Would you believe me if I told you one man was behind the scenes at some point in each of the following musician’s’ careers: John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, U2, Nine Inch Nails, N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, Eminem, the Black Eyed Peas, and Lady Gaga? Well, you better believe it.
The Defiant Ones, a documentary from HBO released on July 9, profiles Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine and runs the gamut of counterculture revolutions in the music industry since the 1970s. Iovine went from walking into a studio on Easter Sunday as a fledgling audio engineer (only to stumble upon none other than John Lennon) to overseeing a multi-billion dollar acquisition of the headphone company he started with hip-hop super producer Dr. Dre. Between those bookends of what has become a titanic career, Iovine has arguably contributed more to America’s music industry than anyone in the last forty years.
While the music groups Iovine worked with over multiple generations were clashing with normative society in the United States, the 4-part documentary ends up telling a story of this country’s greatness. When you hear the names N.W.A, Marilyn Manson, or Eminem, you might not immediately jump to images of positive contributions to the culture. But setting aside the vulgarity and shock value that many of Iovine’s artists produced lets us see the bigger picture. Those same bands and rappers—who battled FBI investigations, challenged censorship attempts by the U.S. government, and caused nightmares for suburban moms everywhere—were the embodiment of qualities that free-market capitalism rewards: entrepreneurial spirit, competitive nature, and the instincts to adapt within evolving industries.
Jimmy Iovine was the son of a dock worker in Brooklyn, NY. A kid who hated every moment he spent in school, Iovine longed to walk a path different from his father’s. He could’ve played it safe and gone straight to New York’s bustling ports after high school, but instead felt a pull toward music. This element of risk that deters many would-be entrepreneurs did not dissuade Iovine from pursuing what he felt in his gut was a higher calling.
Over the next several years, taking the risk paid off and he was producing for the likes of John Lennon (“Walls and Bridges”), Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run), U2 (Under the Blood Red Sky) and more. Though Iovine loved his work, his instinctual drive to build businesses led him to co-found Interscope Records in 1989. At this juncture, he needed to discover innovative and provocative artists to shape Interscope’s brand. Focusing on punk rock/metal and gangsta rap, the label definitely made a name for itself. I mean, just look at its complete discography. Iovine’s success in the ever competitive music industry would not have been possible without his entrepreneurial spirit. He found a niche market and went on to help create a product that tens of millions of Americans would consume.
On the other side of the coin was Dr. Dre, who along with Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella, became the godfathers of gangsta rap when they formed the group N.W.A (“N****z With Attitudes”). The black-clad rappers from Compton, CA were doing something that, at the time, no musicians would’ve dared try, let alone Black artists. They rapped about cruising down Crenshaw Blvd in Compton strapped with guns. They rhymed about drug money and gaggles of women. And most memorably, they called out the Los Angeles Police for racism within the department with their infamous hit “F**k the Police.” Again, placing aside the obvious lack of what many would call basic decency, Dr. Dre and N.W.A recognized an untapped market for their art and cashed in. Their music resonated with millions because it was a “reflection of [their] reality.” Hip-hop became a metaphorical monster in the industry after N.W.A. Dre and Cube launched solo careers. Interscope acquired Death Row Records, the label that made public enemies (and millionaires) out of their artists Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur.
In what type of economic system other than capitalism could poor kids from the ghetto not only achieve fame and fortune, but also launch an entire genre of music into the mainstream? There is none. The Defiant Ones is no doubt a tribute to Iovine and Dre’s intertwined careers and the intersection of gangsta rap with mainstream audiences. But more generally, it’s a celebration of entrepreneurs carving a path to success in the free market.
Hip-hip is the ultimate arena for (not-so-friendly) competition and one-upmanship. From rap battles in dingy clubs to coastal “beefs,” it actually kind of resembles the cutthroat competition of Wall Street trading floors. Corner offices and stock portfolios might be swapped out for gold chains and platinum records, but the drive to get ahead of one’s competitors is generously rewarded in both industries.
Dr. Dre knew this. He and Death Row Records did not want New York rappers controlling the tempo of the hip-hop world. Out of Death Row’s desire to eclipse their counterparts in NYC, and indeed some real animosity toward them, the powerhouse lineup of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, and label boss Suge Knight manufactured the East Coast-West Coast beef. As in sports, politics or on Wall Street, the competitive nature at every level of gangsta rap put asses in the seats. From lyrics to record sales, it became a form of art that thrived in untapped markets within the music industry and across America.
Jimmy Iovine’s approach to business was similar to that of rappers toward their feuds. He carried a figurative killer instinct; that was the key to his success. “Bruce [Springsteen] taught me a work ethic. I had to work harder than the next guy just to do as well as the next guy. And to do better than the next guy, I had to kill.”
Combine that with Dre’s dedication to his craft and his well documented perfectionism and you create titans of industry. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, after Death Row Records dissolved and “The Doctor” started his own label called Aftermath, Jimmy and Dre didn’t want Interscope to just be a successful record company, they wanted to DOMINATE the music business. The free market rewarded their competitive natures. Poaching artists like Nine Inch Nails from other labels and battling the contempt of their own higher-ups to sign controversial artists, Interscope turned obscure musicians into some of the most unlikely success stories America has ever witnessed (see Mathers, Marshall or Shady, Slim).
In the mid-2000s, Interscope Records was at a crossroads. The Internet and its multitude of creations, specifically the pirating program Napster, were emptying the wallets of the music industry’s biggest labels and artists. Ordinary consumers no longer wanted to travel to the store to buy a CD when they could download thousands of tracks online.
Jimmy Iovine intuitively knew that music’s future would not be built on discs that got scratched more easily than a new cat owner. The solution to this massive problem manifested itself in the mind of another tycoon, Apple’s Steve Jobs. First came the iTunes store and the iPod, both remarkable innovations at the time. Rather than resorting to illegally pirating music, America’s consumers began clicking a tiny $0.99 icon and holding 1,000 songs in their pockets. Iovine recognized that Apple would begin setting the tone in the music game for years to come, so he nurtured relationships with Jobs and other Apple executives. Although no contractual partnership would be agreed to for several years, creating a closeness between Interscope and Apple early on proved to be pivotal.
In the meantime, Jimmy and Dre needed another business venture they could sink their teeth into immediately. The documentary notes that Dre was notorious for turning down endorsement deals. As a Black celebrity, he was naturally pursued by the big apparel companies for a shoe deal. He was the innovator, he didn’t want to spread publicity for other people’s creations. Jimmy agreed, rather eloquently saying, “F**k sneakers. You should do speakers!”
In that brief conversation on the terrace of Dre’s California beach house, the headphone and speaker brand Beats by Dre was born. What followed was a torrential downpour of marketing that was force fed to consumers through the music videos of every Interscope artist. Professional athletes followed shortly thereafter. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, every member of the USA men’s basketball team donned the now famous black and red headphones upon arrival at the games. “Beats” became a household name. Jimmy and Dre’s remarkable instincts to sense opportunity on the hardware side of music while the software was playing catch up is a remarkable example of adapting to the constant disruptions in markets.
The software technology would eventually catch up, of course. Jimmy and Dre saw promise in music streaming and created the mobile app Beats Music in early 2014. Not 4 months later, the Financial Times reported that Apple was positioning itself to purchase Beats Electronics to the tune of $3.2 BILLION. As in any business, Iovine and Dre faced their fair share of hiccups. The deal with Apple nearly fell through thanks to a premature announcement in a Facebook video by Tyrese Gibson (this story opens the documentary, setting the stage flawlessly). Much to the relief of Jimmy and Dre, the deal still went through. After that, every gleaming, manicured Apple store in America would sell Beats hardware, and the Beats Music mobile app would evolve into today’s 2nd most popular music streaming service, Apple Music (it’s still better than Spotify).
If The Defiant Ones tells us anything, it’s that two men with converging careers, each insanely talented in their own right, were able to anticipate just how much the music industry would be evolve from the late-1980s to today. Would Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s numerous creations, both artistic and technological, have been remotely possible without their propensity for adaptation? The ebb and flow of consumption habits in the United States is truly one of the most extraordinary aspects of free-market capitalism. Jimmy and Dre honed in on those conditions and they attacked. Today, they’re arguably the two most influential figures in music. As the saying goes, “Only in America.”
See the trailer for THE DEFIANT ONES below: