WHEN I arrived at Jimmy Iovine's office at Universal Music's headquarters in Santa Monica the other day, I realized I'd forgotten something far more important than my reporter's notebook -- a pair of industrial-strength earplugs. When Iovine cranks up the sound system, whether to play a couple of tracks from Eminem's upcoming hits package or a new Mary J. Blige cover of U2's "One," the bass track booms across the room like the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere.
Iovine was playing Blige's new song for Jack Sussman, CBS' special programming chief, who's hoping Blige will perform at the upcoming Vibe Music Awards, where the singer is receiving an award. Sussman is also looking for artists to do "Entourage"-style cameos for an upcoming CBS show set in the record business. "We'd love any music that works," he says.
"Not any music," Iovine counters with a laugh. "Our music."
For anyone in search of cool in today's entertainment world, the man to see is Iovine, who, as head of Universal Music's Interscope Geffen A&M; Records, is the music industry's gatekeeper to cutting-edge pop culture. Wearing a grey sweatshirt and an ever-present baseball cap, he's so full of manic energy that you suspect that if you touched him you'd get an electric shock. Iovine is working overtime these days. In addition to his music business responsibilities, the 52-year-old executive is preparing for the release Wednesday of "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," a chilling gangster film starring 50 Cent, the bullet-scarred gangsta rapper who's currently at the top of Iovine's talent heap.
The $46-million movie, which has already generated protests from community leaders who say it glorifies violence, is the first release in Iovine's new production deal with Paramount Pictures. But more important, it's the latest example of Iovine's ambitious plan to transform Universal Music into a full-service entertainment company that could help its artists broaden their image and cross over into other media.
U2 has its own iPod, Eminem provides satellite radio programming to Sirius and the Pussycat Dolls have a nightclub in Vegas and an upcoming makeup and clothing line. 50 Cent stars in "Bulletproof," a video game due out later this month. Iovine recently spent the day with Dr. Dre in the Silicon Valley pursuing a possible joint venture involving the rap icon. Interscope gets a cut from each new venture, but it also benefits if it nurtures artists who can cross over to a variety of cultural arenas.
"We can't just sell CDs anymore," Iovine explains over lunch, nibbling on a turkey wrap sandwich between phone calls, his ring tone blaring a remix of R. Kelly's "Ignition." "We're doing what the music business should've done from Day 1 -- harness the culture that we developed."
Iovine envisions a future where record labels become content providers, as Interscope already has been for iTunes. "The day is coming when all the telephone and cable companies will be on a par with each other and the only way they can distinguish themselves is unique content. The real players are going to be the people who can deliver that content -- and I want that to be us."
Iovine's entry into the movie business comes at a time when the film industry is in desperate need of unique content itself. Today's Hollywood is mired in a slump that bears an unsettling similarity to the circa-1999 music industry. Not only is revenue down, but young consumers are deserting the multiplex in droves, disenchanted by high prices and bad product, two of the same complaints they had with the music business.
More important, the movie business -- like record companies before it -- appears out of touch with its audience, leading to a stream of movies that have failed to connect with moviegoers. For a business that needs new ideas and energy, there couldn't be a better catalyst than Iovine, who's always had a Zelig-like ability to tap into the pop zeitgeist.
"Jimmy's a one-man early warning system of what's coming on the horizon," says Viacom co-President Tom Freston, who brought Iovine to Paramount. "If you look at the heart of why movies did so badly this summer, it was a lack of fresh ideas -- the audience can smell it. That's what's great about Jimmy. He doesn't fall in love with his past successes. He has a great sense of what's coming next in the culture, which is what movies should be all about."
In the 1970s, Iovine was a baby-faced recording engineer on John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen albums. In the 1980s, he produced U2, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty. In the last dozen years, as head of Interscope, he's been a pivotal force in establishing Dr. Dre, Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt and 50 Cent. All those artists have been big forces in pop music, but nobody hit the jackpot faster than 50 Cent, who sold 11 million copies of his 2003 debut CD, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'."
In 2002, Iovine teamed up with producer Brian Grazer on the Eminem film, "8 Mile." After 50 Cent arrived the next year, Iovine began looking for a film project that could utilize the tattooed rapper's tough-guy appeal. If "8 Mile" was a story about the creativity of hip-hop, "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " is about the life of hip-hop, a life that has a lot more in common with "GoodFellas" than "Good Vibrations."
"It's like looking at the mob through the eyes of 'The Godfather,' " says Iovine. "It shows you the struggles behind the life decisions people make, but in a very human way so you can understand the culture and where it comes from."
When Iovine was working on a project at HBO, an executive there introduced him to "Sopranos" writer Terence Winter. His script borrows from events in 50 Cent's life, softening the rapper's thuggish image with a light dusting of vulnerability. Instead of hiring a slick video director, the first person Iovine approached was Jim Sheridan, the Irish director known for such compelling dramas as "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father."
"I knew that as an Irishman, Jim really identified with 50's experience, of coming from a tough, very aggressive urban environment," explains Iovine. "He gets the whole ethnic family vibe. So does Terence, coming from 'The Sopranos.' These are matriarchal societies, whether it's the Italians or the blacks. Jim would always say to me in his Irish brogue, 'Jimmy, it's all about the mudda.' "
On the other hand, 50 Cent, who made his name dissing his rap rivals, is such an incendiary figure that the film has already been the subject of controversy in the African American community, which has long had an ambivalent relationship with its hip-hop icons, sometimes showing some love, other times disgust or disapproval. Protests have focused on the film's billboards, some of which portray 50 Cent with a gun in one hand, a microphone in the other.
Iovine argues that dozens of movie ads, from "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" to "The Bourne Supremacy," show their stars armed with guns. He also defends the film's graphic violence, saying it is no different from innumerable scenes in any number of critically beloved Martin Scorsese films.
"There's a double standard here," Iovine says. "50 Cent is a magnet because people in hip-hop get treated differently than people in movies. Depicting criminals in a movie doesn't make more criminals. The easy way out for the character 50 plays would be to be a criminal, but he takes the harder way out. The film shows that you can overcome anything in life if you have the guts to follow the truth."
I'm not sure the moral is quite that simple, but the movie does offer a different vision of 50 Cent, who has been easy to dismiss as a thuggish misogynist. Maybe it's the storytelling, maybe it's the medium, but in the film the rap star isn't the one-note insult artist he is on his CDs. His movie debut is certainly more self-assured than a certain action star whose willingness to slaughter hundreds of people on screen didn't stop him from reinventing himself as a crusading politician.
Iovine doesn't apologize for his artists' willingness to incite or offend -- in fact, he sees it as an integral ingredient in their appeal. This uncompromising attitude has its perils, but it puts Iovine more in touch with youth culture than most movie executives, who seem more eager to avoid risks, not court them. As he puts it: "Once the studios had this boom in marketing and production costs, they got rid of real entrepreneurs and brought in corporate managers, just like Time Warner did in the music business when they got rid of Mo Ostin, David Geffen and our company. When everyone starts worrying about Wall Street, it's always the content that is damaged."
If I were running a studio, I'd be recruiting outsiders like Iovine who have their ears to the ground. It wasn't so long ago that people laughed at the notion of a white rapper -- until Eminem came along. Whether it's music or film, Iovine knows the difference between what's authentic and what's ersatz.
When dessert comes at the end of lunch, he steers me away from a chocolate cookie that's fat-free, but flavor-free too.
"Don't even bother," he says. "It's a mouse trying to be a rat."