A Conversation With Kevin Liles

posted October 17, 2005 12:00:00 AM CDT | 2 comments

His story of going from unpaid intern slash nobody in the music biz to top man at Def Jam to Executive Vice President of Warner Music Group, is well known. Hes personally overseen the careers of artists like Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Kanye West, Ludacris, and Ashanti, and amassed a fortune doing it.

Before he was Kevin Liles, big shot music industry executive he was Kevin Liles, college kid with nothing. He knew he wanted to be in music, and so at the age of 19 he started a group (called NuMarx) and wrote a song called Girl You Know its True. That song would eventually be performed (notice I didnt say sung) by the now infamous duo Milli-Vanilli. The single went multi-platinum and started Liles down the path of more hits for his group. In 1991 he began at Def Jam as an intern and has not looked back.

Fast forward to 2002 and Kevin had doubled Def Jams revenues to the tune of about $400 million as president. Liles was key in the creation and development of such brands as Def Jam South, Def Soul, Def Soul Classics, Roc-A-Fella and Murder Inc.

But hopefully youre not looking for his resume. If you are looking for that you can check Forbes, or the Wall Street Journal. Better yet, you can buy his new book, titled Make It Happen: The Hip-Hop Generations Guide to Success. In it he gives lots of lessons for living based on his own down-to-earth way of doing it. I titled this article A Conversation with Kevin Liles because thats exactly what I had: a conversation with Kevin Liles.

HHDX: What was your motivation for wanting to put this book together?

Kevin Liles: Like I tell people man I really didnt wake up one day say and want to write this book. I remember a conversation I had when I was 32. Lyor says to me Kevin you remind me of Dick, and I said Dick? Whos Dick? He said Dick Parsons (Chairman and CEO on Time Warner) , and I said who is that? (me being young). I really didnt know who it was. So I did the research and I said, now I understand. That one moment alone made me really figure out. The 16 year old kid in high school what does he really want to be today? What does he really feel he can be? Does he know that he can be CEO of the largest media company in the world? Does he know that he can be CEO of one of the largest financial companies in the world? I dont think so because Im 32 and I didnt even know these guys. So that was a very significant point. And then four years after that I met a lady that came to do an interview with me for Cranes. Her name was Samantha Marshall. Samantha says to me Kevin I didnt know what to expect when I came to see you because its hip hop and Im not really familiar with it because I was doing business. I said why would you not be familiar with a business thats doing 400 million dollars with some of the most recognizable names in hip hop? She said because thats not really what we write about. I said well itll only take 15 min, and we ended up talking for 2 hours. She called me right after she left and said Youve inspired to take over the world. I want to take over the world with you right now. I want people to live a better life. Im looking at the phone like what did I do? She said Youve gotta let people know how you live. I said Maam I apologize but Im running records, Im doing games, Im doing mobile service, I really dont have time right now to do a book. Plus Im 37 why would I wanna do a book about my life? Im only 37. I kinda blew her off for the next 6 months and she stalked me. I saw her and she said Kevin the book is meant to be. I said the only way I would even think about it is if it could help kids. She said Well let me write a proposal. And that was that. I know its a long story, but those are the two incidents that gave me motivation to write this book

HHDX: Who exactly is the hip hop generation?

KL: 16-34. Someone in high school about to got to college, in college about to come out, or theyve been working somewhere and theyre ready to make a change in their life. White black green, purple or polka-dot colored.

HHDX: What was it like trying to boil down all of the colorful stories into 10 rules?

KL: You know what it was, a lot of hard work. A lot of conversations, really I wanted to give something to the readers that they didnt experience everyday in their life.

HHDX: How much of an artists success is due to promotion and how much is due to talent?

KL: You know I dont believe that you can be successful without your own talent. Now, raw talent; thats something different. Just because you sell records doesnt mean that youre a dope MC. So its about how many people did you get to change the way they think about things. If you get people to get rid of gold and start wearing platinum. Or you get people to stop worrying about partying and say Get at me dog. Those kinda artists are revolutionary. Like Public Enemy that said fight the power, or the Beastie Boys who said fight for your right to party. You know all those different kinds of artists over the course of my career that Ive been involved with.

HHDX: It seems like every artist I talk to either wants to have their own label, or is already CEO of their company. What do you think is the overall effect on hip hop?

KL: I think what artists need to do is put in their time, and instead of just trying to put the three letters in front of their name they gotta go serve the time and understand what it means to be a CEO. I think thats why a lot of them are accepting these positions, to learn. I embrace that, I think that we should give them the opportunities to express themselves along with other artists.

HHDX: Any regrets from your time over at Def Jam?
KL: Regrets? I dont really regret any thing. I know you might say Kev thats bullshit but I really dont regret. The reason rule #6 is called feel the struggle is I think you learn from every failure. Ive learned from every wrong single I put out; every time I wasnt in the right place or was in the right place at the wrong time. Every time I spent more money than I should have. I learned things from all those failures. If I had to do it all over again I would do the same thing.

HHDX: How has hip hop changed from the early 90s to 2005?

KL: I think we went through a period of hip hop where we were considered revolutionary, and now were in an evolution stage of hip hop where were not just interested in putting out records were interested in owning record companies, and distributing companies. Thats pretty special.

HHDX: How can the relationships between people who write about hip hop and the people who make the music be improved?

KL: I think we need to spend more time together. Its like with anything: you cant talk about getting a good story about their life and you just spend 10 minutes with them, and vice versa you cant expect for them to give you more than 10 minutes worth. We gotta spend more time and understand the common goals and figure out what our true purpose is.

HHDX: Youve given a great deal through your charity in Baltimore. What type of responsibility do artists have to be involved in their communities?

KL: Its our job every day of our life to pay it forward- to give other people the opportunity. And I dont think that we should continue to take so much from a culture that wants to give up so much and not hold ourselves accountable and responsible for giving back.

HHDX: We often focus on hip hops past, but Id like to know where you think hip hop is going. Whats it going to be like 5 years-10 years from now?

KL: Well as long as we allow the evolution package, our people like Eminem to express their views of what hip hop is to them, as long as we allow Kanye West, and TI to continue to be products of their experiences and not just products of their environments. As soon as we stop and say hip hop is only for a certain people we stifle a culture that has gone from making thousands of dollars to making billions of dollars.

HHDX: You mentioned Kanye, do you think anything productive came out of his comments?

KL: I think what it did was promote the 1st amendment, the freedom of speech. You know we cant criticize people who we vote into office. At the end of the day we should all be able to speak our mind. I celebrate Kanye for that, for speaking his mind, and in the next election lets hold Bush accountable for what he did or did not do.

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