Exploring the Intersection of Music and Technology: Rick Rubin and the AI Conundrum

December 7, 2023


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One year ago, OpenAI unleashed a seismic shock wave with the release of ChatGPT, and content creators have been experiencing collective angst ever since. In a world where generative AI can effortlessly create visual and creative content, what happens to humans? Well, as it turns out, AI in all its forms can replace anyone, from CEOs to writers. So, this existential question applies to everyone reading this post, no matter what you do. And no one really knows the answer. But I think the acclaimed music producer Rick Rubin offers us a clue.

“I Know Nothing about Music”

Rubin’s achievements are nothing short of legendary. He has succeeded by collaborating with artists across genres ranging from hip-hop to country. He co-founded Def Jam Records, one of the most influential hip-hop record labels of all time. His work with LL Cool J and Run-DMC helped to introduce hip-hop to a wider audience, and his production on the Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill, helped to solidify the group as one of the biggest acts in the genre. In the 1990s, he famously rejuvenated the flagging career of Johnny Cash, acting as producer on Johnny Cash’s album American Recordings. That LP (followed by five more also produced by Rubin) is considered to be one of the greatest comeback albums in music history.

Earlier in 2023, Rubin talked with “60 Minutes” in a much-discussed interview about his life, career, and philosophy. The entire interview is worth watching. But make sure you listen about 2 minutes in when Anderson Cooper asks him, “Do you play instruments?” Rubin replies bluntly, “Barely.” Furthermore, he says he does not know how to use a soundboard, and he has no technical ability. He adds, “I know nothing about music.”

 “You must know something,” Cooper replies, laughing.

“I know what I like and what I don’t like. I’m decisive about what I like and what I don’t like.”

“So what are you being paid for?” an incredulous Cooper asks.

Rubin answers, “The confidence that I have in my taste and my ability to express what I feel has proven helpful for artists.”

Think about that. One of the most successful producers in music history says he knows nothing about music and that he does not know how to use the technical tools of the trade. Ironically, by leaning into his instincts, he’s cultivated a skill that AI cannot touch – so far.

A Groundbreaking Collaboration

And his track record bears out his remarks. He famously helped Johnny Cash reclaim his career – which was experiencing a very lean period in the early 1990s – by inviting Cash to simply play his guitar alone and unplugged.

As Cash would later recount in the liner notes for an American Recordings anthology, Rubin suggested to Cash, “You would take your guitar, sit down in front of a microphone, and sing me the songs you love. Just sing me everything you want to record.”

Sounds almost prosaic, right? But the proposal was pure genius: Cash had actually never recorded like that. Throughout his entire career, going back to the 1950s, Cash had always recorded with other musicians. With Rubin, Cash’s sound was stripped to its bare essence of storytelling, something that Rubin felt was lacking at that point in Cash’s career. In addition, Rubin had done his homework on Cash. He knew Cash could be a man of few words in meetings. So, Rubin encouraged Cash to speak through his music. Getting Cash to play music was a way of building rapport.

At first, Rubin did not turn on the recording equipment — he just asked Cash to start playing. Cash dipped into his songbook to play a range of music, from gospel to train songs. Rubin listened to Cash’s selections and applied his own instincts to help Cash select the songs that would form the basis of American Recordings, including a song about a man who commits a brutal murder (“Delia’s Gone”), which Rubin correctly realized would connect Cash emotionally to contemporary musical tastes.

And that’s how they recorded their landmark series of albums together, with Rubin going on to convince Cash to take risks by recording with other artists and covering songs that had nothing to do with country on the surface – notably “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails – but had everything to do with Johnny Cash.

The Value of Human Instinct

How ironic. In a world where success is calculated, namely in dollars and cents and units sold, Rubin relies on an intangible: instinct. And I think he’s on to something important, leaning as he does into the human element. Rubin understands the importance of the intangibles that lie beyond the obvious aspects of a given trade, whether one is talking about writing content or creating images on video. It’s not the technical execution that has made Rick Rubin wildly successful and respected artistically. It’s instinct.

And this instinct is not unique to Rick Rubin. He works at developing instinct by immersing himself in music, culture, new ideas, all the time, nonstop. He is a sponge for ideas, something he has discussed throughout 2023 in podcasts and media appearances to support the release of his recently published book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being.

I highly recommend the book. He discusses the value of constantly keeping his mind open to ideas, even to the point of allowing himself to be “distracted” by simple acts such as walking. He writes about the importance of “collecting anything we find of interest” to find starting points for ideas and listening to his emotional response to those starting points. I find it interesting that he singles out human emotions (such as excitement), not intellectual responses as signposts for knowing he has come across an idea that has potential. Emotion is a distinctly human attribute. (And those of us in the marketing industry know that emotion is really what builds a connection between a human and a brand.)

The Value of Mistakes

He also discusses the value of mistakes. “Humanity breathes in mistakes,” he writes. “When something doesn’t go according to plan, we have a choice to either resist it or incorporate it. Instead of shutting the project down or expressing frustration, we might consider what else can be done with the materials at hand. What solutions can be improvised? How can the flow be redirected?”

Of course, embracing mistakes is counterintuitive to AI, at least when we want it to work properly. AI certainly repeats mistakes when it is fed inaccurate and biased data. But turning mistakes into beautiful art is a distinctly human attribute.

The counterargument to my post is that AI can help anyone come up with fresh ideas, depending on how well you prompt it. And AI is just getting started learning how to think like us. An algorithm technically now does what Rick Rubin does by synthesizing ideas. But if it were that easy, generative AI would be creating new breakthrough stars every day. It’s generating synthetic music and even synthetic musicians via mimicry of existing work, to be sure, but AI has not replaced the gut instinct that results in creative breakthroughs.

Then again, we don’t really know where AI is headed. This is why I say Rick Rubin offers a clue, not an answer, and it’s a fleeting one at best. But it’s a clue that will suffice for me today. Tomorrow – who knows?

This article was originally published by David Deal on Hackernoon.


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