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

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At 6 p.m., Cohen is downstairs, having changed into a blue pinstriped suit.

"Look at Lyor," says Simmons. "Looking fine."

"It's your suit," says Cohen. "It's Phat Farm."

When everyone has gathered – Julie has changed into a slinky orange dress with a flower on the shoulder strap – they head to the limousines. Simmons tells Cohen his plan to reconcile black and Jewish America right in Cohen's apartment in Manhattan. "I'm setting it all up," says Simmons. "Louis Farrakhan will be there, so will Elie Wiesel."

"Not in my apartment," says Cohen.

"Yes," says Simmons. "In your apartment. I already spoke to your wife."

"No. Not in my apartment."

"Lyor has always promoted tolerance," Simmons tells me later. "He does not like to take that role, but I push it in his lap. He's much more concerned about the personal lives of these artists than he lets on. They make jokes about him being the Israeli gangster and all that shit, but Cohen has a personal connection to hip-hop. As he gets older, he gets softer. He doesn't think so, but I see it all the time."

This leads to the issue of Public Enemy. In the late Eighties, when their album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was topping the charts, the group's minister of information, Professor Grill, made several anti-Semitic statements. As a Jewish exec working with the band, Cohen found himself in the middle – a rough, formative experience. "When Professor Griff from Public Enemy said what he said, and it caused this whirlwind, the whole industry asked me, 'What the fuck are you doing?'" says Cohen. "Every president of every record company called and said, 'Drop them.' But I believe part of being Jewish is education. And I believe I was instrumental in changing Public Enemy's views. I said, 'Your voice is being muted because you say Jews are this or that. You can't make blanket statements. If you want your message out there' – and it was profound, I think – 'stop generalizing.' And I was the only Jew in their lives. What if I resigned? They would only be more alienated. I hadn't quit being a Jew. I can't quit being a Jew. Instead, I tried to have an impact. I felt I was doing the right thing. Not just as a Jew, as a person. They had a big voice – 'a nation of millions,' to quote their album. I had the Holocaust Museum shut down, and we had a private tour. The first thing we see is a Jewish skull plus a black person's skull equals a baboon. The last thing is a monkey with enormous lips dressed with a Star of David holding a trumpet and a sign saying, 'It's these Jews that are bringing in this music called jazz.'"

On the way to the awards show, Cohen sits up front and talks on the phone, watching the streets unwind with a wandering sameness: flower shops and electronic stores, cars rushing by. Turning to Julie – she is on the phone, too, saying, "No mannequins, dude, no cheese-ball" – Cohen covers the receiver and says, "We are in some serious shit, now."

"What's up?" asks Julie.

"DMX," says Cohen. "He was arrested in Buffalo, and they are not treating him too good."

A few weeks before, DMX had been arrested for speeding, driving without a license and marijuana possession. He was released and skipped his court date. He was now jailed on the outstanding warrant. Cohen is on the phone with DMX's wife. She needs help, money, some way to free her husband. "We're trying," says Cohen. "But it's not that easy to come up with $250,000 in cash." He says the lawyers are on their way from New York, specifically Murray Richman – "Don't Worry Murray," a splashy, Bronx-born attorney who has made his name by freeing rappers.

"We posted bail and did what we could to assist with legal advice," Cohen tells me later. "And we let him know that there are people who care. I don't want him feeling like he's a piece of meat, just a way for us to earn our living. Hey, listen. DMX, that's a great poet. A great American poet. When you strip away all the obscenities and get to the heart and the flesh and the meat of it, you will be moved, touched in a very dramatic way."

And then we are rolling up to the Shrine Auditorium, the street crowded with men in velvet suits, women in flashy capes. On the red carpet, it is the usual scene – flashbulbs and jostling crowds, fans shouting for Mystikal, Toni Braxton. Rappers and soul singers call out to Cohen. Greeting them, he lifts his arms, coat riding up. "I've been around so long," he says, "I know old timers, and the new timers."

"He's pre-'Sucker MCs,'" says Irv Gotti, referring to Run-DMC's first record, which came out in 1983.

Cohen greets Jay-Z and Damon Dash – the founder of Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records – with jokes. His language fills with slang, his voice becomes loose and easy. Like his hair, it kinks. It is the sound of the street, of hip-hop; not a pose, just a subtle blue shift into a new galaxy. Someone sets off the metal detector. Cohen shouts, "What's up, man? You made of metal?"

Cohen settles into a seat in the front row. In his pinstriped suit, hands in his lap, head tilted, smiling vaguely, he looks like the don in a Godfather movie – the power behind the power. "He mentors so many people," Simmons tells me. "His relationships last. People say how tough he is. Some Jews even call him that Israeli bastard. But he is always there, you know what I mean?"

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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