You can call Lyor Cohen by his official title: Chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group. Or you can simply call him "the check writer." Starting in the '80s as Run-DMC's road manager, the now 50-year-old American-born "tall Israeli" has become hip-hop's industry standard, having helped build Island Def Jam into a juggernaut by signing acts like Jay-Z, DMX, Slick Rick, EPMD, and Ja Rule. In 2004, he moved over to Warner and has continued molding stars, including T.I., Trey Songz, and Lupe Fiasco. Cohen recently sat with us to discuss why his son doesn't like talking rap with him, his disappointment over not signing Drake, and the reason he doesn't see much of himself in today's young music executives.
By Toshitaka Kondo
A lot of people say that the music industry is moving toward music becoming free. Is that a viable model going forward?
Lyor Cohen:I f it's free, then how would record labels support paying their staff and signing new artists? I think it would be bad for culture and the art if artists and people who develop the apparatus to support those artists don't get paid. How about this: Look at the vibe around the world about America and Americans after eight years of Bush. People who adored us and aspired to our democracy and our society turned their backs on us. Content that's generated out of America, whether it be film or music, has, in my opinion, much greater impact in sustaining our credibility and our place as a cultural capital. This is our great export.
What does it say that Gucci Mane, one of your biggest artists, made his name by releasing a slew of original material for free?
Lyor Cohen:Well, I'm not convinced he didn't get paid, because a lot of those mixtapes were sold. I don't doubt that mom and pop stores sold them, but a lot of people got them for free. That has more to do with some of the corrections that need to happen in our business and the delivery of our music, whether it be radio or new Internet programming. He may have been frustrated that he wasn't able to get his music out.
You've played an integral part in hip-hop for 25 years. Nowadays, people complain about the state of rap. What do you say to people who think hip-hop's best days are behind it?
Lyor Cohen:I like moments of staleness and mildew, simply because it creates the lane for change. Remember when everything was full of color and happy-dappy when Bad Boy was running everything and then we came with DMX? Do you remember that summer? How excited people got? That's my favorite moment—when I sit on a porch in the summertime and the air gets really thick. There's no breeze. The birds start darting around. And then all of a sudden a violent storm comes through—raindrops as big as cups; lighting and thunder. I know when things get stale there's someone making an opportunity. Rap now is multi-generational, which has its own issues. My son is a big Cudi fan, but he does not like talking to me about Kid Cudi.
It's not like you don't know anything about Cudi. Why wouldn't he want to talk to you?
Lyor Cohen:Fuckin' kids don't want knowledge from their 50-year-old dad. Kids want to have their own shit. It doesn't matter if I'm in the business.
Speaking of new artists, many people were expecting Drake to sign with you at Warner Music. Did it disappoint you that he ended up going with Universal Motown?
Lyor Cohen:A very disappointing thing. But I'm a lover of rap music. I want good things to happen to this industry. I have so much good fortune and already have everything. I feel like we have a terrific company, and we're very old-school in that once we grip someone's hand, fundamentally we believe that's a deal. But that's not this generation. They'll grip someone's hand and say they're coming, but if someone offers them more they will renege. That's not how we get down.
Did Drake do that?
Lyor Cohen:I'll keep that between Drake and myself.
Have you met any young executives that you see a lot of yourself in?
Lyor Cohen: I haven't. Only because this generation is handicapped by the era of excess. I grew up in an era of love and swimming upstream, determined to prove people wrong. We had chips on our shoulders, like, "We belong here." But now it's the most popular, biggest segment of the industry. We've had a decade of private planes and Maybachs. That's not the era that I came from. The era I came from, I had zero expectation that I was going to make any money. I was determined to prove to the gatekeepers of the industry that we had a place here and we weren't going to relinquish our opportunity. I never had to keep up with nobody because we were all on subways. So it was never like, "My subway is bigger and flyer than your subway." And there was a real fraternal order. We were backstage with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring, and we had zero fucking money. But everybody wanted us in the VIP room because we were doing something that was so important to them. People understood that it wasn't if it was going to happen, it was when it was going to happen.