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

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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.

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