Jimmy Iovine: The Man With the Magic Ears
In 1975, 21-year-old Jimmy Iovine had the most exciting and grueling job in rock: engineering the sessions for Bruce Springsteen‘s third album, Born to Run. Each day, before he caught the subway to the Record Plant in Manhattan, Iovine – a Brooklyn native of Italian descent – walked by his father’s social club. Once, he overheard his dad, a longshoreman, talking to a friend outside. “The guy asks my dad, ‘What is it with your son, with the music and the headphones? What is this shit he does?'” Iovine recalls, laughing. “My dad goes, ‘He’s got magic ears. He can hear what you’re thinking.'”
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That may be the best description ever of the ideal record producer. It is also the perfect summation of Iovine’s extraordinary life and ascent in music: In the Seventies and Eighties, he helped create dozens of classic rock albums, as an engineer for Springsteen and John Lennon, then as a producer for Patti Smith (Easter), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Damn the Torpedoes), Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna) and U2 (Rattle and Hum). “I was trying to do something,” Iovine says now, “that I’d never heard before: singer-songwriters with a power sound.”
In 1990, after quitting production, Iovine co-founded Interscope Records, reinventing himself as an unlikely rap-music mogul. The label’s chairman, he has built and astutely guided a multiplatinum stable of hip-hop stars and producers, including Dr. Dre, Eminem and Will.i.am, while working intimately with pop and rock acts such as U2, No Doubt, Lady Gaga and, lately, Lana Del Rey. Iovine, who turned 59 on March 11th, has also expanded into music hardware. In 2008, the very week Lehman Brothers collapsed, he and Dre launched a line of headphones, Beats by Dr. Dre, that now accounts for more than 20 percent of the national market. Last year, the company grossed $500 million in the U.S. “Beats is just us knowing sound and what a good product is,” Dre claims. But, he adds, “Jimmy has this term: ‘I smell blood.’ When he says that, I know he’s on to something.”
Iovine is on television, too. He just began his second season on American Idol, mentoring contestants with the same candor with which he’ll tell U2 when they have just written a surefire hit – or haven’t. “He’s a heat-seeking missile,” Bono says of his close friend, who produced U2’s 1983 EP Under a Blood Red Sky. “Jimmy wants everything cut like a diamond that can be seen from a long distance. And he’s not subtle about how he tells you.” “There’s this thing: ‘Jimmy Jail,’ we call it,” says No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani. “You’re writing a record, and it’s always ‘You’re not done. One more song.’ It’s intimidating. But you want to be part of his history. He brings that out of you.”
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The younger of two children, Iovine was a dropout from New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice when he got his first studio job at 19, sweeping floors. His only musical experience was a few teenage years playing bass in a local band. Iovine defines his principal gifts this way: “I hear impact and emotion.” And, he notes, “I’m good at snap decisions. But if you let me, I will chew something to death. I make my world chaotic. It’s like a whirlpool.”
He described that chaos in detail – particularly his crucial adventures with Lennon, Springsteen and Smith – over two long interviews, firing anecdotes at machine-gun speed in a raspy Brooklyn accent salted with wisecracks and expletives. He analyzed the current uncertain state of rock and his industry the same way, and he led me on a guided tour of his daily grind at Interscope’s offices, including a conference with the company’s R&B promotion and marketing staff; a quick chat with Gaga’s manager Troy Carter on the way to another appointment; and a long meeting with young hip-hop artist Azealia Banks, whom Iovine was trying to sign. (He did.) Yet at every stop, whether assessing club-play prospects for a Timbaland track or dissecting U2’s last album over lunch, Iovine talked like he was still cutting tracks himself – about hooks, feel and songwriting; raving about the best, demanding more.
Iovine, who is divorced with four children, doesn’t miss making records. “Producing is too small a hole,” he claims, compared to his Interscope, Beats and television action. “But Jimmy set a standard in commitment I still look for,” Petty says. “He would throw himself on a grenade to get the track. He also had this saying, when we finished a take and asked how it was. He’d go, ‘You’re a million miles away.'” Petty laughs. “Jimmy wouldn’t give you anything until you really gave him something.”
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What is the state of your hearing after four decades in the record business?
Really good. It’s shocking. I’ve lost top end and volume, like if you’re mumbling. That gives me a problem. My kids know it drives me nuts, so they do it even more. But I test all of the Beats headphones. I can tell you from two blocks away if they sound right. It’s a great thing to be good at. I made a fortune off it.
Has your hearing survived because you got out of the studio?
Yeah. I stopped producing at 38. What I felt in my twenties, I stopped hearing in my thirties. I didn’t feel a thing. I felt it again when I started working with Dre and Trent Reznor. But they wouldn’t have asked me to produce their albums. They didn’t need to sound like Tom Petty.
Are you a better label boss because you were a producer?
I use my producer chops, but I run the company like an assistant engineer. I make sure everything is going cool. The people at my company are all assistant engineers. That’s how I want people to behave. I’m in the service business.
My only regret about Interscope is I can’t fix the image of a record company. No matter what I do, if somebody’s record stiffs, they are trained to blame the building. Even your greatest friends, when they want more money, their lawyer wants more money – they point at the building. And you’re the building. I’m not saying I did everything right or wrong. But I could never fix that. It’s too ingrained – the idea that the industry steals from people.
But two of the greatest albums you worked on – Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes – were made while the artists were in the middle of life-and-death legal battles. Was the industry your enemy then?
One hundred percent. I wouldn’t let the label into the studio. I didn’t want to hear the record through them. If I play you a record and you don’t say a word, don’t smile, nothin’, I’m fucked. The musician is fucked. There’s a balance now when I work with people like Gwen and No Doubt or U2.
How do you make their records better without producing them?
Very simple. It was U2’s first year on Interscope. Bono came to me and said, “We fucked up with [1997’s] Pop. The band has lost its relevance in America, and we have to regain that. I’ll make a deal with you: We’re not putting an album out until you tell us we have a single.” I went back six times to Europe, to see them while they were making All That You Can’t Leave Behind. One day, they played me “Beautiful Day.” And I said, “That’s it.”
I use my producing skills in an A&R capacity. Look at Gwen’s career. I put her with Dre as a solo act for “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” [a 2001 duet with the rapper Eve]. I convinced No Doubt to work with Pharrell Williams. Then I put Gwen with Akon as a producer on [2006’s] The Sweet Escape. Those are my skills. I know who can work together. If I hear a writer and a producer, or a producer and a track, I go, “Do it like that.” I just have the knack.
Where did you get it? You had no technical experience or formal music education when you started working in studios.
My parents were Italian people. I was spoiled. I have a sister, seven years older than me. She spoiled me too. I learned how to do absolutely nothing – I didn’t learn one thing in high school. If I had to get a job at the A&P, they had to teach me how to sweep.
I got my first studio job through [songwriter] Ellie Greenwich. A cousin of mine was a friend of a friend of hers. I went to her house with this guy, and she thought I was funny. She got me a job at Groove Sound. I was the guy who cleaned up. They wouldn’t let me touch anything. Then she got me a job at A&R Studios. They gave me a chance. One day I got to be the second engineer for James Brown. After every take, he would come into the control room and a guy would do his hair.
I had a 90-day trial period. On the 90th day, they said, “You’re not a natural for this.” Ellie said, “Go see Roy Cicala and Eddie Germano at the Record Plant.” They liked me. I never thought I knew how to do anything. But I did: I knew how to make people like me. It’s like walking to me. My father used to say, “There’s no room better than before you got there.”
Were you good at anything else?
I had a feel for the environment of the studio. I could make the speakers sound good. Roy took me to L.A. to work with John Lennon and Phil Spector on Rock and Roll. I was Roy’s main assistant. I’d just turned 20. I’d been up to Phil’s house. I said, “Phil, I’m going to set up the mics. How many musicians?” “Eight.”
Next day, I set up. Every fucking mic was taped [in place]. Nothing in my life had ever been done that carefully. Thirty-eight musicians showed up – two bass players, three piano players, eight guitar players. So I go to work. We got 38 guys set up. That was the first day. The second day, I was like, “I’m ready for this motherfucker.”
The legend of those sessions is that everybody was loaded.
Unbelievably drunk. Phil would come in with two guns strapped to his chest and a bullhorn. I was on pins and needles. You’d be standing there, and he would come up behind you with the fucking bullhorn: “More echo!” Smirnoff made this gimmick bottle in those days, as big as a missile, full of vodka. They had one in the studio. Everybody was drinking. There was a liquor store next door. I had to go and get Courvoisier. I wasn’t old enough to buy it. I had to bring one of the studio guys with me.
One day, when we got back to New York, I put up the tape of “Sweet Little Sixteen” – set the board up, put the echo on, balanced the sound. My boss wasn’t there yet. John’s assistant, May Pang, came in and said, “John and I would like a coffee.” John said, “You get the coffee, unless you can make it sound like that.” My fucking head exploded. He sat down next to me and said, “Wow, that’s exactly what I had in my head.” I mixed my first record.
How could you hear, in your head, what he wanted in his?
I hear impact and emotion. You have to get into the artist’s head and help them understand it. Because they can’t articulate it. I used to go into Tom Petty’s head. I would have a session with him for 10 hours, then talk to him on the phone for five hours every night. I’d leave for the session at 11 in the morning, then go to bed at 3:30 a.m. after talking to Tom. Damn the Torpedoes is the best album I ever made, sonically. I’d say, “Tom, this record should feel like [Lennon’s] Walls and Bridges but with that punk thing you have.” His albums before had great songs. This was a tour de force.
You engineered the overdubbing on Walls and Bridges. What was it like to work so close with Lennon?
It was just me and John in the studio, doing vocal after vocal. I learned how a song works and how the voice fits in the track, how to get that excitement – the use of echo and delay without losing the power and feel.
One day, John comes in and says, “Elton’s in town. He’s going to come in and sing. He’s going to do ‘Whatever Gets You Through the Night.'” Now, every piano player that walked into a studio then wanted Elton John’s piano sound. I have no idea how to do this. Elton arrives, and I’m praying he won’t want to play piano. I try to hide the piano. So Elton sings. He plays the organ. Then he says, “John, give us a piano.” I’m like, “Fuck.”
What did you do?
I take two vocal mics you shouldn’t use for a piano and put them up. Then I learn my biggest recording lesson up to that point. As John McEnroe would say, it’s not the racket. When Elton started playing, he sounded like no one else on that piano. He sounded exactly like Elton John. I’d never seen anybody hit the piano harder. He comes back into the control room and listens: “A great piano sound!” John turns to Elton and says, “That’s one of the reasons I use him” [laughs].
I caught what was there. Same thing with Keith Richards. The Stones were working at one of the New York studios while I was there. Keith’s guitar was set up, so we had to find out. One of the studio guys plays it, and it sounds like nothing. Next day, Keith comes in, hits it – bang, there it is. It’s the guy.
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How did you go right from recording an ex-Beatle to working on Born to Run? John’s retired. I’ve got nothing to do. Roy calls me: “There’s a guy at the Hit Factory. They just threw him out. His name is Bruce Springsteen, and he wants to come to our studio.” So I go in, and there’s [producer] Jon Landau, [Springsteen’s then-manager] Mike Appel and Bruce. He’s playing piano – “Thunder Road.” I heard this guy sing – and those lyrics. I said, “Oh, my God.” Then they played me the track they already had for “Born to Run.” Landau looked at me and said, “Hey, I-veen” – Bruce still calls me that – “can you do this?” Absolutely. I’m 21 and I have my second client. [Grins] I’m spoiled.
Did engineering for Spector and Lennon prepare you for Springsteen’s vision of a wall of sound?
With John, I learned to make sure the band felt right around the vocal. That’s how you get the take, not the other way around. You don’t get the music and then sing it. On [U2’s] Rattle and Hum, I wouldn’t record the take unless Bono was there. I didn’t care if he had words or not. I wanted to hear his voice, the moment where it all connects.
I learned all about that power. You can’t really pick out what’s playing. But if you listen closely, you can hear each instrument. Phil called that a wall. Bruce wanted that. My whole life became about that. It was brutally painful, feeling like we were never going to get there. This is beyond all our grasps, what this guy has in his head. We were all deathly afraid of Springsteen.
This guy was broke. You couldn’t borrow him, rent him, get him to compromise. He didn’t give a fuck who you were, what you were going to give him. It was him and that record. Anything else . . . [Shrugs his shoulders]. That’s powerful.
Springsteen was also a fascinating contradiction: He knew exactly what he wanted on his records yet took forever in the studio to articulate and achieve it.
There’s two different things. On Born to Run, the entire idea was at stake. Darkness was about the right material – we had gotten the sound to where we wanted it. We were creating everything from the ground floor on Born to Run. His first two albums were just songs with some electric guitar. Born to Run was “No, I’m tired of that. No more compromise.” The guitar parts on “Thunder Road” were 13 hours in the studio. I fell asleep at the console in the middle of it. All he said for 13 hours was “Again. Again. Again.”
Couldn’t you hear what he was thinking?
No. Because he didn’t know. What I did know was I cared as much about their thing as they did. Whatever my thing was came second. I was there to help them get what they want. I remember the time I went to Mike Appel’s office when they first hired me. He had this picture of Bruce behind him. He said, “See this guy? That’s Jesus!” [Laughs] Born to Run was brutal.
Do you remember the day Springsteen finally decided it was done?
Yeah. Because it wasn’t. I had mastered the album and took a train to Baltimore to play it for him. Jon and Bruce were at a motel where you sleep around the swimming pool. I go into Bruce’s room, and he goes, “OK, I-veen, put it on.” We’re listening to it on a stereo he’d just bought, with two speakers and a turntable. When the album is over, he gets up, takes it off, walks outside – and throws it in the pool.
I was crushed. I didn’t know what to do. Maybe this record player is fucked up. And Bruce is going, “I’m doing the whole album live.” I couldn’t deal with it. I went back to New York on the train. I must have taken 10 Valium on the way home. But Landau talked to him. It ended up being the album. Landau called me: “It’s all right.”
When you worked on Born to Run, Damn the Torpedoes and Patti Smith’s Easter, could you tell you were making classic albums?
I recognized Damn the Torpedoes because of what I went through on Born to Run. I was like, “This is the same fucking thing, except the guy has blond hair.” It’s a third album; this guy has built up all this steam. This is the same thing, except I’m producing.
You produced Easter at the same time you were engineering Darkness on the Edge of Town. How did you divide your time and brain?
I am blessed with the energy of a chimpanzee. There is nothing I can’t get up for and give it a hundred percent. On Darkness, I wasn’t the producer. When you’re engineering, you’re not paying attention to the song all the time. You’re making sure everything is getting on tape at the highest quality.
I was part of a team with Bruce. Bruce wasn’t asking me about lyrics. He was asking Landau. On Patti’s record, I was her partner. Everything she wrote, she showed me. She would call me at three in the morning: “Come and pick me up.” I’d get her in my orange Mercedes convertible, top down: “Let’s go to CBGB.” She knew the history of rock, the relationships and dynamics, the producer and singer. Patti wanted Andrew Loog Oldham and Mick Jagger. It was nothing sexual. It was chemistry.
How did you get Springsteen to give you “Because the Night” for her album?
I’m in Bruce’s hotel room, and he said, “What’s going on with Patti?” I said, “We’re making a great album, but I don’t have that big introduction song, the single. You know that song you don’t think fits your album?” He said, “You think that would be good for Patti?” I said, “I’m positive.”
Why were you so sure?
I knew a girl singing that song, to a guy, was the sexiest thing in the world. “Take me now, baby, here as I am.” And I knew that chord change – minor to major – was going to work. And then the chorus, “Because the night belongs to lovers” – a girl singing that? A winner.
Smith didn’t just cover the song. She made it personal with the additional lyrics she wrote about her future husband.
It wasn’t finished. Bruce didn’t have time to complete the lyrics. He was in the middle of his own meshugas. He wrote that and “Fire” in the same day. He played them both for me. But we have to go back to a little thing called sound. On “Because the Night,” [engineer] Shelley Yakus and I took Born to Run, Darkness and all the stuff Shelley did with the Raspberries and Alice Cooper, and put it together. That record is the ultimate dream of having something really present but with the true dimension of depth. When those tom-toms hit, Patti’s right there. She doesn’t have a big voice, but it sounds like she does.
Tom Petty has a voice that sounds like a guitar. If you don’t create an environment for it, it sounds small. It’s like building the right set for a movie, where you move everything around him, through layers of echo. And in those days, there was no digital delay. It was tapes and 12 hands on the console, mixing.
The second album you produced for Petty, [1981’s] Hard Promises, didn’t do as well as Torpedoes. What went wrong?
Because of Damn the Torpedoes, we did everything to make Hard Promises feel and be as great and exciting. It comes out and does half of the one before. There are no hit singles. I cursed the building: “MCA are impotent assholes, fuck them.” I listen back now – that album was not Damn the Torpedoes. It wasn’t as great, and it didn’t have a “Don’t Do Me Like That” on it. Now, I can hear it. Then, I couldn’t look in the mirror. It’s hard to work that hard and look for blame in the mirror.
Do you have any regrets about the work you did with Springsteen?
The great song he left behind [at the Darkness sessions] was “The Way.” I called Bruce when The Promise [the 2010 set of Darkness outtakes] came out. I said, “What’s wrong with you? You put all these songs out and you leave ‘The Way’ off?” He says, “I-veen, obviously you didn’t listen to the whole CD. Go to the last song, and let it play.” Ten seconds after the last song listed on the CD stops, there it is [smiles].
I would torture him, yell at him about that song. I’m mushy. I like big, romantic things. He thought it was too corny.
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What was your typical price then for producing an album?
$50,000 and three [royalty] points.
Is that what you got for, say, Graham Parker’s 1980 album The Up Escalator?
I got $25,000 to do that. It wasn’t $50,000 unless it was a big act. And that was for an album that could take a year. It looks like a lot of money, but it wasn’t. People thought I was too expensive. Now producers are getting $75,000 a song.
To be honest, I was from Brooklyn. Money enticed me. When Paul Fishkin and Danny Goldberg [of Modern Records] asked me to do Stevie Nicks [1981’s Bella Donna], I thought, “Wow, that’s big.” She was in Fleetwood Mac; they did Rumours. And what a voice, what a gift, right? People told me, “She’s in a group. Stevie can’t sing a whole album.” I went, “Get the fuck outta here.” It was a challenge. Whenever somebody comes from a band to do a solo album, you’ve got to create a sound. So I got Roy Bittan from Springsteen’s band, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s band, Don Felder [from the Eagles] and Davey Johnstone from Elton John. They all had original sounds. But I found myself getting away from what I loved, which was current and on, rather than working with established superstars. Then in 1983, my ex-wife – we were going out then – was working at Westwood One Radio, doing interviews at the US Festival. She called me and said, “I think what you’re talking about just got offstage. Their name is U2.” We followed them to New York, then to Dublin. I convinced Bono to let me work with them. He said, “We don’t have any music. But we have this live tape from Red Rocks [in Colorado].” We went to New York, and I produced Under a Blood Red Sky.
That EP broke the band in America.
That was a landmark-sounding live record. It’s very hard to make music with dark chords that is palatable to the masses. We found a dimension where U2 was able to be U2 but really project. The tapes weren’t recorded well. But the feel of the music was on there.
What was it about U2 that made you want to produce them?
I recognized Springsteen in ’77-’78, the Darkness tour. When I talked to Bono, he said he was very influenced by that. And they had the punk of Patti. They were a little afraid of me. I was now the system. I had to do a lot of talking.
What did you tell them?
They were very cerebral at the time, writing in an abstract way. I said, “Bono, you guys gotta write. This is three songs here. Everything else is bullshit.” If you talk to Bono, he’ll say I drilled songs into those guys. That was my thing with them.
Yet the first full album you did with U2 turned out to be the last album you ever produced, Rattle and Hum.
We were always friends. I met with them when they did [1984’s] The Unforgettable Fire. But they were a key reason why I moved on. I was over my head. When I made Damn the Torpedoes, I was in my twenties and part of the culture. My reflex was exactly what was going on. When I passed 30, I had to figure it out, use my head more. U2 wanted to take music to new places that I wasn’t equipped to go.
Rattle and Hum was an awkward beast: a mix of studio and live recordings, part soundtrack to a documentary. What’s right – and wrong – with it?
In a funny way, it’s their Exile on Main Street. People love that record. If you play it, it’s magnificent. The live version of “Pride (In the Name of Love)”? [Shakes his head in amazement] I toured with them, did 18 dates. Then we went into the studio. And they were making the Rattle and Hum movie at the same time. It actually made me say, “I am not physically capable of doing this anymore.” I was so tired every night. Bono would go out. I would just go home: “Fuck, you guys are brutal.”
There’s more wrong with the movie than the record. We had “Desire,” “Angel of Harlem.” The one thing I feel about Rattle and Hum is that “All I Want Is You” was not realized, as a record. That song is as good as “With or Without You” [on 1987’s The Joshua Tree]. The record is not.
On that song, Danny [Lanois] and Brian [Eno, co-producers of The Joshua Tree]. I couldn’t get it out of the band. Because the song is there. Another thing that told me I shouldn’t produce records anymore – they didn’t ask me [to produce it], but Bono told me they were going to Berlin to make the next album [1991’s Achtung Baby]. I was like, “Whoa, I’m not doing that” [laughs]. My biggest problem is telling the truth, whether it’s in my interest or not.
As the head of their record company, what was your opinion of U2’s last album, No Line on the Horizon?
It wasn’t finished. The way they record – they don’t go, “OK, we have eight songs. Now we’re up to the ninth.” Forget it. The end of one song is the hook in the next one. The Edge comes in upside down, at the last minute. Bono is in five studios. [Shrugs] They didn’t finish it.
What songs on the record should have been hits?
“Moment of Surrender” could have been a bigger song. I don’t believe the record is as good as the song. It doesn’t do what “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” [on The Joshua Tree] does. It could have been one of those.
“I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is a great idea. I’ll tell you a funny story about that one. I sent Will.i.am over there [points toward the studio across the street] to do some remixes on “I’ll Go Crazy.” He works on them for two weeks, comes back and writes “I Gotta Feeling.” The chords are U2 chords, 100 percent. He told them.
Did U2’s 360° Tour mark the end of something for them – or rock in general? How do you get any bigger than that?
It’s almost as if you can’t build certain types of bridges anymore, because that labor is gone and that kind of steel is not there. I don’t know how you build a U2 again, because of all of the things that came together then: punk, the club scene, CDs.
But those guys are the most resourceful in rock. U2 have an extraordinary future. They have been through everything and still want it more than most bands. They’re current, and they care. They’ll easily be doing this as long as the Stones. Mick and Keith created incredible stuff together, but the whole world knows their dynamic affected their writing. Bono and Edge’s dynamic has not fallen apart. They finish a three-year tour. They go on vacation, and their houses are next door to each other. I mean, you can barely do that with your wife.
Have you talked with them about the next U2 record?
That’s all we talk about.
What have you told them?
Don’t book a tour till the album’s done. I know that sounds simple, right? But there’s nothing else they’re missing.
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Are there albums you hear now that make you wish you were a producer again?
I love Arcade Fire, that big sound. Their next album – they gotta make that record. They need the right producer, and I don’t know if he exists. But they’re equipped to make it. Kings of Leon took too long. It should have happened for them three albums ago. Arcade Fire – they got it.
That’s a short list.
Turn on KROQ [in Los Angeles]. Every guitar sounds exactly the same, unless it’s played by Tom Morello or Jack White. We used to go into the studio and unless the guitar sounded like nothing you’d heard before, we didn’t stop. Tom Petty – it was 20 amps, 14 guitars. “Try this one. That one’s good for the chorus.” These kids, because it’s so easy, have lost the energy and innovation that the Sixties and Seventies were about. The Beatles and the Stones, Pink Floyd – they were into sounds. Eddie Kramer was working as an engineer with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. That’s where I come from.
Are there kids out there who are the next Trent Reznor? No. They’re saying, “I’m going to write software.” There are kids out there who could be the Edge, but they say, “Nah, I can edit a video.” In my time, it was like playing on the Lakers to be a rock-record producer. Now to play on the Lakers, you gotta be a black record producer.
Is that hard to accept – an end to the fun and adventure you found in making rock records?
No, because I found it in hip-hop. Dre felt like Springsteen to me. When I saw Snoop Dogg and Dre in the  video for “Nuthin’ But a G Thang,” it reminded me of Mick and Keith. The Beatles weren’t Jerry Lee Lewis – they were as potent as him, because they reinvented it. Same with Dre and Snoop – this was Mick and Keith in the swagger, the beat, what they were singing about.
When Dre came into my office and played “G Thang,” I knew nothin’ about hip-hop. The only thing I was familiar with was my speakers. I had heard every producer who came in during the first year of Interscope, and the hip-hop sounded terrible. I couldn’t take it. I was such a sound fanatic. When Dre came in with that fuckin’ thing, I said, “Who produced this?” He said [affects Dre’s low, slow voice], “I did.” “Who’s the engineer?” “I am.”
That’s why I did Beats with him. If you look at the frequency response on [50 Cent’s] “In Da Club,” it looks like this [gestures with his fingers interlocking]. It’s amazing. He engineers it himself. You can’t even copy what he does. He’s the Phil Spector of that.
Why can’t you get him to finish his follow-up to [1992’s] The Chronic?
That’s about the songs: “What do I do? Am I a gangsta anymore?” No. “What am I?” That’s another story. Let’s go back to why he and Snoop are Mick and Keith. So now we have “G Thang.” My radio guys said, “We can’t get it played on the radio.” I said, “It’s ‘Satisfaction.'” They said, “Radio doesn’t think so. They think it’s a bunch of black guys cursing who want to kill everybody.” I said, “OK, make a commercial – nothing in front or back of it, just a minute of the song. Don’t say who it is, and buy it on 50 stations, drive time. I want the program directors to hear it in their cars.” What I didn’t know would happen was kids heard it and started calling for it. That’s how that got on the radio.
What always got me to the next step was sound – and the emotion of the music, like when Dylan sings, “If God’s on our side, he’ll end the next war.” It’s that question, that confusion, the balls to say that. Eminem – it’s the same thing.
What did you do, as an exec with producer skills, for Eminem?
I put him with Dre. I listen to music in my gym. Dre came by. I said, “Before you leave, take this. It’s a white rapper who sounds like his pants are on fire. He’s one pissed-off white guy.” He says, “OK, I’ll check it out.” Dre says about six words a day. He calls me when he gets home: “Have this kid out here on Monday.”
What did you hear that made you give that CD to Dre?
I heard something in the kid who gave it to me. He was 19, an intern. He said, “I heard a tape on the street, at this rapathon.” I said, “Tell you what – people helped me a lot when I was your age. I’m gonna do something for you. Bring me the CD, and I’ll play it to Dre. I trust you enough.” It was a combination of the kid and what I heard. And it all came together. But that’s producing.
What do you get out of appearing on American Idol? At best, the show creates momentary stars who barely last the season. And the biggest artists you’ve worked with – Springsteen, Bono, Eminem – wouldn’t even pass an audition.
They wanted me to be on the show. I said no – I’ll work out of my studio, helping kids make music. That’s what I do. I’m not a joke a minute. Film it. You can edit it. Just make sure I don’t say anything fucking ridiculous. It’s a great platform. I can put my acts on the show, to help break them. And the label needs it. We still don’t have our new model yet, the industry. It’s fucking dead as a duck.
What’s your solution?
[Digital] subscription. Without it, there is no business. There has to be a more culturally satisfying way of doing it than “Here’s 8 million songs, and good luck.” But there’s so few people that still covet and listen to albums. I’m not saying the album is dead. But 90 percent of the albums in the world should not be made. There was a time when you earned the right to make one. You had to have a body of songs, a hit single. Now you can’t sign anybody for less than that. That’s a business thing.
How do you see the future of recording? Who is creating the work that will be talked about in 30 years, the way we’re talking about Darkness on the Edge of Town?
Lady Gaga’s got a chance of having the career Elton John had. She’s that good a writer. Who she’ll become after her second album, I don’t know. Adele is creating a body of work. The change is in the way people consume it. Rock has a real problem. All you hear every day is how not cool the record industry is. That’s going to have an effect on who gets into music. All you need is a new Bruce Springsteen deciding he’s going to work for Apple – or create his own. Look at the intensity and force that went into making Darkness. If Bruce ever had a fucking excuse not to do it, maybe he would have chosen not to. It’s the same thing you see when musicians get older. To make an album like [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall or any of the great Stones albums – it’s painful to go to that dark place. When you have horses and a boat and friends in the South of France, kids who want your attention, it makes you not want to go to that place. You go there because you have to.
Where does that leave the business of running a label? What does that make you the chairman of now?
I’m the chairman of moving popular culture around – whatever that is. I didn’t know how to do it. I just learned how to do it. The three things – producing, Interscope and Beats – all connect in sound. It’s about listening. It’s also about listening to people speak. I was average at music [laughs]. But I understood exactly what Tom Petty wanted to do and was willing to put up with the pain, try out every idea, to make it come true. If you go back to [Petty’s second album] You’re Gonna Get It, then listen to Damn the Torpedoes, it’s two different bands. It’s because of the connection I had with Tom.
Every day is a struggle, the challenge between the macro and the micro. I’m always battling that: “We just got an e-mail from blah-blah-blah. Their deal is up.” I would rather work on one person’s album, focus on one song. I’d like to spend all day working on new headphones.
For me, it’s still about getting the guitar sound on Darkness. [Grins] Which was impossible.
This story is from the April 12th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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