John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, post-NWA Dr. Dre, No Doubt, Lady Gaga, Timbaland, Nelly Furtado, Black Eyed Peas. These are just a few of the names that record producer, Interscope Records co-founder, and Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine discovered.
When I heard that HBO was airing a documentary about the rise and eventual partnership of Iovine and Dre, I assumed it would be a Behind the Music type of show (which I love) about one of the most interesting and unlikely partnerships in record business history. I’m happy to report that overall, The Defiant Ones is raw, real, and extremely entertaining. Especially the first two episodes, as the people interviewed (you’ll know a lot of them because they are some of the most recognizable figures in rock and roll) are not there to sugarcoat anything. They curse, laugh, roll their eyes, and give their account of the music history created by the Dre and/or Iovine.
The prologue sets the tone: musicians getting mic-ed up, asking questions about when the documentary will be released, and what will be discussed. It was like a behind the scenes section before the first scene even takes place. I knew about the Beats Electronics/Apple Music $3 billion deal but I didn’t know that the whole thing was almost ruined by a drunk Facebook video posted by Tyrese and Dre. Fortunately for everyone involved, the 2015 sale ended up being one of the biggest deals in the history of the music industry.
It’s amazing how influential both of these men were before meeting one another. Iovine started out sweeping floors at the Record Plant recording studio in Los Angles and stepped in as engineer when the studio’s engineer left. In 1973, he was called in to work with John Lennon – not bad for a first gig – and he described the meeting as “when fear became a tailwind instead of a headwind.” After that he worked with some of the biggest names in rock and roll including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks (who he dated), and Patti Smith. His hands were in all types of classic albums including Born to Run and Damn the Torpedoes. Iovine also had a knack for making sure the right song was sung by the “right” artist – no matter the consequence. For example, Nicks’ “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” was Petty’s song and “Because the Night” was written by Springsteen but became Smith’s biggest hit. Iovine handled both of those transactions by asking for forgiveness rather than permission.
Because I have watched Straight Outta Compton many times and have read Petty’s recent book, I knew some of the history on NWA and about Iovine’s relationship with Petty and Nicks. Still the archival footage was so cool to watch. Usually in these types of Behind the Music situations viewers get to see old photos but clearly camcorders were everywhere because the footage of situations like Nicks and Iovine arguing in the recording studio, Springsteen recording Born to Run, and Eazy-E learning how to rap are priceless. I especially enjoyed the footage of Eazy yelling into the microphone like an amateur but, with the coaxing and coaching of Dre, learning how to be a rapper with one of most memorable voices in hip hop history. Being able to watch and hear these kinds of conversations was so authentic and special. Watching Nicks and Petty record and sing together oozed chemistry. No wonder “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” was such a huge hit.
Always the charismatic storyteller, Petty recalls a conversation he had with Iovine in the 1970s and it’s beyond funny. Apparently Iovine told Petty that he had never slept in a house before and when Petty asked him what the hell he was talking about he explained that because he grew up in New York City, and always lived in apartments, he didn’t know how to “sleep in the woods.” Petty responds, “you’re not in the woods you’re in a neighborhood.” I’m sure these days Iovine doesn’t think of California as “the woods.”
Another fun fact is that when Iovine signed No Doubt to Interscope he told Gwen Stefani that it would take six years for her to become a star. He was right. Six years later No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom charted seven singles (with “Don’t Speak” reaching number one on the Billboard charts) and won two Grammys. The archival footage of a very shy, young, and brunette Gwen Stefani was sweet. Who knew she’d end up being a solo artist and fashion mogul. Actually, Iovine probably did.
Rap and Rock Controversy
Following Iovine’s rock producing tenure, he became the hip-hop guy at Interscope and that’s when things in the film get a little over-the-top. A clear advocate for free speech, Iovine signed controversial acts like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, along with Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac. I learned that The Chronic sold 1.7 million copies in nine weeks after which Iovine told Snoop that he wanted him and Dre on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine because they were like Mick and Keith. Snoop’s response: “Who the fuck are Mick and Keith?” So funny.
Next thing I know I’m seeing a flurry of mug shots, west coast/east coast turf war footage and ultimate carnage, court hearings, guns, violence at Manson shows, banned NIN videos, and the list goes on and on. At one point in an interview, Iovine questions whether his label was supporting the First Amendment or helping fund a terrorist organization. He’s half kidding but half not – the hip hop wars were no joke and, as we all know, took the lives of two extremely talented and popular artists: Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur.
Eminem Saves the Day
The fourth and final episode of the documentary begins with Iovine’s lavish, star-studded 50th birthday party which took place in Aspen. But then the premise quickly shifts to Dre leaving Death Row Records and starting his Aftermath label which was a fifty/fifty partnership with Interscope. After the first album Dre released didn’t do well, he was in an extremely negative place until hearing a cassette tape of Eminem that one of Iovine’s interns gave him. His reaction was: “What and who the hell is that?” (I had the same reaction when I heard his first CD thanks to a burned copy from Josh Solow back in 1999). Next thing Eminem knows he’s in the Interscope offices telling Dre he is one of his biggest influences in life. Then, Dre plays a sample that would become “My Name Is” and, as seen in the footage, Em immediately starts rapping to it. The song was recorded on the first day of the first few minutes they spent together in Dre’s home studio.
Obviously Eminem has become a huge star since he signed with Interscope, but this show made it clear that he saved Dre and the state of hip-hop at a time that pop music reigned:
Iovine on Eminem: “We weren’t looking for a white controversial rapper – we were looking for great.”
Dre on Eminem: “Not only did we click with the music, we became friends.”
Eminem on Dre: “He risked it all for me.”
A few things I learned about Jimmy Iovine:
- Iovine was a producer/engineer for so many of the big rock moments. I can’t believe the incredible list of music history-making songs and albums he produced.
- He has spent most of his life on the phone making deals happen, calling artists, talking to record executives, etc. At one point Petty got so sick of him on the phone that he literally cut the cord on him.
- Iovine is relentlessly and unapologetically determined – as he is always telling his artists “you’re not done” and “you need another hit song.”
A few things I learned about Dre:
- Nirvana is his favorite rock group of all time.
- An all-female hip-hop group called JJ Fad ensured that NWA’s first album got made because they earned the first gold record for Ruthless Records.
- He has a gnarly past. Dee Barnes – host of the show Pump It Up – filed a civil suit against Dre for assault and battery, inflicting emotional stress, and defamation. Shame drenches his voice and facial expressions as he recalls the incident and subsequent jail time. He takes full responsibility and apologizes: “It’s a major blemish on who I am as a man…I’m learning how to become a better person and a better man.”
- The Chronic took almost a year to make. Dre shopped the album to all the labels and was repeatedly turned down. At that point, Dre was still the guy from NWA and was wrapped up in a ton of lawsuits but after hearing The Chronic and finding out Dre produced the album himself Iovine was sold. He said, “This guy will define Interscope.”
- Dre always said no to product endorsements – until Iovine told him: “Fuck sneakers, sell speakers.” Dre came up with the name “Beats” and then athletes and musicians all over the world were photographed wearing them (including at the Beijing Olympics), and the rest is history. Dre explains that he decided to endorse speakers because it was a product that mattered to him – especially since he had been tuning them for 25 years. Iovine eventually took Beats to Apple because “the core of Apple is music” which clearly was an innovative idea since Apple ended up paying $3 billion to buy Beats.
Eminem: “Jimmy Iovine is the levitator. Dr. Dre is the innovator.”
Iovine’s sister: “He would make you a fan of whatever he was listening to.”
Dre: “I’m much more comfortable directing an artist than being an artist myself.”
Patti Smith: “Jimmy was ambitious for me…his whole goal was for the world to see what he was seeing.”
Ice Cube: “Eazy-E is the godfather of gangster rap. But you don’t have Eazy-E without Dr. Dre.”
Yella: “Dre had to teach him word by word, line by line…but Eric had such a unique voice.”
Iovine to Dre: “I didn’t use subwoofers until I met you.”
Dre: “The artist or writer you’re working with has the ability to make magic or fuck it up.”
Dee: “I called the police on Mr. Fuck Tha Police.” And later: “Forgiveness is for yourself…because what are you going to do with all that anger.”
Iovine: “Dre and Snoop reminded me of the Rolling Stones. They scare you but the music brings you in.”
A former Interscope exec: “Tupac was one of the greatest poets of the generation. The fuel driving him was almost manic. What made him great was that he was highly emotional but he was lashing out.”
Iovine’s ex-wife: “If you want an ordinary husband than don’t marry a genius.”
Eminem: “Dre and Iovine are both guys from the streets who built everything they have today by betting on themselves.”
Snoop on Dre: “He would rather tell his whole story through music than to talk about it.”
Although episodes one and two are better than three and four, watching icons like Petty, Springsteen, and of course Dre and Iovine speaking right to the camera interview style is very cool. True to its title, The Defiant Ones was created with no barriers or boundaries. Also, it must have taken forever to collect all of the cool archival footage and intricately piece it all together for this documentary. Especially 1984 gems that include Dre clad in a shiny purple outfit with a purple doctor’s mask. You can’t make that shit up.
Overall, the reminders of how long both Iovine and Dre have been staples in the music business are astounding. Iovine came from sweeping floors to signing some of the biggest acts across all genres of music while Dre survived the NWA era, the Chronic era, the Tupac era, the Eminem era, and is now enjoying the fruits of the Beats era. I bet he never thought NWA would be inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or that he’d have the ability to donate $10 million towards the rebuild of Compton High School including a new performing arts center. Dre continues to give back to the Compton community which is something to recognize. Similarly, who knows if Iovine, a college dropout, could have predicted that he would have the opportunity to build the Iovine Young Academy. Both Dre and Iovine ended the documentary by acknowledging the impact of their wives and families. Clearly, they have both come a long way.