Things I learned from The Defiant Ones

Despite believing myself fairly in tune with the pop culture scene, I missed a lot of promotion for The Defiant Ones until I started seeing recommendations on social media from folks who'd watched it. I finally blitzed through the four episodes recently, and it's kind of a banger.

I typically don't love documentaries which comprise so many talking head interviews because it feels like the default Powerpoint template of documentary filmmaking. But Iovine and Dre and all the other musicians are such compelling, scene-filling personalities that it's a treat, and often a lark, to see them play to the camera. Allen and Albert Hughes interview all the principals individually, but as with all oral histories, they ask all of them about the same events so they can use shots from one interviews as a reaction shot to a shot from someone else's interview. Or as a reaction shot to historical footage, like Puff Daddy recalling his reaction to Suge Knight's acceptance speech at the 1995 Source Music Awards.

In part, I was an easy mark because so much of that is the music of my youth. I was an intern at Procter and Gamble, living with a bunch of the other interns in a corporate apartment, the summer The Chronic came out. My roommates and I listened to that album just about every day, on loop, for no other reason than to mainline its hooks.

The Defiant Ones is also fascinating as a case study of two immensely successful people, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. It is dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a documentary like this. Survivor and selection bias influence the narrative, and two people does not a large sample make. The mere act of narrative construction is a con game, and always will be, even when it isn't hagiography, which first person narratives like this always veer towards. So take the following with a Himalayan salt block, because I do.

And yet...

If I lump the stories in this documentary with what I know of other successful people, a few things stood out to me. Call this a Malcolm Gladwellian attempt at teasing out a few lessons from anecdotal evidence.

The first is that people who are really good at what they do stand out from others by not only recognizing when something is exceptional immediately but articulating why it is so, especially when no one else believes it is. Designers experience this when they show a design to someone else, maybe a peer, maybe an executive, and that audience member immediately notices something the creator is particularly proud of. Stories of Steve Jobs moments like this abound, which is why everyone who has met Jobs even once seems to speak of it as some mystical experience.

Filmmakers all have stories of screening cuts for others and having the sharpest among the notice a particular bit of directorial intent, maybe something in the choreography of the actors, or the camera's movement, or even something in the sound design, that no one else picks up on.

Whether that pattern recognition is innate or trained over many years, and likely both, we see it again and again in The Defiant Ones. It's Jimmy Iovine cribbing "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" from Tom Petty for Stevie Nicks. It's Iovine hearing Trent Reznor and fighting tooth and nail to grab Nine Inch Nails for Interscope from TVT Records. Or Iovine meeting Gwen Stefani and telling her she'd be a star in six years, and having No Doubt release Tragic Kingdom exactly six years after that conversation.

[Remember my caveats up front? Steve Gottlieb of TVT records disputes the way the Nine Inch Nails story is framed in the documentary. I certainly don't think Iovine and Dre are the only ones in the music industry who possess this skill, but this documentary is their story so I'll roll with these examples for those who have or will watch the documentary.]

The most memorable aha moment in the documentary, for me, is when Dre hears one bit from a demo tape from among hundreds of demo tapes stacked in Iovine's garage. 

"Back in those days, I didn't have an artist to work with. I'd go to Jimmy's house, and we'd have listening sessions. He was trying to help me figure out where I was going to go with my music. He'd take me down to his garage. There was cassette tapes everywhere. And I remember him picking up this cassette tape. He pops it in. I was like 'What the fuck, and who the fuck is that?!"

Who he was was an unknown white rapper from Detroit. In the documentary, in the recreation of that seminal moment, the label on the cassette tape reads Slim Shady. I'm not sure if that's actually true to history, but it's remarkable both ways. In one, it's a wonderful bit of historical trivia, in another, it's a laughably on the nose historical recreation.

Again, we have this pattern, the flash of recognition, picking out this tape from all the demo tapes, and hearing what no one else heard. With things like music, or even food, the articulation of excellence isn't as critical as the recognition. As in the excerpt above from Dre's memory of that moment, it was probably just a series of expletives, perhaps a literal WTF as he recalls.

The moment where Dre recognizes the kid's talent isn't online, but this clip from Eminem and Dre's first meeting is, and it's amazing because it contains footage of the end from their first session in the studio. The tail end of this clip reveals what happened when Dre started playing a few beats he was working on for Eminem, and it's gobsmacking because so rarely is the moment of creative conception captured on video. See for yourself.

"Like yo. Stop. Shit's hot. That's what happened our first day, in the first few minutes of us being in the studio," remembers Dre.

Because Eminem was a scrawny white rapper from Detroit, many resisted. He didn't look the part. That brings up the second lesson.

"My gut told me Eminem was the artist that I'm supposed to be working with right now," Dre recalls. "But, I didn't know how many racists I had around me."

"Everybody around me, the so-called execs and what have you, were all against it. The records I had done at the time, they didn't work, they wanted me out the building. And I come up with Eminem, this white boy."

As in many moments in their long collaboration, Iovine and Dre persisted and profited yet again by arbitraging the biases of the herd.

"We weren't looking for a white, controversial rapper," Iovine says. "We were looking for great."
"Great can come from anywhere."

He means it.

"Lady Gaga walked into my office, Italian girl with brown hair, started telling me about Andy Warhol, and dance music, but yet industrial, and paintings. I don't know, she confused me so much that I signed her."

None of the other Interscope execs thought Gaga had breakout appeal. Iovine did.

"I was at a club with Timbaland, and I saw the room move. It felt like pop music. It felt like it could break through."

Perhaps not a snap judgment, but no one would confuse Lady Gaga for Eminem. When Iovine says great can come from anywhere, his diverse roster of artists backs him up.

How do you find alpha in an otherwise efficient market? Iovine and Dre arbitraged the biases of the market, of which one is rampant pattern recognition.

Much of this makes it sound as if identifying hit music is Iovine and Dre's talent. But plenty of evidence exists that much of cultural taste is socially constructed and is subject to path dependence.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. However, most people underestimate how much It is possible to socially hack popularity since some of popularity is a social construction and has nothing to do with any inherent quality of the goods being sold. This is a third lesson which the documentary reinforces.

Derek Thompson's Hit Makers, which I will write up soon, and Michael Mauboussin's The Success Equation, both of which I loved, both cite Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik's MusicLab experiments. The key finding of that study was that people rank some things higher simply because they were given randomly generated hints that those things were already popular with other people.

This Kevin Simler post offering an alternative explanation for how ads work is actually how many people who work in advertising understand ads to work, at least in part. Simler theorizes that ads create common knowledge, and much as Watts and Salganik's experiment reveals, so much of human behavior is socially constructed. In the case of the MusicLab study, it's popularity. In Simler's examples, ads cue consumers on which products are likely to be the most effective signals in a world which status is socially constructed in large part through such consumer product totems.

Iovine understands this, and nowhere is it more evident than in the latter part of the final episode of Defiant Ones, the Beats Headphones saga. 

Dre spends some lots of time engineering Beats headphones for a particular sound. More on that later. I'm a moderate headphone geek; enough so that I own more than four pairs of over ear headphones (I prefer the sound of some for specific types of music) and two headphone amps, so I appreciate what Dre understands, which is that the personality of headphones can be a matter of personal taste.

Iovine cuts to what's far more important in the headphone decision. Most people don't give a hoot what the response curves of a headphone are measured at, what they sound like. People wear them as fashion accessories, and people want to be cool.

Iovine and Dre set up a day where they test all the leading headphones on the market. They're not impressed.

"We realized that all headphones sound boring and looked like medical equipment. We wanted more bass in these headphones to exaggerate all of it. We wanted to put it on steroids," Iovine said.
Producer Jon Landau recalls: "The Bose headphones, they were advertising noise canceling, total quiet. Jimmy says, 'Noise canceling?! Yeah, they're the headphones if you want to go to sleep on a plane. Our headphones are the where's the party headphones.'"

The distribution and marketing leverage was to be found through Iovine's celebrity friendships, so he starts smiling and dialing, or perhaps more appropriately in Iovine's case, dialing and cajoling. He gives those headphones away to all his artists and asks them to wear them in their music videos, in public, anywhere a camera or a human eye is present. Anyone famous walking in Iovine's office has to don a pair of the headphones and submit to a photo. The design of the Beats headphones, like the iconic white headphones for the iPods, is brilliant. The iconic b imprinted on each colorful molded plastic ear cup is like a walking billboard.

After artists, Iovine moves onto athletes, and soon it's rare to see Lebron benching in any of his workout videos on Instagram without his Beats by Dre headphones. I almost can't picture Ronda Rousey walking into the ring or out of the ring without picturing her with her Beats headphones draped around her neck. Who can forget Michael Phelps staring down Chad Le Clos in the 2016 Olympics, his Beats headphones blasting what must surely be some angry heavy metal that would ripple the surface of the Olympic pool.

All PR isn't good PR, but when the sports leagues like FIFA and the NFL and the Olympics issue bans on the Beats headphones, it's a dream come true for a product seeking renegade cachet.

It works. Any self-respecting audiophile considers Beats to be an absolute scam from a sound quality perspective and yet Beats dominates the premium headphone ($99 or greater) market.

Not every product market sees market share driven by socially constructed popularity, but headphones are perhaps the perfect fashion accessory and cultural signal in the age where everyone can listen to music through their smartphone at any time.

Iovine pushes the headphones so much that Eminem admits it annoyed him.

"There would be times where we would be shooting a video until like six in the morning, and we had to do one more take with me or somebody in the video wearing some goddamn [Beats] headphones. Are you fucking kidding me?!"

Iovine is a great producer, but he's also a consummate marketer.

"The only person that does it better than him is me," says Puff Daddy.

There may be a line which is shameful to cross when it comes to marketing, but who knows where that line is if you have no shame.

"He's got good instinct, and he's shameless," says Trent Reznor about Iovine.

In fairness to the documentary, Dre does talk a lot about tuning the sounds of the Beats headphones, so why do audiophiles dislike the sound? Beats are notoriously bass heavy. Dre grew up listening to music in cars in LA, with subwoofers so heavy that people outside the car can feel their organs being jostled.

Music, especially for young people, is raw emotion and energy. Not that audiophiles don't also love to turn up their music, but the bass-heavy sound Dre and Iovine amplifies the primal elements of the music, something that non-audiophiles can feel. In a revealing scene, Dre demos the mix of an album by taking Iovine to a garage to listen to the album in a tricked out van. Dre knows that the music of the street is often heard, literally, on the streets, coming through some car stereo, bass pumping, car rocking. Dre isn't above understanding the social transmission of music, it's just that he understands a particular form of that virality, when it comes through the original social network, the streets of the neighborhood. If it weren't likely to render its listeners deaf, Dre would probably want his headphones to sound like those cars which wake the neighborhood, the bass so powerful that the subwoofers seem to shake windows and cause a car to bounce up and down.

The last bit, which is a meta point, and one I've been thinking about a lot recently, is how many more entrepreneurs The Defiant Ones will reach and teach than any single book on entrepreneurship. Video may be a lossy medium in terms of how much it leaves out in service of the narrative structure, but its inherent visual and "autoplay" quality are proven to be much lower friction as an educational medium than text. We need more like this and less like the typical MOOC video which replicates all the excitement of your median classroom lecture.