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Music producer as invisible taskmaster

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Meet Rick Rubin. He may be the most famous person you never heard of. He dominated the music producers nominated for Grammys this year with nominations for best album in three categories.

Rubin’s recent big releases include albums by Weezer, Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash: three acts with nothing in common. Likewise, his greatest hit-makers include Aerosmith, Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He co-founded Def Jam Records out of his dorm room.

Aside from his range, Rubin’s utter invisibility makes him great.

Here’s how he does it, and how you can do it, too:

“In the old days, when I’d hear something that’s not working, I’d say ‘OK, this is how we’re going to fix it.’ Now I ask, ‘How do we fix it?’ And nine times out of 10, what they come up with is as good as or better than how I would’ve done it,” Rubin says.

“He makes it his job to squeeze the best out of you, and not leave any fingerprints,” says comedian Chris Rock.

Along with this ability to draw the best out of people, Rubin uses a simple formula for cutting through requests for his services. He merely asks most prospects to come by and play him whatever songs they’ve been writing. With so few pop musicians actively writing, it narrows the field.

Justin Timberlake passed the test. “That kid is no joke,” Rubin says.

Once you’re in, Rubin drives you hard. He didn’t spare the Dixie Chicks.

“He said, ‘I don’t know what this record will be, but you guys have something to say, and it’ll make itself clear as we work,’” recalls the band’s Emily Robison. “Then he made us work 10 times harder than we’ve ever worked before.”

Bottom line: Spot potential. Remain invisible. Work it. Cream off the best.

—Adapted from “The Dude,” Josh Tyrangiel, Time.

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