Alexander Wang. Billie Eilish. Alexander Zverev. Olivier Rousteing. Chances are you know a lot about one of these names, and close to nothing about another, depending on your interests. Try picturing a German tennis champion, a millennial couture designer, and a Gen Z pop star in the same room together. What you might be struggling to imagine is the actual history of campaigns and collaborations from Beats by Dr. Dre.
Even now, the pitch sounds like a stretch: an audio brand that has found cultural relevance in most major facets of pop culture, from sports to music, art to fashion. Yet Beats has achieved just that. Founded by producer and rapper Dr. Dre and Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine, for the past 10 years Beats has occupied a space in the public imagination that very few audio brands have achieved.
This past October, the brand added another maven to its roster, with the release of the “More Matte Collection,” made in collaboration with Pharrell Williams. The drop was representative of the Beats formula: technologically advanced, presented and modeled by a venerable cultural icon. It was Beats’ reputation with sound quality and its heritage working with top-shelf artists that made Pharrell’s decision to collaborate with the brand, as he described it, “a no brainer.”
But how did it all start? Here is the history of how Beats got to be a standard-bearer of quality sound, and an indisputable icon of pop culture.
CHAPTER ONE: CRAFTING THE SOUND
The Beats story starts with sneakers. A shoe brand had approached Dre for collaboration, and he sought Jimmy Iovine’s advice. At the time — this was in 2006 — Dre had had an offer from a major brand, and thought he could do it better on his own. But when he brought up the idea, Iovine responded with a better plan: “Fuck sneakers, let’s sell speakers!”
By then, Dre and Iovine were veterans in the industry. Between the two of them, they’d worked with an impressive calibre of history-making artists across genres, including 50 Cent, Eminem, John Lennon, Patti Smith, and Tom Petty. As experts in the field, Dre and Iovine clearly knew what they wanted to hear out of their speakers from the music they produced.
At the time, just a few years after Napster, most people were now listening to their music collections as low-fi mp3s. And Apple, whose newly-released iPod replaced the Walkman from a decade earlier, released each of their $400 iPods with a free pair of cheap, white earbuds that customers were expected to replace. Except people didn’t.
Dre was enraged. The best artists of the generation were getting reduced to 128kbps mp3s on $1 plastic earbuds. Dre told Iovine: “Man, it’s one thing that people steal my music. It’s another thing to destroy the feeling of what I’ve worked on.” So the pair sought out to make their own headphones with premium sound, that challenged the ubiquitous earbuds, once and for all.
First, Beats manufactured the early prototypes. Then Dre and Iovine pooled their network of artists across genres for early feedback. It was important for Beats that they didn’t go to conservative sound engineers or technicians, but actual artists and producers who gave feedback on how they wanted their own music to be heard. It was a “for us by us” mentality that guaranteed the headphones to be a success from the start. Because Iovine was constantly meeting with artists at Interscope, he’d ask them to use a pair whenever they came by, from M.I.A. and Pharrell to Gwen Stefani and will.i.am.
In 2008, Beats introduced their debut line of headphones with the mission to allow you to “hear what the artists hear,” aiming to provide the sound that artists themselves intended as opposed to what elitist audiophiles defined as “good quality.” While early critics derided the headphones as improperly-balanced and bass-heavy, Beats doubled-down by embracing their thumpy reputation. The founders made it clear that Beats was not designed for classical music. Beats was tuned for modern, popular music, capable of capturing the low-end frequency of, say, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” which is the track Dre and Iovine played when testing the headphones on artists.
Right out the door, Beats headphones were heralded by hip-hop titans such as P. Diddy and will.i.am. Part of the brand’s success is due to the fact that there were few artists as universally respected as Dre, and few insiders as deep in the industry as Iovine. But perhaps most importantly, Beats was both witness and participant to one of the great historical turnovers in recent music history. Around the early ’00s, the biggest chart-topping artists were Britney Spears, NSYNC, Nickelback, and Creed. In this decade, they were Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, and Drake.
The global, billion-dollar success that hip-hop enjoys today would have been unheard of when Dre first debuted The Chronic in 1992. Simply put, Beats was on the right side of history. It is the sound of today.
CHAPTER 2: THE HUSTLE
Describing Beats’ stylish appeal, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson said: “It’s part of the culture. You are almost making a fashion statement.”
It’s precisely this fashion sensibility — its swag, its style — that distinguished Beats from competitors. Before Beats, most headphones, Iovine had noticed, were designed to look “like medical equipment.” Designing headphones as a fashion accessory — because they are, first and foremost, wearable — was the vacuum Beats sought to fill.
Because of Iovine’s position at Interscope, Beats started appearing in hundreds of Interscope music videos by the likes of Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Nicki Minaj. As focused on sound quality as much as on style, Beats would also go on to collaborate with artists such as Lady Gaga, David Guetta, and Diddy to design stylish capsule releases: Heartbeats in 2009 and Diddybeats in 2010. Later in 2010, they launched Powerbeats with LeBron James and Justbeats with Justin Bieber. The launches were working.
People noticed. Soon, copycat brands spawned. Ludacris launched Soul, 50 Cent launched SMS. Skullcandy tapped Jay-Z for a collaboration. All are now gone or languishing in obscurity.
Beats’ success didn’t come easy, though. As an independent brand, Beats took risks in being the first audio brand to launch collaborations in the model that they’d be known for. They also introduced new form factors into the market, like the Beats Solo, which was unlike any other product in the market at the time. But it wasn’t just copycat rappers clocking Beats’ every move. Apple had been paying attention all along.
On May 28, 2014, the electronics giant officially announced that it was buying Beats as Apple’s largest acquisition to date. This made Dre one of the richest hip-hop artists/producers/entrepreneurs in history. The company had gone full circle, from targeting the plastic white earbuds to officially merging with its creators. “I’ve always known in my heart that Beats belonged with Apple,” said Iovine at the time of the announcement. “The idea when we started the company was inspired by Apple’s unmatched ability to marry culture and technology.”
CHAPTER 3: STAYING ON TOP
Now financially and technologically fortified by Apple, Beats was able to expand its cultural territory and technological innovation to newer reaches. The first thing Beats set its eyes on were the rarefied worlds of fashion and couture. At Milan Fashion Week 2015, Beats debuted its first fashion collaboration after Apple: Fendi. The line of headphones and bags came in seven colorways and was notably made out of the same illustrious Salleria leather that Fendi uses for its handbags. Each pair sported both the Fendi and Beats logos and sold at retail from $1200.
Beats had officially entered the luxury market. The Fendi collab was the most expensive headphone yet, and people wanted more. In 2016, Beats collaborated with Alexander Wang on their new Beats Studio Wireless. The dove gray headphones came leather embossed with a crocodile pattern, along with a matching bag. The following year, Beats tapped Olivier Rousteing at Balmain to create a limited-edition run of the new Studio Wireless headphones and Powerbeats3 Wireless earphones, both of which have been finished in Balmain’s signature army green and gold accents.
In addition to the fashion world, Beats also continued its long-standing relationship with professional athletes, such as Serena Williams and Alex Zverev, and football club Bayern Munich. In 2018, Beats announced its official partnership with the NBA. On the other side of the spectrum, Beats teamed up with the Nigerian conceptual artist Emeka Ogboh, who exhibited at Documenta and the Venice Biennale. Ogboh’s “Lagos Edition” headphones feature two danfo-yellow stripes on black.
Yet while Beats was expanding its cultural reach, it never strayed far from its roots in music. For its latest campaign, Beats released a short documentary featuring Billie Eilish and her brother FINNEAS, who has independently produced Eilish’s music since their DIY days on SoundCloud. The Eilish campaign is symbolic for Beats, considering how the singer is reshaping the sound of pop, the same way Pharrell did in the ’90s. Plus, Eilish’s anti-Britney aesthetic presents a pop steeped in dark, sober realism, that resonates with Gen Z fans raised with hip-hop and trap beats who don’t identify with the plastic poptimism sound that dominated the previous generation’s pop charts.
Beats is as much a part of culture as Eilish and Alexander Wang, or Diddy and M.I.A. As music evolves with the times, the brand is making sure its finger remains firmly on the pulse of culture and technology.
For more from Beats, read our interview with DJ and producer Mobilegirl.