At Simmons’s company, Cohen set about making himself indispensable, toting boxes, answering phones. Rap was the music of the city, but major labels weren’t interested. The members of Run-DMC were heading to the airport for a European tour when their road manager vanished into the drugs-and-parties ether. Cohen said, “I have a passport,” and spent the next three years on the road as the group’s manager, learning the industry from the ground up. “Three years, nonstop, all over the world. We never missed a gig. Flying coach, back of the plane. Staying at the worst hotels.” Within a few years, Simmons’s Def Jam Recordings began to run up the scoreboard with a string of hits by the likes of LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. In 1988 Cohen became its president.
Here’s the sort of thing he learned to do: In 1986 Run-DMC released a track called “My Adidas.” No special reason; they simply loved the sneakers. Cohen phoned the sportswear giant’s head of American marketing and invited him to a Run-DMC show at Madison Square Garden. From the stage, Run made a request, and an arena of 30,000 people raised their Adidas shoes in the air. The Adidas man found himself crying, and Cohen signed rap’s first endorsement deal—for a million bucks.
He walks me into his bedroom. It’s the bedroom—the house—for anyone who’s ever dreamed of living full-time in a hotel: impeccable taste without being anyone’s specific taste. I tell him it’s beautiful. Cohen nods. “Isn’t that nuts? It’s nuts.” And I realize I’m in a novel, standing beside Jay Gatsby while the young tycoon, with a touch of wonder, shows me his marble staircase, his Savile Row shirts.
In 1999 Def Jam was sold to Seagram for $135 million; Cohen, at 39, was a rich man. He stayed on as the new company’s president and bought this house; Newsweek called him “Rap’s unlikely king.” In 2004, Seagram’s former chief, Edgar Bronfman Jr., wooed him to Warner Music.
Cohen brings me into his daughter’s room: a telescope, a painting by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, a poster of Houdini. However, since Cohen and his wife of 13 years, Amy, split in 2006, he has lived in the house alone. “You can smell it, too—that no one’s here,” he says. Most nights, he heads down to the Pierre hotel, where Burch lives.
In 2009 Cohen and his ex-wife sold another property they’d owned together, an Upper East Side duplex. Almost symbolically, it went to an executive from Google. The change to digital has chewed through the music industry. Characteristically, Cohen sees the shift as an opportunity. “I’m excited,” he says, “because I used to do a mickey on you, right? I used to produce one hot joint, and I locked it up on a $19 CD. You can bifurcate my shit now. The digital era is simply power to the consumer. So I can just sell the hit, or I can go into long-term artist development and build something really sticky and important. The creation of the real stuff, the good stuff, is the thing that will yield.”