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Jacko Almost Hip-Hopped to Def Jam

Michael Jackson | Sen. John Kerry

Jacko Almost Hip-Hopped to Def Jam

Michael Jackson almost left Sony for Def Jam Records last year. Jennifer Lopez almost didn't strike up her musical collaboration with her rap savior, Ja Rule. And rap impresario Irv Gotti doesn't take no for an answer. Those are just three of the revelations in court testimony from a recent trial concerning two record labels.

About three weeks ago, we all saw a flurry of stories about TVT Records winning a landmark lawsuit against Def Jam Records (a division of Universal Music Group) and its president, Lyor Cohen. A jury took only a short time to find Cohen and Def Jam guilty of fraud. It awarded TVT -- an independent label -- $132 million. Some $56 million of it was awarded against Cohen personally. The awards are being appealed, but it would seem the damage was done.

But more interesting, in the cutthroat world of hip-hop and rap, are the actual documents from the trial including a statement from Cohen -- all of which I got to read this past weekend. It would seem that this written statement and his testimony in front of the jury were very different. In fact, if Cohen weren't a young man, you'd have to draw the conclusion he had Alzheimer's.

The case was simple: Rapper Ja Rule and his producer Irv Gotti recorded tracks for TVT as the group Cash Money Click back in 1994, before they were famous. When a member of Ja Rule's group went to jail, the project was tabled. In the interim, Ja Rule and Gotti moved to Universal/Def Jam, formed Murder Inc. Records and became famous. Last year, TVT decided it wanted to release the Cash Money tracks it owned so it could cash in on the pair's success. Ja Rule and Gotti agreed. But when they told their new boss, Cohen, who felt he'd put them on the map, trouble ensued.

Cohen may have wanted to stop the TVT project, but according to court testimony he was too scared of Gotti to tell him, so he just kept deferring action one way or another. But Ja Rule and Gotti went ahead and worked on the tracks, and Def Jam lawyers sent a letter to TVT in which they basically agreed to let them release the old tracks. That's when Cohen put a last-minute stop to the release. TVT cried foul and sued. And won.

That would be enough to know ordinarily, but just a little bit of the massive court file sheds a lot of light on how Universal Music Group, under Cohen, has navigated dealing with the hip-hop world.

A couple of points come out from Cohen's trial testimony of March 14, 2003. First of all, Cohen -- who gave a written declaration to the court -- suddenly could not remember many things when he took the stand. According to his testimony, he couldn't say for sure if he and Gotti composed the Murder Inc. board of directors. He said remembering anything from a year or two ago was difficult.

What Cohen does say, in his declaration, is that when Gotti told him about the TVT project, Murder Inc.'s deal with Def Jam was running out. Rather than risk losing the hip-hop label to another company, Cohen seems to have gone along with whatever Gotti wanted until a new deal was secured.

"So the right way of working with Irv is by not emphatically saying no, but really slowing him down to see all the variables," Cohen said.

Later in his testimony Cohen said: "Whenever I tell Irv no, he -- that's not how I and him -- you know, interact. That just inflames him ... I know that I try to be very careful with him."

For this point, Cohen can be credited with some smarts: According to many published reports, Gotti is being investigated to see if he started Murder Inc. with the profits from a Queens, NY, drug dealer, Kenneth McGriff, his childhood friend.

Cohen also explained in his court examination how he sidestepped Gotti when he proposed signing Michael Jackson last year. Cohen testified: "He wanted to sign Michael Jackson, and I said, 'Listen, I don't know if that's a very good idea.' Because had I said no, he would have -- next phone call I would have received was from Never-never land."

Cohen also testified that when Gotti came to him with the idea of Ja Rule remixing Jennifer Lopez's song, "I'm Real," Cohen nixed the idea.

Insiders who know the history of Def Jam are also amused by the way Cohen characterized his role in that company's origins. In testimony, Cohen manifested what you might call résumé recidivism when he said that he started Def Jam Records with entrepreneurs Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin in 1984. In fact, Cohen worked for Simmons' Rush Entertainment as a promoter and was not a founder of Def Jam.

My personal favorite episode in the TVT/Def Jam case can be found in Cohen's court declaration. It took place, he said, in the first or second week of August 2002 when TVT's owner, Steve Gottlieb, was trying to reach him to resolve the existing issues and schedule the Ja Rule record for release. Gottlieb, who'd failed to get satisfaction by letter or phone, tried the in-person route.

"I happened to see Mr. Gottlieb on a small plane that was flying from New York City to Eastern Long Island," Cohen recalls, referring of course to the Hamptons. "Mr. Gottlieb said he was anxious to speak with me. I told him that the plane ride was too bumpy for me to carry on a sustained conversation and that I did not want to discuss business."

Cohen is now said to be in his own contract negotiation at Universal with his boss, Doug Morris. If he thought that Hamptons ride was rough, now that he has a $132 million judgment against him it may be time to really fasten his seat belt tight.

A-List Stars Pony Up for Kerry

Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry is making his move on New York celebrities for campaign contributions.

Tuesday night Kerry -- who announced his candidacy two years ago at a Hollywood agent's Oscar party -- is hosting a swell little private soiree here in New York for the A-list. There are plenty of big money types and society names--most of whom you wouldn't recognize but could make a significant impact on Kerry's future.

The names you would know are pretty solid, however: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Carly Simon and director Martin Scorsese are all on the list for the get together at the home of Artur Walther on Park Avenue. Walther, who is plugged into many major arts institutions, is the former General Partner and Head of the Worldwide Capital Markets Group of Goldman, Sachs & Co. The minimum donation is $500 and the maximum is $2,000.

Other guests either expected or on the party committee include directors Robert Altman, Robert Downey Sr. and Arthur Penn, singer Judy Collins, Spalding Gray, Norman Mailer, Michelle Phillips, George Plimpton, Erica Jong, A.E. Hotchner and the legendary Kitty Carlisle Hart.

Will this gang, and others like it, help Kerry match George W. Bush's $200 million war chest for the 2004 campaign? The money march is on!