Interscope was founded in 1990 by Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field as a $20 million joint venture with Warner Music Group's Atlantic Records. At the time, it differed from most record companies by giving decision-making authority to its A&R staff, and allowing artists and producers complete creative control. It had its first hit records less than a year after it was founded and achieved profitability in 1993.  Iovine served as chairman and CEO until May 2014, when he was succeeded by John Janick.
In 1992, Interscope acquired the exclusive rights to market and distribute the hardcore rap label Death Row Records, whose artists included rappers Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg, at the center of the mid-'90s gangsta rap controversy. As a result, Time Warner, the former owner of WMG, severed ties with Interscope by selling its 50 percent stake back to Field and Iovine for $115 million in 1995. In 1996, 50% of the label was acquired by the MCA Music Entertainment Group for a reported $200 million.
In 1989, Ted Field began to build Interscope Records as a division of his film company, Interscope Communications. To run it, he hired John McClain, who had played a central role in Janet Jackson's success at A&M Records, and Tom Whalley, who had been the head of A&R at Capitol Records. Separately, Iovine, who had produced records by U2, Bruce Springsteen, and John Lennon, among others, was trying to raise money to start a label. "I thought, 'Music is going to change,'" Iovine said in 1997. "'Young bands aren't going to be asking for me.' But I love working with the new thing. I always liked the part of the business that's the first time you hear something, and I knew I wasn't in that business anymore."
Iovine and Field were introduced by Paul McGuinness, then U2's manager. After a series of negotiations led by David Geffen, they came to an agreement, and in 1990, Interscope Records was founded as a joint venture with Atlantic Records. In a 1997 article in Rolling Stone, David Wild wrote: "Interscope's start-up coincided with a period of incredible change in the music world. Nirvana had ushered in the alternative revolution... While the major labels were packed with rosters full of expensive veteran artists who had to redefine themselves for a new rock era, Interscope was in the business of signing new artists and could – as Iovine puts it – 'move on a dime.'" 
Based in Westwood, California, Interscope was run by "music men". It was a departure from the music industry practices of the 1970s and 1980s, when labels traditionally appointed lawyers and promotion executives to senior positions. A founding tenet of the label was that artists would have complete creative control.
Interscope's first release was "Rico Suave" by Ecuadoran rapper Gerardo in December 1990; the single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in April 1991. Primus' Interscope debut was released in May, followed by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's Music for the People in July. It included the #1 single "Good Vibrations". Two days after first hearing his demo, Whalley signed Tupac Shakur, and in November 1991, Interscope released 2Pacalypse Now, Shakur's studio debut.
Interscope began to develop a significant presence in the alternative genre in 1992. In addition to a second Primus album, the label released No Doubt's self-titled debut, Helmet's Meantime, 4 Non Blondes' Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, acquired and re-released Rocket From The Crypt's Circa: Now!, and, through a joint venture with TVT/Nothing Records, the Nine Inch Nails EP Broken. However, Interscope's success with alternative and rock music was eclipsed by controversy which began in September 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle called on Interscope to withdraw 2Pacalypse Now, stating that it was responsible for the death of a Texas state trooper, who was shot to death in April by a suspect who allegedly was listening to the album on the tape deck of a stolen truck when he was stopped by the officer. The trooper's family filed a civil suit against Shakur and Interscope, claiming the record's violence-laden lyrics incite "imminent lawless action."
Earlier in 1992, Interscope negotiated a $10-million deal with Dr. Dre and Marion "Suge" Knight to finance and distribute their label, Death Row Records. It was initiated by McClain, who met Dre when he was recording his solo debut, The Chronic. Original plans had called for the album to be released through Sony, but Sony passed on The Chronic due to "the crazy things going on around Death Row" and the contractual status of Dr. Dre. After hearing the album Iovine agreed to put it out, although doing so required a complicated distribution agreement with Priority Records, Dre's label as a member of N.W.A. The Chronic was released in December 1992.
By the end of the following year, The Chronic had sold almost 3 million copies. Snoop Dogg's debut Doggystyle had sold more than 800,000 copies in its first week alone, and Primus and 4 Non-Blondes had released records which hit the US Top 20. In 1993, with an estimated gross of $90 million, Interscope became profitable ahead of projections.
Interscope further established its strength in the alternative and rock genres in 1994. A $2.5 million investment to establish a joint venture with Trauma Records yielded three #1 Modern Rock tracks and a platinum album with Bush's Sixteen Stone. The Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral went to #2 on the US charts and was widely acclaimed. Marilyn Manson's Portrait of an American Family, The Toadies album Rubberneck and Helmet's Betty were commercially successful and critically embraced.
In May 1995, the controversy related to gangsta rap and explicit lyrics intensified as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole accused Interscope of releasing music that glorified violence and degraded women. Among others, the label was criticized by William J. Bennett, a former Education Secretary, and C. DeLores Tucker, the chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women. In September, Time Warner announced it would disassociate itself from Interscope by selling its half-interest in the company to Field and Iovine for $115 million. Ownership in Interscope was aggressively pursued by EMI, BMG, Polygram and MCA. On December 1, 1995, the Los Angeles Times noted that with five albums on that week's pop charts and sales of $350 million over the previous three years, "what may have been a smart move politically for Time Warner is now looking like a financial fiasco." In February, 1996, MCA Records—then owned by Seagram—bought 50% of Interscope for a reported $200 million. Under the agreement, Interscope retained complete creative control over the label's recordings. MCA was not required to distribute material that it deemed offensive.
Dre left Death Row in mid-1996 due to what was then reported as tension over the creative direction of the label, and founded Aftermath Entertainment, a new joint venture with Interscope. In November that same year, Aftermath debuted with the album Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath. The Death Row deal remained in place until 1998, when Knight was imprisoned for parole violations.
In November 1996, with records by Bush, Snoop Dogg, No Doubt, and Tupac Shakur, Interscope became the first label in 20 years to hold the top 4 positions on the Billboard charts. Six additional Interscope releases were in the Top 100. The label was frequently criticized for overspending on artist acquisitions and joint ventures, however, with revenue for 1996 estimated at $250 million, it operated at a profit.
In 1996, MCA Music Entertainment was renamed Universal Music Group. In 1998, the Universal Music Group parent company Seagram acquired Polygram Records. MCA's Geffen Records and PolyGram's A&M Records were merged into Interscope, and in early 1999, Interscope Records began operating under the umbrella of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, with Iovine and Field serving as co-chairmen.
Iovine's assistant (and former intern) Dean Geistlinger saw Eminem perform at the Rap Olympics in Los Angeles in 1997 and passed Eminem's CD on to Iovine; Iovine, in turn, passed it on to Dre. In February 1999, Interscope and Aftermath released The Slim Shady LP.  The album entered the charts at #2, and won two Grammy Awards. Later in 1999 Eminem and his manager, Paul Rosenberg, founded Shady Records.
By the close of the decade, Interscope sales accounted for nearly one-third of Seagram's 27% share of the U.S. music market. Records by Eminem, Dre, Eve, Enrique Iglesias, Limp Bizkit, Nine Inch Nails, Blackstreet, Smash Mouth and others generated an estimated $40 million in profit during the final six months of 1999.
Interscope/Shady released Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP on May 23, 2000. The fastest-selling rap album in history, it sold 1.76 million copies in its first week. In October, Interscope began its relationship with U2 after it acquired the US rights to market and distribute the album All That You Can't Leave Behind. Iovine had been trying to sign U2 since 1990.
In 2001, Field resigned as co-chairman of Interscope to start a new label. Described as an amicable parting, Field said he was "anxious to become an entrepreneur again." An agreement with Universal allowed Field to resign a year before his contract was set to expire. Conversely, Whalley, Interscope's president since 1998, accepted the position of chairman of Warner Bros. Records in May 2000 and was not released from his Interscope contract until it expired in August 2001.
Interscope/Shady released The Eminem Show, in May 2002 and the soundtrack for Eminem's semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile in October; the two titles combined sold more than 11,000,000 records before the end of the year. In February 2003, Shady/Aftermath/Interscope had another record-breaking hit with Get Rich or Die Tryin', the debut album by 50 Cent. It sold 872,000 units in five days. In April, it was announced that 50 Cent would sign and develop artists for release on G-Unit Records, which would be marketed and distributed through Interscope.
In November 2003 Universal Music Group acquired DreamWorks Records and in 2004 it was merged into Interscope Geffen A&M. The DreamWorks A&R staff was retained, and the label's artists were divided between Geffen and Interscope. Among others, Interscope inherited Blink-182, The All-American Rejects, and Nelly Furtado.
In March 2005, Interscope launched Cherrytree Records with Martin Kierszenbaum, its head of international operations. Kierszenbaum, also a producer and A&R executive, focused initially on developing artists from outside the United States. Feist and Robyn were among Cherrytree's first artists.
Four of Interscope's releases were in the Top 10 of the year end sales charts in 2005: The Massacre (50 Cent) at #1, Encore (Eminem) at #2, Love.Angel.Music.Baby. (Gwen Stefani) at #6, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (U2) at #8. The Game's The Documentary appeared at #16, and The Black Eyed Peas album Monkey Business charted at #18.
In 2006, Dre and Iovine established Beats Electronics. Dre had been approached by his attorney to start a line of sneakers, and when he told Iovine about the idea, Iovine said: "You know speakers, not sneakers." 'Beats by Dr. Dre Studio Headphones' were introduced in January 2008 at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. "It took us two years to get them right, but when I heard I knew it was going to be big," Iovine said in 2010. "It's just like listening to a hit record." The marketing for Beats integrated endorsements from Interscope artists including Gwen Stefani, M.I.A. and Pharrell, Lady Gaga, and will.i.am. 
Lady Gaga's studio debut The Fame was released in August 2008; it was re-released with eight new songs as The Fame Monster in November 2009. Interscope held the top 4 positions on the 2009 year-end Hot 100 charts with The Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" (#1) and "I Gotta Feeling" (#4); Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" charted at #2 and "Just Dance" was at #3.
In June 2010 Eminem's Recovery entered the Billboard charts at #1, his sixth album to do so. Born This Way by Lady Gaga was released in May 2011, and debuted at #1 in 23 countries. In the US, with more than one million copies sold in its first week, it had the highest first-week album sales in five years. Four of the album's singles—"Born This Way", "Judas", "The Edge of Glory", and "You and I"—charted in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
In October 2012, John Janick was named president and COO of Interscope Geffen A&M. The founder of Fueled By Ramen, Janick had previous success with artists including Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco and Paramore. At the time of his appointment, it was reported that Iovine had chosen Janick as his eventual successor—Iovine's attention had increasingly turned to Beats, which dominated the headphone market with 2012 revenues of $512 million. In May 2014, following Apple's acquisition of Beats, Iovine resigned. As anticipated, Janick was named chairman and CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M.
Six Interscope releases appeared in the Billboard year end album charts in 2014: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 by Eminem, Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey, V by Maroon 5, Native from OneRepublic, Lady Gaga's ARTPOP, and Oxymoron by Schoolboy Q. In December 2014 it was announced that Selena Gomez, previously signed to Hollywood Records, had signed with Interscope.
Imagine Dragons' Smoke and Mirrors debuted on the Billboard album charts at #1 in March 2015. A week after, Madonna's 13th studio album "Rebel Heart" was released and debuted at #2. A week later, Kendrick Lamar's album To Pimp A Butterfly appeared at #1, a position it held for two consecutive weeks. Lamar won five Grammys in 2016.
Several artists have criticized Interscope for delaying albums. In 2013, M.I.A. said her album Matangi was held because the label felt the record she turned in was "too positive" for her fans. In 2010, rapper Eve left Interscope after a three-year delay of her album Lip Lock. Blink-182, All Time Low, and 50 Cent have similarly criticized Interscope.
In 2007, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor criticized Universal Music Group for the inflated price of Year Zero in Australia. In an interview with the Herald Sun in Melbourne, he said that an employee of UMG stated that NIN had "a core audience that's gonna buy whatever we put out, so we can charge more...True fans will pay whatever." Nine Inch Nails signed with Columbia Records in 2013.
In discussing his 2006 album The Captain & The Kid with Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone, Elton John said: "I was so furious with Interscope Records because they put it out and they dropped it. I had meetings in the South of France, and I said, "I know this isn't a commercial album, I just want you to do your best," and they dropped it like a fucking turd. It's probably why I didn't make another solo record. It was pure heartbreak."
On March 15, 2015, Kendrick Lamar's album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was released on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play eight days ahead of its scheduled release date (March 23). The CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, Anthony Tiffith, blamed Interscope for the album's unintentional release, and tweeted: "I would personally like to thank Interscope for fucking up our release. Somebody has got to pay for this mistake. #TOP!" The Tweet was later deleted. On the following day, the option to purchase the album was removed from iTunes. The album debuted at #1 when it was officially released.
On November 7, 2011, it was reported that the South African Rap/Rave group Die Antwoord were leaving Interscope Records over a dispute with the label wanting their second studio album "Tension" (stylized: Ten$ion) to be re-worked for "mainstream appeal." Problems with Interscope first arose when the group decided the lead single for their second album would be "Fok julle naairs" (loosely translated to "Fuck you all"). Ten$ion was ultimately released through Zef Recordz in early 2012.
In September 2011, it was reported by federal prosecutors that the Interscope Geffen A&M Records building was used by a drug-trafficking ring as a transport center. The Drug Enforcement Administration inspected the year-long case and stated that the Los Angeles offices of Interscope Records were used for pickups and deliveries of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine in 2010 and 2011. Rock-It Cargo, a shipping company which has an immense list of musical clients, shipped music cases that allegedly contained drugs to New York City studios.  Interscope Geffen A&M responded to the claims with a statement that read: “There is no evidence that any employee of UMG or Interscope Records had any involvement in the drug trafficking ring being prosecuted by that office, nor any knowledge of the contents of any of the packages that were purportedly shipped to its offices. Further, neither UMG nor Interscope Records are a subject or target of the investigation. UMG and Interscope will continue to cooperate with the United States Attorney’s Office regarding this matter.”
In 1997, Trauma filed a $100 million lawsuit against Interscope which charged the company with fraud and the unfulfillment of a two-year promise to assign No Doubt to Trauma’s roster. After a four-month dispute, the partnership was dissolved in an out-of-court agreement. Trauma principals reportedly received an additional $3 million; No Doubt remained with Interscope.
In 2002, JCOR founder Jay Faires filed a $30 million breach-of-contract suit which alleged that Interscope had withheld millions of dollars in an effort to drive it out of business. Interscope responded that JCOR had hid its true financial position at the time it signed its distribution contract and had attempted to use Interscope's money to finance its business.
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