Born in 1960 in New York City, NY; married; one son. Education: University of Miami in Florida. Addresses: Record company --Island/Def Jam Records, Universal Music Group at Universal Studios, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608.

Behind-the-scenes music executive Lyor Cohen is a mover and shaker of modern music. During the 1980s he popularized "street rap" music, also called "gangsta' rap," by taking the genre from an underground art form to a legitimate mainstream music style. Prior to the arrival of Cohen, with his personable attitude and easy business style, rap artists had difficulty establishing their legitimacy within the lucrative mainstream media environment because of the violent lyrics and gang imagery portrayed in their songs. As a promoter for Def Jam Records, Cohen successfully brought its performers to the forefront of the American music scene by superimposing his own innate sense of organization and stability onto the chaotic aura that shrouded rap musicians and their art. His innovative "street marketing" advertising strategy brought a new visibility to Def Jam, where as a co-partner at the record label, he assisted in steering Def Jam to profitability and in handling some of the most prominent recording artists of the 1990s in the process.

Additionally, Cohen was the driving force behind "99 Hard Knock Life," the most successful rap tour in history. Later, when Seagram Universal purchased Cohen's interest in Def Jam for a considerable sum, the global music conglomerate placed him at the helm of its newly formed Island/Def Jam label where his responsibilities overflowed beyond the world of rap and into other music styles, including heavy metal, pop, and movie soundtracks.

Cohen, who was born in New York City in 1960, spent his early childhood in Israel with his parents. He was still a young boy when the family returned to the United States and relocated to Los Angeles, California, where he graduated from Marshall High School in 1977. He attended the University of Miami in Florida majoring in global marketing and finance, then spent the year after graduation with some Ecuadorian schoolmates in their homeland where they attempted to start a shrimp-farming enterprise. The inexperienced, albeit well-connected, entrepreneurs failed in their ambitious venture. Subsequently Cohen returned to the United States, where he worked as a nightclub promoter in Los Angeles. Soon after his return he seized an opportunity to invest $1,000 into an independent rap venture that realized a profit of $36,000 and set him on the road to profitability.

In the early 1980s, after booking the rap act Run DMC and maximizing the profits for a 36-fold return, Cohen established a business relationship with rap record producer Russell Simmons. Simmons, who had co-founded the Def Jam Record label in 1983, brought Cohen into the business, and by 1985 the two worked closely together, with Simmons as chairman and Cohen intimately involved in all aspects of the Def Jam production. Cohen brought a new innovation to the record advertising business by shunning the mainstream advertising venues, and opting instead to promote Def Jam's rap records directly to the consumers on the streets. In time the pair of Simmons and Cohen managed several of the most popular acts in rap music.

By outward appearance, the Israeli-descended Cohen seemed to be an anomaly in the largely African American rap music scene, where with his imposing stature of six-feet-five inches tall, he came to be known affectionately, if sardonically, as "Little Israel" by his rapper clients. His high- energy work style earned him the additional nickname of "Mr. Handle-It-Make-It-Happen." For 17 years he operated Def Jam with Simmons, persistent in promoting the record label via innovative "street marketing" tactics including passing out sample tapes to local disc jockeys while simultaneously plastering posters and fliers throughout the city to advertise his clients. Cohen's strategy brought the Def Jam message to the listener on the street and appealed to rap fans in particular because of the non-traditional and rebellious character of the music and its followers.

Cohen managed a coup for rap music when he arranged for Run DMC to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone,a prestigious honor in the music world. Not long afterward, DMC climbed into the top ten range on the pop charts. In 1986, Cohen negotiated an endorsement deal between Run DMC and Adidas; the pact was a breakthrough for the legitimacy of rap music. In 1988, following the departure of Def Jam's co-founder Rick Rubin, Cohen assumed a 50 percent ownership of the company as a co-partner with Simmons. Soon Def Jam's reputation swelled along with company earnings.

By mid-1997, Def Jam's profitability reversed course and soared upward. The following year, in 1998, the label's popular rapper, Jay-Z, won a Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Also contributing to Def Jam's newfound popularity was Def Jam rapper DMX who earned a $40 million profit for the record label, from $180 million in record sales. Def Jam reported not only a tripling of sales in 1998, but also the company moved out of debt and into profitability. Cohen, who by then was well known for his non-traditional strategies, successfully broke with standard record promotion policies when he released two DMX albums in rapid succession. Against all precedent Cohen followed the DMX debut album that sold 3.4 million albums that year by reverberating within eight months to release a follow-up album that quickly recorded sales of 2.5 million. Def Jam, which had grown impressively since mid-1997, by 1998 had established its reputation as a dominant force in the recording industry and controlled four percent of all album sales by 1999.

Cohen's company, which had distributed records through Sony Music's Columbia Records during the early 1990s, cancelled its distribution agreement with Sony in June of 1994, opting to turn over distribution rights to PolyGram. Soon afterward the new distributor paid $33 million to acquire a 50 percent interest in Def Jam and eventually purchased an additional 10 percent of the company for another $11 million. Def Jam continued with Cohen as president and chief operating officer and Simmons as chief executive, and late in 1998 Seagram Co. made a move to purchase PolyGram--including the distributor's 60 percent share of Def Jam. When Def Jam drew the attention of executives at Seagram Co. who were eager to bargain with the small private rap label, the two companies successfully negotiated a merger.

Def Jam merged with Seagram not once, but twice, initially as part of the massive restructuring by Seagram whereby it purchased 60 percent of Def Jam in the form of PolyGram distribution company and again after Seagram reorganized. With the initial acquisition finalized, Seagram immediately reorganized its music interests into Seagram's Universal Music, the largest recording company worldwide. By February of 1999, a second agreement was reported in the offering between the Cohen-Simmons team and Seagram's Universal by which the Def Jam owners negotiated for Seagram to purchase the remainder of the all-rap record label for more than $100 million.

As Seagram's Universal took possession of the whole of the Def Jam enterprise, the conglomerate wasted no time in merging Def Jam and Island Records into an all-new label, called Island/Def Jam. The new label, a $350 million enterprise, brought Def Jam out of the limited niche of rap music. In the process Seagram's moved Cohen into a highly influential position in the new company, placing him at the forefront of new environments, including heavy metal, pop, rock, and other popular styles. Even in the face of an extensive downsizing effort that resulted from Seagram's aggressive mergers, Cohen's promotional skills were recognized immediately.

Seagram assigned him to commandeer a collection of the company's biggest name stars, including pop stars such as Elton John, Sisqo, and Hanson, plus rocker Jon Bon Jovi, along with the perennial rap and hip-hop stars with whom Cohen was firmly established: DMX, Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, Montell Jordan, and others. Cohen later backed former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in an enterprise to launch his own record label in the spring of 1999 and was largely responsible for bringing new-millenium songwriter and vocalist Jeff "Ja Rule" Atkins to the public spotlight. Additionally, Cohen received credit as executive producer of the Notting Hill soundtrack, and in 2000 he introduced Sum-41, a new rocker, to the music scene.

As co-president of the newly formed Island/Def Jam label, Cohen assembled the "99 Hard Knock Life" rap road show, a production that earned $11 million from 37 performances and ranked as the most successful rap road show ever produced. He first announced the Southern California Hard Knock tour in January of 1999, with the event scheduled to start the following month. The inviting song bill included some of the top stars of rap, including Method Man, Redman, and DJ Clue. Historically rap music tours had a tradition of poor organization, and other problems. Cohen, with his high sense of organization, oversaw every detail to of the Hard Knock tour. The result was a successful program that attracted audiences not only from the inner city echelons, but also from among the estimated 70 percent of rap music consumers other than back street denizens, including many who hailed from the upper middle class suburbs.

Cohen is married and has one son. He lives with his family in New York City's Upper East Side and has an office in midtown Manhattan. He is active in programs to help disadvantaged youth. He sits on the boards of trustees of Camp Hill in Roscoe, New York. Camp Hill, in the Catskills Mountains, provides two-week (overnight) programs for at-risk youth to foster self-esteem and cultural awareness. Similarly he is active in the Refugee Project.

by Gloria Cooksey

Lyor Cohen's Career

Def Jam Records, from early 1980s-1988; co-owner, Def Jam Records, 1988-1999; co-president of Island/Def Jam Records, Seagram's Universal Music, 1999--.

Lyor Cohen's Awards

Honoree, Spirit of Music Awards, 1999.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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