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

How the Israeli-raised president of Island Def Jam Records became one of the most important men in hip-hop, and why he may now become one of the most important men in rock & roll

lyor cohen
Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Lyor Cohen with Jon Bon Jovi and Rick Rubin.
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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."

"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."

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."

At the hotel after lunch, Cohen sits in his suite with several Def Jam employees, looking over photos of Shorty 101, a suburban girl group from the Valley. Hundreds of photos show the four girls in their late teens in different clothes, in different locales – rec room, bowling alley. 'N Sync are mentioned. "Each of the girls has her own style," says Julie. "So we don't want them all dressed alike, we don't want them corny." Someone says a video for the band will feature mannequins coming to life. Julie shudders. "Well, OK, dude, but let's not get cheese-ball," she says.

For Cohen, packaging groups like Shorty 101 is part of the challenge he now faces as a label head. "This stuff will be easy for him," Luke Lewis tells me later. Lewis, with Cohen, has recently started Lost Highway Records, an alt-country label that's home to Lucinda Williams and Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams. "Remember, in the beginning, rap was underground, and so Cohen had to teach himself to sell records without radio play. If he can do that, he can do anything."

Simmons comes in wearing a sweat suit and unlaced Adidas – in hip-hop, such shoes are standard issue, like moccasins on a movie Indian. His face is boyish, and he looks happy. Wherever he goes, a cell phone headset is plugged into his ear, connecting him with that great everywhere where he made his fortune. He now spends most of his energy on the clothing lines he's started, Phat Farm and Baby Phat. He says, at forty-four, he has grown too peaceful for hip-hop. "I go to yoga every day. I sit still. I can't take the yelling. I've gotten old."

Simmons has therefore left much of the music business in the hands of Cohen. "When I go into his office, he wants to know what I'm doing there," says Simmons. "He calls me only when he needs me to negotiate or to calm someone down." In fact, Simmons has come to Cohen's suite only to participate in a conference call with Foxy Brown, a Def Jam rapper whose dis of Lil' Kim was thought to have sparked a shootout in Greenwich Village a few days earlier. Though more than twenty shell casings were found on Hudson Street, only one person was wounded. And he took a cab to the hospital.

In the minutes before the call, Simmons looks over the photos of Shorty 101. "Who are they?" he asks. "What is their style?"

Before Julie can answer, the phone rings and Simmons and Cohen run into the next room. Foxy Brown, her lawyer and her agent are talking over the speakerphone. Foxy Brown's voice is a scratchy staccato. It sits above the mild, professionally reassuring voices of her representatives like a crab claw served on a bed of mixed greens. Simmons is like Kissinger trying to negotiate a ceasefire between the Egyptians and the Israelis: cool and measured, the velvet glove, the steel fist. He uses words from gangster movies. "We need to have a sit-down," he says. "A sit-down can put this all behind us." He wants Brown to issue a press release disavowing violence. Brown is furious. She had nothing to do with this shootout, she says. Why should she issue a statement? Simmons says he wants no trouble – the Soul Train Music Awards are in just a few hours. A statement can save lives. "We don't want people to get hurt," he explains. In the end, Brown agrees to a press release. However, she will also be allowed to go on Kiss FM, in New York, and dissociate herself from the entire incident.

"So that's it?" asks Cohen.

"No," says Brown. She also wants to answer a year-old gossip item from the New York Post, which said her affair with DMX resulted in a man's murder.

"Forget it," says Simmons. "You do yourself more damage by bringing it up again."

"No! shouts Brown. "In a newspaper, it said that I am responsible for a murder. A murder, Russell! A murder! I need to respond to that."

"Easy," says Cohen. "Just let it go away."

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?"

By 10 p.m. we are back at Madeo for a late dinner before an afterparty Def Jam is throwing at a house in Beverly Hills. Cohen orders a small pizza, fried calamari, shrimp scampi and a bottle of white wine. A rival record executive, a young African-American man, sits down at the table. There is bad chemistry between Cohen and this man. When he leaves, Cohen says his business is filled with jealousy, with people wishing colleagues bad fortune, with "player haters."

"It is amazing how few friends I have," he says. "It has to do with convenience. When I was a kid, I would head out to the street and ask a kid to play, and we would play. But now, if you want to play, you have to get in a cab. So I'm friends with my son, Oz. He is always around, never has plans he can't get out of, and we go see the Knicks."

Family is important to Cohen because his own early life was dysfunctional. When he was eleven, his stepfather decided to adopt him. But Cohen's biological father objected, turning up with a lawyer. Cohen had not seen him in years. "It was scary," says Cohen. "He was a hard man. A lot of Israelis that were involved in the independence of the country have a loose screw."

The judge took Cohen into chambers. "Which one do you think of as your father?" he asked.

"My father is my father," said Cohen, meaning his stepfather. And that's how Lyor Cohen became Lyor Shulman.

As his biological father left the courtroom, he said, "This is the last time you will ever see me. A son that doesn't carry my name is not my son."

Some years later, Cohen's mother and stepfather divorced. "My dad was very hurt by this divorce," says Cohen. "He wouldn't pay for my college education. I felt, again, you know, left out there. I know he regrets it."

Cohen went to see his biological father, who was living in Nigeria, where he had since made his fortune in construction. "I remember the military, checkpoints, castles in the bush, wood polished like ebony, the blackest of Nigerians in white tuxedos."

Cohen's biological father agreed to pay for college as long as Cohen got away from his mother. "He said I had to go to school east of the Mississippi," says Cohen. "So I tossed a dart at a map and hit Key West. The closest big school was in Miami." And so Cohen was again Lyor Cohen.

"The last time I saw my biological father, he was on a slab of marble," says Cohen. "I buried him over the summer. I saw a very dead man on a marble slab in ninety-five-degree heat in Israel."

A woman stops at the table and tells Cohen she has been by the Def Jam party and it is already raging. He says, "Wow, we better get there," and a few minutes later, we are in the car, cutting through the nighttime streets up above the rooftops of Beverly Hills. The house appears around a bend – a mansion in retro style, a 10,000-square-foot Charles Addams cartoon, steep-pitched roofs and dormers, and vast, cavernous rooms. The house is on sale for $14 million. Def Jam rented it for the night for $40,000. There are a thousand people inside, the moguls and rowdies and hangers-on of hip-hop – women in ball gowns and racy little numbers, men in candy-colored suits and porkpie hats. There is a grand staircase, carpeted, wall-to-wall, with buxom girls in tight shirts and short skirts, vertiginous hairdos and lip gloss, smiling, puckering or casting about for stars, dozens of girls who seem to be there for decoration or else to be plucked away like overripe fruit. "A staircase full of ho's," says Julie. Cohen heads into the crowd, throwing his arm across backs, smiling, shaking hands. Losing sight of him, I wander the packed rooms and hallways, each jostle setting off a chorus of "excuse me" 's or "excuse you" 's, the people as weary of protocol as Mafia dons. The wrong gesture, the wrong shove – well, that can lead to a situation, a beef, a sit-down.

I catch up with Cohen in the back yard, in a tent set up for dancing. It's like a tent from a suburban wedding. Music thumps off every surface. People drink shots and smoke blunts, the cigars hollowed out and packed with dope. It's as if we are inside the lungs of a pot-smoking giant, the sweet breeze of marijuana filling the tent. Rappers with bodyguards mark off parts of the floor like medieval duchies. Jay-Z is in the corner, Busta Rhymes is in back. Moving through the room, you pass in and out of strange lands. Cohen wanders from group to group, speaking to friends with childlike directness, interested in every detail, every up and every down. He really is a charming man. For a certain kind of artist – maybe he never had support, maybe she grew up alone – Cohen is a promise of something solid, an unshakable, paternal presence. The world is filled with player haters, but, at such moments, there is nothing but good will for this strange, hip-hop-loving white guy. Cohen found in black America a world more exciting than any he had ever known. He followed his discovery across a line that most white Americans will never cross. In so doing, he made his fortune.

A new record comes on. Cohen throws his head back. Someone puts a cigar in his mouth. It completes him. As he puffs the cigar, his chest grows and his eyes shine. He has swallowed the beat.

This story is from the June 21st, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 871: June 21, 2001