Interview: Jimmy Iovine on 'The Defiant Ones,' Future of Streaming, and Why He's Never Satisfied

He also shares the movie that became '8 Mile' was originally intended for 2Pac.

Jimmy Iovine by Gari Askew
Image by Gari Askew

Jimmy Iovine by Gari Askew

Jimmy Iovine by Gari Askew

Jimmy Iovine is one of the most celebrated record executives of the modern era. He produced and engineered classic albums from Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and many more in the 1970s and '80s. But most music fans know Iovine as the co-founder of and driving force behind Interscope Records, and the man whose business moves brought the world the likes of Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, and a couple of guys named Dr. Dre and Eminem. 

When the rest of the record industry was scared to take a chance on a post-N.W.A. Dre, Iovine recognized the producer's genius and released The Chronic. That decision began a friendship and working relationship that lasts to this day and is celebrated in the documentary The Defiant Ones, directed by Allen Hughes. The film was recently nominated for a Grammy, and is out now on DVD.

I called Jimmy to talk about the film, his history, the true origin of 8 Mile, and how he helped make one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time.


(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

The reason for this call is The Defiant Ones' DVD release and Grammy nomination. What are your thoughts about the film and it's reception?
First of all, Allen did an incredible job. Am I surprised about the things that came out of it? The way it was received? Yeah, absolutely. I'm thrilled about it. 

Have you watched it all the way through yourself since it was out?
Yeah, just once. It's hard to watch yourself, just in general. I'm not a performer, so it's not something I see everyday. But I think it came out really good. I keep saying over and over again, I thought Allen did a great job.

To me, "the defiant ones" is everybody in the documentary. That's what it meant to me. If some young artist gets inspired by Patti Smith or 2Pac or Bruce Springsteen or Eminem, then that's great. We could use those type of artists speaking out right now. And if that inspires somebody, that's great, man. I love it. 

They were filming you for quite a while. Is there any moment that the camera crew caught that you wish made it into the final cut that didn't?
There were a few things that were in there that I wasn't comfortable with. I brought it up to them, and they said the only way we could take it out is if you counter it. I didn't want to do that, because I didn’t want to hurt peoples’ feelings or take something on, so I just let it go. 

How much control did you have over the final product?
It was Allen's project. Dre and I didn't want it. It was always something that had to be done honestly to come out great. Dre and I basically said, "This happened this way, this didn't happen." And they double-checked everything. It makes you uncomfortable. But that's OK.

What made you think the relationship between you and Dre would make for a good movie?
Well, it was Allen's idea. And how that come about was, I was trying to do something on Interscope and I changed my mind. I said, I don’t think there’s a film there, and HBO said OK, and I canceled it.

Then, Allen got Dre to commit to something that I didn't know about, and he went to HBO and they said, "Well you know, we're talking to Jimmy about Interscope." The story is about relationships. And to me, part of that relationship is a white and a black guy from racially challenged neighborhoods, and they meet up and those things that were issues in their neighborhoods came about. And those guys had to stick with each other, in the face of those things.

When you're brought up in Red Hook Brooklyn, and there are gang fights and everything, you are full of fear. And one of the things when you're brought up in Compton that you learn is distrust. There were times that we had to overcome things, on both of our parts, and we were always able to do it.

On top of that, what I really wanted to come across—and I think it does—is that when a white and a black guy work together, and really are partners and go through all those things, what comes out is a hundred times better and more unique than what could have come out had we worked together and it was a different arrangement. I just want people to see that, because there aren't enough companies, or at least that I know of that have started in this country, [where] a young black and white guy are working together. I'm sure there are—I don't want to say we're the only ones. But I think that's what comes through and that means a lot to me.

Can you go back to the beginning of your and Dre's relationship? What did you hear in The Chronic that no one else heard?
I'm not going to say no one else heard it. I can only say how it applied to me. I felt that this guy was doing to hip-hop what Phil Spector did to rock and roll in the early days. And I said, "Oh shit," and only recognized it on that level. I didn't really understand it. I'm not one who understood hip-hop in the '80s. But when I heard it compared to all the other hip-hop records I said, holy shit, this guy is a true great record maker, one of a kind. And I was all in. 

I had always wanted to make a movie about 2pac, giving hip-hop its 'purple rain.' then when eminem came along, i said, I wonder if that would work for marshall.

I just watched the Tom Petty documentary, where you are heavily featured. Between that and The Defiant Ones, it seems like the past few years you've been looking back at different aspects of your career a lot. How does that feel? Are you generally a reflective person? 
No, I don't have a rear view mirror. I just got one for this. I'm not someone who ever looks at success or anything. That's why it's not as much fun for me, doing the work. Because as soon as the work is finished, if it's successful, I'm concerned about the next one not being successful; and if it's not successful, I hate that it's not successful. So there's no real celebration for me. I've never had that. I don't take victory laps, you know. I never did.

Looking back, doing it with Dre made it fun. He made me want to talk, and come out, and want to do stuff. He made it really fun for me. But the thing I said earlier, about coming from neighborhoods where you were taught fear and distrust, and to go through these things where the stakes are so high, with corporations and the government and all this stuff and to go through it, and there were some dangerous situations—to come through that, and do great work, I love it. I love mine and Dre’s relationship. He knows what he does and I know what I do, and we both know what each other do. And we've never really had an argument. 

As of this conversation, we're less than 48 hours from Eminem releasing a new album, which got me thinking about him and you. Did you have any talk with him when it looked like he was going to be not just a successful rapper but a superstar? You've been around superstars before—John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, etc.
Paul [Rosenberg] is a big thing in the Eminem world, and he was very, very integral to getting all this stuff done. Paul and I worked on the movie [8 Mile, on which Iovine is a producer] together.

What happened was, I had always wanted to make a movie about 2Pac, giving hip-hop its Purple Rain. I didn't know who to do it with, but I kept thinking about it. Hip-hop hadn't had that movie yet, and I pitched it to Brian Grazer. I didn't even ask 2Pac—I just used him as an example. I wasn't sure if he would do it or not. This was in 1995.

Then when Eminem came along, I said, "Wow, I wonder if that would work for Marshall." And I asked Paul and Paul said, "Look, that sounds like a great idea." So he went to Brian Grazer, and Brian Grazer said, "Absolutely." He was the only person who said yes. [Laughs.] I want you to know something too—that movie is great because of Eminem, Brian Grazer, Paul, and the director [Curtis Hanson]. I'm not saying I know how to make a movie. I had an idea that I thought the premise could work. That's where I'm coming from. I'm not trying to take credit for anybody's work.

You've been around so many iconic musicians in the rock world who have had decades-long careers without moving onto the oldies circuit: Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Tom Petty. What does hip-hop need to be to be able to produce those kinds of artists? Is that happening already? 
Well you're talking about very, very serious artists. You take Bruce Springsteen: Bruce Springsteen hasn't changed his attitude towards his work since the day I met him. He's not doing something for anything other than being great. Not one other consideration. So if you do that, and stop thinking about anything else, and if you are great, the reward is enormous. 

Your company is obviously in the news recently, with Apple buying Shazam. What are your thoughts about that? What does Apple want to do with Shazaam? 
I think it was a good deal, I think it was good deal for Apple. I wasn't that involved. It was really an Eddy [Cue, Apple's senior vice president of Internet Software and Services] deal. So I don't claim any rights to it. I was just on the sidelines in that one.

We're getting into the Christmas season, and you have a production credit on one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time, Bruce Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." What can you tell me about the creation of that song?
Well it was at C.W. Post, I think. [Editor's Note: The track was indeed recorded at Greenvale, New York's C.W. Post College during a 1975 show]. I was recording all the Bruce live stuff at the time. I went there and we did a show. When we went to do A Very Special Christmas [the 1987 compilation where the song appears], I called him and said, "Hey man, there's a record laying around. Let's finish it." And Bruce said, "Cool, let's finish it." The whole album is a great album, if you've ever heard it. And that's the story: it was just one night when he did it. 

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Finally, how has it been for you the past few years working primarily at Apple, a technology company, rather than at a record company? 
Again, my mission is to do my part, make sense to artists, help build the communication, and help empower them and to make this a great business. I believe that the more power you give the artist, the better the music comes out, and the better the ideas come out. Labels and publishers find their lane in this, and I just wanted to contribute.

I think Daniel Ek [co-founder and CEO of Spotify] has done an incredible job. I think he is an incredible young guy. I think Apple is doing a great job in it. And I just want it so that artists could get fully realized; first of all, help spread their mission, and also benefit their music.

Because that is how some artists feel—like they can't make any money in music, they're on the road too long, and things like that. And the economy, the way it is right now, there's a lot of smoke and mirrors as to what going on, as far as the growth of the record industry. It's not really trickling down in the right way. And I think with of the scale of this thing, it will. The labels are on board, everyone's on board. No ones doing anything wrong—at least I don't think so, not that I know of. But I think that the business has to get better, because I see a squeeze coming. But that’s for another day.

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