After making his name as a promoter in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, current Warner Music Group Chairman & CEO of Recorded Music Lyor Cohen moved to New York to work with Russell Simmons in the intertwined companies of Rush Management and Def Jam Records. There, he worked extensively with Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys early in their career and particularly during their meteoric rise to fame in 1986 and 87 (Cohen enjoyed a fairly meteoric rise himself, ultimately becoming the head of Island Def Jam before leaving for WMG in 2004).
While the group parted acrimoniously from the companies not long after that initial success, there was always a bond. Cohen took the time on Monday to share some memories of Yauch, who died on Friday after a long battle with cancer, and those days with Billboard.biz.
Billboard.biz: I’m sorry we’re having this conversation at all, there’s really not anything good that can come out of Yauch’s death.
Lyor Cohen: Nothing really good [can come out of it] other than, in my mind, reminding us that tomorrow’s not guaranteed, and let’s make a point of telling those that we love how much we appreciate and love them, and actually spend time with them – not come with a million and one excuses why we’re all too busy spend time with one another. When I heard the news, I called up [early Def Jam publicist] Bill Adler and I said, “Bill, come on over for dinner and let’s spend some time together.” He goes, “You know, I’m very busy.” And I said, “You know what? We’re all really busy.” He cancelled [his plans].
He came up and my daughter was here, 10 years old. She knows [the Beastie Boys’ 1998 hit] “Intergalactic,” we have a really nice sound system here in the house and we thumped vinyl and we danced around the living room, drank some scotch, and found a way to smile. That was so hugely important to us. It was just one of the greatest evenings I’ve had in a long time. I said to Bill, “Let’s not take this for granted.”
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Did you see anyone else from back in the day over the weekend?
I didn’t, because I have my children on the weekends. I did speak to a lot of people. Even though we were all basically prepared [for Yauch’s death], you cannot really prepare for the phone call. You just can’t do that. I spoke to [Def Jam founders] Rick [Rubin], Russell [Simmons], [Run-DMC’s Rev] Run, Adam [“Adrock” Horovitz].
Thinking way back, do you remember the first time you met Adam?
“Thinking way back in history” — you know their music so well you started the question that way?
I do, but I didn’t realize I was quoting them.
“It started way back in history / With AdRock, MCA and me, Mike D” [from “Paul Revere”]. Anyway, I probably met him in other places but one time that I remember — my memory isn’t the sharpest tool in the toolshed — was in Gansvoort Park, it was hot summer — I remember that we were listening to [Boogie Down Productions’ 1987] ‘Criminal Minded’ album, all of us, and just memorized it. It was like, “Wow, it’s impossible that we’re listening to this stuff.” That’s where my early memories are, showing up at the park and that’s where we would congregate.
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Did you go on the Madonna tour with them in 1985?
A few dates. It was mostly “The Captain,” god rest his soul. Sean Carasov, who took his life a couple years ago.
What was the tour like? I never understood how the Beastie Boys got on such a coveted tour before they even had an album out.
That was truly Madonna’s choice. [The tour was] complete fun. Not complicated, simply living in the present. There was no complexity about it. You know what I mean by that? It wasn’t like we could demand brighter lights or stuff like that. We were just happy to be there. Not complicated, simple as that.
They became popular really fast. Did they change as they suddenly became pop stars?
No. No. No. No. The same friends, they were the same friends who were important. That’s the thing that was striking to me-how close they were with their original set of friends. That to me was always beautiful. They were always consistent. It wasn’t like, “Oh, now they’re successful, oh now they have another set of friends.”
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When they separated from Rush and Def Jam, I’m sure it got a little awkward. How long was it before you got back together as friends with Adam and the rest of the group?
I would say it was never, ever the same because I think [none of us had] experienced anything like that, you know? We had no context at all.
Would you still consider him a friend?
I would consider him a friend that I shared a critical moment of my life with. It’s a bond but I wouldn’t consider it a friendship. Which is unfortunate, had we known what we know now. I’m smart enough now, I wish I was smart enough then like I am now.
Was there was a certain point over the years when you looked at him and thought, Wow, he’s really grown up?
Yeah, absolutely. I thought it was absolutely brilliant that they wanted to evolve and didn’t stay stagnant. I thought it was wonderful.
How was he different from the other two?
I thought, in all my dialogues, that he was the one driving the film early on. I thought that he understood the possibilities the most and was interested in the possibilities the most.
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Anything you’d like to say in conclusion?
Let’s take this opportunity that tomorrow is never promised and hug those we adore and not tolerate bullshit.