Rick Rubin explains why more choice doesn't always lead to more creativity

Originally published at: Rick Rubin explains why more choice doesn't always lead to more creativity | Boing Boing


This is the thesis / central question of the (very funny and interesting) Blank Check podcast, where they explore the turn that movie director’s output takes after they are given essentially a “blank Check” by studios because of a film they made under constraints that went gangbusters. Some actually do flourish, but more often than not, it’s a journey for them back to re-finding their voice.


I almost always see more creative problem-solving from my design students when I give them assignments that include strict limitations (such as “this print project may use only two ink colors”). It often takes a long time to really appreciate how limitations can be gifts.


“Restrictions breed creativity” is an oft-repeated phrase Mark Rosewater (head designer for the card game Magic the Gathering) uses frequently.

Helps explain why I’m usually able to make something interesting with a sufficient amount of legos*, but if I’m given a lump of clay I’ll probably just stare at it and get anxiety.

*(or “LEGO® brand bricks and toys” if you insist)


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For one, I think making money off of something is not a great way to measure it’s effectiveness as a creative endeavor.

And I’d argue that Rubin (generally speaking) makes a living off OTHERS creativity, quite frankly.

[ETA] Also, is it just me, or is it somewhat ironic for a guy who works in a studio who has always had a wide palatte to choose from because he’s largely had those tools available to him as a producer - to conclude that it’s more limiting for creativity? He’s entirely post-synth, and much of that post digital synth (if not all of it). It’s true that what is available now is far more wide-reaching, but his work as a producer has largely been in hip-hop production, which especially in the early days did not depend on a limited palatte such as live instruments. :woman_shrugging:


Old chestnut:
“Adversity is the father of invention.”


As far as irony goes, where does it fit that this creative professional could have said anything and came to the same insight people here already had? :thinking: :wink:


Yeah, he very well might be correct on his point and as you note others have made it…


I haven’t watched the Rubin clip yet, but Eno has said much the same thing. You get bogged down in possibilities and then can’t choose which way to go.

Or as Negativland once crooned “too many choices is no choice at all.”


Honestly though…what do you want to bet this varies from person to person? Some flourish with a blank canvas, some need precise lines to paint between, most are somewhere in the middle?

Because when the question is “how do people…” the answer is usually “in different ways”. That’s our thing.


I haven’t watched the video yet, but tend to agree.

When you have limitations from either your tools or other perimeters, you tend to start thinking outside the box on how you can utilize what you have to its fullest extent. I remember my friend telling me about working on old equipment in a film class and able to figure a way to add sound to it - even though it wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. And there were art projects I worked on where I had to over come lack of funds and materials to come up with something different.

Or vintage beep boops with the simple programmable synths, and how they would push the limits and create new or different sounds with what they had, vs the tools now where you can emulate and distort any number of models.

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I don’t think this is really accurate or fair. The role of a producer can be varied, and may on occasion be merely cheerleading, but everything I’ve read and seen is that Rubin is a very involved collaborator in the creative process with his clients.

Certainly his work as a producer post-dates synthesizers (ready-made, easy-to-use, analog synths were available by the late 1960’s), and depending on how you want to define “digital synth”, his early work also post-dates them. But if you’re not familiar, early synthesizers (regardless of the underlying technology) were potentially very limiting. So, too, were drum machines. And all of this gear was ridiculously expensive. During his seminal work on Licensed to Ill by Beastie Boys, samplers cost as much or more than a car. So making the most of the gear you did have was an integral part of the production process back then.


Channeling the work of others? And he’s also a label head…

I guess I just don’t buy into the cult of the producer. YMMV.

I am, thanks. But either way, the reality is that he had greater access to a variety of sounds other than what came out of a traditional rock set up.

The fact that he could afford that speaks volumes.



Or did somebody beat me to that bullshit argument already?


You know who says music producers are invaluable, irreplaceable and worth every penny?

Music producers.

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Lego was fun for me as a child because I grew up when there were only so many block shapes and special pieces available. Sets were sets of utility pieces, not sets of defined purpose pieces. My friends and I would sit for hours building complex constructions from the 25+ different types of pieces we had. Hours. And it was fantastic fun. The pinnacle for us was the arrival of wheels and gears.


Totally fair. I don’t wholesale buy it either. But just because there are some who are glorified A&R guys, doesn’t mean that there are others who aren’t highly influential in the sound (and thus arguably “creation” or “art”) of their clients. One really need look no further than the impact of someone like Martin Hannet on Joy Division. The difference between their records and their live performances is pretty noticeable.

I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Having owned several synths from the early and mid 1980’s and also being a hack guitarist/bassist, my own experience is that neither is “superior” in the width of tones --just different. If we were talking about late 1980’s and on into the affordable samplers of the 90’s onward, then perhaps I would agree that breadth of sound with electronics is wider. But that doesn’t seem to be what we’re discussing.

Ugh. I feel like I’m about to sound contradictory or oxymoronic, but here goes:
Rick Rubin’s early career did take off because his parents were able and willing to give him money to buy some recording gear that gave him a leg up in the early hip hop scene, and those were foundational in allowing Def Jam to be a think. But from everything I’ve read (and the songs from back then that I’ve heard) he certainly didn’t have the funds, nor actually own anything like a Fairlight or an Emulator. I mean, it’s not for nothing that most of the “samples” that you hear in early Def Jam records are scratches from turntables. Furthermore, the infamous Roland TR-808 heard all over early Beastie, LL Cool J, et al Def Jam joints wasn’t Rubin’s.

Anyway, I guess I’m getting a bit pointlessly argumentative. I’ll hop down off my soap box now.


Maybe, but I’d argue that one is not superior or more artistically viable than the other. And he sort of imposed his ideas on the band, rather than working with the band to get the sound they preferred.

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Few did, of course. Those were pretty much confined to the highest end studios…

Whose was it?

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