It was in 1989 that longtime producer and sound engineer Jimmy Iovine founded Interscope Records, a label determined from the start to do things differently. Its secret? Offering both artists and producers full creative control. This control reportedly diminished as the label grew and eventually merged in 1999 (50 Cent and Die Antwoord have both publicly slammed Interscope), but it seems this rule was still firmly in place when Iovine fortuitously met a talented producer named Dr. Dre. In theory, the two men couldn’t have been more different, but Dre brought with him a demo of debut solo LP The Chronic, which went on to become one of the most influential rap albums of all-time.
Crucially, The Chronic – released by Death Row Records and distributed through Interscope – also became Iovine’s first high-profile commercial success. The duo subsequently struck up an unlikely business partnership and friendship, one which was chronicled last year in The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series released by HBO and just recently launched internationally by Netflix.
Speaking to Rolling Stone last year, Iovine revealed that director Allen Hughes had initially intended to create a project solely on Dre but quickly became fascinated by their close relationship. “Allen came to us and said, ‘Why don’t I do a documentary on your relationship? How did a white guy and a black guy from racially-charged neighborhoods build this business and stay together?’” Iovine recalls this conversation before recounting his own initial response: “I said, ‘I don’t know how that happened!’”
As these quotes suggest, race plays a large part in The Defiant Ones. When Dre brought The Chronic, he was already well-known for his production role on Straight Outta Compton, the game-changing debut of rap group N.W.A. Featuring hits like “Fuck tha Police” and “Straight Outta Compton”, the collective waxed lyrical on the ongoing institutional racism of the USA and, unsurprisingly, caused huge controversy. In the same way that Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet left conservatives angry, shaken and fearful, N.W.A. reignited crucial conversations around race and politics whilst simultaneously making a dent in the mainstream.
Although the group disbanded in 1991, a core fanbase and a sonic blueprint had been formed. Deep bass, whirring, whiny synths and early funk samples were teamed with hard-hitting lyrics laden with gang references to create G-Funk, an era-defining genre of which Dre is credited as a pioneer. The Chronic also launched the career of Snoop Dogg, introducing him to a mainstream audience he was bewildered by. Speaking on that iconic Rolling Stone cover, he chuckles in the documentary: “That motherfucker blew up… I ain’t never had that many white people coming up to me in my whole life.”
Up until that point, Iovine had achieved critical success with Interscope but hadn’t truly broken through. It was in 1992 that a distribution deal with Death Row landed him the rights to The Chronic, which he describes as the company’s “defining album”, but he had a keen eye for talent, signing 2Pac (aka Tupac) in 1991. Debut 2Pacalypse Now initially spawned no hits, but it’s an undeniable classic which accelerated the quickly-building hype around Interscope.
As well as spotlighting his eye for talent, the documentary portrays Iovine as a hero of sorts, as the man who cut through the controversy to launch gangsta rap. And there was controversy. The genre was branded violent, misogynistic and was met with fear-mongering by conservative news outlets, many of whom speculated the emergence of groups like N.W.A. and artists like Dogg and Dre would plunge impressionable teens into the pits of depravity. It’s testament to the prevalence of racism that Iovine’s whiteness is highlighted throughout The Defiant Ones, almost as though consumers were only willing to buy into gangsta rap with a commercial co-sign. “Nobody wanted to deal with this gangsta rap thing,” laments Step Johnson, the label’s President of Urban Music.
Meanwhile, rock star ‘bad boys’ were similarly making music about sex and violence. Admittedly there was still a conservative backlash, but there’s a marked difference in the language used to describe the influential rappers at the time and that used to describe the ‘bad boys,’ most of whom were painted as misunderstood, endearing and, ultimately, desirable. The irony is obvious.
Things changed quickly, but both men remained pragmatic. Death Row quickly became toxic, Dre formed his own label – Aftermath – and Interscope later merged, but the partnership between Iovine and Dre weathered these storms, eventually leading to the development of Beats by Dre and Apple Music. Together, the duo have crafted a multimillion dollar empire.
But this didn’t come without compromise. Iovine may be portrayed as the benevolent champion of creativity, but the documentary also does a solid job at highlighting the push towards mainstream sensibilities which later came. Eminem vents his frustrations at the amount of attention dedicated to the admittedly cheesy promo trail for Beats by Dre: “Fuck this Beats thing,” he exclaims. “I want Dre to make an album, and he’s talking about headphones right now.”
Other artists have expressed similar frustrations, with 50 Cent also citing the headphones as part of his decision to leave the label in 2014. In an MTV interview, he explains: “When you see Interscope turn into Beats Records, where everyone that you see is actually marketing Beats headphones – you don’t even see a music video without Beats headphones in it.” This became increasingly true: from Lady Gaga’s continued shameless plugs (including her own headphone design) through to product placement in videos by Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and countless others, the brand sold well but arguably damaged Dre and Iovine’s credibility in the long run.
Then, there’s the notoriously tense relationship between South African Zef pioneers Die Antwoord and Iovine, who became the subject of creepy 2012 skit “Uncle Jimmy”. The duo have blasted the label on numerous occasions, describing its “weird fucking presence” and determination to cram the band’s 23-track opus $O$ into a 10-track package. Things came to a head when “Fok Julle Naaiers” (which loosely translates as “fuck all you fuckers”) was reportedly branded too inaccessible. A more commercial reworking of the entire album was allegedly ordered; Die Antwoord refused, instead releasing the project independently and titling it Ten$ion in reference to Interscope’s creative interference.
Although The Defiant Ones touches on this later commercialization, the documentary’s greatness lies in its depiction of gangsta rap’s triumph over adversity. An incisive commentary on race, class and controversy, the series also uncovers some illuminating truths, one of which is the erasure of hip-hop duo J.J. Fad, two women who essentially earned the money which bankrolled the creation of Straight Outta Compton. It’s also a warning of sorts; although Iovine and Dre are both held in high esteem as undisputed legends, it’s undeniable that Interscope’s initial focus on creative control waned considerably as money began trickling in. Still, it’s testament to the respect both Dre and Iovine command, as well as the unbreakable legacy of West Coast rap, that The Defiant Ones is one of the best shows on Netflix right now.
For more deep dives into the land of television, take a look at our list of the best moments of magical realism in ‘Atlanta’ right here.
- Photography: Kevin Winter/Getty Images