Liles, Kevin 1968–
Kevin Liles 1968–
Record company executive
At the age of 30, after just ten years with the company, Kevin Liles was promoted to president of leading rap label Def Jam Records. Four years later he was appointed vice president of Island Def Jam Music Group, the label’s parent company. By that time he was widely acknowledged as a driving force behind the doubling revenue of Def Jam. Instrumental in the careers of superstars like Jay-Z, Ja Rule, and DMX, Liles also had his hand in spin-off labels Def Soul and Def Jam South, as well as joint music recording ventures, Roc-A-Fella and Murder Inc. A cross-branding whiz, Liles also forged deals that tied Def Jam in with products ranging from clothing to video games. With his ability to impart professional respect on an industry often impeded by its gangster rep, Liles was touted as one of the few hip-hop/rap executives that had what it took to segue into a management suite in corporate America.
Born in 1968 and raised in Maryland, Liles enjoyed a comfortable life made possible by his hardworking parents. According to Cretin’s New York Business, “His mother, an accountant for an insurance company, and his father, a railway conductor, used their modest income to make sure their son could try his hand at whatever took his interest.” That interest was the hip-hop and rap music that was beginning to dominate Baltimore’s music scene. While still in high school he was part of a ten-turntable mixing crew that spun records at local clubs and parties.
After graduating from Wood-lawn High School in 1986, Liles abandoned music to pursue an engineering degree. However, hip-hop and rap held a powerful grip on Liles and 13 credits short of a degree he left college in 1989 to form a rap group with a couple of friends. Numarx found modest success with a regional record label and recorded several songs including “Girl You Know It’s True,” written by Liles. The song caught the attention of major record label Chrysalis but due to contract restrictions Numarx was prevented from recording for Chrysalis. Instead the record giant remade the song and Milli Vanilli soared up the charts with it. It was frustrating for Liles, particularly when it was discovered that the duo had lip-synched the song. After that Liles veered towards the business side of music. “I wanted to start my own company where musicians could be treated fairly and I could be more in
At a Glance…
Born in 1968 in MD. Education: Studied engineering in college.
Career: Numarx, founder and contributor, 1989-90; Marx Brothers Records, founder and president, 1991-92; Def Jam Recordings, intern, 1992-94, manager, mid-Atlantic region, 1994, general manager, promotions, West Coast, 1994-96, general manager/vice president, promotions, 1996-98, president, 1998-; Island Def Jam, executive vice president, 2002-.
Memberships: Board member, Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.
Awards: Diversity Award, Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, 2002; Music Visionary of the Year Award, UJA-Federation of New York and the Music for Youth Foundation, 2003.
Addresses: Office —Island Def Jam Music Group, 825 8th Ave., New York, NY, 10019.
control of my business interests,” he told Cretin’s New York Business. In 1991 he established MBR (Marx Brothers Records). A year later he joined Def Jam as an unpaid intern.
Founded by urban culture impresario Russell Simmons, Def Jam is the undisputed leader in the rap/hip-hop genres and one of the most successful record labels in the world. Home to superstars like Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and DMX, Def Jam was the perfect environment for Liles to grow in. As the intern for the mid-Atlantic regional manager, Liles quickly developed a reputation as hard-working, disciplined, and committed to the music. Simmons told Billboard, “He worked harder than anyone, and he knows about the culture and industry. He’s home-grown.” Lyor Cohen, the CEO of Island Def Jam agreed, telling Billboard, “Kevin is such a rare personality in this business, where everyone is impressed by the flash—the dinners, the cars, the clothes. It is very rare to find someone so stable and focused to do this job.”
Both Simmons and Cohen kept an eye on Liles and ushered him quickly through their ranks. In 1994 Liles replaced his boss as mid-Atlantic manager. That same year he became general manager of promotions for the West Coast. He hired a West Coast staff including a regional manager and oversaw promotional campaigns for Def Jam artists. Meanwhile he stayed on top of the music scene on the West Coast, always searching for new artists. In 1996 he was promoted again, this time to general manager/VP of promotions. Two years later he became the first president in the company. In the newly minted role, Liles would oversee Def Jam’s daily operations and the search for new talent. He’d report directly to Cohen. “This is kind of like what I’ve been doing all along,” Liles told Billboard of the promotion. “I’m trying to build upon what [the company] has been doing and keep the logo in the forefront of hip-hop. In the last six years, we have built a solid infrastructure with very confident department heads that we entrust our business with. It’s a team effort.”
In 2000 Liles told Billboard that a successful label president must possess “Leadership by example, confidence and security in one’s abilities, hard work, and teamwork.” Those traits prompted Crain’s New York Business to write “Most Fortune 500 chief executives could learn a thing or two from Kevin Liles.” Under his watch Def Jam’s revenues doubled to $400 million. He was instrumental in the creation of sister label Def Soul, home to artists Montell Jordan and Kelly Price. He has also overseen cross-branding deals that have linked Def Jam’s name with movies, television shows including the popular “Def Comedy Jam,” and clothing labels including Phat Farm and Rocawear.
In 2003 Liles was the key player in Def Jam’s partnership with independent video game publisher Electronic Arts. Together they released Def Jam Vendetta, a game in which Def Jam artists such as Ludacris and Redman duke it out to the background pulse of rap and hip-hop. For Liles it was a natural fit. “Ninety percent of the [rap] artists, athletes and entertainers are gamers,” he was quoted in USA Today. “I can’t tell you how many deals were done over PlayStation 2.” The pairing was also smart business. The video game debuted to rave reviews and spent 16 weeks in the top ten ranking of video game rentals. Def Jam predicted a million sales before the year was out.
The various offshoots of the Def Jam brand fit in with the company’s image. Liles said in an on-line interview on BBC.com, “We want people looking to us as trendsetters. We don’t think of ourselves as a record company—we’re a lifestyle company, the pulse of urban youth.”
In bringing success to Def Jam, Liles has unapologeti-cally stayed true to the urban grittiness of rap, complete with its gangster image, claiming that the violent images and crude lyrics parallel real life. They also garner public attention and increased sales. Coupled with slick marketing, the gangster image has helped Def Jam reach broader audiences. Def Jam recordings are as popular with white kids from toney suburbs as they are with the urban youth who first fueled the rap revolution. When confronted about the criminal undertones of the music, he goes on the offensive pointing out the unfair justice system that slaps the hands of white collar criminals while tearing away the lives of petty street thugs. “If some kid from our culture gets busted for stealing a car, he does seven years, but how much jail time do you think [Kozlowski is] going to get?” he asked Crain’s New York Business, referring to former Tyco chief Dennis Kozlowski who extorted nearly a billion dollars from Tyco, its employees, and shareholders.
Despite his unwavering support of the gangster image perpetuated by Def Jam’s recordings and artists, Liles insisted that the company be run according to accepted corporate standards. When he assumed leadership at the label, staff were used to arriving at the office just before lunchtime. He stopped that by arriving everyday at 8:30 and expecting everyone else to follow suit. He instituted a two-ring policy on all incoming phone calls and began immediately rejecting memos, reports, and other office documents with misspelled words. Though he stuck to baggy clothing and flashy jewelry over business suits and ties, Liles demanded that all other aspects of the office be as professional as those in any other industry. “I want people to see that Def Jam breeds excellence, with young executives who could thrive in any other company,” he told Crain’s New York Business. Because of this commitment, Liles often gives employees much more responsibility than they would receive at other companies.
Though his bottom-line is profit, Liles also recognizes that as a leader in a predominately black industry Def Jam is scrutinized more harshly by mainstream business observers. “Corporate America still doesn’t believe we can manage our people and our money for ourselves,” he told Crain’s New York Business. With the Def Jam empire encompassing nearly half a billion dollars, corporate America is fast changing its mindset. Meanwhile Liles is looking to greater things. He confessed to Crain’s New York Business a desire to run a company “like Coca-Cola or American Express.”
While he waits to move into a corner suite in a mainstream corporation, Liles has been busy improving his own corner of the world. In 2002 Liles donated $150,000 to his alma mater, Woodlawn High School, to finish construction of a much-anticipated sports stadium. The project had been on the shelf for seven years due to lack of funding. “When I was asked to help support the Woodlawn Stadium project financially, I felt honored and I immediately said yes,” Liles told The Cyber Krib. “When I was growing up, Woodlawn High School helped to provide me with a good education and great memories. For years to come, I want students who attend Woodlawn High School to have the same opportunities that I was given.” Liles also established the Kevin Liles for a Better Baltimore Foundation, an organization that provides academic, social, and financial opportunities to Baltimore youth who make efforts to improve the city. Liles has also been very active in the Rock the Vote movement spearheaded by Def Jam with the goal of registering 20 million young, urban voters over a five-year period. His civic actions have brought him recognition including the prestigious Diversity Award from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization dedicated to promoting ethnic tolerance and harmony.
Whether Liles’ future holds a jump from Def Jam to a more conventional corporation remains to be seen. In the meantime he looks forward to being part of the next wave of hip-hop. “The great thing about our culture is that we seem to get bigger and better with more creative ideas and talented executives,” he told Billboard. “The future of hip-hop is in the hands of our generation.”
Billboard, July 25, 1998, p. 6; March 25, 2000, p. 26.
Crain’s New York Business, January 27, 2003, p. 24; April 7, 2003, p. 1.
“Def Jam President Earns Racial Harmony Award,” The Sacramento Observer, www.sacobserver.com/community/111402Aevin_liles.htm (July 30, 2003).
“Def Jam Web Chat, Kevin Liles,” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/lxtra/hiphopAevin_liles.shtml (July 30, 2003).
“Kevin Liles Donates $150,000 To His Old High School,” The Cyber Krib, www.thecyberkrib.com/v2.0/news.mv?storyid=514 (July 30, 2003).
“Rap Stars Take Rivalries to the Mat in Video Game,” USA Today, www.usatoday.com/tech/techreviews/games/videogames/2003-03-11-rap-game_x.htm (July 30, 2003).
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