Lyor Cohen

Although Lyor Cohen wasn’t officially involved with Def Jam during its first several years, it would be a mistake to leave him out of the story of Def Jam’s launch year. He was fully one-third of the triumvirate that helped to make Def Jam a powerhouse.

One of the secrets of the label’s success was its alliance with Rush Productions. When Rick and Russell formed Def Jam in the summer of ’84, Rush was already managing the careers of Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Run-DMC, Jimmy Spicer, Spyder D, Sparky D, and others. All of the Def Jam artists, beginning with LL and the Beastie Boys, would also be managed by Rush.

Lyor was a hard-driving risk-taker who left a comfortable job at a Beverly Hills bank to promote a series of pioneering rap-and-punk rock shows in Los Angeles. One of them featured Run-DMC. Another featured Whodini. In December of 1984, Lyor moved to New York to work for Rush. He very quickly proved his mettle and, by 1986 or so, he and Russell were partners in Rush.

As the decade rolled on, it was Lyor who spearheaded the signing to Rush of such important acts as Slick Rick, Eric B & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, and EPMD. And in 1993, several years after Rick and Russell had dissolved their partnership (leading to an early Nineties trough in the label’s fortunes), Lyor took the reins at Def Jam, which he revived and led to new heights during the succeeding ten years.

Lyor poses with (from right to left) Will “Fresh Prince” Smith, Russell Simmons, “Jazzy Jeff” Townes, James “J.L.” Lassiter (Will’s business partner to this day)…and a bunch of gold and platinum records. The records were probably for Will and Jeff’s second album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper and its huge hit single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

This feature article about Lyor was written by David Nathan for Black Radio Exclusive, an industry weekly. It describes Rush as “unquestionably the premier management operation in the field,” then invites Lyor to recall his early days as road manager for Run-DMC. After noting some of the pioneering merchandising and sponsorship deals that Lyor wrangled for his artists—this was the era when corporate America was only just awakening to the astonishing popularity of rap—the article goes on to spell out a couple of his more extravagant plans for the future, including buying radio stations and magazines. Although neither of those visions was ever realized, they give a good indication of Lyor’s ambition on behalf of his artists.

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