Lyor Cohen recounts storied time in the music business in SXSW keynote

Chris Duncan

Recounting his entry and success in the music business, Lyor Cohen delivered the long story of his career at the music keynote of South by Southwest.

Beginning with his arrival in New York City, Cohen recounted that he headed straight to Rush Productions, where he was then sent to the airport to become Run DMC’s road manager because he was one of the only people in the office with a passport. Segwaying into the meat of his talk, Cohen warned of any inflexibility amongst the audience.

“If you think following a step-by-step recipe will get you success in the music business, you don’t understand all of the changes that will come along the way,” Cohen said. “Hopefully you can see my changes and my success, and you can ride with that.”

Cohen grew up around music, with his brothers listening to more music than him. He first heard some of the beats that would drive his career in high school during basketball games. Cohen relayed that everything revolved around beats.

“The scene was so good, and the music was wild,” Cohen said. “Thousands of young black kids having the time of their lives.”

After graduating from college, Cohen took a job at the International Bank of Israel in Beverly Hills, but he knew he would soon leave that job. Cohen borrowed $700 from his mom and started throwing parties throughout Los Angeles targeted towards black youth. He then met Run DMC, and Cohen immediately wanted to be a part of the fun.

Cohen moved to New York, meeting Russel Simmons. Taking a moment to address allegations of sexual assault, Cohen conveyed he was roommates with Simmons and never saw any of the actions Simmons is accused of.

“I am deeply troubled by the allegations, and there's no room for this behavior,” Cohen said. “One thing I do know about Russel, is that he was the smartest person I knew in hip hop.”

Cohen’s label Def Jam come into its own in the 1980s, with exclusivity declining whereas hip hop welcomed in everyone. With the help of super producer Rick Rubin and MTV, hip hop exploded into the mainstream and became ubiquitous in music culture.

It was then when Cohen decided he wanted to sign “every dope ass rapper.” From Public Enemy to A Tribe Called Quest, Slick Rick and De La Soul, new acts were succeeding left and right with Def Jam on the rise, but change came.

“Thank God I love change, because this was a critical moment in my life…” Cohen said. “We could have never predicted the Beasties would have left Def Jam in 1988, and shortly after Rick Ruben.”

Cohen said it was then major labels became interested in hip hop, and he became in charge of signing acts which he immensely struggled with. Cohen said even his associate label Columbia Recordings started to compete with them. When Columbia kicked Def Jam out, Cohen was forced to make drastic changes.

Eventually, Cohen and Def Jam found their revival in Redman’s “Time 4 Sum Aktion.” Suddenly, entrepreneurs such as Sean Combs and Suge Knight entered hip hop, but Cohen made sure his label's focus was always working for his artists. Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records teamed to with Def Jam, and Cohen was the head of Island Records – the first ever hip hop head of a major label.

After success in other genres, Cohen saw the music industry shifting to democratization of music, specifically in the way artists and labels were paid. Cohen said the label's job was no longer the same, allowing independent labels to have more success without the capital. Cohen himself faced a pivotal moment.

“In the spirit of change, and that shit happens, in September of 2012 I was pushed out of Warner Music Group,” Cohen said. “It was without question the best thing that ever happened to me. The higher I rose, the farther away I got from my true love – signing and breaking artists.”

Cohen went and started 300, and now works as YouTube’s Global Head of Music. He said he originally feared music becoming a bipartisan game between Apple and Spotify, but now he's prepared for a golden era of music to begin.

“I made a promise to this industry,” Cohen said. “A place where more money goes back to the artists and labels, that's my promise. And I'm sticking to it.”