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Interscope Records: Inside the Hit Factory

In the midst of a music-industry slump, Interscope Records has found success – and controversy – while defining the new sound of young America

Jimmy Iovine
Oliver Morris/Getty images
April 3, 1997

Jimmy Iovine is grimacing. He and his Interscope Records partner, Ted Field, are taking a lunch meeting in Iovine's intimate conference room with Ann Brubaker, the head of the label's international division, and two representatives from its Canadian offices. As the group discusses the company's current events, it becomes immediately apparent that almost all the news from the Great White North is, well, great. Still, Iovine looks pained. It can't be the charts. It's Feb. 4, and Interscope's Gridlock'd soundtrack has just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, leaving another Interscope release, Tragic Kingdom, by No Doubt, at No. 2. Various other Interscope-related albums turn up at Nos. 11, 13, 14, 17, 32, 48, 49, 67 and 83.

So why isn't Jimmy smiling? He takes another taste of pasta. "The food sucks in Westwood," he says of the cuisine in this section of Los Angeles.

"We've got to open our own restaurant," suggests Field matter-of-factly.

When lunch is finished, the group adjourns to Iovine's main office, a cool space with a basketball net and a Mellotron that once belonged to John Lennon. This is where Iovine does his thing, playing some of his favorite new music for visitors – loudly. Most record executives are not so excited about sharing the music of their latest signees. Then again, most record executives don't have as much to be excited about.

While the music industry scratches its collective head, trying to figure out what caused the business slump of 1995 and 1996, Interscope has established itself as the little label that could. The company – formed only six years ago – recently wrapped up 14 straight weeks with five different releases in Billboard's No. 1 album spot: Snoop Doggy Dogg's The Doggfather, Bush's Razorblade Suitcase, No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom, Gridlock'd and Tupac Shakur's posthumous release under the pseudonym Makaveli, The Don Killuminati.

But not everyone is cheering. While Interscope is certainly one of the most amazing American success stories of the '90s, it's also one of the most controversial. With ties to such labels as Death Row (home to the late Shakur) and Nothing (the label of industrial shock rockers Marilyn Manson), Interscope has come under more than its share of unfriendly fire. It may be the only record label ever to be taken to task in the Senate (by noted "music critic" Bob Dole) or to be credited with "the wreckage of civilization" (by former Secretary of Education William Bennett).

"It's the same old shit," says Iovine, shaking his head. "It's a bunch of bullshit. It's always been a bunch of bullshit." A few nights before Christmas, the famously casual Iovine, wearing his standard jeans and baseball-cap ensemble, is sitting in a booth at the back of West Hollywood's Cafe la Boheme, enjoying Italian food and kibitzing with friends during Interscope's annual holiday celebration. His elegant wife, Vicki, a former attorney and Playboy centerfold and author of The Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy, stands nearby. Iovine, slight of build and still boyishly handsome at 43, is a disarming charmer who speaks quietly in a voice that has retained its Brooklyn bite despite years of living large in Malibu, Calif.

"You know what makes people cranky?" Iovine continues, still on his roll about the controversies that Interscope has sparked. "Not eating. Take away hot lunch. Take away welfare. Cut social programs." He emphasizes each word with a hand gesture. "People don't hear rap music and get cranky, asshole – it's the food, stupid."

As members of the Interscope staff mingle, hug, eat, drink and share a little seasonal cheer, these particular "wreckers of civilization" actually seem like nice people. Nice, increasingly rich people. At other record-company parties around town tonight, worried employees are no doubt muttering under their breath about lost revenues and downsizing. But here at Interscope, there are actually extra servings of comfort and joy. Bonus checks were handed out earlier in the week, and perhaps as a result, many of the employees are grinning broadly.

The party crowd includes mostly the company's staff – a group of a little more than 100 – as well as members of the label's roster and other invited guests. In addition to Iovine, there's Field, the heir to Marshall Field's retailing fortune who made his splash producing films like Three Men and a Baby, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Outrageous Fortune, which could be the title for a documentary on Interscope's recent run. Also present is longtime Interscope booster Doug Morris, the chairman and CEO of the Universal Music Group, and Tom Whalley, a member of the label's founding A&R team who was recently named its president. Bush are also in the house (minus Gavin Rossdale), as are members of the Low and Sweet Orchestra, and a few non-Interscope VIPs such as the actor Kevin Spacey.

Others are conspicuous by their absence. Trent Reznor is back home, and the Wallflowers are on the road. Dr. Dre, who attended last year and recently started the Interscope-distributed Aftermath label, is not to be seen. Neither is Suge Knight, the embattled chairman of the company's Death Row imprint, who couldn't attend due to his being behind bars. And, no, Virginia, Marilyn Manson aren't strolling around singing Christmas carols. Over dinner, Iovine chats with Mel Lewinter, vice chairman and chief operating officer of the Universal Music Group. At this power table, the discussion centers on the controversies du jour. For one, the New York Post just wrongly reported that Iovine is leaving Interscope to take a top gig at MCA. And then there's the latest assault from Bennett, whose attacks on behalf of conservative advocates Empower America helped push Time Warner to dump its share of Interscope and who is now calling for MCA to sell its stake in the company.

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