Lyor Cohen

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Lyor Cohen
Lyor Cohen-The Oddfather.jpg
Born (1959-10-03) October 3, 1959 (age 56)
New York City, United States
Nationality American
Occupation CEO

Lyor Cohen (Hebrew: ליאור כהן; born October 3, 1959) is an American music industry executive.

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 African-American music company since Motown” according to Newsweek.[1]

After Def Jam, Cohen successively assumed the leadership of one of the music industry’s major labels, Warner Music Group, which represent popular musicians of all genres (including rap, rock, and country). In September 2012 Cohen put in his resignation at Warner Music Group and eventually started his own independent label, 300 Entertainment.

Early life[edit]

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.[2] Afterwards, he worked briefly in the Beverly Hills office of Bank Leumi.[3]

Music career[edit]

Rush Productions / Rush Artist Management[edit]

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, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Goldblum, Eddie Murphy, Milli Vanilli, and A Tribe Called Quest.[4]

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.[5] “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.”[6] It was Cohen who brokered Run-DMC’s endorsement deal with Adidas, “one of the first big commercial deals for a rap group.”[1] 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.[7] 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.”[8] In his own words, Lyor 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.”[9]

Def Jam[edit]

From artist development to label executive[edit]

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,[10] Todd Moscowitz, and Mike Kyser.

In 1994 Cohen teamed up with Simmons to negotiate Def Jam’s departure from Sony Music Entertainment[11]: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.[11]:134 (Rick Rubin, Def Jam’s founder, had left the label in 1988.[12])

Def Jam under Polygram and Universal Music Group[edit]

Under Polygram and Cohen's leadership, Def Jam prospered.[13] Cohen ushered in a brand-new roster of multi-platinum artists, including Redman, Method Man, Jay-Z, DMX, Ja Rule, Ludacris, and Kanye West, Biggtubbs/116 soljaz. 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[edit]

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.”[14]

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,[15] 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[edit]

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.[16]

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.”[17] 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.[18] 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[edit]

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.”[19] In 2011 Cohen oversaw an agreement on behalf of the WMG roster with Spotify, the digital music service.[20] Eventually, Cohen oversaw all of WMG’s digital initiatives.[citation needed]

Departure from WMG[edit]

In September 2012 Cohen resigned from the Warner Music Group.[21]

Future ventures and 300[edit]

There is much speculation about Cohen’s next move.[22][23][24] 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.”[17] In November 2013, Cohen revealed he was starting a new company named "300 Entertainment," after the 300 Spartan Warriors who fought the famous war against the Persians seen in the movie 300. He stated the company would be part record label, part marketing company, part distributor, with major backing from Google and Atlantic Records.[25]

Philanthropy and leadership[edit]

Cohen is currently on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is an acting Director for the New York-based charitable organization Boys & Girls Harbor.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

Some of Cohen’s closest associates have included his longtime friend and business partner Russell Simmons,[26] Jay Z,[27] music executive Julie Greenwald,[28] Jon Bon Jovi,[29] and Kanye West, who dubbed himself “the Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme” on a 2010 recording.[30] He had been previously romantically linked with Tory Burch.[31]


  1. ^ a b Roberts, Johnnie L., “Rap’s Unlikely King,” Newsweek, January 31, 2000, The Daily Beast
  2. ^ “Music Industry Leader Shares Career Advice,” Business Miami magazine, Winter 2007,
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Ogunnaike, Lola, “Soldier of Fortune,” Vibe magazine, January 2003, Google Books
  6. ^ Cohen, Rich, “The Story of Lyor Cohen: Little Lansky and the Big Check,” Rolling Stone, June 21, 2001, Rolling Stone
  7. ^ Nathan, David, “Lyor Cohen: Breaking Corporate Barriers at Rush,” Black Radio Exclusive, January 27, 1989.
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Kondo, Toshitaka, “Lyor Cohen,” Complex magazine, June 1, 2010,
  10. ^ “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
  11. ^ a b Adler, and Charnas (2011). Def Jam Recordings: The First 25Years of the Last Great Record Label. Rizzoli. ISBN 0847833712. 
  12. ^ “Rubin Quits,” New Musical Express, August 27, 1988.
  13. ^ Golus, Carrie (2012). Russell Simmons: From Def Jam to Super Rich. Twenty-First Century Books. p. 73. 
  14. ^ Zimmerman, Kevin, “Cohen & Caparro: From Rap to Rock with the Def Jam Duo,” Music Business International, June 2000.
  15. ^ Cohen, Rich, op. cit., p.100.
  16. ^ Smith, Ethan, “Warner Music Lures Rap Chief From Universal to Fill New Post,” Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2004.
  17. ^ a b 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
  18. ^ “Women in Music 2011: No.1 Julie Greenwald,” Billboard
  19. ^ “Warner Music Makes Licensing Deal With YouTube,” by Jeff Leeds, New York Times, September 19, 2006, The New York Times
  20. ^ “New Service Offers Music in Quantity, Not by Song,” by Ben Sisario, New York Times, July 13, 2011, The New York Times
  21. ^ Sisario, Ben, “Lyor Cohen Resigns From Warner Music,” New York Times, September 24, 2012, The New York Times
  22. ^ “Lyor Cohen resigns as CEO of Warner Music Group to develop talent management company,” New York Daily News, September 26, 2012,
  23. ^ “Are Lyor Cohen and Irv Gotti Forming a New Company?”, Keenan Higgins,, December 20, 2012, Vibe
  24. ^ “Report: Lyor Cohen Looking to Launch New Label,”, March 18, 2013,
  25. ^ Rys, Dan (December 30, 2013). "The 9 Biggest Hip-Hop Business Moves Of 2013". XXL. 
  26. ^ “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
  27. ^ “Lyor Cohen, who I consider my mentor…,” p.221, “Decoded,” by Jay-Z, Spiegel & Grau, 2011
  28. ^ “My mentor, Lyor Cohen….,” from “Julie Greenwald: Chairman/COO, Atlantic Records Group,” by Yinka Adegoke, Billboard, November 30, 2012, Billboard
  29. ^ “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
  30. ^ Lyrics to “Devil in a New Dress” by Kanye West,
  31. ^ [ Burch and Cohen romantically linked]

External links[edit]