HBO’s new documentary The Defiant Ones traces the rise of two men who have helped create the modern musical landscape: engineer/producer/record executive/Apple Music impresario Jimmy Iovine and engineer/producer/rapper/headphone mogul Dr. Dre.
The four-part series plays as a bromance of sorts, with Iovine as the neurotic, pedal-to-the-metal New Yorker and Dre as the inscrutable sonic mastermind. The former talks fast and animatedly, constantly checks his phone and never seems to stop fidgeting, even when seated; the latter takes long, thoughtful pauses before speaking, and reminds viewers how rare it is to get a glimpse into his personal life. “I’m so secluded, and I’m so private,” the hip-hop icon says. In one tender moment, Iovine tells Dre, “I didn’t meet a subwoofer until I met you.”
The two men’s stories run together in 1992, when Interscope Records sets up a deal with Death Row. Their relationship continues after the rapper/producer bowed out of the toxic atmosphere Suge Knight cultivated at Death Row, and Interscope picks up Dre’s new label, Aftermath. These ventures eventually develop into Beats By Dre, Beats Music and then Apple Music, currently the second most popular music streaming service worldwide. Here are 10 things we learned from The Defiant Ones.
1. Iovine is a savvy reallocator of resources.
The wiry rock fanatic gets his first break working as an engineer in a John Lennon recording session; he goes on to produce for Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. When Smith’s 1978 album Easter was in need of a single, Iovine took Springsteen on a drive to Coney Island and convinced him to fork over “Because the Night.” It became the biggest hit of her career.
Iovine executed a similar move shortly afterwards while working with Tom Petty. The producer was secretly dating Stevie Nicks at the time, and when she was missing a single for her solo LP Bella Donna, he sprang into action, smoothly pilfering Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and having Nicks record vocals on it.
“Next thing I know he goes, ‘Hey, I got something I gotta play you,’ and he plays me ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,’ the same track, with her singing,” Petty remembers. “I go, ‘Jimmy, you just took the song?’… His comeback was like, ‘This is gonna buy your a house.’ But it pissed me off because … [Nicks’ track and ours] came out at the same time, so I think our single suffered.”
2. The female rap group J.J. Fad cleared the way for N.W.A.
Eazy-E founds Ruthless Records in 1986, and the label’s first hit was “Supersonic,” a single by rap duo J.J. Fad. The single provides Ruthless with some cash to subsidize future projects and earns the group a Grammy nomination. “The money that we made on the J.J. Fad album helped fund a lot of the albums that came next,” Dre says. “It was the first gold record on Ruthless Records.”
“The interesting thing about J.J. Fad is that Eazy-E wanted something commercial to make radio stations say, oh, Ruthless Records, we’re going to be anticipating the next record that drops, and then the next thing you know, they slipped in that ‘Boyz In Da Hood,'” adds Dee Barnes. “A female group opened the door for N.W.A.”
3. N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” almost didn’t happen.
When Ice Cube first brings “Fuck the Police” to Dr. Dre, the producer refuses to be involved with the song. “I knew it was the shit,” Ice Cube remembers. “But when I showed it to Dre, he said, ‘Dude, I’m not doing that record. I gotta go to jail on Friday; they’re gonna kick my ass up in there.'” [Dre was having frequent run-ins with the police at the time]
“So I ripped it out, balled it up, and threw it away,” Ice Cube continues. Luckily a friend pulls it out of the trash and demands that Ice Cube hold on to it. When he later brings it into the Straight Outta Compton sessions, N.W.A elects to record it.
4. Iovine was not an instant business success.
Tom Petty notes that Iovine always had his mind on his money and his money on his mind: After playing demos of “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee,” the singer remembers the producer declaring, “We’re gonna be millionaires!”
“I thought that was the strangest comment I’d ever heard about music,” Petty says. But that didn’t mean Iovine’s transition from the guy behind the boards to the guy in the corner office was a smooth one. Although Interscope has a few hits early on – notably Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” – it is not an immediate triumph. “We had very few releases in 1991,” says David Cohen, Interscope’s Head of Business Affairs. “And Jimmy was a renowned producer, very creative, but he wasn’t renowned as a businessman.”
“I didn’t feel comfortable as an executive,” Iovine explains. “I felt comfortable around artists and record producers … and then I found my niche: I gotta find great producers, and I produce them.” One of those producers turns out to be Dr. Dre; another is Trent Reznor. Both make Interscope a lot of money.
5. No record executive would agree to release The Chronic.
It’s hard to believe now, but Dr. Dre’s solo debut album was rejected by label after label after label before he connected with Interscope. These weren’t poorly produced demos, either: Dre, a notorious perfectionist, says he played executives a full-finished version of the album: “I mixed it, mastered it, did the artwork, everything. The way it is in the stores right now is the way I was shopping it.”
At the time, most labels were wary of Dre’s legal difficulties – he was still separating from N.W.A and Ruthless Records – and biased against hip-hop. “Nobody wanted to deal with this gangsta rap thing,” asserts Step Johnson, who ran Interscope’s urban division.
In contrast, Iovine was hooked the instant he heard The Chronic: “I said, ‘Wow! This guy will define Interscope.'”
6. Iovine’s deal with Nine Inch Nails was a tour de force.
If there’s one thing that The Defiant Ones hammers home, it’s that Iovine is drawn to music that elicits strong reactions, whether that’s gangster rap or Marilyn Manson’s shock-rock. After hearing the mesmerizing early music of Nine Inch Nails, Iovine decides that Reznor was crucial to the future of Interscope and resolves to pull him away from Steve Gottlieb’s TVT Records.
This is the kind of challenge that shuffling songs between Springsteen and Smith and Petty and Nicks had helped prepare him for. Many labels were apparently willing to fund Reznor in a legal battle to escape his contract, but Iovine believes, “We won’t win if we go down the lawsuit route … Everyone else is going to do that. So we have to do something different.”
According to his wife, Iovine then spends roughly a year living mostly in their house bathroom, where he keeps a phone, and he calls all the parties invested in Nine Inch Nails – Gottlieb, Reznor’s manager, assorted lawyers – every morning starting at 6 a.m. He eventually gets his man, buying the musician’s contract from TVT and giving the Nine Inch Nails singer his own label, Nothing Records. This turns out to be another win for Iovine, especially once Reznor’s imprint later picks up Manson, who becomes hugely successful. (It should be noted that Gottlieb disputes the documentary’s version of these events.)
7. Eminem brought Dr. Dre out of a fallow period.
Like Iovine’s Interscope, Dre’s Aftermath label flounders at first. Early releases Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath and The Firm’s The Album both underperform. “There’s nothing more humbling than putting out a fucking flop,” Dre states. “It was a fucking disaster.” “I was getting a lot of pressure corporately to get rid of Dre,” Iovine admits.
But Iovine eventually plays Dre a demo from a young Eminem, and Dre is so impressed that he orders his lawyer to put together a recording contract – usually a two-month process – in a single day. Soon, Eminem is selling millions of CDs through Aftermath.
8. Few people, however, thought Dre should sign Eminem.
“My gut told me Eminem was the artist that I’m supposed to be working with right now,” Dre remembers. “Everybody around me, the so-called execs and what have you, were all against it … the records I had done at the time, they didn’t work, and they wanted me out the building. And then I come up with Eminem, this white boy.”
Unsurprisingly, Dre and Iovine persevere and sign the rap star. “We weren’t looking for a white, controversial rapper,” Iovine says. “We were looking for great.”
9. Dr. Dre is an expert at walking away.
Patterns start to emerge over the course of four episodes: Dre always seems to know when to hit the eject button. First he does it via The Chronic, establishing himself as a force outside of N.W.A., which is struggling with exploitative contracts and strife with former member Ice Cube. Then he does it again when he ducks out of Death Row Records – The Defiant Ones largely glosses over the details here, but Dre’s ability to disentangle himself from Suge Knight is no small feat.
In this narrative, his disavowal of Detox, the long-anticipated follow-up to 2001, makes more sense. The project was dragging on, so he just let it go and put out the 2015 album Compton instead. “I never had any connection with [Detox]; it didn’t work,” Dre explains, while staring at a sunset from his boat off the Italian coast. “I had to have a reason. I’m never gonna do that again.”
10. You weren’t the only person annoyed by Iovine’s relentless promotion strategy for Beats By Dre headphones.
Iovine’s strategy to popularize his headphone line was to leverage every relationship he had in the music business – and later, his connections with athletes – to make Beats by Dre seem cool. Obviously it worked. But if you thought the endless product placement in music video after music video was tacky and tiresome, you weren’t alone. “There would be times where we would be shooting a video until like six in the morning, and we had to do one more take with me or somebody in the video wearing some goddamn [Beats] headphones,” Eminem exclaims. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”
“Fuck this Beats thing!” he says at another point. “This is absolutely what I thought: Man, I want Dre to make an album, and he’s talking about headphones right now.”