You never think of wood shop in Compton. You think of welding or auto shop or running laps, that's for sure, but who imagines the bad boys from Menace II Society or Boyz N the Hood making a spice rack? Yet wood shop is just what Harrell Cohen, a hippieish young man who grew up in the old Chico Marx mansion in Griffith Park, California, was teaching the kids of South-Central in the mid-Seventies, in that brief interlude between Republicans – wood shop, and all it suggests. And who knew this minor trivia would turn out to be a factor in the history of hip-hop, a musical culture that was then still just a smudge on the untied Adidas of a few kids clear across the country in the Bronx? For it was that shop teacher who, wanting to support his students, each weekend took his kid brother Lyor to the neighborhood basketball games in South Central, where Lyor, the future president of perhaps the greatest of all hip-hop labels, Def Jam, first swallowed the beat. "In intermissions, they would roll up drums and a huge bass guitar and do some freaky shit," says Lyor Cohen. "It was like the Gap Band, and I remember distinctly, at age eleven or twelve, or thirteen, or fourteen, around in there, that the beat came and my jaw crashed. I physically swallowed the beat, and it went inside me. It was like someone forced down a huge pill. I knew something important had happened to me. I always credit my brother for putting me in the exact right place."
After high school, Lyor went to the University of Miami, where he studied global marketing and threw parties; then to Ecuador, where, for some weeks, he tried and failed to make his fortune shrimp farming; then back to L.A., where he worked in a bank. Bored, he followed a flier to one of the first rap shows on the West Coast, Uncle Jam's Army, where his was the only white face. "Sixteen thousand people; no talent, just a DJ," says Cohen. "Paid my money and went in. It was magnificent. And, yeah, dangerous. I was definitely out of place. I loved being out of place." For Cohen, this was the big moment. He had crossed into a new world, a world that seemed more genuine and authentic than any he had known. He decided to promote his own shows, teaming East Coast rap acts with bands from L.A.'s punk scene like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Social Distortion, Fishbone and the Circle Jerks. "I borrowed $700 from my mom and made $36,000 in one night," says Cohen, who, on another night, lost the same amount. Desperate and broke, he took a job in New York with Russell Simmons – in those days, Simmons, one of the founding moguls of hip-hop, was running Rush Management, which handled his brother Joey's act, Run-DMC. Cohen spent the next few years on and off the road with Run-DMC, learning the business. In 1988, when Def Jam – the label that Simmons had started with Rick Rubin in 1985 – split in two and Rubin formed American Recordings, Cohen took his place, becoming a president at Def Jam. "Compared to Lyor, other executives at his level can't hear shit," says Simmons. "Many of them are lawyers and haven't been involved in anything innovative. Lyor has grass roots. He can dance right now, this minute, as long as it's not the Running Man or some silly-ass Lyor dance."
Cohen has risen and fallen with the company, from hits by LL Cool J and Public Enemy to the label's short, debt-ridden stint as part of Sony Music. In these years, he has grown into perhaps the most powerful white executive in an African-American business. The history of rock & roll is, of course, riddled with pioneering white record men who built careers recording and, sometimes, exploiting black artists: Morris Levy, that burly, cigar-smoking product of the Brill Building, allegedly stealing writing credits from Frankie Lyman; Herman Lubinsky, the founder of Savoy Records in Newark, New Jersey, throwing around nickels as if they were manhole covers. But Cohen – Cohen is something different. This is a white executive in on the ground floor, who has a true feel and love for hip-hop, which he has viewed from the beginning as a key to the secret life of his age. "I was never excluded," he says. "I was always seen as a contributor. White people had more problems with me than black people. They said, 'How can you record this music?' But I view myself as David with his slingshot looking for a forehead to bust. Every day I wake up justified. For David to face Goliath, you need conviction."
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