It’s possible that the best thing that ever happened to Jimmy Iovine was getting fired by Foghat.
After engineering Bruce Springsteen’s watershed “Born to Run” and in the midst of working on his “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the Brooklyn native was tapped to produce an album for the British rockers, famous for their ’70s anthem “Slow Ride.” Thanks to some unprofessional behavior — including bringing his girlfriend to the sessions — Iovine got the ax. “I could not have felt lower in my life at that moment,” he recalls.
But Foghat’s loss was Patti Smith’s— and rock ’n’ roll’s — gain. Iovine ran into the singer-songwriter and she asked him to produce her next album. Noting his recent dismissal, she said “I don’t give a ... I don’t like Foghat.”
After convincing Springsteen to give “Because the Night” to Smith — who added her own lyrics — the song went on to become a top 20 hit and Iovine’s life became anything but a slow ride.
“I guess I was kind of good at turning chicken ... into chicken liver, you know?” he says with a chuckle during a recent phone interview, making sure to add that Foghat was “a great group.”
The deeply engrossing new four-part HBO docuseries “The Defiant Ones,” which chronicles the vastly different but ultimately intertwined lives of Iovine and rapper-producer-executive Dr. Dre, premiering Sunday, proves that the 64-year-old mogul was much more than a magician with chicken.
Following his success with Smith, Iovine went on to produce legendary albums by a bevy of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers in multiple genres in the ’70s and ’80s, pivot into executive mode as the cofounder of Interscope Records in the ’90s and ’00s and zig yet again in the ’00s and ’10s into the multibillion-dollar headphone and speaker business with Beats, cooked up with longtime friend and collaborator Dre, which they sold to Apple for $3.2 billion in 2014.
He recently moved into his remarkable fourth act leading Apple Music. (Oh yeah, mixed in there he served three seasons as an irascible mentor on “American Idol.”)
“The thing that’s really fascinating is that Jimmy is one of the few — and it’s a very small group — who were part of the height of rock in the ’70s and ’80s with some of the greatest musicians of the era, who was able to see the value in hip-hop and make the move into hip-hop pretty seamlessly,” says author-filmmaker Nelson George, who served as a consultant on the series as he did on Netflix’s recent hip-hop drama “The Get Down.”
Director Allen Hughes (“Menace II Society,” “Broken City”) worked on “The Defiant Ones” for more than three years, gaining unprecedented access to Iovine and the 52-year-old Dre — even living with Dre for a time —and coaxing them into opening up about everything from their childhoods to their marriages to their stunning success in music and business.
Getting from Springsteen and Stevie Nicks to Tupac and Snoop Dogg and beyond was a serious challenge, however, says Hughes.
“Dre has lived the life of 10 men, so his story alone probably would’ve run two hours and 15 minutes, if I was lucky. Then Jimmy’s lived the life of several men and women,” he says with a laugh on the phone from New York. Thus, a series was born.
Although they come from different backgrounds and have fundamentally different temperaments — Iovine the voluble New Yorker, Dre the fiercely guarded Californian — both Hughes and Iovine were struck by how much the pair have in common.
“They’re hyper-focused in tuning anything else out and they’re 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Hughes of the Iovine/Dre work ethic. “They both don’t look back in the rear view mirror. They don’t talk about their accomplishments.”
“This is about as big as my rear view mirror is,” says Iovine of the series. And as for his accomplishments? He borders on dismissive. “What happened was, those first four years [working with Springsteen, Smith and John Lennon], I realized where the magic comes from, and it’s not from me.”
So, Iovine says, he counsels others to “stop breathing your own exhaust. It’s time you stop thinking that because you did something, it’s ... amazing. All you’ve got to do is say, ‘OK. If I'm great, what do they call Steve Jobs?’” Put simply, Iovine says, “I’m not a humble guy. I just don’t believe my own [BS].”
The biggest shock for all three men — and likely for viewers — is how much Dre, who is not doing press for the series, reveals in “The Defiant Ones.” It is nothing short of revelatory.
“I’m surprised he talked at all!” exclaims Iovine. “He doesn’t express himself a lot. He’ll come to a party at my house with 300 people. Every other guy will get in trouble because they’re talking to a bunch of different people, he’s there talking to his wife.”
The documentary took them both to a “very vulnerable” place, Iovine says. Each man delves into professional and personal issues from the ultimately deadly East Coast/West Coast rap wars to the deaths of Iovine’s father and Dre’s brother. And “The Defiant Ones” may be the most Dre has ever spoken about his assault of rapper and hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes, who appears in the series.
“I think there’s still parts of [Dre] that are like ‘Oh my God, I let these people in,’” says George. “But because HBO gave them the time and money to do this in a big way I think this is going to go down as one of the most important music docs ever. I mean the range of talent onscreen is pretty ... crazy.”
George is not overstating the matter. A small sampling of those making substantive contributions as talking heads in “The Defiant Ones” includes Springsteen, Bono, Nicks, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, Eminem, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar — the latter of whose passages were shot in the last month. (Jobs, Tupac and Lennon are among those no longer with us who also figure prominently.)
Eminem dubs Iovine “the levitator.” Springsteen believes the producer’s entire life has been “driven by low self esteem and ideas of grandiosity,” and Bono calls him “a virus” who “just happens to you.” Iovine agrees with all these descriptions.
“That was a line that made me cringe but it was the truth,” he says of the Bono bit. “When I met my wife, after the third date, I said, ‘Have you ever been surrounded by one person before?’”
But hearing all of these artists offer testimonials to himself and Dre was illuminating for a man given to looking ahead not back.
“I always looked at them as these forces of nature,” he says, particularly Lennon, Springsteen and Smith. “And even though I know them all — well, John's gone but I know Bruce and Patti really well, we speak, I see them twice a year or so — to hear them speak about me like that. ... I didn’t know they knew how I thought, you know what I mean? So that was surprising, ’cause I’m always worried about how they’re thinking.”
While Dre is internationally known as an artist, Iovine has been more of a behind-the-scenes figure except for that stint on “Idol,” the part of his career for which, ironically, he is most recognized. “People in Starbucks take pictures,” he says. But it’s not always his face that rings a bell.
“When I was on ‘American Idol,’ I was walking down Fifth Avenue with [my wife] Liberty. And I was talking to her, just like this, this level of vocal voice,” he says indicating a normal volume. “You know how busy Fifth Avenue is at Christmas time? From behind, I hear a woman say, ‘I recognize that voice.’ So I thought it was like my cousin or something. I turned around and this woman says, ‘I agree with everything you say on ‘American Idol.’ The sound of my voice is more famous than me.”
Indeed, Iovine’s distinctive New York rasp receives a hearty impression by nearly every single person in “The Defiant Ones” when recalling conversations with him. (Snoop Dogg and Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas have far and away the most fun with the accent.)
Iovine doesn’t get it. “That drives me nuts. I hate it,” he says emphatically. “It’s really cruel and unjust punishment. No one repeats a word I say without imitating my voice, it drives me out of my ... mind.”
But maybe that’s because it’s not his speaking voice but the one inside his head telling him to “turn fear into a tailwind instead of a headwind” that has gotten him where he is.
“My proudest thing in my career is that I was able to change it three times,” he says, noting he no longer feels the pull of the recording studio or the record label executive suite. “And I’m happy about that, I couldn’t have done the same thing my whole life, I would’ve gone nuts. I couldn’t do it because I do things based on impulsive excitement and I’m just not that guy that can do something for 50 years and be excited about the same thing. I can’t do it.”
As “The Defiant Ones” illustrates the same could be said of Dre, who operates on gut instinct, which has served the seemingly odd couple well.
“We’ve never had an argument,” says Iovine. “We’ve had disagreements, but it was never elevated to an argument, ’cause we just know what each other does best instinctively. It’s a crazy relationship. … In a lot of ways, we shouldn’t have stayed together, it made no sense. But the belief we had in each other, it went against what most people would think would happen.”
In other words, the very definition of defiance.