Everyone gets one gift, and for Lyor Cohen—the charismatic, six-foot-five chairman of Warner’s Recorded Music division—that gift is presence. Spending an evening with him is like climbing aboard a bullet train: Stories, people, cityscapes go streaking by, with only Cohen’s face and voice in focus.
I’ve just walked into the 52-year-old’s six-story town house right off Fifth Avenue in the East Nineties. Thirty years ago, Cohen washed ashore in Manhattan with nothing in his pockets; now, having taken hip hop from dance halls and dub tapes to international ubiquity, he has become a card-carrying member of the New York social scene, largely due to his relationship with preppy-luxe designer Tory Burch. I’ve come to see him on the other side of the rainbow.
He puts a drink in my hand and heads down the hall, gin in fist. “I’m gonna give you a treat,” he announces, settling into his champion-size living room and crossing his long legs. In an exquisite, Bond-villain moment, he presses a keypad: bulbs dim, blinds lower, and the only light in the room shines on a Gerhard Richter painting—a nude descending a staircase. “If it was four in the morning? And we had just listened to a good piece of vinyl? And we were really, really happy? She looks like she’s walking downstairs into the room.”
During Cohen’s initial two years in New York—he arrived via the bohemian Los Angeles enclave of Los Feliz in 1982—he slept on the floor of a welfare hotel. Some evenings he toured the Upper East Side’s leafy, quiet streets; the journey from sidewalk to master bedroom still surprises him. “I used to walk by these town houses—you know, they’re so beautifully lit—and ask myself, Who lives here? How is this possible?” Years later, after he bought one of his own, his social-activist mother toured the place with a scowl: “‘This is not how I taught you to live.’” But that’s not all she said, Cohen is quick to note. “After she berated me, she says, ‘Okay—where am I sleeping?’ My mother loves staying at my house.”
On Cohen’s office wall is a framed edition of Captain America, issue No. 100. “He was invented to kill Hitler,” Cohen explains. “By a Jew.” He steers me to a photo of himself at 13, with a big head of curly hair: “A four-day bar mitzvah, in the Sierra Nevada. My dad was the rabbi.”
Around the same time as the bar mitzvah, Cohen began visiting his older brother, a teacher in South Central Los Angeles. At halftime during the school’s basketball games, kids would roll out a drum set and a bass, and Cohen would receive a kind of insider trading tip: an embryonic version of rap. “I knew something important had happened,” Cohen says. He went East for college, returned West to take a job in a Beverly Hills bank, and worked promotions on the side. Borrowing $700, he booked Run-DMC at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood, pocketed $35,000 in a single night, and headed back East again—he’d spoken to a man named Russell Simmons who was starting a music label.