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
Jimmy Iovine
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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.

When Iovine tires of the issue of whether Interscope is responsible for the moral decline of Western civilization, talk turns to the record-business slump. Iovine explains some of his pet theories, many of which recall a famous phrase of Casey Stengel's, "Can't anyone here play this game?" "It's no fuckin' science," Iovine says. "There have to be people at the top who can call an audible at the line of scrimmage. We are an industry. We sell a product. We have to excite the people who we sell the shit to. We are trying to keep kids interested in music."

In this regard, Iovine sees the industry as having made a huge mistake by turning over the reins of power from music people to marketing types. "We need people like [the legendary Atlantic Records executive] Ahmet Ertegun saying, 'Wow, I've got all these great black artists – I'm going to pump a lot of money into this, and I'm going to make Atlantic happen,' " Iovine declares. "Or Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons saying, 'Hip-hop music – that's where we want to go.' If a kid doesn't grow up seeing a Kiss concert or remembering the first moment he saw the Beatles, maybe he's going to remember something else, like the first day he played fucking Mortal Kombat."

Whatever else it does, Interscope's music excites people. "Jimmy's selling more than the major [labels]," says Universal's Lewinter. Asked when a major label becomes a minor one, the smiling executive laughs and answers, "When Jimmy passes them."

As for the rumors that MCA may totally buy out Interscope and that Iovine may be bumped upstairs to help run the company, Field says later: "Jimmy and I are staying together. I don't think either one of us wants to give up Interscope. Why break up a winning team? I trust Jimmy with my life, and he feels the same about me."

As the party winds down, Iovine addresses the troops, saluting many of those who have been there from the beginning and sharing the thrill of victory with his team. "You guys should be very proud," he tells them. "You had a chance to change the course of the record industry, and you did."

It's a hell of a long way from "Rico Suave." For about 15 minutes back in 1991, it looked like that Top 10 hit might be the beginning of bigger things for Gerardo, a sort of salsa-flavored Vanilla Ice. Sadly for Gerardo and his family, it was not to be. But "Rico Suave" was the beginning of bigger and better things for the upstart Interscope.

It's a Thursday, and as the label prepares to shut down for the industrywide holiday break, a group of department heads and representatives, led by Tom Whalley, gathers in Interscope's Westwood offices for a scheduling meeting. A dozen or so Interscopers – mixed in terms of race and gender – sit around a conference table in the war room.

Nine Inch Nails are first on the agenda. The staffers are pondering what to do about the leak of "The Perfect Drug," the group's new single on the Lost Highway soundtrack. Somehow the song has ended up on the Internet, and there's talk that its release date should be pushed up. But when Nine Inch Nails manager and Nothing Records chief John Malm weighs in by phone, he suggests that Interscope should stay the course. Whalley goes with Malm's wishes, and his decision is one secret to Interscope's success: Call it The Band Knows Best.

As the executives plot their strategy in regard to the single – sending out cease-and-desist letters, shutting down the Web site, staying on top of the problem during the break – a certain irony goes unspoken. At other labels, executives try to figure out how to get songs on the air; here at Interscope, the concern is how to keep one of its off, albeit temporarily. As the group moves on to other releases, it becomes apparent that in the high-stakes art of contemporary chart choreography, they are the Balanchines.

It was not always thus.

Ted Field started Interscope Records in late 1990 as a $30 million joint venture with Warner Music's Atlantic Group. He had grown up lavishly in Chicago and Alaska before moving to the West Coast, in the early 1980s. During his youth, Field attended several colleges and developed a penchant for auto racing; in one race, he severely injured his hand, which to this day he keeps wrapped in an Ace bandage. When he arrived in L.A., Field began living the glitzy Hollywood high life and being seen with a variety of beautiful blondes. In 1982 he started his film company, but by 1990 he was ready to branch out.

Field established Interscope during a period in which new record companies were sprouting up like some sort of rock & roll fungus: Hollywood, Zoo, Morgan Creek, Imago, Giant. Recalls Iovine: "We were looking at a long shot. It was a guy with money from the outside and a record producer. Those two things couldn't succeed."

Before Iovine signed on, Field had already recruited Whalley – who'd been fired as head of A&R at Capitol, though the success of artists like Bonnie Raitt and the Beastie Boys had provided him with some serious late-arriving vindication – and John McClain, a key player in Janet Jackson's rise at A&M.

Field, who is 44, seems awfully approachable as billionaires go. Today, he admits to having been acutely aware of the tremendous skepticism within the industry about another guy with a trust fund who wanted to play music mogul. "Absolutely," says Field, who wears his graying hair in a small ponytail. "And not just about a guy in the film business going into the record business, but about some of the choices of people. Some said Jimmy was not a guy who could run a record company. Tom had been at Capitol. We were kind of a ragamuffin band of guys starting a record company. The odds were heavily stacked against us." Asked why he wanted to get into the music business, Field answers quickly: "I loved music."

Of course, a lot of people love music, and Whalley was initially unwilling even to meet with Field. "Every time I turned around, someone was trying to start a new record company, and most of them were wealthy men who wanted to get in the business," Whalley says. "I said, 'No, thanks.' Then people told me, 'Everything Ted does, he does very well.' But some people – and I won't mention names – told me, when I signed on with Interscope, I'd made a decision to get out of the record business."

At the suggestion of U2 manager Paul McGuinness, Iovine met with Field, and the two hit it off instantly. In a deal negotiated by none other than David Geffen, Iovine signed on. The Brooklyn-born son of a longshoreman, Iovine had been a respected engineer and then producer whose impressive credits included John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Patti Smith and U2. Iovine had gotten his first break from the Brill Building great Ellie Greenwich. ("She was the only person I knew in Manhattan," he says with a smile.) But by the late '80s, while working on U2's Rattle and Hum, Iovine found himself soul-searching.

"I thought, 'Music is going to change,'" Iovine remembers. "'Young bands aren't going to be asking for me.' But I love working with the new thing. I always liked the part of the business that's the first time you hear something, and I knew I wasn't in that business anymore."

As it turned out, Interscope's start-up coincided with a period of incredible change in the music world. Nirvana had ushered in the alternative revolution. And though nobody was going to confuse Gerardo for grunge, the change worked in Interscope's favor. While the major labels were packed with rosters full of expensive veteran artists who had to redefine themselves for a new rock era, Interscope was in the business of signing new artists and could – as Iovine puts it – "move on a dime." At the time, the most recent successful start-up was Geffen Records, which had begun in the opposite way, with early superstar signings like Elton John, Donna Summer and John Lennon.

"These things take on a life of their own," Geffen says today. "You start with these plans, and it goes in its own direction. It's no secret why Interscope has succeeded: They had a strategy that worked for them. They've signed wonderful artists with a group of terrific executives led by Jimmy. Everyone there has contributed mightily, and Ted did a terrific job."

Colleagues confirm that Ted Field's contribution to Interscope has gone way beyond his checkbook. Field, who calls himself "the more silent partner," has demonstrated his "ears" time and time again. It was Field, for instance, who initially got interested in Bush.

Interscope has built its extended family of labels – which includes Death Row, Trauma, Nothing and Aftermath, among others – partly on what can be termed the Great Man Theory of Music. When Interscope executives spot someone whose work excites them, they jump and jump hard. Though John McClain has since left Interscope, he made a huge contribution to the bottom line when he initiated the company's relationship with Death Row. In the case of Nine Inch Nails, Iovine invested lots of effort in striking a deal at a time when Reznor was bitterly fighting with Steve Gottlieb of TVT Records, the independent label for which NIN were then recording. The payoff: Interscope affiliated itself with one of the most influential and popular artists of the decade and also ended up with the offshoot Nothing label and its massively successful band Marilyn Manson. Along the same line, Interscope has label deals going with producer Teddy Riley (whose platinum group Blackstreet records for Interscope) and R&B singer R. Kelly. No doubt to the amusement of the outspoken rap critic C. DeLores Tucker, Interscope is also distributing a gospel label.

"Interscope is run more like a rock band than a record company," Iovine says. "It's run in a very spontaneous, heartfelt way. I don't look at the record business from the point of view of what 'the kids' want. I never thought of that as a record producer, and I still don't. What we look at is someone who's doing something exciting. I always feel, if you build it, [fans] will come."

People have come to Interscope in a big way. By 1993, the label was grossing an estimated $88 million and was profitable – well ahead of projections. According to Iovine, Interscope will gross somewhere between $250 million and $300 million domestically this year.

Not everything Interscope has tried has worked. An overstuffed 1994 comeback album by Tom Jones, The Lead and How to Swing It, flopped badly. "We threw a party," Iovine recalls, "and no one came." A Robin Zander solo album, which Iovine produced, also disappeared like some cheap trick. Such failures suggested that Interscope wouldn't make its name as a career-rehab center. "The good news is," Iovine says, "in the record business, they only count your successes." In the pursuit of success, Interscope got a reputation for being scrappy and aggressive. "They know how to turn on the afterburners," says Trauma's Rob Kahane. "When they smell blood in the water, there is nobody that moves faster. They can make the earth move if they want to." In the case of Bush, soon after Field heard the group, he and Iovine met with Kahane and partner Paul Palmer. "There were other labels chasing us," Palmer recalls. "It was a Friday, and they said, 'We don't want you guys to leave here until a deal is done.'"

Interscope doesn't win every bidding war. Recently the label was reportedly the second choice of British electronica sensation Prodigy, which ended up signing with Madonna's Maverick label. And some industry insiders have long suggested that Interscope greatly overpays artists, a criticism that first surfaced with the 1992 signing of Helmet.

Calling such accusations "horseshit," Whalley says, "We stepped out a little stronger than everyone else. We didn't have a choice." Whalley credits Field for encouraging the team's aggressive maneuvers: "Ted would say, 'Are you going to lose this band for an extra $50,000?' We believed in what we were doing, and Ted, to his unbelievable credit, was willing to back it up with his money."

One major-label president, however, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, says, "Jimmy doesn't find acts in the basement; he finds bands that are at the height of their buzz. He pulls the trigger faster than anyone when it comes to deals, and he can pull the trigger because he really doesn't have to answer to anyone except Doug [Morris], who's got blind faith in him."

Iovine makes no apologies: "Whether we spent a lot of money or not, we invested $30 million in Interscope. Is there anybody who wouldn't pay $30 million for Interscope today? So obviously we did the right thing."

Some folks feel to a moral certitude that Interscope doesn't always do the right thing. Consider the comically overheated article that attacked the label by going after its parent company, the Seagram-owned MCA, this past November in a small Washington, D.C., publication called Human Events. Under a headline that screamed, THE SEAGRAM FAMILY WOULD LIKE TO SELL SATANIC BISEXUAL ROCK TO YOUR FAMILY, Joseph A. D'Agostino wrote a muckraking piece that – to put it mildly – suggested he's not a big Marilyn Manson fan.

Not long ago, such rabid demonization had a real impact on two huge American conglomerates when, in a widely chronicled tale, Time Warner, on the verge of exercising an option to buy the remaining 50 percent interest in Interscope, bowed to pressure and dropped the label instead. This left Interscope, after considering other options, to become partners with old pal Doug Morris – also deposed from Time Warner – in his new home at MCA, which had recently been acquired by Edgar Bronfman Jr., the CEO of Seagram. MCA acquired half of Interscope, in early 1996, for a reported $200 million.

"The decision to dump Interscope was a gigantic error for Time Warner, and it was a great opportunity for Edgar Bronfman," says David Geffen, whose DreamWorks label is also distributed by MCA. "Why Time Warner allowed itself to be intimidated by anybody as idiotic as Bill Bennett is beyond my understanding. It turns out, the things that have made MCA what it is today have been the incredibly stupid decisions of Time Warner."

Geffen, who drew his own moral line in 1990 when he declined to release a Geto Boys album that offended him, says that attempts to paint Interscope as some evil gangsta empire are absurd: "Interscope is a really well-run group of talented people who have a great enthusiasm for music and who understand it, who've created a lot of opportunity for young people to succeed."

Even as the criminal investigations of Suge Knight and Death Row are ongoing – and potentially hazardous for Interscope – Iovine speaks with fondness about Knight, who once participated in the touch-football games held on the front lawn of Iovine's Malibu home. "Suge is enormously talented, but [his problems are] a much deeper issue than we can cover here," says Iovine, who hasn't spoken with Knight since the Death Row mogul switched penal facilities, around Thanksgiving. "It's a whole issue unto itself."

Iovine is quick to credit Death Row with giving popular music a shot in the arm. "I think it's the spirit, the abandonment, the excitement of those records," he says. "How they reflected and what they captured of society through music. Those folks at Death Row were the Rolling Stones of their time."

What is it about the middle-aged Iovine that makes it seem so easy for him to bond with young rappers from South Central Los Angeles? Perhaps it's his own street-smart persona – something most white record executives don't have. "Nobody wanted to be in business with Death Row," he says, "because, unfortunately, they felt there was an element there that could be dangerous. But I just knew they had great music and that they were a bunch of guys who wanted to make it out of the ghetto. That's something I can understand." In the end, Iovine feels, the commotion over Death Row – much of which he finds racist in motivation – hasn't hurt Interscope. "It's a paper tiger," he says.

Iovine, a father of four who is proud of the $40 million he's raised for the Special Olympics, is tired of defending himself against charges of being a corrupter of youth. So is Field. "Look," Field says, "do I believe that rap music is responsible for the ills of society? Absolutely not. No more than I believe movies or television are. I believe all these art forms reflect what's going on in society." Besides, he adds, "even Tupac and Snoop are relatively mild compared to other rappers the major companies distribute. But ours sell more and are better. That sounds arrogant, but I think it's been proved by the record sales. Dre – it's no accident that everything he touches turns to gold. He's a musical genius."

Genius isn't the word that C. DeLores Tucker of the National Political Congress of Black Women would use for some of Interscope's more provocative releases – like the Makaveli album. "This recording contains all the thuggish, reprehensible lyrics about 'bitches, hoes, niggers and guns,' in an offering that glorifies killing and fornicating with another person's wife," Tucker said at a December press conference with Bennett. Of Interscope specifically, she said: "Morality goes out the window when greedy corporate heads smell the corrupting whiff of profits. The corporate heads continue to show nothing but disdain and disrespect for black people, and particularly black women and children."

"The whole controversy is a sideline to Interscope," says Iovine. "There's nothing there. From Elvis Presley on, it's always been like this. I worked with John Lennon. I get it." The big question is whether Edgar Bronfman will get it – or whether the pressure will get him.

"Edgar has been terrifically supportive," says Field. "He's a real music guy." Characteristically, Iovine is not worried: "Edgar's a young guy. He gets us."

From the looks of the chart positions, a lot of young people get Interscope. And Interscope gets them right back.

This story is from the April 3rd, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 757: April 3, 1997