Rick Rubin’s Way

78 observations to keep in mind from Def Jam’s co-founder

Jim Nolan
3 min readNov 13, 2023
My well-worn “purchase free” public library copy.

If you turned this book upside down and shook it, dozens upon dozens of great ideas would fall out. It’s packed with them.

They are organized in “78 Areas of Thought.” Rubin, as you probably know, has been a record producer since he co-founded Def Jam Records with Russell Simmons while still a student at NYU.

He’s produced countless albums, including “Raising Hell” by Run-DMC, “Licensed to Ill” by the Beastie Boys, six LPs by Johnny Cash, and “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So he has had some success.

As a producer, it’s Rubin’s job to bring out something new and great in the people he’s working with, and much of the book discusses strategies for helping others, or helping yourself, do that. They key, he believes, is to be continually open to the ideas that are floating in the ether, waiting for us to tune them in.

“Whether we know it or not, we’re a conduit for the universe.”

“Most often, the hints of inspiration and direction from Source are small. They appear as tiny signals traveling through the void of space, quiet and subtle, like a whisper.”

For Rubin the creative process is almost mystical, or at least mysterious, and this book is an effort for him to codify strategies to get in touch with it, to invite it in. “Conduits for the universe”? Yeah, why not. It’s as good a reason as any for explaining why ideas suddenly pop into our heads out of nowhere—but for Rubin, there is a where, or a what. Our jobs as creators are to be like the James Webb Space Telescope and explore it.

Rubin’s techniques for creating ideas in the studio are ingenious. In the “Breaking the Sameness” area of thought, he writes of having the artist play in the dark to “create a shift in consciousness.” He’ll also ask the band to imagine this is the last time they will ever play the song, or bring an audience into the session to help them focus. If a songwriter is stuck, he’ll ask them to imagine they are writing it for one of their favorite artists. (Copywriters, try to channel Phyllis Robinson?)

By the way, there is also an audio recording of the book, read by Rubin. He sounds like the exact opposite of the cliché wild-eyed record producer. He seems mellow and thoughtful, maybe guru-like.

As someone who works in advertising, I found many of his ideas useful in our world, too. Rubin writes: “If you’ve created an innovative work, it’s likely to alienate as many people as it attracts.” This reminded me of a Helmut Krone quote in Dave Trott’s terrific “Creative Mischief.” Trott writes:

“Helmut Krone was one of the greatest art directors ever. He did two of the all-time best advertising campaigns. He said, “If you can look at something and say “I like it” then it isn’t new.”

New isn’t always liked at first. Even by the people who will eventually come to love it. To make an impact, we need to strive to do it anyway. New gets noticed. New gets to become old—we’re still taking about Krone and Julian Koenig’s VW work at DDB 64 years later. And we realize the enormous difference it made for Volkswagen. How many campaigns from 1959 can you say that about?

Most of the pieces in this book are fairly bite-sized, but concentrated. You can open it to any page and find something to inspire you. I highly recommend it. Rubin’s writing is a “Source” of its own.

A directive from the library. The note pages are also taped together, lest you get any ideas. Which seems odd in a book about getting ideas.

H/T Rob Schwartz #RickRubin #DaveTrott #TheCreativeAct:AWayOfBeing #ConduitsForTheUniverse



Jim Nolan

Jim’s humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Funny Times, HumorOutcasts.com, McSweeneys Internet Tendency, and on WBFO public radio.