Allen Hughes, director of blockbuster HBO documentary The Defiant Ones is legendary in his own right. At just 21, he and brother Albert directed legendary gangster epic Menace II Society, following that effort with Dead Presidents just two years later. Their career has included watershed documentary American Pimp, graphic novel adaptation From Hell, and Denzel Washington vehicle The Book of Eli. Now, Allen has struck out on his own with a documentary about hip-hops most legendary and least likely friendship.

The Defiant Ones tells the story of how a poor Italian kid from Brooklyn and a poor black kid from Compton grew up to become Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. The film, which is broken into four parts, begins with Tyrese nearly blowing the Beats-Apple deal and rewinds to their roots. (As a side note, Tyrese will straight up ruin everything when you put a camera on him. It’s a miracle the Fast and Furious franchise does so well.) We then rewind to their respective childhoods. We see Dre becoming a DJ as part of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, then playing the key role in forming NWA. We see Jimmy Iovine starting as a shaggy-haired kid behind a mixing board, producing Born to Run, dating Stevie Nicks behind Tom Petty’s, and founding Interscope Records. Hughes pulls no punches, including the disturbing incident in which Dr. Dre assaulted Dee Barnes. The film includes a lengthy apology from Dre and a statement from Barnes, who herself played a key role in hip-hop culture.

Hughes’ talent and affection for these men, both of whom he’s known for decades, is evident. This is not a documentary made by a dilettante. Though perhaps the film lacks a single standout moment like this iconic one from American Pimp (that Hughes, by the way, quotes by heart the second I say the first word), it’s a remarkable document of the creation of hip-hop’s first billionaire.

Out interview, lightly edited and condensed, covers Eazy-E’s dating habits, how NWA brought rap to the suburbs, and the time Bruce Springsteen threw the Born to Run masters in a hotel pool.


You’ve known Dre for 25 years. How did that connection originally happen?
I met him on the set of an NWA video, late at night. The song was “Alwayz into Somethin’.” It’s actually featured in Part 2. Black and white video. By that time, Cube had left and Dre was just uber-approachable. He was definitely a little sauced up. They were having fun and I just walked up to him because I wanted to meet Eazy. I was 19. He was like, “Sure” and took me over and introduced me to Eazy, who became my first mentor in the business. Eazy took me under his wing that year and I learned a lot from Eazy. Somehow for that insecure teenager, Dre was the one that seemed the most approachable when I was on the set. You know? My brother and I always hung out on sets because we were interested in film since 12. They did an explicit version, which was violent. They had to shoot Eazy-E and NWA had to run this big truck through a wall and have a shoot-out. They asked the people at the time, “Does anyone know how to take squib hits?” Me and my brother’s hands went up right away because we knew how to take squib hits and make it look like you got shot because we’d been doing it since we were 12. So if you look at the explicit version of “Alwayz into Somethin’,” you see Eazy-E blows my brother’s my chest away. So we did that.

What was your relationship like with Eazy?
You know that film that came out a few years ago, My Week with Marilyn about Marilyn Monroe? It was a whole feature about this young kid that spent the week with Marilyn when she was making a film in the U.K. I had the same experiences with Eazy. My summer with Eazy in ‘91, every day I would drive to his house and he would put me in his 850 BMW or his big truck. Me and my brother at first and my brother got impatient with it and every day, I was just with him. Like a right-hand man. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I just knew I idolized him when I was a teenager. Now, every day he wanted me to be with him and we would shoot things too. He bought us these cameras we wanted and we would shoot a lot of stuff for NWA, little shorts and stuff like that. Every day, he would pick me up. That’s a wild story because I’d never seen a guy with a woman off of every exit on the 10 freeway and the 101 freeway. So I’d be with him for some of those exploits.

That was the summer that Use Your Illusion by Guns 'N Roses was playing. Eazy and Axl were hanging out quite a bit when they were playing The Forum. It was interesting to see that world too. Because Eazy, in that summer, taught me a lot through his actions about marketing and theme and imaging and stuff like that because he was a genius at all that stuff. You know? So that rubbed off on me and helped me with Menace II Society [Allen’s first film with his brother, Albert]. You know?

Eazy taught me a lot about identifying your uniqueness and what it is that makes you different and leveraging that and figuring out how to sell your uniqueness. Now, he didn’t sit down and have conversations with me, but I saw him doing it. I saw him marketing the Niggaz4Life album. I was there for that process. I saw him go through: Dre was in the group, was he not, some guy named Suge. Everything with Suge was happening when I was with him. That supposed baseball bat scene in Straight Outta Compton, I was with Eazy when that happened.

It’s like you take Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, and Pink Floyd and put them together, you got Dr. Dre.

What really happened?
Well the scene as it is in the movie is exactly what happened save the beat down. He was never physically assaulted.

What was your thought process about how to handle Dr. Dre’s assault of Dee Barnes and how do you feel it came out?
Well number one was the fact that he agreed to get into the Dee Barnes situation before we shot. That was number one for him. This was way before “Straight Outta Compton” was a film, bear that in mind. So we recorded the apology and everything before the recent blow up happened and we had to sit on that going, “Oh fuck man, here we go again.” But more importantly, it was important that she be involved. Forget just the incident, but she was a part of hip-hop culture and she was a little sister to NWA for many years before they even were NWA. From the World Class Wreckin’ Cru days. She was in Alonzo’s back yard, Lonzo land. So I had a lunch with her. I didn’t know if she would do it or not. I was super impressed with her. She’s an activist. She’s tired of this victim thing. I said, “Listen. Why don’t you be a part of this thing? It’s an intimate thing.” It’s like me and Tupac’s history. We were friends for so long and then there was this violent thing that occurred and that’s all that anyone focuses on.

I related to Dee’s whole thing like … Let’s just deal with this. But let’s deal with it in the appropriate way, which is we should hear everyone’s feelings about it. And it can’t just be about that. I wanted her to be a part of the narrative because I came up on Pump It Up!. It was critical for me that she be a part of this. That the incident is one thing but her cultural relevance was even more important to me.

Where would Eazy-E be if he was still alive today?
I think Eazy would be … You know when you look at Jay-Z and Puffy and with Russell Simmons, Eazy would be right there, if not above. Because he was such a world class hustler but he’s also a rock star. I’m not going to diminish any of those guys right now because I’m a fan, though, of all. Eazy, the way he kept it old school, around the world, people don’t know. He wasn’t uncomfortable around white people. He wasn’t uncomfortable around Mexicans, going through a Black or a Latin hood. He was skateboarder. You see pictures of him on a skateboard in Venice Beach. Eazy’s in a bullet-proof vest skateboarding with the best of them.

He was transcendent as a figure. People didn’t get to see that side that he was the mastermind behind NWA’s aesthetic and power. Dre was the mastermind of the music and the power of the music. Cube was the mastermind of the message. But Eazy was a P.T. Barnum. So I could imagine if you look, in the film. They had branded speakers. So this is way before Beats. If he had lived, maybe he would’ve had the headphones.

I just think he would loom large. I remember he was, by Rap Pages, voted sexiest rapper alive. Women loved him. On the west coast, he was our first, true rock star. That’s what I love most about Straight Outta Compton is that he got his due finally, where people are like, “He is the godfather of gangster rap and he is the icon of it.” There is no Tupac without Eazy and Tupac was the ultimate, legendary iconic figure of that.

If you don’t figure your shit out and come to peace with yourself, there is no American dream.

Obviously there had been like extremely famous black musicians before NWA, but they were the first group to really penetrate the suburbs with unapologetically angry blackness. Why do you think that is?
You know what makes them different than Public Enemy who was doing something similar Public Enemy was different and unique and incredible in that militant attitude and with the message, what they were saying.Here’s the science to this whole thing. You’ve got this world class sonic wonder of our time, Dr. Dre. It’s like you take Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, and Pink Floyd and put them together, you got Dr. Dre. You’re feeling emotion. Picture the power of that. The thing that happened with NWA, I think that made it different, why it got out to the suburbs and why all those kids responded, is when you listen to “Fuck the Police,” there’s obvious things about it that make it great. But the thing that no one’s ever really paid attention to is that was the day that punk rock went out of business.

I feel like we’re seeing all these hip-hop bio pics come out: Straight Outta Compton, All Eyez on Me and Notorious. They’re not particularly good. Why do you think that it’s so hard to get those right?
In the case of Tupac … and I haven’t seen the film so I can’t elaborate too much on that one but I’ve heard a lot. It’s the same way I felt about when they approached me and my brother to do that Muhammad Ali film and then I was approached about the Richard Pryor film. The thing Tupac has in common with Muhammad Ali and Richard Pryor is that they’re possibly three of the greatest, most charismatic communicators of the 20th century. I put them in the top five. I don’t know who the other motherfuckers are. The reason why I turned those two films down is I was like, “There’s no way you’re going to match that.” I would’ve made a great Tupac doc, and you’ve seen my doc. You’d go, “Well shit, he damn near takes the film over.” It’s just impossible. Go pick a more introverted artist and make a movie about them. That’s a simpler equation because you don’t have to contend with that massive personality and that mythology. You know what I mean? If the estate would’ve ever gotten their shit together, one could’ve made a great Jimi Hendrix biopic because he was an introverted guy. That’s a simpler equation. Bio pics hve to deal with everyone. You got hard-core fans, you got fans, you got journalists that expect this and that. There’s really no winning. I don’t remember one biopic that someone wasn’t upset over.

You look at a movie like Walk the Line. That’s nobody’s idea of a great movie but it’s like a B+. We’re really missing the B+ rapper bio pic.
Yeah. What you’re getting to and I wasn’t picking up on it because I’m a little silly right now. Is the thing about hip-hop is in urban culture is, and it happens in white culture as well, but the thing about hip-hop is that line between just being completely corny and being completely cool is thin. When you look at my approach with this documentary andwhen you see the music, all the music, and how difficult it was to bring all that together but also to have to maintain cool. It’s that corny meter you have to look at, it’s so difficult. I think the culture of hip-hop is similar to a lot cultures that come from nothing. They want something. They want to show that they’re somebody and, at that point, that’s where you’re like, “Alright, you got to be careful because we can get real corny right now.”

What was the toughest thing to cut from the film?
The funniest thing that was cut out of the film was that Jimmy had worked all that time on that Born to Run album. Bruce was somewhere in Pittsburgh or wherever the fuck he was. Jimmy had stayed up all night, mastered the album and literally made a master recording of the LP, took the train to wherever Bruce was at some motel in Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania somewhere. They go to a record store, because obviously in those days you didn’t have record players on the road when you were touring. They’re listening to the record that Jimmy just spent days mastering and Bruce is just shaking his head, “No, no, no.” They go back to the motel and Bruce is sitting there with Jimmy and he throws the album over the balcony into the pool at the motel. He goes, “Start over.” Jimmy had a nervous breakdown. John Landau said, “Go get it, go home.” He took it. He went home and took a bunch of Valium. He thought his life was over. It actually was a funny ass scene in the movie because Bruce literally threw the master recording in the pool of the motel and said, “We’re going to start the whole Born to Run all over again.” The whole process.

What do you hope somebody comes away from this movie understanding?
I hate when filmmakers tell you like “Here’s what I want.” No, I want people just to watch it, let it wash over them, and it’s interesting what happens the next day, how you feel, whatever. I would say, to answer the question though: the sooner that you can identify what your passion is and what your true gift is, the better. Once you do that, singular focus on that and tune everything else out. Tune everything else out. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. That if you know you’ve figured out what your gift is and the sooner you figure it out … Jim Brown once said … You know it almost sounds sexual when he said it and sometimes it is sexual. He says, “I feel sorry for people that don’t find out in life what gets them off.” He goes, “I was fortunate enough early in life to figure out what gets me off.” So I would say the number one thing I hope people walk away from this film is: Find out what gets you off in life and focus on that as long as you not hurting anybody.

Any closing thoughts?
There is a such thing as American dream. There is. It’s success and having peace of mind at the same time because Jimmy and Dre have achieved the American dream many times over on paper. Financially. Career-wise. Fame. Fortune. All that stuff right? But until you wrestle your demons or put a saddle on your demons, it’s an American nightmare. It doesn’t matter how big the house, the mansion, the bank account is. If you don’t figure your shit out and come to peace with yourself, there is no American dream.


The Defiant Ones is streaming now on HBOGo and HBONow.