Jewish Business News reporter Ada Hoz-Peles reveals how the Israeli made his mark on the international music scene
By Ada Hoz-Peles /
The first time Lyor Cohen heard hip-hop he was in South Central Los Angeles where he had gone to watch a basketball game.
“It left me gaping. I remember sitting right there and, I was so enthused, my jaw just dropped, ” he recalls. “The beat was so very funky. I was going through a kind of a shock that shook me out of everything I was familiar with, be it classical music or any other kind.”
Upon returning home with his brother who taught math at the school where the basketball game was played, Cohen declared: “I’ve found the Beatles of the eighties.”
That encounter and another that followed shortly thereafter nipped in the bud a banking career for Cohen who had just begun to work at a branch of an American subsidiary of Israel’s Bank Leumi. Instead, Cohen had begun a journey to one of the most highly coveted and influential positions in the world of music eventually reaching the position of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Recorded Music of Warner Music Group, a position he left in September 2012, reportedly to begin a talent management company.
Warner Music is legendary in the business with a long list of artists discovered, nurtured, managed, and promoted that includes Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Kanye West, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Lionel Richie, Patti LaBelle, Green Day, Rod Stewart, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin, Mariah Carey, Elvis Costello, Metallica, and many others.
We sit in the blue-padded music room in Cohen’s house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The six-story building abounds with comfort and luxury — the elevator stands beside a curving marble staircase, the basement is equipped with children’s games, original artwork.
“When I came to New York 30 years ago I was completely broke, I walked around this area and looked with longing at these houses next to the park, curious as to who lived here, ” says Cohen. “I wondered how anyone could live so luxuriously. As you can see, one gets used to it.”
Since those early days, there have been many Grammy Awards but Cohen hasn’t forgotten the most formative appearance of his life before he got to New York.
“I saw colorful ads plastered on walls throughout Los Angeles, invitations to the performance and party of ‘Uncle James Army.’ It made me curious and I went. It was an amazing event, the music just penetrated my soul. God, listening to this music in a crowd of 18, 000 youngsters, all black, was scary. I was 17-18 years old, it fascinated me and shook me up.
“The event took place at a government building. City Hall, to say the least, did not like the throngs of so many blacks inundating one place, and it set a kind of a curfew, prohibiting them from remaining there after 11 p.m. I said to myself, since they bring artists from New York who must end their performance at 11 p.m., why shouldn’t I hire them to perform after 11? They will also agree to be paid less, since it would already be their second appearance for the night. I wanted to introduce them to the white population of Los Angeles, the mainstream.”
It was actually a mishap with the Run-D.M.C. that opened the door to a prosperous musical career. Joseph Simmons, a member of the ensemble, had his first appearance ever before a white audience during a show organized by Cohen. He tensed up because young whites jumped onto the stage and, fearing they were about to hurt him, he refused to proceed with the performance until he consulted with his brother in New York. The brother – Russell Simmons, a hip-hop guru and one of the founders (with Rick Rubin) of the Def Jam Records label– convinced Joseph to perform that night and while at it offered Cohen the opportunity to come to New York to work with him at the new company he had just established. Cohen hesitated.
“My father warned me about this unknown adventure, which might turn out disappointing or even dangerous, ” Cohen says. “On the other hand, my mother, who grew up as a hippie flower child, encouraged me to try. ‘Worse comes to worst, you’ll come back and have a roof over your head here with us, she said.’”
The bond between Cohen and Russell Simmons was instantaneous. Though he didn’t invent rap, Simmons, more than anyone else, was responsible for its dissemination and success. The music that had begun practically underground in Harlem and the Bronx as an anti-establishment social protest was navigated by Simmons to the mainstream and Def Jam produced a genre of music that, until then, no major record company had wanted to touch.
“Hip-hop is no longer a black-culture phenomenon; and it is no longer underground music, ” Forbes Magazine wrote at the time. “Now it is a thriving American music, and much of it is thanks to Russell Simmons.”
Simmons and Cohen were even partners in an apparel outfit Simmons founded — “The hip-hop culture is so strong, we even make underwear now, ” he liked to say.
Still, it was rather difficult at the beginning. Having moved out of a cozy home in Los Angeles, Cohen now found himself in a ramshackle hotel in a musty room he shared with a roommate, while no one had the foggiest idea of what would become of the label and of hip-hop in general.
“Def Jam was then in its infancy, it was built essentially out of a bedroom where we did all the work we had to do, ” recalls Cohen. “The turnaround was when Run-D.M.C. was en route to the airport for a European tour.
It turned out that their manager, who was to accompany them, got entangled with drugs and simply vanished. I had a valid passport and I told Russell I can handle it, and I was off and running.”
The tour was a great success and Cohen turned a new page in his career, this time as a manager of bands touring around the world. Over time, as Def Jam began to reap success and Cohen had a respectable line of artists sign with the label, he was appointed president of the company and became Simmons’s partner in all his business dealings.
Among other things, he managed the Beastie Boys’ tour. It “was really fun, although all in all we lived under harsh conditions – cheap flights and lousy, cheap, disgusting hotels.”
He first met the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they were just starting their career and he was arranging concerts at the Stardust Club in Los Angeles.
“I hired them to perform for me at the club and we became friends. I did not sign them up then, and for many years we were out of touch, ” Cohen said. “When I got to Warner, we were reunited. They were already signed up there as an important and meaningful band and I met them again as my artists at Warner.”
By the end of the nineties, Simmons and Cohen decided to sell Def Jam to Universal Music Group. Simmons retired while Cohen remained with the new owners of the company, which has since greatly expanded, becoming Island Def Jam Records.
In 2004, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., bought Warner Music Group for $2.6 billion and asked Cohen to serve as his right hand man and head the company’s numerous record labels around the world. After much deliberation Cohen agreed – the terms made the decision a bit easier: annual salary of $6.5 million plus another half million in stock and options; and a golden parachute valued at $8.5 million dollars. It was at Warner that Cohen implemented the controversial 360 degree management concept in which the company agrees to provide financial support to the artist in exchange for a percentage of all their income.
“A few generations ago the relationship with the artist was that of 360 degrees, which means a full circle of all aspects of his activities were tied with us. Over the years, however, we, the management, lost our relationship with the artist, that is, the personal, daily contact. I’m bringing back the connection with the artist. It has been in effect for seven years by now, and 80 percent of rock stars now operate through the 360 degrees system. The criticism stems from the fact that a whole generation didn’t operate this way and in a way it is kind of swimming against the current.”
The early years
Cohen, whom rappers have nicknamed “Little Israel, ” was born in the U.S. to Israeli parents – Ziva, a descendent of a family of early settlers in the land now called Israel, and Elisha, who was a warrior in the acclaimed Harel Brigade of the 1948 War of Independence and then an army captain in the Israel Defense Forces. Following his discharge, he went to study engineering at New York University after being rejected by the Technion, in Haifa, and then decided to stay in the U.S. The couple later divorced and the father took his two sons to Israel. He left them in foster care at the agricultural settlement of Kfar Haim for two years.
“What amazes me, ” Cohen divulges, “is that even today, years later, when I pass by a farm, a ranch that can be anywhere in the world I am back at my rural experience then. I smell the scents, I taste the flavors, I feel a sense of belonging – I know I have already been there. Even though so many years have passed – at that moment it is as if I am right there in my childhood experience.”
Cohen is a divorced, a father of two, who for many years was in a relationship with shoe designer Tory Burch. He travels frequently and what little spare time he has is used for playing golf and outdoor activities.
“I would like to have fewer commitments, fewer friends, less events to attend, less everything – but I can’t pull it off.”
How did a boy of 18 get the money to bring bands from New York to L.A.?
“I borrowed $700 from my parents so I could get a performance artist from New York City to appear at a night club and the first one I signed up and brought over was Run-D.M.C. That night I made a pot of $35, 000 – double my annual salary at the bank!”
Are you friends with the artists you work with?
“I really and truly love all of them and was good friends with everyone, ” he says. “When I moved to Warner, some artists stayed there at Universal while others preferred to join me at Warner because they wanted to keep working with me. That, for example, is what Jay-Z did when his contract with Universal ended. We have been close friends all these years; the families are close, also. Another example, I no longer work with Mariah Carey, whom I signed up at the time, but we’re still friends.
And Kanye West, I signed him up at Def Jam and he has remained with Universal, but we’re very tight and very close friends. The same can be said about Jon Bon Jovi, I love him very much.”
What about Madonna?
“We do not maintain a friendship at the moment.”
As a talent hunter, what you do you look for in an artist?
“I believe that when a star artist is on stage or walks into the room the molecules in that space are transformed. I want to hear more. And that is what I put the finger on. I’m in a risky business. Unfortunately, a lot of my artists will not succeed. Every day I wake up hoping that maybe today will be the day that I discover this wonderful artist, the special one.”
Is it really some kind of magical element one is born with, or can a good manager build a star, as well?
“In our industry there are those who believe they can do wonders. They can take a talented artist, refurbish and polish him, tell him what to wear and how to sing and he’ll become a star. I don’t think so. I don’t think one should tell the likes of Janis Joplin what to wear, what song to choose, or how to sing. All they had to do was keep her alive. Well, in that particular area they did a lousy job.”
Are you often asked, “What does a Jew have to do with music that is so black?”
“It’s not a matter of skin color. Hip hop and rap are dominated by blacks, but my occupation is what I love to do. I love people who talk instead of singing. And, generally speaking, Jews were always involved with black culture [in America] – in jazz, in blues. My mother, Ziva Sirkis, a scion of a family of pioneers [in Israel], claims that it is because the nurse I had when I was little was a Jamaican girl named Kathleen. My mother went to work, and my black nanny, who shared a room with me, always sang me ‘black songs.’”
Are you in touch with your family in Israel?
“I love all my family there. I offer them my hospitality here and visit them there at every opportunity. I have an Israeli passport, Israeli parents and I definitely feel Israeli even though I was born in New York.
I am interviewing you in English…
“I understand Hebrew, I just don’t speak it; no more than a few words. Truth is, my mother spoke to me in Hebrew but as my father Philip (his mother’s second husband) spoke only English and did not understand what we were saying it was important for him to understand me. We, therefore, spoke only English. But there was Hebrew music at home. English was important for me for another reason; I was different – had a different name, a different accent and it was important to my parents that I should integrate into the society I was part of.”
What do you know about music in Israel?
“First of all, there is a significant relation between Israel and contemporary music – the moment a song is issued here it reaches Israel even before it pops up in Brooklyn. Also, there is a group of good, creative people there. There are a lot of good musicians there like Aviv Geffen.”
Do you read reviews? Are they important to you?
“I’m open to criticism. I invite and I receive a lot of tips, suggestions, critical assessments, but in the end I have to make the decision and take responsibility. I cannot blame anyone, except myself. As for gossipy, offensive criticism, it readily vanishes, evaporates. Every day I wake up and know who I am. I’m surrounded by people who love me and know who I am, and that is just never in doubt. “
Have discs finally passed away? Has an era come to an end?
“I hope not. The disc is definitely on the decline but it is still much loved.”
Finally, here’s a brief association game: Russell Simmons.
“Genius. Number one. Curious. A man I admire and love. He gave me my start.”
“No one works harder on the global stage than Jon Bon Jovi. He’s a very, very nice, good and modest man, who contributes greatly to society.”
“I’ve always said that when I need an artist who is exceptionally talented yet nice and simple, who works hard but is thoughtful and intelligent – it’s him. I would’ve married him –– problem is he’s a man.”
“The voice of an angel.”
“I think he’s the most talented man I’ve ever met.”
“A great business woman.”
“I’m not sure who she is.”
“We’ll wait and see.”