Many lessons can be drawn from the experience of Jimmy Iovine, the Italian-American son of a New York longshoreman who became a record industry mogul and co-founder of Beats Electronics.
One of them is how to deal with fear.
“When I was a kid, I was a guy in right field saying, ‘Don’t hit the ball to me,’” he tells Deadline. “And when I got in the [recording] studio, all of a sudden something happened, and fear became a tailwind. And I said, ‘Hit the ball to me. Give me the ball.’ I had fear my entire life. I still have fear, but it became an engine.”
Iovine’s rise represents half the story of HBO’s Emmy-contending documentary series The Defiant Ones—the other half being the equally astonishing ascent of Dr. Dre, the rap artist, producer and fellow founder of Beats. Allen Hughes directed the two-hander about men from very different backgrounds who joined forces to form a creative juggernaut.
“That was Allen’s idea from the beginning,” Iovine recalls. “He said, ‘The story is not you or Dre. The story is your relationship. This is about two guys from racially-charged neighborhoods that got together even though some of the things that they learned growing up went completely against what they had to do—whether it be fear, or distrust, or any of that stuff.’”
They first intersected at Interscope Records, the label Iovine set up in 1990. Dre’s venture, Death Row Records, would form a partnership with Iovine’s company, going on to sign artists like Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. A wild success, it was also wildly controversial for the lyrics in some of the music and became a magnet for criticism all the way up to Capitol Hill. Iovine says he harbored deep reservations about revisiting that history for the documentary project.
“I had killed it for two or three years, and I didn’t want to do it. A lot of stuff that happens in the movie was real. I’m like, ‘Why do I want to go deal with that? Why do I want to expose any of it?’” Iovine explains. “But then Allen got Dre on board. And I said, ‘Dre’s willing to talk? I can’t be the person who gets in the way of this.’”
Dre talks in the film about his early days in the tough Compton section of Los Angeles, his turn on the turntable as a pioneering DJ and later work in the seminal rap group N.W.A.
On the other side of the country, Iovine grew up an underperforming student, fired from a couple of early jobs including one that involved pushing a mop. But in the 1970s he would flourish in the recording studio, working with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Tom Petty, and U2, among other greats.
Petty, who died last year, gave one of his final interviews for The Defiant Ones, describing his work with Iovine. Among fellow interviewees, U2’s Bono contributes the observation, “There’s something in [Jimmy] that is attracted to rage.” Springsteen comments about his friend, “Jimmy has enough of that low self esteem that got us all here.”
Iovine admits they have him pegged.
“Those people do know me. And one thing about a recording studio, man, you sit next to somebody for three years every day for 250 and 300 days a year, you know them. Okay?” he says, “I came to the world [of recording] as a blank slate, and I learned everything from them. Taste, feel, what music is, what it should be, what it shouldn’t be. I learned it, all of it, from them. I spent my life in search of people like that.”
He found another of those people in Dr. Dre.
“I didn’t know anything about hip hop when I met Dre,” he comments. “I just felt his vibe. I said, ‘Whoa, he’s one of those guys.’”
Their collaboration would lead ultimately to the creation of Beats, which they sold to Apple in 2014 for $3 bil. The foremost lesson of The Defiant Ones has to do with two talents bridging America’s racial divide, who find power in collaboration.
“You have a white and a black guy who came together as partners with a capital P, right?” Iovine observes. “And what came out of that, neither one of us would have ever gotten on our own, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he was African-American, I was white. We brought two different cultures to it, and we respect each other…The magic of it was those two cultures coming together. That’s what I’m most proud of in the documentary.”