Can art help you see the future?
...and why people like "tearing down flimsy things"
Hi, Ari here with some thoughts on how music and art can shape our thoughts, and the future. You can subscribe to my full newsletter here:
What do Milli Vanilli and Israel have in common?
The answer: They both provided formative experiences that formed the outlook of two of the most influential visionaries in the music business — Kevin Liles and Lyor Cohen.
Both men ran the legendary Def Jam record label in its heyday, working with artists like:
The Beastie Boys
Then they started one of the most successful independent record labels, 300 Entertainment; and now both are in that active “elder statesperson” role in music—Kevin stills runs 300 and has counseled some of the hottest artists today (Megan Thee Stallion, Migos, Young Thug) while Lyor runs YouTube Music for Google, which plays more free music around the world than anyone thought possible when he began his career.
Lyor was born in Israel, so he came to hip hop just like he came to America—with fresh eyes, as an outsider, with something to prove.
Kevin’s first brush with music industry was ghostwriting for Milli Vanilli. At 17, he wrote “Girl You Know It’s True,” which sold 18 million copies for the ultimately infamous act.
He says the experience forged his passion for supporting creators and artists, not just being a “typical suit” or executive.
Kevin and Lyor sat with me for a joint interview, where they expounded on what they’ve learned, and why they largely ignored more successful elders who insisted hip hop was a fad, or could not achieve mainstream commercial success.
Can art help you see the future?
At Def Jam, both men invested in charting mainstream careers for rappers as pop stars. That was considered insane at the time, and a waste of money.
Cohen said that very perception helped him, and his artists.
“Fortunately, the establishment realized [hip hop] wasn’t a fad seven years too late, and allowed us to get a head start and build something beautiful,” Cohen says.
So the “experts” could not see what these new upstarts did. Cohen says that dynamic can crop up across many fields:
Mentally, physically, everything, [the Establishment] didn’t have that muscle memory of understanding the art form. So that allowed us to have clout, have capital, have experience — and be formidable competitors.
“The Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme”
Then the upstarts become the establishment.
Cohen and Liles are now among the “big executives” with the “big companies” (300 is still independent, Google is one of the largest corporations in the world).
That means sitting at tables where business interests may create conflict, and they have had some spats with artists. They’ve also seemed to maintain much of their original respect and credibility with many. They are name-checked in more songs than I will list here; with Rick Ross rapping about working as hard “as Kevin Liles,” or one of the artists who has clashed most with Record Labels and Corporate America, Kanye West, famously dubbing himself “the Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme.”
Facing Down Haters
What about the new generation that attacks current ‘business as usual’? How do these two see their potential successors in the next generation? I found this part really interesting — while both men said positive things about the new generation, Cohen was quick to minimize some young challengers:
Young people like tearing down flimsy things. That’s called ‘being a hater.’ If they go to hate and they tear you down — mission accomplished.
But if they go to hate, and you keep coming back, they say ‘That’s too much work, man, we love that brand.’ And that’s how Def Jam became such a loved brand.
Liles struck a similar note of persistence, saying “you gotta keep fighting… they’re not going to tell us we can’t do it no more, we’re going to say when we’re done.”
Any success story may seem pretty “inevitable” in hindsight. Listening to how it actually went down can offer an appreciation for the tougher calls in the moment, and the perseverance it took.
Do you think it’s important to have people on the “business side” of music who truly care about artists?
The difference between a fad and a foundational art form is persistence and profundity. Hip hop held a mirror up to society to show us the truth, but that would have been fleeting had pioneers like Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles not been there with the metaphorical Windex to keep the mirror reflecting.
This is a very interesting newsletter and you are very knowledgeable about Hip Hop… learning from you😃
I didn’t know the Kevin Liles wrote “Girl You Know It’s True” for Milli Vanilli. To those saying that Hip Hop is a fad, too bad that they didn’t see what Kevin and Lyor saw about the future of Hip Hop and the artists.
Have a nice weekend, Ari😃