Rap's Unlikely King

In the lead limo, Lyor Cohen, co-president of Island Def Jam, is the first to notice the ominous noise overhead. A police helicopter hovers above the caravan carrying rapper Jay-Z, one of the label's stars, to a performance at an overflowing Norfolk, Va., nightclub. "You hear the cop-ta?" Cohen says, his accent one part Israeli, one part street.

Where a less aggressive entertainment exec might see trouble, Cohen--who climbed to rap's highest levels by relentlessly promoting such artists as Run DMC, DMX and LL Cool J--sees only opportunity. Oblivious to the fact that he is the only white person in sight, Cohen quickly deposits Jay-Z at the club's back door and heads to the front. There he approaches a tense fire marshal who wants the packed club emptied--now. Cohen stalls, arguing that canceling the show could start a riot. Suddenly, inside the club, the crowd roars with approval. Jay-Z has snuck onto the stage and launched into a set. The marshal is apoplectic. The audacious diversion was classic Cohen. En route back to New York on a private jet, he giddily phones in an account to his longtime partner, Russell Simmons, chairman of Def Jam.

Inside music-industry circles and suburban malls, Simmons has long been seen as the godfather of rap. But after 17 years of laboring in the background, Cohen, a towering 6 feet 5 inches tall, has emerged as the most powerful executive in hip-hop. Simmons helped launch Def Jam in 1984 and later made Cohen a partner. Last year the pair sold their interest in the label to Seagram Co. for a cool $120 million. Most of Simmons's efforts go to spreading hip-hop to the Internet, but the 40-year-old Cohen has enlisted fully in corporate America. He now bosses Def Jam, the most important black music company since Motown. And at the beginning of the new millennium, Def Jam's brand of rap and hip-hop reigns as the nation's top music choice. These days Cohen also oversees Island Records, home to some of rock's most white-bread groups, including Elton John and Bon Jovi.

His new job may be the most daunting in the music industry. A $10 billion buying spree has made Seagram's Universal Music the world's biggest record company. But some of the company's labels, including Island, need burnishing. It remains to be seen how Cohen's rap moves will play in the bubblegum world of Hanson, a group he now works with. And it's not clear how comfortably Cohen's rap empire will fit into the confines of a publicly traded company. Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. is already under intense scrutiny from his family for his heavy bet on show business, and while Simmons and Cohen have unblemished records, some of their artists, including Jay-Z, have had legal troubles.

Cohen was always an unlikely rap mogul. Born in New York to Israeli Jews, he spent his toddler years in Israel before moving to Los Angeles. He graduated from the University of Miami, getting a degree in global marketing and finance. Cohen took a year off from college to go to Ecuador, where he unsuccessfully tried to launch a shrimp-farming business with well-connected Ecuadorans he met at school. After college he eventually stumbled onto the hip-hop scene as a promoter at an L.A. club. His big break came when he booked rap giants Run DMC, a group managed by Simmons. He quickly made himself indispensible and was hired by Simmons. Darryl McDaniels, a Run DMC member, called Cohen "Mr. Handle-It-Make-It-Happen"--"Every detail had to be perfect," he recalls.

Together, Simmons and Cohen guidedthe careers of some of rap's biggest names, including Curtis Blow, Whodini and Big Daddy Kane. "We felt like we were doing something artistically important," Cohen says. "Nobody knew the economics of it." The pair largely invented the techniques of street-marketing music that most major labels now employ. They pioneered giving away free-sample cassettes of new music to influential club DJs and plastering neighborhoods with posters and handouts.

His race and religion have made Cohen conspicuous since his early days as a club promoter. "Lyor's name was Little Israel back then," recalls McDaniels. "All the homies knew him as that." But mostly, people in the tightknit world were struck by how well Cohen was accepted. "Here was this guy in the midst of all these black rappers and a very black rap movement," recalls an early Def Jam employee, Bill Stephney. "They didn't care that he was white."

Part of it, observers say, was his all-out advocacy of his artists. In 1986 Cohen put together a landmark endorsement deal for Run DMC with Adidas, one of the first big commercial deals for a rap group. The group had recorded a song, now a hip-hop classic, that is an ode to the sneaker. For his part, Stephney says, "Not to get into the sociology too much, but one can argue that a white hip-hop executive who shows he respects the music will get more respect than a black hip-hop executive who shows respect for the music."

Despite a tony address on New York's Upper East Side and a wife and son, Cohen moves at a dizzying pace. On the evening of Dec. 7, he is still revved up after about 72 hours without sleep. He's been sorting through legal problems related to Jay-Z's alleged assault on an industry executive, something the artist denies. But Cohen's making the rounds, dressed as usual in blue jeans and sneakers, chomping furiously on a wad of gum. He first stops at New York's Hit Factory recording studio for a listening party, where hip-hop's opinion leaders listen to DMX's new al-bum while sipping cognac cocktails. Next stop: the nightclub Roxy, where another of the label's groups, Biohazard, is performing live. The crowd is mostly white, pierced and tattooed. Cohen wades in. Before ending the evening, he heads uptown to Mr. Chow's, a pricey Chinese restaurant that's become a hip-hop industry hangout, to help recruit a talented team of record producers Def Jam has flown in from Atlanta.

Cohen's focus is legendary when a project grabs his attention. Several years ago he waited outside up-and-coming rapper Foxy Brown's home to persuade her to sign with Def Jam. She did. Lately he's been obsessed with delivering the soundtrack for movie producer Brian Grazer's "Nutty Professor II," calling every label head in the industry to haggle for hit acts to perform on the project. Becoming a top dog "hasn't changed him at all," says Jay-Z. "He's still the high-energy crazy guy that he's always been."

That hasn't made for an easy transition to life within Seagram's gigantic music empire. Associates say Cohen has already crossed swords with Jimmy Iovine, the boss of Seagram's big Interscope unit. Soon after Seagram acquired Def Jam, Iovine attempted (unsuccessfully) to lure away several artists, including Sisqo, a promising solo act on the new Def Soul label. Cohen tried to settle the score by offering an executive job at Island Def Jam to Fred Durst, the lead singer of Interscope's megagroup Limp Bizkit. To close the deal, Cohen hopped a helicopter to Long Island, where Durst was staying. But his plan was uncovered before he landed, and his corporate bosses called him off. "It took Lyor to step forward to believe in me for my own company to step forward" and offer him a label job, Durst told NEWSWEEK. Doug Morris, Seagram's top music boss, admits that Cohen and Iovine are rabidly competitive, but says he recently brokered a truce. "Lyor feels the place is a little bit of a boys' club," says Simmons. "He doesn't talk about it, but it's obvious to people."

Cohen insists that Seagram is giving him room to move and that he intends to just be himself. "I talk loudly and directly," he says, an approach he honed in noisy clubs during the early days. "If the corporation tries to take me and Def Jam and mold us into their image of what a music company should be, then Def Jam will wilt," he says.

Cohen's biggest challenge may be proving he can work his magic with pop stars. He's hired top rock and pop talent hunters, and the moves are already paying off. Last week he signed a hotly sought-after punk band, Sum-41. He's working closely with Jon Bon Jovi to promote the studly rocker's upcoming album. "He told me he's going to cause a groundswell" for the record, Bon Jovi says. "If he gets behind a project, he'll go to war." Last Friday Cohen hardly could contain his glee: he was on the verge of breaking his first big pop act, Sisqo. This week, he predicts, Sisqo may crack the top 10 for the first time. "If I knock the rock thing out of the park," Cohen says, "it's gonna be crazy around here." That kind of craziness would make the Seagram bosses glad they invited a rapper to their party.