"Lyor is probably the coolest white dude in the game," says Irv Gotti, a black record producer who works with Jay-Z and DMX. "He's a white Jewish guy, but I think everybody respects him like he's black. He's knows how to carry it, too. He knows how to get gangster, how to fall back, when to shut the fuck up, when to say something. That's why other white executives are scared of him. He knows how to deal with the hoods, the criminal element."
In 1994, Simmons and Cohen sold half of Def Jam to Polygram for $33 million. Seagram then bought Polygram and, in 1999, went on to buy the rest of Def Jam for more than $130 million, making Cohen, at forty, a rich man. He is now president of the Island Def Jam Music Group. In addition to recruiting and signing bands, traveling the world to support stars and jump-start prospects, Cohen oversees an empire that includes hundreds of artists performing in dozens of genres, a roster that features PJ Harvey, American Hi-Fi, Shelby Lynne, Lionel Richie, Bon Jovi, Melissa Etheridge, Saliva, Ludacris, Kelly Price and Sisqó. In the coming months, he will be expected, for the first time in his career, to break acts far outside the world of hip-hop and R&B, and prove he can nurture the careers of established rock artists as well.
"It has gotten to the point in music where everything influences everything," says Josey Scott of the Memphis metal band Saliva. "It is a melting pot, and that makes Lyor perfect. He doesn't recognize the old boundaries. In fact, his hip-hop roots give him something to bring along to other kinds of music."
As part of his new role, Cohen has also vowed to expand the scope of hip-hop, bringing what has always been a product of the American city to the former Eastern bloc. "To me, it seems very natural," says Cohen. "If you're a young man from East Germany, there are things you want to talk about. In fifty years, if you want to know what went down, you're going to have to tear apart these lyrics, same as you look at Public Enemy to know what it was like to be black in America in the Eighties."
When I reach the front desk of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Cohen is staying during the week of the Soul Train Music Awards, the clerk hands me the telephone, saying, "I have orders to get you on the line straightaway."
A moment later, Cohen, whom I had never met or spoken to, is asking me, "Do you need to shit, shower and shave? How long will it take you?"
I say, though I do not need to do all of those things – not just now, anyway – I would like twenty minutes to unpack.
"Good," says Cohen. "Twenty minutes. Downstairs."
In the lobby, I am met by a record executive shouting into a cell phone. This is clearly a woman, but her shirt, a tight, white T-shirt, says across the chest in pink letters, GIRL. She has brown hair and an insider's smile. Her name is Julie Greenwald. She takes me outside to meet Cohen, who is in the rain, talking to his driver. It is a bone-chilling L.A. day, the hills shrouded in mist. Cohen is a big man, maybe six feet four, a broad face offset by clear blue eyes. Though he lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, his pants are outer-borough baggy. He wears a black leather jacket over a white shirt, and gray New Balance sneakers. His hair is gray and as close-cropped as a soldier's. Let grow, it quickly expresses its true desire to become an Afro. Because Cohen is a Jewish presence in a world that is otherwise African-American and because he is big and rightly comes off as tough and no-nonsense and because rap artists make a fetish of the old gangster movies, Cohen is known by many of his artists as "Little Lansky."
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