Interscope Records: Inside the Hit Factory

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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.

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