Published on May 23rd, 2021 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
The Defiant Ones
KK examines a slick HBO documentary series explaining how the music world changed forever when rap and rock got into bed together.
Defiant (dɪˈfaɪ.ənt) – proudly refusing to obey authority.
Watching Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre get together for a collaboration seems as weird to me as Alice Cooper and Kenny Rogers recording a duet on live television. The latter never happened of course, but the former has been made into a four-part HBO documentary series, and I was very curious to see how this relationship came to be.
The first thing I will comment on regarding The Defiant Ones (2017) is the quality of the production. If you’ve ever stopped during a shopping trip to look at a clothing store you couldn’t possibly afford (or even want to, for that matter) certain details of a $3,000 handbag or $5,000 suit will jump out and impress you despite your hesitations: the stitching, the fabric, the style, the god-damn zippers and buttons. The Defiant Ones looks the clothing store where Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson shops for the perfect red-carpet outfit. It’s what you would expect from a Jimmy/Dre/HBO film production: a perfectly tailored outfit sewn together with deft precision that only the most experienced fashion designers can manage. Now streaming on Netflix, this alone is reason that The Defiant Ones is worth your time.
Be prepared to be astonished. The amount of success amassed by Jimmy and Dre, along with their various business partners and peers, is in the upper echelon of music industry success stories. The albums they made, the money, the yachts, the mansions and cars – hell, just the way they untangled the massive and confusing ball of Clark Griswald Christmas lights that are music contracts was spectacular. But something regarding the presentation of how this success was earned bothered me.
I get a bad taste in my mouth when I listen to successful or wealthy people explain that they got to where they are by working harder than everyone else. They speak as though you can’t imagine how hard they have worked, like you’ve never worked as hard as they do a day in your life. There is a certain amount of luck involved in success, and to not recognize that becomes a message which says “I’m rich and successful and you’re not because I work harder than you.” It sounds like total bullshit to me but, then again, everyone secretly loves the smell of their own farts even when it’s repugnant to everyone else.
Let’s go back to the beginning of this story and see if my distain for that part of the narrative holds any merit. Fair warning, the doc skips around like a grade three kid at recess. It’s not a linear, chronological story. But it’s clipped, cut, styled and soundtracked in such a slick way that any confusion with timeline of events or influence of concepts are sufficiently overwhelmed by the sheer fascination of watching such incredulous events unfold in a smooth flow of narration, photos and film. While Dre describes the ascent into mind-boggling wealth one way, Jimmy seems oblivious to sharing that sentiment. Dre: “…as far as me and Jimmy goes, we just some lucky mutherfuckers.” Jimmy, on the other hand, drills into the viewers head “I always felt that I had to work harder than the next guy just to do as well as the next guy, but to do better than the next guy, I had to just…kill.”
So Jimmy worked. He worked so hard that photographs from the early years show a very unhealthy looking man. I wonder why nobody around him suggested he go to a doctor. Maybe they did (I would have). But let’s move backwards in time for a moment to see if it was all hard work, or if flashes of serendipity lit the way. Yes, Jimmy made the Pretenders Get Close (1986); Simple Minds’ Once Upon A Time (1985);Stevie Nicks Bella Donna (1981); Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes (1979); Bat Out of Hell (1977) for Meat Loaf and Born to Run (1975) for Springsteen. Those are all amazing records, and no doubt labor intensive. Jimmy worked harder than a Honeybee for years. But how did it all start? As the movie will explain much better than I do, Jimmy essentially got called into work at a recording studio in New York on Easter Sunday, 1973, where he swept floors and answered phones. And who should be recording that day – short an engineer, no less? John Lennon. I’ll debate fate vs luck with keen interest, but don’t tell me that Jimmy had worked so hard sweeping floors that someone thought he should record the next John Lennon record. It’s insane not to consider just how fortuitous that day was. That opportunity was a grand prize lottery ticket. Furthermore, lest we forget that Born to Run was nearly a suicide mission of an album, the last-chance or it’s work on the docks for the rest of your life kinda record, and there was some luck involved in how that project turned out. Later, Jimmy would get involved with a little Irish outfit called U2 because his girlfriend was a reporter who interviewed Bono, then insisted Jimmy learn who this band was and contact them. That sounds like a nice slice of luck to me. Not every record or project that is furiously and rapaciously worked on gets fair recognition.
But that’s just the beginning.
Around the same time that Jimmy was recording Making Movies (1980) for Dire Straits on the east coast, a very curious and focused young man named Andre Young, a.k.a. Dr. Dre, was starting a serious and groundbreaking DJ career on the west coast. He started a band called N.W.A. and began a production company with Easy-E called Ruthless Records. Ice Cube wrote songs and D.O.C. helped lay down sick tracks. They began creating a culture as fast as they were making music, demanding that people re-examined their biases regarding life in urban Black America. They were also just pushing buttons on the machine as a reaction to their bubbling rage towards a system that was choking them. Say what you want about their nasty clashes with the law, nobody ever wrote a song called Fuck the Fire Department.
Dre found Snoop Dog and together they snuck up on the existing dominance of east coast rap. Dre and Jimmy were inseparable, crafting and conducting a business empire built on innovation and risk. The established veneer of decorum in Jimmy’s world and the brutal, fledgling demands of Dre’s breakthrough cultural revolution collided in courtrooms and boardrooms. Everything exploded, over and over again, blowing up bigger each time until the list of names added to the war zone of rap became too long to list (at least in this article). All those beautiful, tangled Christmas lights, blinking unapologetically, furiously demanding to be seen through a crowded ball of violent confusion.
The Defiant Ones becomes more than just wild tales of labouring on music and flashing frames of radiant rock jams or firestorms of soul shocking beats, it creates a demand for consideration, thought and the mental task of weighing the values of talent, culture, and class privilege. If there is formula here to illustrate hard work = success, then the Dre chapters of these episodes should be the story of reverence. Born in Compton to a 16-year-old girl, surrounded by violence, he invented a voice for himself and a buffet of sounds for the world. He worked his way out of something as much as he worked his way towards something. A true shooting star. This is supposed to be America’s favourite story, rags-to-riches type stuff, but even being re-told in the most careful way, the world really put a stink on how Dre got from Compton to Brentwood. It seems like America was saying, “Sure you worked hard, but it was too violent a career. We only like it when people get lucky over and over again and then we make it look as though it was achieved through sheer will and harder work than poor people could imagine. See?”
Watching two seemingly incompatible worlds pulled into the same orbit is exhilarating, but dizzying. Jimmy and Dre spin wildly and relentlessly as they try to find their gravity in a new world of experimental collaboration. The more success they shared, the more creative risks they took, all backed by a growing machine of unstoppable bank-powered media control. (That reminds me: I hope you like headphones. You’re going to be told about goddamn Beats headphones about six thousand times in four episodes.) These worlds operate simultaneously on two seemingly opposing plains of existence: too far away to reach, and close enough to touch. It really is a fascinating story of success, and a provocative documentary. I chose to criticize some of the narration around the ingredients for creating great success because I couldn’t find a whole lot else to dislike about the series. Well, except the last half of the last episode. That’s just a straight-up commercial for Beats headphones. But what do you expect from two brilliant sound conductors that also happen to be business moguls? They would never miss an opportunity to promote their latest product. They are the cold, distant holes twinkling in the night sky, and the warm glow of magical holiday lights. Forever radiating with hypnotic compulsion to inspire others, they are ferociously, violently addicted to loving their achievements – at any cost. And maybe that has a lot to do with the tragedies they experienced in their lives. So many stories of achieving great fame are paired with great sorrow and loss. Perhaps even more so than luck or hard work. But that’s another article altogether, and something even more to consider as you watch The Defiant Ones.