Beyond Genre: Adventures in Rap, Rock, and Romance

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BIO-Kegan“You could listen to this song with maybe twenty lines in it, and if you could be reached in the same way in a two-hour movie, it would be a great feat for the movie. Yet a three-minute song can have that power—it’s really amazing….”Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin, MTV’s “most important white boy in hip-hop,” has produced some of the most influential and creative albums of the past two decades, from artists such as The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slayer, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, Nine Inch Nails, Audio Slave, Jay-Z, Saul Williams—and the list just keeps on going.

But what kind of producer works as easily with Johnny Cash as with Nine Inch Nails? And what kind of producer has Johnny covering a NIN song? Quite simply, a producer who follows the trail of excellence, no matter how many boundaries are broken in the process. “Every step of the way I’ve been told I can’t do what I do, because people tend to have their niche, and that’s it.” Rick’s niche just seems to be great music, and what he does is create a space for artists of any genre to be as great as they can possibly be.

Intuitively, Rick has been acting on a kind of integral impulse for years. Even as a kid in his early twenties, Rick would work simultaneously with the rap group Public Enemy and the metal band Slayer, and think that was perfectly normal. And rap-rock? Yup, his idea. He got Run-DMC together with Aerosmith to record “Walk This Way,” and the hard-hitting sound of the rap-rock fusion would go on to dominate the late 90s.

As someone who has explored so many types of music, Rick has a few things to say about what makes for great music in any genre. And it’s this kind of insight that exposes the integral thread running throughout his work, because without a way to hold all of these things together in a way that makes sense, you don’t have art, you have a fifty-car pileup. A mind that can understand the unique value of each different style of music is a mind that can know how to bring those different styles together in an act of true creativity.

But as he notes, there are indeed a couple of important factors in creating great art that appear to apply to the music business in general. For example, if you want to make music you’re proud of, get in the habit of living as a songwriter, and always be in that mode. When it comes time to record an album, you’ll have several dozen songs at your disposal, and you can pick the best twelve.

Unfortunately, he also notes that record labels today tend to encourage artists to create one or two radio singles, rush through the rest of the album, go on tour, and then not write again until two months before it’s time to record the next album. The result? Artists learn to devalue their work and consumers learn it’s not worth buying albums since 90% of the songs aren’t very impressive. Sure, you can make just about anything catchy if you throw in 20 different audio elements to gloss over mediocre song-writing, but Rick follows a different philosophy: “If it’s not good in its simplest, barest, most immediate form, then we discard it.”

Well, this Rick in his simplest, barest, most immediate form—we hope you enjoy the dialogue….

Rick Rubin

About Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the music industry juggernaut responsible for grafting rap and rock into the hybrid phenomenon that paved the way for contemporary hip-hop. He has produced such artists as LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine, System Of a Down, Neil Diamond, and Johnny Cash. Rubin was listed among Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People.

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.