On Sunday, Beats kingpins Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine announced that their massively successful headphone company is branching out into streaming media with Beats Music, a subscription-only service that promises to be the ultimate music companion. Iovine thinks Beats, which launches Jan. 21, will top Spotify, Pandora, iTunes radio and upcoming offerings from Google and Neil Young by offering better curation, i.e., playlists that have been programmed by experts not algorithms.
Dr. Dre, of course, is the legendary producer behind NWA, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent. Iovine, before co-founding Interscope Records and eventually becoming the chairman of a merged label that includes Geffen and A&M, was a storied producer who worked on albums by Bruce Springsteen, U2, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. TIME spoke with Dre and Iovine at Iovine’s home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, just a block away from the Playboy Mansion. Iovine hung out and drank tea on his living room sofa, Dre called in via speakerphone.
TIME: Dre, Beats has come so far and is starting to morph into places where you may not have anticipated it going. At its core, to you, what is the Beats brand about and what does it represent in terms of your career and what you contributed?
DR. DRE: Everything in my life has been about sound and making music, so Beats represents just that — the improvement of sound and the dedication to everything I’ve been doing from the day I started. Everything that I do is for sound goals. It comes from my gut. When I’m sitting in the studio, a mix isn’t done till I feel it in my gut. It’s been the same way from the beginning, even when I was DJ’ing, if I heard a song that I wanted to play that I thought would be great in the club that night, I’d have to feel it in my gut. It’s a little bit hard to explain — I guess that’s the best way I can explain it. That’s what me and Jimmy were going for when we were tuning these headphones. It’s just a way that it makes you feel, and we’ve had that experience because of being in the studio for so long. That’s all it is.
JIMMY IOVINE: In the end, the headphones have got to get by me and Dre. And we use a couple of other great producers as well to double check and stuff like that, but basically, Dre hears music a certain way, where it’s emotional and exciting, and the same thing goes for me. When it gets there, we just say OK, stop.
DRE: It’s a very interesting thing, because I can start mixing a song and leave the room and come back and maybe just slide one lever to a certain point, and it just – it’s a certain feeling that it gives you when you know it’s right.
TIME: I heard that part of where you developed your ear was by working on car stereos and trying to get that bumping to where you were happy with it.
DRE: That’s just a part of it. I started honing in on my skills from being an engineer – I started as an engineer before I started producing. This guy actually let me use his studio at one time – he just opened his garage door and there was a [mixing] board in it, and he just let me go in everyday and start practicing on it, so that’s when I really started honing in on my skills and learning how this thing works. I just went back and forth every day until I figured it out, and then I eventually started working with musicians and songwriters and artists.
TIME: Does it surprise you at all, that people turned onto Beats in such a big way? Because it’s not like it’s the cheapest thing for people to go out and buy.
DRE: I knew people were going to dig it, but I didn’t know it was going to be this big. I didn’t know it was going to be at this magnitude. I know that people really care about the way their music sounds. So did I know it was going to work? Yeah, but I had no idea it was going to be this massive.
IOVINE: And the younger generation had no idea what the music was supposed to sound like. That’s why both of us take great pride in the fact that this company is turning a lot of young people onto quality sound, when what they were getting before was really bad earbuds and computers where the speakers faced the table. Dre was very frustrated with that, and we talked about that quite often, because my beginning was as a recording engineer as well. So we’ve always shared that – it was our connection from day one, speakers and audio. And this came about and we did this, and we’re very proud of the fact that an entire generation now is turned onto audio.
TIME: I wonder, Dre – one thing that happened with your generation of musicians is that they used the medium, i.e. records, samplers, to kind of recreate music, cut it up, dice it, slice it, do whatever they needed to do. With the new generation of digital music, whether it be new interpretations through Beats equipment, or streaming services, digital music – do you see a potential there for people to reinvent that in a way we’re not expecting, creatively?
DRE: I think so, because of all this new technology. Music, records, are much easier to make, much easier to create. All you need is a computer, a laptop, a keyboard and a microphone, and you can go make a record. I think it’s definitely making the process much easier and much better for people that are interested in making records.
TIME: It’s easier to make a record, but is it still just as hard to make a great record?
DRE: Well yes, it’s always been that way. It’s always been difficult to make a good record. To be perfectly honest with you, it’s really about the person that’s pushing the buttons. No matter what type of equipment you have, you still have to have a certain talent to be able to make a good record. Everything that I used to do is a lot easier to do. Everything is a lot faster, and that’s what I’m most excited about.
TIME: I know that the streaming service is a branching off for Beats, and it’s not something that is necessarily –
IOVINE: Well let me interject there, because it isn’t. It was always part of the original plan. I personally have been thinking about streaming since 2000. But once we had the opportunity with the brand – see what Beats audio equipment does that some people don’t understand is we are making audio products that represent what artists would like for you to have the music feel like when they play it. Our headphones and speakers sound the way it would sound if you went in Kanye’s house, in Bruce Springsteen’s car, in Bono’s recording studio – that’s what our headphones sound like.
There are some people that use the headphone for reference, and we make headphones that you could use for reference. But the bulk of our headphones are purely for emotion, and that’s why Beats Music exists. Beats Music is an extension of that, because what’s missing now is the complete thought of music. An occasional album gets made that’s great, but people need navigation through all this music and somebody to help curate what song comes next. Music has to be customized for you, and that’s what this does, and Beats audio expresses that emotion. We know this particular area of audio as well as anybody, and I guarantee you, better than anybody else in the audio business. Why? Cause we spent collectively 60 years in a recording studio, making a lot of records that people liked and listened to. What we’re going for is pure emotion. If you’re on a treadmill and you’ve got earbuds on, you need all the emotion coming through that you can get. You don’t need a reference.
DRE: Not only that, we’re great at sequencing. I realized at a young age that sequence in an album is almost as important as the songs that are on the album. And I know that got lost on the Internet with people just being able to go on and buy one song, but I think now we’re going to apply that system back into the listening experience.
IOVINE: You’re right Dre. It’s gonna help redo the album. Right now, music’s made in bite-size pieces. What you need is a complete meal. You need an hour’s worth of music, at least. Or 40 minutes, or for wherever you’re going. You can’t have just one song and what Dre just said, this is so true, the next song is as important as the song you’re playing.
TIME: Jimmy, you saw the end of the era when the single was king, as we moved into the album era. And we’ve kind of come back into that – as you said, music is issued in bits and pieces. Does that give more power in a way to what radio DJs used to be like?
Jimmy: Well, because that’s the only curation people have right now. They have all their friends on Facebook and stuff like that, and that’s great and helpful, but people that are serving up music are very important. What’s going to evolve is the hour experience of music. I use the word hour loosely. It’s the hour experience and how that’s being created and what people are doing to create that. Our responsibility is to help serve it up, put it in context, let people feel it, and then translate it through audio to where it’s powerful and emotional.
DRE: That was good. [laughs]
TTIME: Dre, I want to talk to you a little about the image of Beats Music. One of the things that the company’s been very successful at doing is bringing in lots of iconic athletes, culture, stars, musicians to join in on that brand and be interested in the brand. How do you feel about that, that people have adopted the Beats by Dre logo and the look?
DRE: Well, we want to be involved with everybody that’s good at what they do. That’s all it is to it. And not only that, they’re friends of ours. And I think that the public wants to be involved in that also. That’s one of the reasons that I think our headphones are doing so well. If somebody sees Lebron wearing the headphones, anybody that’s a fan of his is definitely going to at least try it out.
TIME: Dre, you’re always about quality control. As you look at this new music service, is there anything that you worry about might happen, any risks that you see in the future for Beats?
DRE: Well it’s just about making better and better products. Am I worried about anything? No, I’m not. I think Jimmy worries every now and then.
IOVINE: [laughs] Yes. That’s my job.
DRE: I’m not really worried about anything. I’m just looking for a positive future in everything that we do.
TIME: Someone told me that you have seen changes in the way that people consume music by watching your kids, and that they have different traditions than you had when you were a young guy. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DRE: It’s almost a loop. It feels like the music that is happening right now that I hear blaring out of my son’s bedroom is reminiscent to the music that I started making. There’s a lot of 808 drums happening right now, and that’s the first drum machine that I started working on. I feel like, at least the type music that I do, it’s just recycling itself. It’s great. I think it’s a great thing that’s happening right now, at least what’s playing out in my kid’s room. He’s really really getting involved into the music thing, so I’m learning a lot from him as well.
TIME: Are there any artists that he’s turned you on to that you might not have heard otherwise?
DRE: Yeah, but I’m not going to mention any names.