really liked them.

LEVITT: The song that sticks with me, and I think many other people will also never forget, is perhaps his most unlikely hit song of all time, which was “Hurt,” a song originally done by the Nine Inch Nails. How did that come to be? 

RUBIN: I’ll tell you an interesting story. I started a new podcast called Tetragrammaton, and I’m interviewing Trent Resner, who wrote that song, and I’m interviewing him on my birthday. And it’s a funny relationship ‘cause I consider him a good friend and I never speak to him or see him. So Nine Inch Nails was my favorite group, and in looking for songs for Johnny Cash, all that mattered were the lyrics. The music didn’t matter. all that we were looking for were lyrics, where the words would be meaningful coming from Johnny Cash — and not Johnny Cash, the human being, Johnny Cash, the man in black; the mythical figure of Johnny Cash. Like the image from the Western-movie Johnny Cash. And I was just listening to songs from all different eras and I came across “Hurt.” And I remember looking at the words and just thinking, wow, if Johnny sings these words, they mean a whole different thing. When you’re 22-years-old, I think Trent was when he wrote it, and you’re singing about looking back over your life with regret. You still have your whole life ahead of you to fix that. When you’re 70 and you’re singing about looking back over your whole life with regret, it’s really tragic. Just seeing that in the lyrics — the opening lines, “I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel.” Also hearing an old man starting with, “I hurt myself today.” Okay. We think he fell. “To see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / The only thing that’s real.” It’s unbelievable. It’s brutal lyrics. I’m feeling chills in my body now from saying those words. By changing its context from a young person to an old person, changing it from a loud, bombastic song to more of a deep, quiet, meditative song seemed to have a profound effect. 

LEVITT: I was a big Nine Inch Nails fan at the time, and when I heard that there was a Johnny Cash version, I was extremely skeptical and I was really affected by it, but in particular, the video.

RUBIN: Absolutely. It’s heartbreaking.

LEVITT: He really played the part in the video. His hand was shaking. He’s pouring the wine on the table. Man, I still remember that video from whenever it was, 20 years ago.

RUBIN: It’s unbelievable. The story of the video’s interesting because Mark Romanmanic, who’s a good friend of mine, offered to do a video for Johnny Cash. And he’s, if not the best music video director of all time, one of. And he had a whole vision. Johnny was going to come to L.A. and there was a set, and it was a really cool idea. And then Johnny called me and he told me he was too ill to come and that it wasn’t going to happen. Mark was bummed and then he offered to go to Nashville where Johnny was and just see if he could shoot something with Johnny in his house. So everything you see is either filmed at his house or the then closed Cash Museum. That all was real life and he wasn’t playing the part. That’s where he was. His hand was shaking because that’s how much his hands shake then. and I remember when Mark first made the video and I got the first edit of it and I watched it, I felt like I was going to throw up. It was so upsetting. I was not prepared for what I saw it was so emotional. Johnny’s manager didn’t want the video to come out. And I remember it was Roseanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter, who saw the video, and she said, “This is an incredible piece of art. Dad, this has to be in the world. This is Johnny Cash. This is what it is. This defines you.” It’s so real. It’s so personal. There’s no theatricality about it. And Johnny decided to put the video out into the world.

We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with music producer Rick Rubin after this short break.

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LEVITT: I have a hard time knowing how to describe your book. Do you have a way that makes sense to people?

RUBIN: It’s difficult to talk about and it’s difficult to even know what’s in it, honestly. I have a strange relationship to the material in the book because it came over eight years of reverse engineering real life experiences. The real life experiences are not covered in the book, but the way I got to what’s in the book was looking at creative things that worked in the studio — and when I say worked, I don’t mean were commercially successful. They may have been, but that’s not the metric that we use. We’re trying to make great things. And when we know it’s great, once we send it out into the world, it’s nice when people like it, but that’s not what it’s about. it’s about self-expression and getting closer to some, “Can you believe we made this beautiful thing? We can’t believe it.” It’s a great feeling. It’s a very personal endeavor. So I said earlier like, whenever anyone likes anything, I’m surprised because so much has to go right after you make this beautiful thing. The stars have to align for people to even know about it at so many steps that are out of our control. The marketing, the distribution, the radio; I remember I put out an album the day of 9/11. There’s not enough bandwidth for everything going on, and none of that stuff is in our control. So all we can do is make the best thing that we can and put it out into the world and hope for the best. So tell me the question again cause I got lost.

LEVITT: I asked you to describe your book to people, and I think you just did with the same kind of difficulty I have when I tried to explain to my wife what your book is about. 

RUBIN: The ideas in the book are like smoke. They’re very difficult to grasp. It’s stuff that when you read it, you feel like you already know it, but it’s difficult to hold onto. I wanted it to be written in a way where the reader is participating in the material as much as the writer is participating in the material. So the book doesn’t tell you what to think. It invites you to think about something. On every page, there’s an opportunity to find a new way in to solve the problem that you’re looking for. And when I say problem, everything we do with art, every step of the way is like, “Am I going to do it like this or this? Is it going to be bigger or smaller? Is it going to be louder or softer?” All of those decisions are creative choices. And they’re problems until you decide that’s the way it’s going to be.

LEVITT: It so fits with my own experience with the book. The years I was getting a Ph.D. were a special time. I had always been a fantastic student in the sense that I got great grades, excelled on standardized tests, but then I showed up at M.I.T.’s economics Ph.D. program and I was both woefully underprepared in terms of the math I knew. And also I just wasn’t as smart as the other students. I had always at the top of my class. And it only took a few weeks for me to understand that I was near the bottom of my M.I.T. class. And that was a shock for me. But my reaction wasn’t what I myself even expected. I didn’t feel bad about myself. I felt awe towards the people around me. It was fun just to watch them think. It was amazing to always be the dumbest person in the room. I mean, what a privilege to always be that person. And I felt this amazing sense of freedom. I couldn’t compete against these people, so I was free to do whatever research interested me. And it didn’t matter whether anyone else liked it. And for the first time in my life, I wasn’t just memorizing and regurgitating. I was thinking and I was creating. Okay, so what does that have to do with your book? Page after page, something you wrote would resonate with that young version of me. it’s hard to convey with words because it was so visceral, but it was like, for just a little while, I was that kid again. I was full of wonder and excitement, but I was in way over my head and I was making things up as best I could. And for you to bring me back to that time in my life, it was just such a gift from you to me. 

RUBIN: There’s something about that childlike state. There’s a story I tell in the book there was a film that Google made about the AlphaGo experiments probably seven years ago, eight years ago it’s where the world grand master of the game Go plays the computer. And Go is considered the most difficult game for AI to conquer because there are more possible combinations in the game than there are grains of sand on the beach on the planet. So it was believed if the machine could ever beat the human, the world changes. And I’m watching the video and we see the grand master preparing and then they have the game and the computer makes a move that stuns everyone, not because it was so smart. It stuns everyone because they thought it was a mistake. Nobody made the move before. The Grand Master got up from the table and left the table. The announcers on television said, “Oh, the computer made a mistake. We can’t believe it.” The Grand Master comes back, they finish the game, the computer wins the game, and then the computer ends up winning the whole tournament. And I’m watching the story and I’m crying. And I didn’t understand why I was crying. It’s like, what’s happening in me? It doesn’t make sense. I don’t care if the computer wins or the man wins. Why would I be crying? I don’t care. And what I came to realize was the computer didn’t win because it was smarter than the man. The computer didn’t know more than the man. The computer knew less. The computer wasn’t steeped in the lore of the game. All the computer knew were the rules. So it did a move that no seasoned player would ever do because seasoned players are taught by seasoned players, and the seasoned players are following whatever the accepted version of playing the game is — not the rules of the game, but the socially acceptable way to play the game. When he made the move that ended up leading to him winning the game, the Grand Master got up and left the table. It wasn’t because you’re not supposed to do that. It’s because everyone thought you can’t do it; when it turns out you can do it. And it changed the world. One of the commentators said, “It seems that for 3,000 years, no one has even touched the edge of the game of Go yet.” And that’s what made me emotional. It’s the way the creative process works. We’re not good at what we do because we know more. We’re trying to get back to the state that you described when you felt like you were the dumbest one in the room, and you’re trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense and you’re in wonder and awe about the world. That’s the greatest place to be creating from. That’s where creation comes from. When you know more, you know what’s impossible. Knowing what’s impossible doesn’t help you do the impossible. You have to believe in something that’s impossible to allow it to come into existence.

LEVITT: You say something in the book like, “The most damaging rules aren’t the ones we can see, but the ones we can’t.” When I read that, I immediately thought about when Stephen Dubner and I began writing Freakonomics. We spent a few months mapping out the book together, abided by all sorts of unconscious rules we had about what a nonfiction book should look like. It should have a thesis, each chapter should build on and reinforce that thesis, the voice should be authoritative. We outlined that book and we were ready to get writing. And I still remember, we were sitting in a hotel in Las Vegas and Dubner turns to me and he says, “It doesn’t feel like this is going to be much fun to write this book.” And I agreed. And then one of us said, “Well, nobody’s going to read the book anyway. Maybe we should just make a book that’s fun to write.”

RUBIN: Great. 

LEVITT: And we stayed up late that night figuring out that the book that’d be fun to write; it would break all sorts of rules that subconsciously had constrained our first outline. And the publisher didn’t really know what to think of the book that we delivered. And honestly, neither did we. But it was really fun to write and nobody expected it to be a commercial success. But man, we had so much fun creating it that we didn’t even care. And like you said, what comes next is totally out of your control. And in our case, all the stars aligned and we ended up selling just a ton of copies.

RUBIN: That’s how it works. Had you had expectation, if you had to write the big book and it had to follow the rules, it couldn’t have done any of the things that it did. I like to say, if you make something and you’re excited to show it to one friend who you think has good taste, then it’s ready. How many songs, if you look at the history of music, where the song that was on the B side of the single ends up being the hit song? The song on the A side, that’s the focus. And the song on the B side is the extra thing you get with it so that the other side isn’t blank. You know, there’s no pressure on the B side. And then you hear all the stories of, oh, the DJ decided to turn the record over and it became a big hit. Like, we don’t know. We don’t know what’s good. We don’t know what’s big. We don’t know anything like that. If we make something and we get excited about it, that’s the best we can do. And to think past that undermines the whole thing.

LEVITT: It really feels to me like the rare book that’s evergreen. Almost every book has a moment in time and then disappears. But your book, it’s a book I wish I would’ve had on my shelf when I was 25.

RUBIN: Yeah. Me too.

LEVITT: It’s a book I would give to people who are 25. Maybe it will be the ultimate graduation gift.

RUBIN: It’s stunning. How could you predict? I can remember when I started the whole endeavor about eight years ago, meeting with publishers and explaining how I envisioned the book. — all of them said like, yeah, but you’re going to tell stories about in the studio and you’re going to talk about, Johnny Cash and you’re going to talk about Jay-Z. And it’s like, no, that’s not what the book is. And at that point, even though they still wanted to be my publisher, I could feel they just wanted a different book than the book that I wanted to write, and I decided at that time, you know, I think a better bet would be not to make a deal with the publisher now, write the book that I want to write and then show that book to publishers and say, “Do you want to publish this book? Not the one that you fantasized that I could write, but this book.” Because I never wanted to be about me. I always wanted to be about the process. It was harder for me to talk about it then than it is now because I really didn’t know anything in the book then. I still barely grasped the material in the book ’cause it’s so out there. You know, it’s so hard to pin down. We’re talking about magic.

LEVITT: You’ve done music producing your whole life. Did you feel like the lessons you learned in that creative process carried over to the writing process? Or did you feel like you were starting completely from scratch? 

RUBIN: I think they’re all the same. The book was written by the principles in the book. One of the things that the book talks about is the seed phase, the experimentation phase, the craft phase, and then the completion phase, and how the rules of each of those phases are slightly different. I didn’t know that before starting the book. The completion phase has always been the hardest for me. And part of the reason was I treated the completion phase in the same way that I treated the seed and experimentation phase, which are open-ended, free play. It can always be better. We’ll work forever, it doesn’t matter. But once you know what it is, and once you’ve done all the experimentation and you get to the point of where you can see what it’s going to be, the completion phase is more refining the thing that you know what it is. And by putting a timetable on that, or a deadline, it could actually improve the work. In the past, I always viewed a deadline as something that would undermine the work. I’ve come to learn the deadline only undermines the work at the beginning. Once you really have the code cracked and it’s just down to putting the frame on it, you can do that on deadline and it will help the work not hurt the work.

LEVITT: One of the things you, of the things you talk about is to get to the best thing, the last step in some sense is stripping away. Did you try stripping away at this and how much fell off?

RUBIN: A lot. I would say the first four years was just gathering the material to be in the book. And I got to having a thousand pages of notes. And then the next three years we’re trying to come up with the format of how to present that material. Now there are 78 areas of thought. I tried to get as many of the helpful ideas into the book as possible, but in the most succinct way. I tried to not have a sentence in the book that didn’t need to be there. 

LEVITT: You cut words without losing ideas.

RUBIN: Exactly. And I like the idea that there are ideas going in lots of different directions and ones that don’t work with each other all over the book. I like that about it, ‘cause it’s how life is; it’s honest and it’s real in that respect. Never do this and always do the same thing. You know? It’s kind of like that.

LEVITT: Yeah, I like how you say right at the beginning, take the parts that speak to you and ignore the rest. I think it’s hard for readers to do. I’m not going to call your book a self-help book, but they want the formula. They want someone to tell them, these are the 14 tactics you have to follow. It’s rare to read a book where the author starts by saying, “I expect you’re going to throw most of what I say out. Just keep the pieces that speak to you.” 

RUBIN: My publisher in the U.K., he said, “Every book is a self-help book.” It’s pretty good.

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with music producer Rick Rubin. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about what Rick learned from the Beatles.

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Rick Rubin is a very spiritual person today, but I have to believe that the college-age, punk rocker, hip-hop-pioneering Rick Rubin was very different from today’s Rick Rubin. I’d love to know how that transformation unfolded.

LEVITT: Your book is very spiritual. It’s infused with Eastern philosophies. Have you changed a lot over time?

RUBIN: I learned to meditate when I was 14, and I’ve had a spiritual practice most of my life. You know, I like crazy things. I like wild things. I like outsider things. I like aggressive things. I like to be surprised. So I think the spiritual grounding allows me to understand what’s going on inside myself, to know when I’m being pulled forward towards something, to know when I’m being pushed away from something, and then be able to feel in my body when it’s getting better and when it’s getting worse without any thought. There’s very little thinking involved in the process. The thinking comes after. It’s like if you make something that’s good, or something happens that’s good, the first experience of it is this feeling of excitement, joy, laughter. You have an emotional reaction first, and then like the story with, why was I crying? You then try to understand it intellectually. What’s making me lean forward? What’s making me want to rewind it and listen to it again? What makes me want to, when I’m walking in the museum, go back and look at that painting again? Why do I like that one? but that comes after it. First, it’s just the experience. And I think the meditation really helped with the experience part of being able to be in my body and be aware of what’s going on around me.

LEVITT: Where did the 14-year-old version of you find meditation in a pre-internet world?

RUBIN: It was a miracle. My neck hurt when I was in school and my parents brought me to see my pediatrician, who was the doctor who delivered me, who happened to be a hip doctor in the seventies. And he said, “Oh, your neck hurts in school. That stress. I think you need to learn to meditate.” And we researched how we could learn to meditate and there was a person teaching transcendental meditation in my town and I learned T.M. when I was 14.

LEVITT: Wow. My mom was kind of out there when I was a kid, she also taught me to meditate, but it didn’t stick with me. My mom was weird when I was growing up, and so I think if the source had been my pediatrician, I might have been more open to it.

RUBIN: In my case, I wasn’t rebelling against anything at that point in time, I knew that The Beatles meditated and I loved The Beatles. So if it was good enough for The Beatles, it was good enough for me.  

LEVITT: I’m going to tell a story now that I fear will offend my audience, which I believe to be full of rational minded scientific folks, but I think it’s very consistent with the point that you make over and over in the book, which is about listening to the universe. And I’m using my own words, not yours, but I think I’m saying something in line with what you believe, which is that if one can adopt a mindset of openness, of simply watching and absorbing what’s swirling around you, the answers are out there. They’re given to you. You just have to be watching for them so you can recognize them when they come. And some way or another, I found myself incredibly open during graduate school and I felt like the ideas were just finding me. And as one example, I remember I was in the basement of a bookstore in Harvard Square, and I can still clearly visualize the entire scene, even though it took place 30 years ago. There was a table of books with remainders on it, the discount books that hadn’t sold. And I picked up a political science book. I had no interest in political science, and I opened to a random page and I read a paragraph and an idea popped in my head, but not just an idea; the entire research paper essentially revealed itself to me whole cloth. Now this is, even though I had literally never thought about this problem before, and the paper turned out almost exactly as I imagined it in that first moment. And it gave me completely the wrong idea about doing research. I thought, wow, this is easy. If that’s what it means to do research, it’s easy. Only two or three times in my whole life have I had that experience where an idea just came to me and wrote itself. To a scientist, there might be other explanations, but to me it has always felt like what you’re writing about in the book about almost being a vehicle for ideas coming through me as opposed to being the creator of the ideas.

RUBIN: If you talk to people who make creative things on a regular basis, most of them will tell you that it happens the way I describe and the way you just described this is in no way unique. In no way the fact that that happened to you and the fact that that happened to me, does that make us special. That’s not what it is. That’s how the world works. You can choose not to believe it and you don’t get the benefit. What’s the Roald Dahl quote? “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

LEVITT: I’m embarrassed to admit to you now, in the middle of this conversation, that somehow along the way, this openness I had in grad school, it just disappeared completely. And I feel like for the last 10 or 15 years that I was doing academics, all I could do is talk. I couldn’t listen to anything, much less to the universe. Reading your book, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. In so much of what you were describing about the process of creating art, without even really realizing it, that’s exactly what I try to do when I make this podcast. I start with a huge pile of raw material, the things I can learn about my guest. And then I really try to feel who my guest is and how a conversation might play out. And I have this lofty goal of somehow making a connection with my guest. And while at some level I hope the audience likes it, for me, it’s really about creating a little moment in time between me and the guest that feels special. And every once in a while it happens. It’s a really magical feeling for me. And I’ve never in my entire life considered myself an artist. I absolutely cannot draw. I cannot sing. I cannot play an instrument. I can’t dance. But somewhere towards the end of your book, I broke out on this big smile and I thought, maybe I am an artist. And in this podcast, it’s my canvas.

RUBIN: It’s beautiful. We tell ourselves stories that are just stories. We tell ourselves what we can’t do. And the nature of us being here, every day we’re making incredible creative decisions. That’s what being a human on the planet is. And the better our decisions, the more interesting life gets. And sometimes the bad decisions lead to a very interesting chapter that we bounce back from, you know, the failure teaches us something that we need to know to allow the next success to really work.

LEVITT: You have an interesting point in the book about being like a spectator to your own failures.

RUBIN: Imagine that you’re watching a movie and, when something tragic happens to you, imagine you’re seeing this happen to a character in a film. When it happens to a character in a film, it’ll make you feel bad, but it’s different than when you’re in it. And when it happens in the movie, you can look at it and go, “Wow, how is our hero going to get out of this?” And if we can put ourselves in that place of zooming out and not being in the pain of the moment, but letting go of it and imagine seeing the movie and wondering, wow, where’s this going to lead? What’s going to happen next?

LEVITT: Of the guests I talked to, many of them, I think, lose their passion for something along the way. Many of them have an insatiable appetite to just keep on doing more and more. Where do you fall on that continuum? Are you feeling like you’re full right now or still really hungry and empty?

RUBIN: It’s so much fun making things. I’ve spent more time recently focusing on, in addition to music things, doing more visual projects and I’m enjoying that. But it’s that feeling of something not being good and watching it turn into something good — it’s thrilling to be in the presence of that happening. And I’m patient. A lot of the time I’ll be in the recording studio and we’re sitting around and it’s just kind of like, “Well, it’s okay. It’s not so good.” And then all of a sudden something changes and no one knows what it is. That’s the other part of it. It’s not like somebody had the good idea and that fixed everything. It doesn’t really work like that. It just sort of evolves into something great. That’s the subtlety involved in it going from mediocre to mind blowing. No one in the room knows what changed, but all of a sudden it’s undeniable. It’s just great to feel it.

There was a lot in Rick Rubin’s book that spoke to me. But if there’s one big message, one that I would love for you to carry away, it’s something early in the book. He writes, “Creativity is not a rare ability. It’s not difficult to access. Creativity is a fundamental aspect of being human. It’s our birthright and it’s for all of us.” I think that’s so true. I mean, so many people hobbled by the limiting belief that they’re not creative. It makes me think about one of the first Ph.D. students I had when I came to the University of Chicago. He was in his fifth year and he was working on a terrible project with no potential at all when I first met him. I asked him how he picked that project. “Uh, one of my other advisors suggested it.” “Don’t you have any ideas of your own,” I asked. He said, “I’m just not very creative.” So I responded, “Look, I don’t believe you. How about you take some time. Just focus on ideas. Come back in a week with your three best ideas.” So he came back in a week. And two of his three ideas were phenomenal ideas I would have loved to have come up with. He turned those ideas into great research papers, and he’s never stopped generating ideas since. He’s tenured now at one of the world’s best law schools. Like so many people, all he needed was just to have a little belief in himself.

LEVITT: And now’s the time where we take a listener question. And as always, I’m joined by my producer Morgan.

LEVEY: Hi, Steve. 

LEVITT: Hey, Morgan.

LEVEY: So we had a listener write in who’s a physician who works with those struggling with addiction to alcohol. This person has a policy idea they wanted to run by you. This listener writes, “Most people with alcohol use disorder at some point find sobriety long enough to make the earnest resolution to stay clean. But enduring sobriety is difficult. What if there’s a way to bind themselves to sobriety in this moment? I propose a voluntary exclusion from being sold alcohol. Basically, you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles or some other government office, fill out some paperwork, and you waive your right to buy alcohol. This would then appear on your driver’s license and it would be illegal to sell alcohol to anyone who’s under 21 or if they have this waiver sticker.” What do you think?

LEVITT: I love the spirit of the idea. It is the kind of idea that I hear bandied about around the lunch table with really good economists because economists love what we call commitment devices. And this is a great example of a commitment device because the same individual at different points in life have different preferences. When I stand on the scale, I want to lose weight. When I have a big bowl of ice cream in front of me, I want to eat it. And that’s like the same me, I just have different preferences at different times. And an alcoholic is a great example of that, a really extreme example of that because the alcoholic really wants the alcohol, but the recovering alcoholic really wants to avoid the alcohol. And so the idea that the recovering alcoholic could tie the hands of the future alcoholic is a really powerful idea. So even though I love the spirit of the idea, I have to say this feels like a program that wouldn’t actually work in practice and that would have bigger costs than benefits.

LEVEY: And why is that? 

LEVITT: So I think the problem is as much as economists like commitment devices, people in the real world are not eager to sign up to them. It’s really hard to get people to tie their own hands in this way, and these kind of approaches haven’t been very successful. So for instance, there’s a pharmaceutical, a drug out there called antabus, and if you take the drug in the morning, then you will feel sick if you drink alcohol that day. And it really allows the exact same kind of commitment device for someone who in the morning doesn’t want be an addict, but by the evening, might decide that they do want to drink. And the sales are really low. It’s just not a popular drug. And I think that’s part of a bigger picture. Some economists started a company that was going to offer commitment devices as a way for people to lose weight. It wasn’t a very successful company because people, as much as they might say they want to be committed to not do something, they really don’t like it. I’ll give you another example. So Illinois has a bunch of casinos, and the Illinois Gaming Commission made a list. So if you wanted to put your name on this list so that when you came to the door of a casino, you would be banned from entering. You had that possibility, and I don’t remember the exact numbers, but after a few years of its existence, there were a handful of people on the list. There were lots of gambling addicts, but the gambling addicts just didn’t really want to put their name on that list because at some level they wanted to gamble. 

LEVEY: So it makes sense why a group of economists wouldn’t want to start a business around commitment devices and weight loss that is unpopular because no one wants to start an unpopular business. But if it’s a policy decision and it’s affecting at least a few people, it’s changing their lives. Isn’t it worth still the cost to put that policy through?

LEVITT: Well, there would be benefits to those people who did sign up to it. But I think the cost is though, that you have to put a huge infrastructure into place. You have to find a way for people to signal they want this, say on their driver’s license or some way, and then every single purchase of alcohol that follows by every single person has to be carded now they’ve got to show their ID. Look, every teenager I knew who wanted to drink, found a way to get alcohol, either through friends or by going to the one liquor store that would serve teens. I have to believe that adult alcoholics would be at least as innovative and successful in getting around this rule if they had to. And so I’m not sure it would really, in the end, commit anyone to anything. And so imposing a big cost on a lot of other people to not help the target group very much doesn’t seem like a very good deal to me.

LEVEY: Thank you to our listener who wrote in with this idea. If you have an idea or a question for us, our email address is That’s P-I-M-A@ It’s an acronym for a show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent. We look forward to reading yours. 

In two weeks, we’re back with a brand new episode featuring mathematician Sarah Hart. It’s her second time on the show; and in her first visit we talked about the links between mathematics and music. Now she’s back to talk about the connections between math and literature. So we’ll see you in two weeks and thanks as always for listening.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. Now you can also find our episodes on YouTube! If you know someone who doesn’t listen to podcasts but spends a lot of time on YouTube, tell them to go to youtube-dot-com, slash-at-freakonomics — that’s the “at” sign, followed by “freakonomics.” Thanks for listening. 

RUBIN: What’s the Roald Dahl quote? Um, see if I can remember it. Uh —

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  • Rick Rubin, music producer and record executive.



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