TALKING TRASH, MAKING CASH, AND STILL ABLE TO SIGN MARIAH
LOS ANGELES, May 27 â€” Russell Simmons, the godfather of rap music, likes to tell a story about Lyor Cohen, his long-time friend and business partner, who, as chief executive of the Island Def Jam Music Group, recently signed Mariah Carey to a $20 million recording deal.
Fifteen years ago, Mr. Simmons, Mr. Cohen and a group of friends spent Christmas in Barbados, where they devoted afternoons around the hotel pool playfully throwing one another into the water. Mr. Cohen, however, had managed to escape until Andre Harrell, the former chief executive of Motown Records, led a group that dragged Mr. Cohen in, clothes and all.
'Lyor was so furious he went to Andre's closet and got his new Louis Vuitton bag,' Mr. Simmons recalled. 'He took Andre's jewelry and his clothes and threw them all in the pool. No one could believe it.' For the uninitiated the tale illustrates something that anyone who knows Mr. Cohen learns quickly. And it's not just that he does not like being wet. 'If you don't want to play defense, don't play with Lyor,' Mr. Simmons said. 'He plays to win.'
Since the trash-talking Mr. Cohen helped start Def Jam Records, the rap music label that burst onto the scene in the early 1980's with risky music groups like Public Enemy and Run-DMC, he has made a career of beating his peers. Disc jockeys who refused to play rap's obscenity-laden lyrics nearly two decades ago watched Mr. Cohen, whose first name is pronounced LEE-or, peddle his bands directly to consumers, giving away free cassettes and plastering neighborhoods with posters.
So it was no surprise that Mr. Cohen, an American-born son of Israeli Jews, was a controversial choice within the industry when he was named president of the Island Def Jam Music Group in 1999, an amalgamation of record labels acquired by the Universal Music Group, the crown jewel of Vivendi Universal, the entertainment giant. But since he took over, total album market share for Island Def Jam has nearly doubled, from 5.4 percent in 1999 to 9.4 percent so far this year, according to Soundscan, which counts CD sales.
'He's made me look smart,' said Doug Morris, chief executive of Universal Music, the No. 1 recorded music company in the world.
But Mr. Cohen, 42, has not rested on his earlier reputation as an aggressive rap and hip-hop promoter who got his start alongside Mr. Simmons managing African-American urban rappers who were then chronicling lives of crime, drugs and aggressive sex in verse. Instead, Island Def Jam has expanded the last two years into a diverse slate of current styles in an attempt to appeal to almost every taste in popular music. Sales last year reached an estimated $500 million. 'When I got hold of this place, I had nothing going on in white music,' Mr. Cohen said in an interview last week. 'And who knew how long my hyperactive urban stuff would keep springing out profits.'
Now Island Def Jam, with a staff of 190, has a label for almost every genre. These include Murder Inc. (predominantly hip-hop and gansta rap, representing artists like Ashanti and Ja Rule); Lost Highway (the alternative country label behind the successful 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack) and Island Records (the group's rock label, with stars like Bon Jovi and Elvis Costello). The newest addition is Ms. Carey, who joined the Universal family two weeks ago and will have her own label. Mr. Cohen deftly wooed her after she was dropped by the EMI Group, going so far as to squire her off to Normandy in France to meet with the company's top executives.
Three years ago, Mr. Cohen began working with Bon Jovi â€” his first rock 'n' roll concert ever was watching the group play before 45,000 fans several years ago â€” whose career was then waning. 'Honestly, he was someone who didn't know rock music, but was all eyes and ears and was going to learn it,' said Jon Bon Jovi, who was in the studio last week recording the band's second album with Island. Their 2000 album 'Crush' was a big hit, selling nine million albums worldwide. 'He has a much bigger vision than most of his peers,' Jon Bon Jovi said. 'I've gotten tired of everybody promoting records as bars of soap.'
Mr. Cohen, with his up-from-the-streets persona, is all too aware that the more successes Island Def Jam has the more difficult it is to maintain the momentum across so many diverse styles. 'The hotter we get, the more tense and scared I get,' he said. 'I'm conscious of gravity and how far we can fall. I'm much more calm in the construction phase.' But if Mr. Cohen has been either calm or scared, few people have seen it last very long. 'He's an animal, don't let him fool you,' said Irv Lorenzo, the founder of Murder Inc., who is known as Irv Gotti and has produced records for Ja Rule and Ashanti. 'He goes after what he wants with reckless abandon.'
Once, Mr. Cohen signed one rapper only after tracking him down in a dangerous neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles. Or in 1999, when he defied Universal executives by telling them he would not join the company unless his staff came too. (The company acquiesced.) And he was not afraid to drop performers that he believed he could not sell: when he joined Island Def Jam he pared the list of rock and pop acts from 274, to 29.
Indeed, rather than running with the crowd, Mr. Cohen now trusts his own instincts even more. Just as he took on Bon Jovi when the group had largely been written off, he is not afraid to take a risk on an artist some others consider past her prime. Even after 'Glitter,' Ms. Carey's film and album, received scathing reviews and bombed with the public last fall and she collapsed from nervous exhaustion, Mr. Cohen was the first record executive to show up at her apartment offering support, Ms. Carey said. The challenge facing Mr. Cohen, industry executives say, is to counsel her better than her former producers at Virgin Records did.
Mr. Cohen was born in New York in 1959; he moved with his stepfather, a psychiatrist, and his mother, a social advocate, to Los Angeles in 1965. In many ways he is the unlikeliest of music executives, graduating from the University of Miami in 1981 with a degree in global marketing and finance. He says he toyed with the idea of being either a banker or a shrimp farmer in Ecuador before moving back to Los Angeles in 1982 to become a concert promoter.
'I can't tell you I chose the music business,' Mr. Cohen. 'The music business chose me.'
Rap music was emerging in Los Angeles in the early 1980's when Mr. Cohen met Mr. Simmons, who owned his own management company and who would ultimately branch out into films and clothing. Mr. Cohen, an imposing physical presence at 6 feet, 5 inches with piercing blue eyes, was one of the few whites in the music business to gain the trust of black rappers and their intimidating, gun-toting posses. 'These guys came from tough places,' Mr. Simmons said. 'But they respected his work ethic.'
Mr. Cohen began by managing Run-DMC; in 1983, Mr. Simmons, Mr. Cohen and another friend, Rick Rubin, set up Def Jam Records, posting $180 million in sales by 1998. 'Record companies said, `You are not going to amount to anything,' but that was the wrong thing to tell us,' Mr. Cohen said. 'They were lazy, complacent and lethargic. It helped create more determination.' Being the outsider fueled his disdain for the status quo. 'You have to understand why he is so savage,' said Mr. Gotti. 'Lyor used to feel people were not giving him the respect he deserved.'
With few record industry executives embracing his artists and producers, Mr. Cohen became even more determined to demonstrate how much he valued them. 'He has a way of making every situation about the family,' Mr. Gotti said. 'He'll come over to my mother's house in Queens to eat.' He also barks at artists who do not return his calls quickly, said Mr. Bon Jovi, who has been chided more than once. Still, Mr. Bon Jovi said, Mr. Cohen recently went out of his way to line up a summer rental in the Hamptons. 'No one has ever done that for me,' said Mr. Bon Jovi, who has not decided whether to take the house.
In 1999, Mr. Cohen and his partners sold their stake in Def Jam Records for about $130 million to Seagram, which then owned Universal and was later acquired by Vivendi. In effect, Mr. Cohen became part of the industry establishment he had long railed against. He got a quick lesson in corporate politics when other label heads within Universal Music tried to steal Def Jam artists from him. Mr. Cohen thwarted the effort, but it caused enough of a stir that Mr. Morris had to broker a truce, several company executives said. And that has added a whole new element to his old approach of smothering his artists with lots of personal attention.
'As hot as Island Def Jam is, there are a lot of people he has to take care of here,' Mr. Gotti said. 'I may love him to death, but I want money.' Reflecting on his younger years, Mr. Cohen becomes almost wistful, bristling at the notion that he is perceived as 'hysterically ruthless.' But he concedes, too, that if he has mellowed at all (and few friends say he has) it is the result of entering middle-age. 'When you are younger, it feels like forever,' Mr. Cohen said. 'But as I've gotten older, I can't believe how quickly it is all slipping by.'
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