Jimmy Iovine Talks Bruce Springsteen, Recites R. Kelly at USC Commencement
Interscope Records and Beats Electronics founder Jimmy Iovine received an honorary degree from the University of Southern California during the school's Friday graduation ceremony. And with him he brought a special guest, also a doctor of sorts.
"Jimmy Iovine's particular genius comes from the way he has seamlessly merged artistry and technology, combining incredible leaps of the imagination with a brilliant and bold approach to business," said USC's Marshall School of Business Dean James Ellis, making note of Iovine's involvement with the "industry's brightest luminaries including John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen."
The new doctor's first order of business: delivering a commencement speech to the thousands of graduates and more than 60,000 people in attendance.
"The question of the hour is what can I teach you? How can I help you, even in the slightest way to be ready for what comes next?" asked Iovine in his opening.
Donning a white gown, stark against the other doctorate candidates' colorful plumage and the bold sea of cardinal before him, Iovine addressed the fact that he never attended college early on. "I didn't get here today like you did -- by studying hard and excelling at school," he said, "yet here I stand before you at this amazing crossroads in your life."
In his still thick Brooklyn accent, Iovine spoke of his experience starting on the ground level of the music industry, and focused on themes of humility and perseverance. His core message: that a degree does not make a career.
Iovine pinpointed two lessons learned since starting his as a lowly second engineer that he said changed everything in his life. "These were moments that shook me, scared me and humbled me," he said. The first came when he was engineering Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town, the follow-up to Born to Run. After six weeks trying to get the perfect drum sound that Springsteen was demanding, The Boss finally recommended bringing in another engineer. "To me, it sounded like a massive vote of no confidence," Iovine said. "I felt humiliated. I felt embarrassed. To use a word I hear way too often from 20-year-olds that work for me, I felt 'disrespected.'"
Iovine tried to quit, he said, telling Springsteen's producer and manager Jon Landau he felt uneasy. Landau looked Iovine straight in the eye, he said, telling him, "'Hang on Jimmy, I'm gonna tell you something that will go against every instinct you have in a situation like this: This is not about you. I want you to understand something called the big picture… And in a moment like this, it's not about how you feel, Jimmy, it's about Bruce Springsteen and his album. That's the big picture, not your feelings or anyone's feelings.'"
Continued Iovine: "I wanted to argue. I wanted to walk. But for reasons I still think about decades later, I did the opposite. I didn't protect my ego, but instead I paused for just a moment and listened to someone who might actually know better than me." He wound up staying on Springsteen's team and got his first hit record as a producer, "Because the Night," which had been written by Springsteen and given to Patti Smith and Iovine to record. "Listening to Landau's five words, 'This is not about you,' became a tipping point for every gift that followed in my life," said Iovine. "At that moment I began to learn how to push aside my own personal issues and my desperate need to be right."
In his speech, Iovine also described Interscope at the top of the music game circa 1999. "We felt nothing could touch us," he said. "Except Napster… I felt this stealing thing could really catch on!" He went to speak with one of Intel's founders, Les Vadász, to try to reason to him. And after he spoke for 20 minutes, Iovine said Vadász finally responded, looking him in the eye, saying, "'Wow Jimmy, what a nice story. But you know what? Not every industry was made to last forever.'"
"That statement was so profound and so true and so insightful to me, so devastating, I nearly retired right there and then," Iovine said. "I walked into Les' office thinking I was Elvis and I was gently reminded that Elvis was dead. The lesson Les taught me is one I believe is increasingly important to learn in the fast changing world we live in today. Think about this: Everything you know could already be wrong.
"But I want you all to get comfortable with your fears because fear is a fact of life that you can use to your advantage," he continued. "Because when you learn to harness the power of your fears it can take you places beyond your wildest dreams. Because here's the good news: Fear has a lot of fire power… I never met a great artist who was not afraid of not living up to people's expectations. But all of the great artists use their fears to inspire them… I began to think that maybe there was a way to harness this culture of the old music industry in a whole new way."
Iovine reflected on meeting Steve Jobs and learning from what he was doing at Apple, which inspired him to develop Beats Electronics with rapper-producer Dr. Dre. He said, "I learned even at 50, I had to be a beginner again. And that's as zen a moment as you'll ever hear from me. Who believed that Dr. Dre and I could sell hardware? No one. But we believed in ourselves, we harnessed our fear and turned it into action."
For a final thought, he delivered a warning of sorts: "Your diploma does not represent the end of your education but the beginning of your continuing education," said Iovine. "Continue to learn with humility, not hubris. Hubris is boring. Because that diploma that you hold in your hands today is really just the learners permit for the rest of your drive through life."
And with that, one last reveal -- predictable, but no less exciting. Said Iovine: "Walking around USC today, it seems like everyone's a doctor. Which is funny because I brought my friend today who also happens to be a doctor. So in the words of the great Slim Shady, will the real Dr. Dre please stand up and join me onstage?"
Dressed in a black suit, Dr. Dre (ne Andre Young) walked out from the front row and pumped up the crowd with a few words, before handing the microphone back to his old friend and business partner (see photo below) to announce their $70 million donation to open the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation four-year program that will start in Fall of 2014.
"First I would like to say congratulations to Dr. Jimmy Iovine. Yeah, I like the way that sounds," said Dre to an uproar of cheers. "I'm excited and I am proud to now be a member of the Trojan family."
Added Iovine: "We want to do our part to prepare more brilliant students to do great and unexpected things. What we want are schools, dream factories broad enough to inspire, challenge and satisfy the curiosity of the next wave of game changers that have a feel for technology and the liberal arts."
Lastly, to the glee of some and chagrin of others, Iovine closed his speech doing something he said has "never been done in a major graduation before. ... Rather than quote William Shakespeare or Robert Frost, I close with the words of my favorite poet, R. Kelly."
What followed was a stumbling sendup of Kelly's beloved "Ignition (Remix)": "Today is the remix to ignition. You're hot and fresh out the kitchen. You got the entire student body here. You got every graduate wishing.' Parents, they may be sipping on some rum and coke, they might even get a little drunk, so what? It's their graduation baby, and tonight they're going to have some fun!"
Silly and sloppy as it may have been, the crowd loved it.