The Story of Lyor Cohen: Little Lan$ky and the Big Check

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When I spoke to Ja Rule – whose Rule 3:36 is one of the year's biggest hip-hop hits – he said, "I didn't know what to expect when I met Little Lansky. He was kind of gangster, man, and that kind of surprised me. He was so up, and the shit he told me, he held no punches. Lyor gonna let you know straight out what it is – it's tough, it ain't a game; they only mark the hot ones."

Cohen motions to me and climbs into a black town car. Julie sits up front. Cohen sprawls in back, looking out the window. He checks the two-way pager he carries with him everywhere, a James Bond device that, moment by moment, keeps him in touch with the hundreds of employees of Def Jam. "Every record executive should spend a month on the road to understand what artists go through," he says. "I've been out here for three solid weeks. Extremely wiped out. Don't really know where I am. But very happy."

Cohen's voice – sometimes rough, sometimes softened by emotion, probing, boyish, clipped – is the product of a strange upbringing. It sounds foreign but of no known country. He was born in New York, where his father, an Israeli, worked in the consulate. Following the divorce of his parents, and due to the demands of his father, who did not want Cohen raised with his mother's family, he spent the next few years with a foster family on an avocado farm not far from Tel Aviv. When Cohen's mother remarried, to a psychiatrist, Lyor moved in with them in L.A. In school, he forgot Hebrew and stumbled over English. A speech therapist worked on him, creating what he calls "a speech-therapist accent." He struggles with his R's and just rolls through the rest of the alphabet.

Since he was very young when his mom remarried, his stepfather is the only real father he has ever known. As a result, Cohen speaks of two fathers: the man who raised him in Griffith Park and his biological father, a primal figure standing forever between Cohen and his sense of himself. When I ask Cohen whether his stepfather ever tried any psychiatry on him, he looks at me like I am crazy and says, "Of course not," then frowns, smiles and adds, "Well, wait a minute, he did hypnotize me. He took me so far back that, even though I don't remember the language at all, he had me speaking Hebrew."

A few minutes later, we are seated at a round table in back of Madeo, an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. Cohen spots a handsome, lanky gray-haired man, claps his hands and says, "Look, it's Jerry Moss. Jerry is one of my mentors. I must go say hello." A moment later, Cohen is kissing Moss on each cheek. Like Cohen, Moss is a man who started with nothing but his taste in music and was thrilled to find that within a few years his taste had turned into a business – A&M Records, which Moss founded with Herb Alpert. In 1989, Moss and Alpert sold the label to Polygram for half a billion dollars. Back at our table, Cohen says, "I love that man. He has a beautiful house in Malibu, right on the water, and I was there when he got his big check. He got out a bottle of Moët champagne, very dry, and drank it to celebrate."

The big check is a phrase used to suggest the buyout dream of every independent record man. "I got my big check a couple of years ago, and that's the problem," Cohen says. "Most people, whether it be Jerry Moss or Chris Blackwell, they got their big check when they were older. I am just too young to switch into that gear, so getting the big check was tremendously anticlimactic. I feel so unaccomplished and have so much more to do. I guess I have a bigger stone, but I am still looking for a forehead to break open."

We are joined by Rosey, a young white soul singer with a song on the Island-Def Jam soundtrack for Bridget Jones's Diary. Cohen believes Rosey will soon be a star. She wears a jean jacket and has wavy blond hair and a porcelain complexion and the air of someone who is about to come true. She says she just rolled out of bed, but she has clearly done herself up for the meeting. Cohen asks Rosey whether she has any ideas for the video of her song "Love." He has a mental picture of her dancing on a giant model of the letters l-o-v-e. Julie rolls her eyes and says, "Gong!"

Rosey is thrilled just to hear talk of a video. A few months ago, she says, she was in a dump on Twenty-third Street in Manhattan, a Salvation Army band out the window, a bathtub in the kitchen. This sends Cohen on his own nostalgic trip back to his early days in the city. Fifteen years ago, he was living in a welfare hotel, spending his days at 298 Elizabeth Street, where Def Jam had its office. It was a wide-open, freewheeling company, kids starting as messengers and receptionists and going on to produce records or run upstart record labels. The company soon developed its own culture – no hierarchy, people coming and going, execs dressed with the same slack indifference as the rappers. According to Russell Simmons, Cohen first came to the attention of Andre Harrell – a rapper who'd come to learn the record business at Def Jam and eventually started his own label, Uptown – "because Cohen could dance the Wop. You know the Wop, right? And he wore big, silly pilgrim shoes and became Run-DMC's road manager." Cohen went on to work with the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and 3rd Bass, and he became known for his no-nonsense approach to business, his negotiating skill, his ability to forward the plot. On the phone, he might shout, "Get on their ass, baby; ride those motherfuckers, ride those motherfuckers!"

"Lyor, now that's a tough Jew," says Doug Morris, chairman of the Universal Music Group. "He's a six-foot-five Israeli general."

Yet there is a sensitiveness to Cohen – you see it in how he talks to Rosey, listens, hangs on every word – a quality never at odds with the steel that has carried him to the top of a very steely business. When the waiter comes around, he orders a glass of wine; everyone else orders Diet Coke. "All this Diet Coke," says Cohen. "Ten years ago, everyone would have been doing cocaine."

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