On the latest episode of “Drink Champs,” N.O.R.E. and DJ EFN were joined by music executive and entrepreneur Lyor Cohen to discuss the rise of Def Jam Recordings, discovering DMX, artificial intelligence, and the impact of Warren G, among other topics.
Cohen’s career in hip hop began when he was asked to work for Russell Simmons’ Rush Productions company in the 1980s. Right away, he became the road manager for Run-D.M.C. and built his music industry experience with the coveted trio as well as other acts aligned with the company like Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Soon, Cohen started to sign and manage acts, creating an early roster of talent such as Slick Rick, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Eric B. and Rakim, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest.
By the next decade, the industry boss was leading the charge as the head of Def Jam. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, he oversaw the careers of rappers like Redman, Method Man, JAY-Z, DMX, Ja Rule and Ludacris. He continued to make his resume undeniable working with acts outside of rap, too, like Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey. The renowned exec eventually took on a role at Warner Music Group as the chairman and CEO of recorded music, and once he left in the early 2010s, Cohen co-founded 300 Entertainment.
Though 300 was sold after about a decade, Cohen never truly left the industry. He’s now standing as the global head of music for YouTube. Breaking down his conversation on “Drink Champs,” we highlighted nine takeaways. Check those out below and watch the full episode here.
1. On how he became Run-D.M.C.’s road manager
Lyor Cohen got his start in rap music by being Run-D.M.C.’s road manager. The opportunity came about because he was in the right place at the right time. After he was invited to work at Rush Management via Russell Simmons, Cohen showed up to the office and was surprised at the greeting he received from Bill Adler, Tony Rome and Heidi Smith.
“They’re all depressed and their heads were down,” Cohen recalled. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and they told me, ‘We don’t know who you are. Russell never told us that you were coming, but Run-D.M.C. is at [John F. Kennedy International Airport] and their road manager, Jeff Floyd, we can’t find him. And no one has a passport, so we’re f**ked.’ I said, ‘Well, I got a passport’ and that’s how I became Run-D.M.C’s road manager,” he explained. Cohen held the position for three years and said that during his time, the legendary rap group never missed a gig.
2. On how Warren G saved Def Jam
As he sifted through the rumor report, N.O.R.E. asked Lyor Cohen if it was true that Warren G’s Regulate… G Funk Era and its title track saved Def Jam, to which he responded, “It’s not a rumor.” Though business wasn’t as lucrative at the time, Cohen explained that the momentum for the song and album was so strong that they ended up releasing it, and that move alone helped reestablish Def Jam’s success in 1994.
“I couldn’t stop the record. And you know what happened with Regulate. We sold close to 6 million albums,” Cohen declared. He went on to explain that he signed Warren because he “wanted a piece of LA” within the brand and essentially noticed Warren wasn’t getting the full push he deserved as an artist. Cohen also named Redman as someone who helped keep the lights on at Def Jam.
“Gratitude is part of living a healthy, long life. And so many good things have happened to me. And two of them were that Reggie Noble and Warren G came at the right time. So think about me getting swung and walking into a new company, and selling 6 million albums right like that,” he said before thanking the two rappers once again.
3. On finding DMX
As a signee under the Def Jam umbrella, the late DMX released three No. 1 albums in a row: It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot; Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood; plus … And Then There Was X. The multiplatinum-selling projects established X as a force on the label. And while going down memory lane, Cohen broke down the story of the first time he met X.
Irv Gotti, who was an A&R for the label at the time, invited him to Yonkers to hear DMX rap. X didn’t show up until three hours after they were set to meet, but once he did, the lyricist won them over instantly.
“You could feel the oxygen change,” Cohen said about the moment that X walked in the room. “He had just had his mouth wired shut, but he was so excited to meet me that he started rapping and you could hear them breaking. It was a moment,” Cohen added. “My mother would’ve signed him — it was that obvious.”
4. On why he left Def Jam Recordings
In the mid-2000s, Ja Rule and Murder Inc. were selling millions of records on a regular basis. Ja’s Cash Money Click allies, Chris Black and O-1, wanted to do an album once Black got out of jail, but Ja and Gotti apparently weren’t interested, so they asked Cohen to shut the idea down, and he did.
Cohen was then sued over the idea that they led Black, O-1 and their TVT record label into believing that Ja Rule would do the project. “The courts didn’t believe me and I lost a $135 million-dollar judgment, so I was indemnified by Universal,” Cohen said. “I thought I did the right thing for the company, for the artist, everything. Now I’m embarrassed,” the exec remembered of the time he was being plastered in newspapers as a “fraud.”
The case could be retried for $60 million, but Universal allegedly refused to put the money up. So Cohen did it himself and won the legal battle, as all verdicts were overturned. Regardless of the fact that Cohen, Ja and company were then in the clear, the executive said the bridge was already burned, causing him to leave Def Jam for Warner Music Group in 2004.
5. On the most important moment of his life
One of the most important moments of Cohen’s life was when he was out in India launching an international installation of YouTube Music. At the time, Cohen was in Dharavi, where the real Slumdog Millionaire is from. In the middle of the slum was an after-school program that was dedicated to hip hop and rap music.
“These kids are breakdancing, they’re wearing Kangos, it’s like a time warp. And it’s rap music that’s keeping them learning, living, off the streets,” he reminisced. “It’s such a powerful and important moment for me. It was amazing.”
6. On the moment he fell in love with hip hop
Lyor Cohen’s brother was a woodshop teacher at Verbum Dei Jesuit High School and used to bring Cohen to the basketball games around the time they won a national championship in the 1970s. “Every break, a guy with a bass and some drums would run up with some girls doing those moves. And I was like 8 years old, and I said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe what I just heard,’” he recalled. The performers would repeat their show every break or in the middle of every half, and Cohen was sold on the art of hip hop ever since.
“Fast forward to listening to [Los Angeles radio station] 1580 KDay and going to see an Uncle Jamm’s Army event, I recognized that beat and I liked it,” he stamped. “It was familiar to me and I wanted more of it.” The rest was history.
7. On JAY-Z and Dame Dash
Back in a 2014 interview with VladTV, Dame Dash claimed that Lyor Cohen was the reason that Roc-A-Fella Records fell apart. Dash said that he felt slighted when it came to Cohen’s business practices and also questioned his authenticity and intention within hip hop culture.
When N.O.R.E. asked if he was the reason Dash and JAY-Z were no longer business partners, Cohen responded, “Absolutely not.” He added, “If Lyor was the reason, then they never were really together in the first place. Mic drop.”
8. On why he started 300 Entertainment
After he left Warner Music Group in 2012, Cohen went on to co-found his own independent label 300 Entertainment, which has been home to coveted acts such as Megan Thee Stallion, Tee Grizzley and Young Thug. In the early stages of establishing the brand, there was some outside doubt, according to Cohen, who recalled, “They were laughing at me. They were saying, ‘Hasn’t he realized that the music industry is f**ked?’ and ‘What does he know?’ and ‘Shouldn’t he just retire?’”
That, of course, didn’t stop him from moving forward, though. “I knew that there was gonna be a bounce in the business. Anybody who would bet against music, always loses,” he said. After nine years and much success, Cohen sold the company for $440 million dollars. Thankful for it all, he continued, “I’m so grateful for the artists that believed in me and companies that believed in me.”
9. On artificial intelligence
Cohen is someone who embraces artificial intelligence as a good thing. He explained that he’s currently working within the music industry to create a healthy framework of “control, monetization and attribution” when it comes to using the new technology to shape the future.
While on the topic, he also gave his thoughts on the idea of making music with fake, AI-generated voices. “I think that’s just a fad,” he said. “Think about if you have writer’s block and AI could help you — I want this to be a tool for creativity. I want this to be a jetpack for human creativity, not a replacement.” Overall, Cohen said that he co-signs the use of “bold and responsible” AI and hopes that together, humans and computers can usher in an undeniable new era of sound.