“If this movie does anything, I’m hoping it gets people to start companies with a white person and an African-American, because the cultures clashing and doing their thing is magical,” says Jimmy Iovine, one of the most significant figures in the history of the music industry, in reference to Allen Hughes’ acclaimed four-part Emmy-nominated docuseries The Defiant Ones, which chronicles Iovine’s friendship with Dr. Dre, as we sit down at the offices of Beats Electronics on Apple’s Culver City campus to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “When you put those two cultures together, it can be incredible.”
Iovine is a master of sound — and reinvention. Through a combination of hard work, talent and luck, he has evolved from music studio floor sweeper to a recording engineer for John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen to a record producer for Patti Smith, Tom Petty and U2 to the chief of a record label working with Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Gwen Stefani, Eminem and Lady Gaga to an entrepreneur, founding in 2006, with Dre, Beats Electronics, a manufacturer of headphones, earphones and speakers, which they sold to Apple in 2014 for $3.2 billion, making it the largest acquisition in Apple’s history. In August, Iovine will transition into a reduced, consulting role at Beats and Apple, making now an opportune time for him to reflect on his remarkable journey to this point.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 18:12], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Gregg Kilday, THR‘s film editor, about the Academy’s decision to invite an unprecedented 928 people to join its organization.
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Iovine was born in Brooklyn in 1953 to a working-class Italian-American family. He fell in love with music watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan when he was just 10, and in high school he joined a local boy band, but a career in music did not appear to be in his long-term future. Indeed, as he came of age, he seemed likelier to wind up working on the docks, like his father, or being drafted into the Vietnam War, like many of his peers. But one day, when he was about 17, he sat in on a recording session of a friend of a friend, the songwriter Ellie Greenwich, and decided then and there that he wanted to find a way to make a career in music.
Greenwich, who took a liking to him, helped him to land a low-level position at New York’s A&R Recording Studios, but he was let go at the end of an 89-day trial period, told by his superior that he had no future in the business. Greenwich then set him up at a similar place, The Recording Studio, where, by cleaning consoles, he learned how they worked and was ready when, one day, Lennon needed a replacement engineer. A similar twist of fate led him to serve in the same capacity for Springsteen, back when “The Boss” was still an east-coast act trying to finish his third album, Born to Run. Iovine says he learned his work ethic on that draining endeavor, the ultimate success of which positioned not just Springsteen, but Iovine, too, for bigger things.
For a brief period, Iovine got too big for his breeches, declaring himself a producer, getting himself hired to serve in that capacity for the British rock band Foghat and then literally falling asleep in the control room, which led to his firing. Ashamed and humbled, he returned to The Recording Studio, where Patti Smith, undeterred by his Foghat experience, asked him to produce her next record. This time, he did not disappoint, convincing Springsteen to allow Smith to sing Springsteen’s then-unproduced song “Because the Night,” which turned Smith into a megastar. “It was the most incredible time in my life,” Iovine says. “I found myself making six albums with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, people who are so penetrating and moving and had such an effect on popular culture. I learned everything I know from those six albums.” He adds, “I owe those people so much.”
Now a full-fledged producer — meaning, Iovine says, that he was able to “connect the dots that other people don’t see” and “see what things could be, rather than what they are” — he began working with a host of up-and-coming talent. He teamed up with Tom Petty, while simultaneously dating Stevie Nicks, and then paired the two of them on what became a hit duet, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Additionally, as someone who “was always looking for that energy that Bruce had,” he was drawn to and began working with U2 and helped to develop their career. “I was a studio rat,” he says. “I worked for 18 years — every day — in a studio.” But then, while still in his thirties, he started “getting restless,” and became intrigued by the idea of starting his own label, especially after seeing friend David Geffen make $500 million by selling his label.
In 1990, Iovine and Ted Field teamed up to form Interscope Records, a $20 million joint-venture with Warner Music. “We were going for 1970s Atlantic [Records],” Iovine recalls. “We wanted the best of urban and rock music.” The company hired a lot of top producers and signed a varied host of up-and-coming artists, ranging from Rico Suave to Stefani. Then, one day, Iovine took a meeting with Suge Knight, the chief of Death Row Records, and Dr. Dre, an artist signed to Death Row who had recently recorded his debut album The Chronic. At the time, Iovine says, “I knew nothing about hip-hop — zero” — but he was blown away by the sonics of the album, which Dre had engineered and produced himself. “I said, ‘This is something that I’ve never heard before,'” Iovine recalls. “To myself, I said, ‘This guy will define Interscope. I just knew it.'” Iovine brought Death Row — and its artists like Dre, Snoop Dogg and Shakur — in-house, setting gangsta rap on the path to going mainstream, and marking the beginning of a special relationship with Dre.
The ascent of gangsta rap was anything but smooth. Iovine had to make personal pleas to radio stations to give airtime to songs from Death Row artists, and Interscope’s legal team was kept busy settling lawsuits caused by them — but the popularity of both the songs and the artists with the general public was undeniable. By 1995, though, things began to go awry. Trash-talking between artists from the West Coast’s Death Row Records and the East Coast’s Bad Boy Records resulted in, among other tragedies, the murder of Shakur in 1996 and his rival, The Notorious B.I.G., in 1997. “Nothing like that ever happened in music, or in any entertainment, what went on in those three years,” Iovine says mournfully. “I mean, so many people died.” Before long, politicians began to blame gangsta rap and rappers for promoting deadly gun violence. “We all got in trouble,” Iovine says, noting that “all hell broke loose” — and Interscope’s partner Time Warner, which had pending business before the government that was being jeopardized, leaned on Interscope to divest itself of Death Row. Time Warner offered Interscope $150 million to drop the company, but Iovine, a fierce defender of the art and the artists, refused to sell; instead, Interscope bought out Time Warner’s stake in Death Row for $106 million, a risky decision that ultimately reaped great dividends.
This sort of loyalty went both ways, and was certainly reciprocated by Dre, with whom Iovine forged an unlikely bond. Over the ensuing years, their business relationship grew into a close friendship, and when, one day, Dre asked Iovine for his thoughts about a sneaker endorsement deal Dre had been offered, not long after Dre had raised concerns to Iovine about the poor quality of the earbuds that accompanied Apple’s new iPod product, Iovine had a riposte ready: “I said, ‘Fuck sneakers. Let’s do speakers.'” Thus began a partnership between the two masters of sound that resulted in the creation of Beats in 2006. Beats became immensely popular, and Iovine and Dre were eventually contracted to work with Apple to tune iTunes, sparking a dialogue that culminated in Apple’s $3.2 billion purchase of Beats — and the expertise of Iovine and Dre — in 2014. Iovine was delighted with the deal, but points out that it has been a great one for all parties. “Since then the Beats business has doubled, so Apple’s done extremely well,” he says. “They got the streaming service, and they got Beats Music — we converted it into Apple Music, and now it’s got 50 million subscribers and is on its way to being something great.” Of his plans to step away from the business in August, he says, “I’m not gonna be the guy on the front lines anymore … I’m gonna be a consultant.” But, he emphasizes, he has a lot that he still wants to do with the company. “What I’m working on here with these guys, and what I really want to help do, is to differentiate Apple Music from everything else. Because if it’s not differentiated, it becomes a price thing.”