Today is March 13 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you engage in work that takes your breath away?” Navigating the chaos often requires one to have a curious mind. Rick Rubin knows this all too well. 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 established American Recordings. With the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Geto Boys, and Run-DMC, Rubin helped popularize hip hop music.
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. A lifelong practitioner of transcendental meditation since he was a teenager, Rubin grew up in Long Island, New York, and still sports the beard he started growing around the start of his career.
In a February 11, 2016, Rolling Stone profile Rubin reflected upon his decades long career in the music industry and highlighted the significance of curiosity as he helped shape recent music history. According to Rubin: "I don't really have any control over what's going to happen with a recording. It is more just experimentation and waiting for that moment when your breath gets taken away. It is an exciting, exhilarating thing when it happens. But it is not anything to master. You just recognize it when it happens and protect it from evaporating. It takes luck, patience, a strong work ethic and being willing to do whatever it takes for it to be great. It's a bit of a process we have to go through to get there. I just show up and try to make music that excites me. Sometimes there will be an idea that'll make a record great, sometimes it'll just be patiently waiting for a magic occurrence to happen or setting the stage to allow it to happen."
For today’s reflection let us pause here and ask some questions from Rubin’s statement.
He understands he has no control over what is going to happen with a recording; how often do you need to have control over a situation?
He experiments, remains curious and waits to have his breath taken away; how often are you so curious that you can wait to have your breath taken away?
He is not trying to master a task; how often are you trying to master a task?
He realizes the necessity of doing whatever it takes to be great; are you?
He sets the stage for the magic to happen; how often do you set the stage?
One of the many examples from Rubin’s life illustrating his process concerns the song “Hurt.” In 1994, Trent Reznor of the rock band Nine Inch Nails released “Hurt.” By many accounts “Hurt” is a brutal depiction of self-loathing and emotional numbness that begins “I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel.” Rubin had sent the song to Johnny Cash earlier, but the veteran musician couldn’t hear beyond the industrial noise and anguished howl that featured in the original. “I think it was hard for him to hear it,” Rubin told Rolling Stone. “So, I sent him the lyrics. I said, ‘Just read the lyrics. If you like the lyrics, then we will find a way to do it that will suit you.’”
This collaboration on “Hurt” helped Cash continue to produce music during the last stage of his career. In 2000 Cash released the American III: Solitary Man album and in 2002 he released American IV: The Man Comes Around album that included cover songs by several late 20th-century rock artists, notably "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails.
Cash listened to “Hurt” again with the lyrics sheet and said to Rubin, "If you feel strongly about this, we can try it." According to Rubin “We recorded at my house in Los Angeles. It was 2002 and we built all of it from scratch. It's an acoustic song, so it was recorded as a smaller acoustic song than it ended up becoming, and through overdubs, we built all the drama that's in the song to support the power of the words and the way Johnny was delivering them.”
Since Cash’s health was failing Rubin selected songs that made sense lyrically for the way his voice was sounding. There were times when Cash’s voice sounded broken. Rubin tried to turn that into a positive in the selection of the music. Cash was awfully troubled by the way his voice was sounding. A lot of times during the process, Cash would be down on himself.
As Rubin recalled “He could always rely on his voice, and at this stage he couldn't. It was a real struggle for him.” Cash’s cover of “Hurt” almost never made it to the public though. When his management team first saw the music video they were like, "Nobody can ever see this." According to Rubin “it was really Rosanne [Cash], his daughter, that made the case to Johnny that, ‘You're an artist — this is what you do, and you have to show this video.’ He was like, ‘You're right.’ He agreed. And the video came out. She was the one.”
Skeptical at first, Trent Reznor realized the power of Rubin’s curiosity in having Cash remake Reznor’s “Hurt.” In an interview reflecting upon Cash’s remake Reznor said “video on it. It's morning; I'm in the studio in New Orleans working and I pop the video in, and... wow. Tears welling, silence, goosebumps. Wow. I just lost my girlfriend because that song isn't mine anymore. Then it all made sense to me. It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. Some-fucking-how it winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning-different, but every bit as pure. Things felt even stranger when he passed away.”
Rubin’s curiosity has given him a lifetime of accomplishments. In January 2023 Rubin published The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Reflecting on his book Rubin said “I set out to write a book about what to do to make a great work of art. Instead, it revealed itself to be a book on how to be.” As printed on the back cover, Rubin helped artists “transcend their self-imposed expectations in order to reconnect with a state of innocence from which the surprising becomes inevitable. Over the years, as he has thought deeply about where creativity comes from and where it doesn’t, he has learned that being an artist isn’t about your specific output, it’s about your relationship to the world. Creativity has a place in everyone’s life, and everyone can make that place larger. In fact, there are few more important responsibilities.”
How often are you curious?
How often do you remind yourself you are capable of transcending your self-imposed expectations?
How often are you curious about your relationship with the world?
How often do you engage in the self-care required to reflect upon ‘how to be?’
Are there people in your life who allow you to be curious?
Do you encourage others in your world to be curious?