Kevin Liles is one of the most accomplished executives and entrepreneurs of modern Black music. With his creative brilliance and tireless work ethic, the Baltimore native was instrumental in launching Jay-Z, LL Cool J, DMX, Ja Rule, Method Man, Redman, Foxy Brown, Ashanti and Ludacris into hip hop superstars.
Liles began his meteoric rise in the music industry as an intern at Def Jam before being named president of the label from 1998 to 2002. In 2002, he served as executive vice president of The Island Def Jam Music Group. After his transition from Def Jam, he was appointed executive vice president for Warner Music Group in 2004, before stepping down to launch KWL Enterprises, a management firm that oversees the careers of numerous artists.
His latest venture is 300 Elektra Entertainment (3EE), a partnership with Warner Music Group. Liles will serve as the Chairman and CEO of the enterprise, which is a new frontline label group that brings together the multi-genre power of 300, Elektra Records, Young Stoner Life Records, Sparta and 300 Studios.
Speaking with EBONY at the NASDAQ headquarters after hosting a conversation with Rev. Al Sharpton and ringing the bell to open the NY Stock Exchange, Liles considers it a privilege to represent hip hop as the most influential cultural expression across the world.
“There’s a lot of people who work in and outside to make all we do happen,” he says. “I was at the Warner Music Group from 2004 to 2009. We took the company public. I left and started a new company, 300 Entertainment, and I’m now back at the Warner Music Group. None of this stuff happens by happenstance. I believe it’s all destined. And as long as I continue to fight and get in good trouble as my man John Lewis would say, I’m going to continue to make a difference and have opportunities to expose our culture to do different things. I want our culture to be accepted outside of the streets, outside of radio stations, outside of Spotify, and be accepted as a viable business entity—even on NASDAQ and the other indices.”
“I remember when I first saw Russell Simmons on the cover of Black Enterprise with an HBCU hoodie on, sitting on top of a Rolls Royce and talking about a $34 million rap business. I said to myself, ‘Huh, we can do that?’ Liles continues. “Just like I lost my mind when I first heard “Sucker MC’s” by RUN-DMC, I lost my mind when I saw Russell on that magazine cover, and there was nothing I could ever think to do but learn from that.”
The longstanding music impresario also spoke candidly about his passion for Black freedom and the devastating effects the criminal justice system has had on the Black community, namely Young Thug, who he signed to 300 Entertainment in 2014. He’s motivated every day to fight for equality for Black people and says that we should all use our gifts to be “activists for freedom” every day.
“I get up and grind every day because we’re not free,” he says. “During slavery, the slave master separated Black families. Now the prison system does the same thing. Young Thug is in jail right now and he has six kids. That’s six kids that are missing the presence of their father. So as long as we’re not free, as long as the judicial system is set to convict people for 30-something years, and then say, ‘Oh, it was a mistake’ like it was nothing, we’re not free. You can’t get those years back. There are countless men and women that have been locked up. Some have been locked up for 20 years for selling weed and now it’s legalized. So I think every day, whether you’re at NASDAQ, a Fortune 500 company, or if you cut a lawn, you should be working for freedom. We should be fighting not just our freedom but the freedom to help the next generation be even freer than we are.”
Along with fellow executive Julie Greenwald, Liles created the “Protect Black Art” campaign, which aims to protect Black art, focusing on rap lyrics and how they should not be allowed to be used against an artist during a trial.
“We’ve got a petition we’re sharing calling on people to contact their representatives in the Assembly and get them to pass the “Rap Music on Trial” bill,” he argues. “We need to protect Black art, and in order to do that, we must pass this legislation across the United States in all 50 states and at the federal level.”
A petition at Change.org/ProtectBlackArt, has garnered over 50K signatures.
At this stage of his legendary career, the Make It Happen author has no intention of slowing down. Despite all of his accomplishments, he believes that he has much more to do for the collective good of Black Americans.
“I am trained to go to work. I’m trained to make a difference. I’m trained to be of service,” explains Liles. ”When you play football or if you practice yoga, it’s not something you do just to feel good for the moment. You make it a way of life and it becomes a part of who you are.”
“I don’t call myself successful,” he continues. “I call myself blessed. I’m blessed to wake up another day to go to work. With success comes a lot of responsibility. It’s not just a responsibility for yourself. It’s our responsibility for the culture, and that’s why I go to work.”