October 3, 1959 |
New York City, United States
Lyor Cohen (Hebrew: ליאור כהן; born October 3, 1959) is an American music industry executive, and until September 2012, he was the North American Chairman and CEO of Recorded Music for Warner Music Group (WMG).
Cohen has been actively involved in hip-hop at various top labels for more than 30 years, as the industry grew from the margins of pop culture to the mainstream. He started by managing highly successful rappers for pioneering firm Rush Productions, then led Def Jam Recordings, the hip-hop genre’s top record label at the time, ”the most important black music company since Motown” according to Newsweek.
After Def Jam, Cohen successively assumed the leadership of two of the music industry’s major labels - the Island Def Jam Music Group, and the Warner Music Group – which represent popular musicians of all genres (including rap, rock, and country).
Cohen’s closest associates have included his longtime friend and partner Russell Simmons, rapper Jay-Z and Atlantic Records chairman Julie Greenwald (both of whom claim Cohen as a mentor), and Jon Bon Jovi. Rapper Kanye West dubbed himself “the Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme” on a 2010 recording.
In September 2012 Cohen resigned from the Warner Music Group. Although he has not yet announced his next venture, Cohen remains—in the opinion of Complex magazine -- “one of the most powerful ‘unemployed’ persons on the planet.”
- 1 Early life
- 2 Music career
- 3 Future Ventures
- 4 Anti-Semitism Controversy
- 5 Philanthropy and Leadership
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Born in New York to Israeli immigrants in 1959, Cohen grew up in Los Angeles. In 1981 he received a degree in global marketing and finance from the University of Miami. Afterwards, he worked briefly in the Beverly Hills office of Bank Leumi.
Rush Productions / Rush Artist Management
Late in 1984, after promoting a pair of rock and rap shows at The Mix Club in Hollywood (one featured Run-DMC, the other featured Whodini), Cohen moved to New York to take a job at Simmons’s Rush Productions (later called Rush Artist Management). Beginning as Run-DMC’s road manager, Cohen quickly began taking on additional responsibilities, working on behalf of an artist roster that included Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. By 1987, Cohen himself was signing artists to Rush. These acts included Slick Rick, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (the latter better known today as Will Smith), Eric B. & Rakim, EPMD, Stetsasonic, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest.
Cohen credits Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay with teaching him the basics of the music business. “[Jay] showed me how to settle shows and fulfill my responsibilities to the group,” Cohen told Vibe magazine. “It’s those lessons that I rely on daily to do what I do now.” Before long, according to Rolling Stone, Cohen “became known for his no-nonsense approach to business, his negotiating skill, his ability to forward the plot.” It was Cohen who brokered Run-DMC’s endorsement deal with Adidas, “one of the first big commercial deals for a rap group.” This deal was followed by others that paired up Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince with Le Coq Sportif, LL Cool J with Troop sportswear, and Run-DMC with New Coke.
By 1989, Rush—under Cohen’s leadership—was recognized as “the premier management operation” in the rap field. Steve Stoute, in “The Tanning of America,” credits Cohen with “[believing] early on in the cultural melting pot that was being brewed for and by the younger generation.” In his own words, Cohen has said, “I was determined to prove people wrong, to prove to the gatekeepers of the industry that we had a place here and we weren’t going to relinquish our opportunity.”
From Artist Development to Label Executive
Cohen began transitioning from artist management to the label side of the music business in 1989, when he and Simmons formed Rush Associated Labels. The goal was to capitalize on the ability of established recording artists to sniff out new talent by signing boutique label deals with them. It paid off most notably with Jam Master Jay’s JMJ Records, which brought Onyx to Def Jam in 1992. By then Cohen was starting to groom a new generation of executives, notably Chris Lighty, Julie Greenwald, Kevin Liles, Todd Moscowitz, and Mike Kyser.
In 1994 Cohen teamed up with Simmons to negotiate Def Jam’s departure from Sony Music Entertainment:142 (which had been distributing Def Jam since 1985) for a new home at PolyGram. By then, having become Simmons’s partner in the label several years earlier, Cohen was running Def Jam day-to-day.:134 (Rick Rubin, Def Jam’s founder, had left the label in 1988.)
Def Jam under Polygram and Universal Music Group
Under Polygram and Cohen's leadership, Def Jam prospered. Cohen ushered in a brand-new roster of multi-platinum artists, including Redman, Method Man, Jay-Z, DMX, Ja Rule, Ludacris, and Kanye West. Concurrently, Cohen struck custom label deals with Roc-a-Fella, Murder Inc., Ruff Ryders, and Disturbing Tha Peace.
In 1998, PolyGram was purchased by Seagram, and merged into Universal Music Group. It was during this period that Cohen extended Def Jam’s reach by establishing Def Jam West in Los Angeles, Def Jam South in Atlanta (managed by Scarface, the Houston-based rapper-turned-talent-scout), Def Jam Germany in Berlin (the first of Def Jam's international outposts), Def Jam Japan in Tokyo, and an office in London.
Island Def Jam Music Group
In June 1998, after overseeing the merger and integration of several of Polygram’s best-known labels (Island Records, Mercury Records, and Def Jam) into a new unit called the Island Def Jam Music Group, Cohen was named its president. In the process, he became (as he himself noted) “the first hip-hop president in charge of a major label.”
This promotion required Cohen to expand his portfolio to include artists who didn’t rap, among them Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, Elvis Costello, Ashanti, Nickelback, Slipknot, Sum 41, The Killers, and Slayer. In 2000, Cohen teamed up with Nashville-based executive Luke Lewis to form Lost Highway Records, an “alt-country” label that was home to Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams, as well as the soundtrack to the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2001. In 2001 Cohen struck deals to distribute both Roadrunner Records, a heavy-metal label, and Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. In 2002, American released Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around. The last album released by Cash before his death, it included Cash’s hit version of Trent Reznor’s "Hurt."
Warner Music Group
In January 2004 Cohen left IDJMG for a position with the Edgar Bronfman, Jr. investor group-financed Warner Music Group, which was subsequently spun off from Time Warner. Ultimately, Cohen was named WMG's chairman and chief executive.
By 2006, the positive effects of Cohen’s leadership were encapsulated in a story for the Los Angeles Times, which noted: “Under Cohen, Warner Music has thrived, due in part to the executive’s innovative initiatives, such as an incubator program that builds relationships with independent label executives the company aspires to hire.” WMG’s success with the Houston rapper Mike Jones and the punk band Paramore both grew out of the incubator program.
At WMG Cohen oversaw the merger of the Atlantic and Elektra labels into the Atlantic Records Group, and placed Julie Greenwald, his protégée, into a top executive position there. In 2009, Cohen elevated Greenwald to chairman and chief operating officer of Atlantic, a promotion that established Greenwald as the highest-ranking woman executive at an American record company. Greenwald’s successes at Atlantic have included The Black Keys, Bruno Mars, Death Cab for Cutie, Jason Mraz, Kid Rock, Lupe Fiasco, Plies, T.I., and Wiz Khalifa.
YouTube and Spotify
In September 2006 Cohen oversaw an agreement with YouTube that allowed the site to show videos by WMG artists in exchange for a share of YouTube’s advertising revenue. According to The New York Times, the deal marked “the first time a major record company [had] licensed content to YouTube.” In 2011 Cohen oversaw an agreement on behalf of the WMG roster with Spotify, the digital music service. Eventually, Cohen oversaw all of WMG’s digital initiatives.
Departure from WMG
In September 2012 Cohen resigned from the Warner Music Group.
There is much speculation about Cohen’s next move. Although nothing concrete has yet emerged, Cohen’s own assessment of his career may be broadly predictive. “I’ve been an outsider in the traditional record industry for more than 25 years,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m an entrepreneur, so I encourage risk-taking. And the only way to encourage risk-taking is to take risks yourself, which means sometimes you’ll fail, or people will say you are too aggressive or controversial. But someone needs to jump into the pool first for a party to get really great. I’ve always been willing to be that guy.”
Rapper Mos Def was accused of anti-Semitism when in 2004, Def rapped "some tall Israeli is running this rap shit." Which was a reference to Lyor Cohen, that Def singled out, together with white men in general, corporate greed, and drugs, as one of the main reasons for the decline of hip-hop.
Philanthropy and Leadership
- Roberts, Johnnie L., “Rap’s Unlikely King,” Newsweek, January 31, 2000, The Daily Beast
- “Lyor Cohen has been with me since the early 80s as a friend and partner,” p. 222, “Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, and God” by Russell Simmons with Nelson George, Three Rivers Press, 2001
- “Lyor Cohen, who I consider my mentor…,” p.221, “Decoded,” by Jay-Z, Spiegel & Grau, 2011
- “My mentor, Lyor Cohen….,” from “Julie Greenwald: Chairman/COO, Atlantic Records Group,” by Yinka Adegoke, Billboard, November 30, 2012, Billboard
- “He has a much bigger vision than most of his peers,” from “Talking Trash, Making Cash, And Still Able to Sign Mariah” by Laura M. Holson, New York Times, May 28, 2002, The New York Times
- Lyrics to “Devil in a New Dress” by Kanye West, Rapgenius.com
- From “The 25 Most Powerful People in Rap (Right Now),” Complex magazine, February 25, 2013, Complex.com
- “Music Industry Leader Shares Career Advice,” Business Miami magazine, Winter 2007, Miami.edu
- Ogunnaike, Lola, “Soldier of Fortune,” Vibe magazine, January 2003, Google Books
- Cohen, Rich, “The Story of Lyor Cohen: Little Lansky and the Big Check,” Rolling Stone, June 21, 2001, Rolling Stone
- Nathan, David, “Lyor Cohen: Breaking Corporate Barriers at Rush,” Black Radio Exclusive, January 27, 1989.
- P.21, “The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy” by Steve Stoute, Gotham; Reprint edition 2012
- Kondo, Toshitaka, “Lyor Cohen,” Complex magazine, June 1, 2010, Complex.com
- “My mentor, Lyor Cohen…,” p.6, “Make it Happen: the Hip-Hop Generation Guide to Success,” by Kevin Liles with Samantha Marshall, Atria Books, 2005
- Adler, and Charnas (2011). Def Jam Recordings: The First 25Years of the Last Great Record Label. Rizzoli. ISBN 0847833712.
- “Rubin Quits,” New Musical Express, August 27, 1988.
- Golus, Carrie (2012). Russell Simmons: From Def Jam to Super Rich. Twenty-First Century Books. p. 73.
- Zimmerman, Kevin, “Cohen & Caparro: From Rap to Rock with the Def Jam Duo,” Music Business International, June 2000.
- Cohen, Rich, op. cit., p.100.
- Smith, Ethan, “Warner Music Lures Rap Chief From Universal to Fill New Post,” Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2004.
- Duhigg, Charles, “Getting Warner Music More Upbeat: U.S. CEO Lyor Cohen is Heading a Turnaround that Includes a Recent Boost in Market Share,” Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2006, The Los Angeles Times
- “Women in Music 2011: No.1 Julie Greenwald,” Billboard
- “Warner Music Makes Licensing Deal With YouTube,” by Jeff Leeds, New York Times, September 19, 2006, The New York Times
- “New Service Offers Music in Quantity, Not by Song,” by Ben Sisario, New York Times, July 13, 2011, The New York Times
- Sisario, Ben, “Lyor Cohen Resigns From Warner Music,” New York Times, September 24, 2012, The New York Times
- “Lyor Cohen resigns as CEO of Warner Music Group to develop talent management company,” New York Daily News, September 26, 2012, Nydailynews.com
- “Are Lyor Cohen and Irv Gotti Forming a New Company?”, Keenan Higgins, Vibe.com, December 20, 2012, Vibe
- “Report: Lyor Cohen Looking to Launch New Label,” allaccess.com, March 18, 2013, Allaccess.com
- Leibovitz, Liel (May 3, 2013). "Requiem for a Racist". Tablet.
- Boffard, Rob (May 19, 2011). "Hip-hip - the music where it's OK to be anti-Jewish". The JC.
- Lyor Cohen biography at Warner Music Group Corporate Site.
- Lyor Cohen Bio and Interview at AskMen.com
- Lyor Cohen at the Internet Movie Database