If there were a shadowy Illuminati controlling the world of rap, Lyor Cohen would be its all-seeing eye, the man behind the scenes, pulling the strings of the most powerful players and reaping the benefits. But to meet him in person, you wouldn’t know it. On a recent summer day, Cohen enters a Dumbo loft apartment in good spirits, sporting a blue polo shirt, blue jeans, and sandals, unassuming and “happy to be alive,” in the words of his publicist, after suffering a pulmonary embolism in April. He’s been documenting the recovery on Snapchat, featuring videos with Khalid, his doctor, and DJ Khaled, his friend.

Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, Cohen has a résumé that reads like a textbook on hip-hop history. He’s known as the prime mover behind Run-DMC’s seminal Adidas endorsement, the man who convinced Def Jam to split off from Sony Music Entertainment and develop Island Def Jam, and, thanks to a famously fierce temperament, the no-bullshit businessman who will burn one bridge while erecting three more.

His impressive client list is a power circle filled with monolithic old-school figures and influential newcomers: He’s worked with Jay Z, Run-DMC, DMX, Kanye West, Young Thug, and Fetty Wap, to name but a few. In 2012, Cohen left his role as the chairman and executive chief at Warner Music Group to found 300 Entertainment, a company Forbes refers to as “a record label for the 21st century...capable of launching self-starting artists to the next level without the burdensome bureaucracy—and cost structure—of a major record company.” The idea: to create a boutique “independent” music collective, a gang of enduring content creators.

His new venture is still in its infancy, but Cohen’s roster—which features Thug, Fetty, and Migos, among others—suggests that his influence still runs deep. To learn his secrets to the industry, and what it feels like to pull those strings, Complex sat down with Cohen to pick the puppet master’s brain on his ventures in hip-hop, both past and present.

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