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Rick Rubin admits he doesn't know how to use a mixing desk: "I have no technical ability, and I know nothing about music"

Join us for our traditional look back at the news and features that floated your boat this year. This story was originally published in January 2023.

Best of 2023: One of the most famous and influential music producers of the modern age, Rick Rubin has won nine Grammy Awards and worked with a colossal list of household names, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Metallica to Johnny Cash. 

It's fair to assume, then, that he might know how to play a musical instrument or operate a mixing desk. In a revealing interview surrounding the publication of Rubin's new book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rubin has claimed otherwise. 

Discussing his abilities as a producer with the host of 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper, Rubin was asked if he played any instruments at all. The producer responds, "barely." Anderson continues, asking Rubin if he knows how to use a "soundboard" or mixing desk. "No," Rubin answers. "I have no technical ability, and I know nothing about music."

"You must know something." Anderson responds. "I know what I like and what I don't like. I'm decisive about what I like and what I don't like." Rubin tells the reporter. Cooper then asks Rubin what exactly he's being paid for, if not to lend artists his technical ability as a producer. "The confidence that I have in my taste, and my ability to express what I feel, has proven helpful for artists," Rubin replies.

Before the interview begins, Rubin asks Anderson Cooper to sit quietly through two minutes of meditation. Afterwards, Cooper asks if the practice plays a significant role in his creative process. "It clears the distractions," Rubin responds. "Distractions can get in the way of a direct connection to the creative force."

Elsewhere in the conversation, Rubin discusses the irrelevance of knowing what audiences want to his process. "The audience comes last," he tells Cooper. "The audience doesn't know what they want. The audience only knows what's come before."

Cooper disagrees, suggesting that the music business as a whole is "built around trying to figure out what somebody likes." "Maybe for someone else it is," Rubin replies. "But not for me."

Those unacquainted with Rubin's peculiarities as a producer might be surprised to find out he's unable to operate technical equipment or even play instruments. But in Rubin's eyes, the task of a producer isn't to simply record an artist's music or tweak compressor settings. 

Instead, it's all about helping to push the musicians he's working with, and the music they're writing, in the right direction. This is accomplished by listening carefully, offering thoughts and opinions on what he hears, and creating the right conditions for an artist's creativity to flourish.

This is an approach that has enamoured some of the world's most famous artists, while proving divisive with others. "He is the end all of listeners,” said Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, following their time working together on last year's Unlimited Love. 

“That is what has made him one of the greatest producers of all time in any genre of music - his ability to hear things. He listens, and he walks away, and he knows the drum pattern. I'm like, ‘how do you know that?’ He hears it all.”

Rubin expands on his philosophy of creativity in a new book, published this month by Canongate. "No matter what tools you use to create," Rubin writes in the book's introduction, "the true instrument is you".

Watch the 60 Minutes interview on CBS' website.

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