New York’s a long way to go for the sake 15 minutes, but when those 900 seconds are to be spent in the company of Dr Dre, it’s worth the trip.
Waiting just inside the door of suite 503 of the St Regus Hotel on East 55th, Pocket-lint’s told that our time slot has dropped by a third. We cross out a handful of the more trivial questions from our biro-scrawled spiral bind. Probably not so important to find out if there are any other products that the legendary rap producer will be putting his name to beyond the Beats By Dr Dre series of headphones that have been launched just an hour ago, and the line of cognac he's set to be starting. It might also be best to steer away from nagging about the next album. Okay, so that’s about 10 minutes worth of chat now.
What we hadn’t bargained on was the lion’s share of that getting sucked up by Dre’s business partner in the Beats venture - producer and owner of Interscope Records, Jimmy Iovine.
Walking into the sitting room of the suite is something closer to going onto a film set. One end of the cream, Regency-style quarters is taken up by a lighting rig beaming an over-bright spot onto the striped sofa at the far wall, and the only thing that shines back brighter than the ivory upholstery is a ring of thick cut diamonds wedged about the bezel of what would probably be a Rolex if it were possible to actually read the face of the timepiece but for the blinding shards of reflection.
Wearing the watch is one Andre Romelle Young, founder of the West Coast G-Funk sound, Grammy Award winnner, one time co-owner of Death Row Records and also known as Dr Dre. In his mid-40s, he’s definitely aged from the inside cover picture of his last album recorded more than 10 years ago now. To his credit though, the man’s been working out. Still Dre, still broad shouldered and even more barrel-chested than any photograph could tell, but no hint of what appeared to be a little too much of the good life in times gone by.
He sits perched on the edge of the couch in a pair of black jeans and matching black long sleeve top, fingers knitted in a barricade between him and Pocket-lint. If we didn’t know better, we’d have said he looked nervous.
To his left, half his size but occupying just as much space at the other end of the sofa is Dre’s business partner and old-time record producer with just about all the top US stars you can think of on his label - Jimmy Iovine. You couldn’t pick two more different looking people - Dre from the West Coast, large set with tight cropped hair, generous features, a frame to match and, as it turns out, rather quiet; Jimmy - short, slight, wiry with what hair he may or may not have permanently hidden under a baseball cap and a mouth hurling Brooklyn vernacular at a rate that makes you wonder how he finds the time to breathe.
Both greet Pocket-lint with a firm handshake and sit ready for battle, slightly more confrontational than the friendly encounter we’d been hoping for. There’s one thing on their minds and that’s to sell Beats By Dr Dre. We’ve already been warned not to ask them personal questions. This interview is to be firmly based on the products and, just in case we’d forgotten, there’s a Beatbox sitting on the glass coffee table between the two sides of this meeting.
“You want a cookie?” asks Iovine with a face so straight we can’t help wondering whether he’s taking the piss. Fourty-three seconds already gone and we’ve no intention of eating up any more time trying to find out.
Question 1: If you gave someone a set of Beats and you had one song to play to them to convince them to buy a pair, what would it be?
Jimmy: “In Da Club by 50 Cent. It was actually the track we used to tune these products by. We chose it because if you look at the wave form of it, it’s like a sandwich from Carnegie's Deli. It’s just packed full; so thick with lines all over the place that it covers all the ranges that we need sound equipment to be able to perform on. Then I would go to rock songs like any great U2 record (an act which Jimmy produced) and then one that I use to tune it is Here Comes my Girl from Damn the Torpedoes (Tom Petty also featuring on Iovine's CV). We have to make sure it works on different genres. Once we set it on In Da Club, then we also make sure it sounds great on rock and pop - Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance is another good one.
Dre: “Yeah, one of the other songs I like is Human Nature”.
Jimmy: “Billie Jean, I listen to as well. That has a great bass profile”.
PL: And are those the songs you would listen use to test out any music kit you bought for your home?
Dre: “Absolutely, those are the songs. Human Nature, I feel, is a perfectly mixed song. One of the few perfectly mixed songs. That song and definitely Billie Jean - and a couple of Nirvana songs.
PL: Which ones?
Dre: I really like (laughs), as funny as it sounds, there was a song that Nirvana did called Stay Away. I really like that and Smells Like Teen Spirit, but Stay Away wasn’t a big record, not one of their more popular songs but I really like it.
One, or one and a half, questions down, if you count the follow up, and 3.27 minutes gone says the Pocket-lint voice recorder on the table below. We want to ask what other music the Doc’s into, we’re dying to find out about his upcoming album, Detox, but there just isn’t the time. The clock is ticking and it’s strictly business.
Question 2: If you could give a set of Beats to one person in the world, dead or alive, to show them how great they are, who would you pick?
There’s murmurings from both men as their eyes search the hotel room beyond the cakes and drinks delicately poised on a silver trolley for any answers to a question they’ve clearly never considered. Ten or 20 seconds of our precious time later...
Jimmy: “That’s easy for me, John Lennon.” - a man whom Jimmy worked with.
Dre: “Oh that’s good. I’d have to go with Michael Jackson.”
Another pause. “They, in my opinion, were the greatest at what they did”, says Jimmy. Dre nods, and that’s as much explanation as we get on the matter. 4.36 on the clock
Question 3: Apart from the Beats series, what other gadgets are you into?
Jimmy: “Well we differ quite considerably here. I like convenience. When I walk or run or whatever, I want a song around my head. If I’m at a hotel room, I want that (he points down to the Beatbox). It depends on what I’m doing, I like the convenience".
Afraid of Jimmy going off on one about the Beats By Dr Dre products - a speech we heard at the press conference and one he’s threatened to embark upon once already during this interview - we decide to avoid a follow up and instead turn to Dre.
Dre: “I’m not really a gadget fan. All I do is check emails and use my iPhone. If I can’t use something in the studio, then I don’t care”.
“I’m not really a gadget fan”. Walls tumble down inside Pocket-lint’s head; a mental list of questions and fantasized conversations on everything from video gaming to iPad apps is eradicated in imaginary red pen. Stunned for a second, Jimmy senses weakness and starts in on the spiel he's been determined to roll out all afternoon.
“You know, I just took my $8000 Tannoy system and I replaced it with that”, he says pointing back to the Beatbox. “It took me 15 years to put my system together. I bought the speakers there in the shop in Oxfordshire or wherever it was but all I’m listening to at the moment is this”.
We’re not going to argue with him on the virtues of a modern $400 iPod dock with no sub-woofer next to a classic, all wooden set up worth 20 times as much. He might be telling the truth, but the fact is that we’ve not had the opportunity to put the Beatbox through its paces, nor the invitation to go to Iovine’s studios to make the comparison.
“Last question”, calls the Beats By Dr Dre PR representative from behind us. The counter on the recorder reads 6 minutes. We’re not going to waste the last of it arguing about the time.
Question 4: How do you feel about digital music? We heard what you said before at the press conference and there’s obviously a strong feeling about it...
“No, it’s a fact”, interrupts Iovine. His opinions on file compression all too clear from this afternoon's speech at the Best Buy Theatre on Broadway and one of the reasons he and Dre have decided to launch products to make music sound better. We continue.
But at the same time it gives people access to more music that maybe they didn’t have before. So, how do you feel about them listening to these files through your carefully tuned products?
Jimmy: “Access is one thing. You’ve got access to food but if it’s bad, it’s bad”.
PL: “Right, but people have got to eat, haven’t they?”
Jimmy: “If they want eat and throw up really quickly they can eat bad, rotten food. Access...access..is...I don’t...I’m not afraid of the access...”
There ensues a flow of answers to a question we didn’t ask. The conversation bends round to talking about the deal between Beats By Dr Dre and HP to make a special range of Envy notebooks with a bigger proportion of the internal space given over to audio circuitry and larger speakers.
“...We’re not saying we have to do every computer. We’re doing 5 million of them with HP that sound better than any other computer in the world, and if I was somebody and I’m going to buy a PC, I would by an HP PC because it sounds better. They cost the same and the prices are competitive. If you’re going to use your computer through a home system, your stereo system, right now it sounds like a portable radio or portable television”.
Seconds remaining on the clock and Iovine manages to sidetrack himself back on topic and finally come up with an astute answer that a clearly clever man has been managing to hide from himself for a good minute or two.
“With Beats By Dr Dre, it means that at least two parts of the digital music chain are now right - they have Beats headphones and an MP3 player which is probably good. The files are going to get better. What we’re doing now from Interscope’s side is we’re shipping better files to Apple for iTunes. We’re upgrading the files and they’re working on theirs to make them better. So, you’ve got a file and a computer, MP3 player, a set of headphones or good pair of speakers that are true, or not so much true as sound the way the musician wants them to sound. That’s a good ecosystem. So you improve as many parts as possible and maybe soon the journey from the artist to your ears will be as the music was originally intended”.
“So what’s next”, we ask, “Beats By Dr Dre encoded files?”
Dre nods with interest but, again, it’s Jimmy who replies. “All you need is to get close to the original file and Apple’s getting close to handling that. We’ve got to build quality. The rest will come”.
“Damn, it’s cold in here”, says Dre as he leaves the room to get a jumper. 8 minutes and 21. The interview is over.