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Kevin Liles

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 12/7/2005

On Nov. 16, West Baltimore native Kevin Liles received the key to the city from Mayor Martin O’Malley, and the block where he grew up was renamed Kevin Liles Drive. And no wonder: Having started out as a lowly record-label intern, 37-year-old Liles is now executive vice president of Warner Music Group, one of the largest music-business conglomerates in the world. He’s also the author of a new book, Make It Happen: The Hip-Hop Generation’s Guide to Success (Atria). He took time out of his busy schedule to chat with City Paper about his days at Woodlawn High School, the music biz, and how he believes the youth of Baltimore can, like him, go from hanging on the corner to having the street named after you.

City Paper: How did it feel to get the key to the city and have your neighborhood street renamed Kevin Liles Drive?

Kevin Liles: I had to pinch myself during the ceremony. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I grew up with a rusted spoon. I know everything about welfare [and] government cheese . . . growing up with a lack of opportunity, lack of financial funding. So, I’m just proud and I’m so happy that I can still be alive, be only 37, and be recognized by a city that I call my city, by a street that I call my street, and by a mayor who I’m proud to say, “That’s my mayor.”

CP: What’s the former name of the street where you grew up?

KL: Presstman Street.

CP: What block did you live on?

KL: It was 2928, so I guess the 2900 block.

CP: Will there be any old rivals who will hate on the new name?

KL: I don’t think anybody is going to hate. There might be some people who wonder, Well, how can I get my street named after me?

CP: At Woodlawn High School were you a popular kid or were you more of a nerd?

KL: I was really both. I loved school. I loved the teachers, I loved interacting with the kids and playing sports. I didn’t have a problem with going to school every day. But at the end of the day, I was a cool kid, I was the guy that everybody wanted to hang around.

CP: So when you were head of Def Jam, how did you convince LL Cool J not to leave the label? Was his staying with the company a determining factor in him being an old-school rapper who’s still at the top of his game?

KL: The reason why [LL Cool J] will always be able to make records is because he tells the truth. You will not hear in his records, “I’m going to go shoot it up, bang bang, I’ve got to hustle on the block”—[he] tells the truth. So as long as you’re telling the truth, you can do it forever. And that’s why I think he’s been able to sustain the test of time and continue to be relevant every day.

CP: What was it about rappers like Jay-Z, Ja Rule, and DMX that, when they came into your office, you said, “They’ve got that thing that I’m looking for”?

KL: These guys, they were already stars. We don’t create stars—these kids, you meet them, they walk into a room, they light up a room. On DMX’s side, he walked into a room and the room went dark, because that’s what his music was.

CP: Southern hip-hop has been taking off like a rocket ship for a while now. What’s the next big thing in hip-hop?

KL: I think we’re going through a stage of evolution. And as we continue to become a product of our experiences, you’ll see hip-hop come from all parts of the world. And there’s going to be a hip-hop artist in Japan who’s as big as Jay-Z. There’s going to be a hip-hop artist in France that’s as big as Kanye. It’s about globalization, about the transformation from physical space to the digital space.

CP: What about Baltimore hip-hop and Baltimore club music? Any predictions there?

KL: Baltimore has its own sound. In order for Baltimore music to go outside of Baltimore, it would have to have a more universal sound.

When I think about Dru Hill—I worked with them for so many years, and they were so special to Baltimore on the R&B side. In a matter of three albums, they sold a collective 20 million copies. They meant so much to the Baltimore movement. And I’m just glad that I had the opportunity to play a part in it.

When it comes hip-hop, you know we have a very unique sound, and from back in the day, there was the We Rock Crew, the Numarx, the Charm City Crew, the Uno Girls. Baltimore went through a period where we were doing hip-hop like any other city. But then we came up with this Baltimore club music, and I think it has its own unique sound. And I wish the kids tremendous success on that, but again, in order to go outside of Baltimore, we’re going to have a very universal sound. It’s going to have to appeal to more than that corner. Like go-go—in order to have a universal sound, it has to appeal to more than D.C. It did it a couple of times with “Sardines and Pork and Beans” and “Da Butt.” Just like “Doo Doo Brown”—when Frank Ski did that record—and when we did the “Do It Good” record and the “North Avenue” record.

The next thing coming from Baltimore is a [rapper] who represents every bit of Baltimore and can represent the struggle. That next kid is going to come, and it’s going to be more than just about what The Wire represents, more than just about what The Corner represents—its going to be about the true spirit of Baltimore. He’s going to be the voice of the struggle. And there are a couple of kids that we’re looking at. I’m just looking forward to these kids coming out of Baltimore.

CP: Congratulations on your new book. So how do you suggest that the hip-hop generation achieve success?

KL: I always tell young America to dream big. Because anything is possible. But I have to tell young America that they can’t just dream big—they have to work hard. It ain’t the lottery. You just ain’t going to luck up and win. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to write a book.” I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be the president of Def Jam.” I did God’s work, and God rewarded me with those things.

CP: How have shows like The Apprentice, and there’s a new one out about the music industry, The Biz . . .

KL: Yeah, The Biz is one of our shows.

CP: Congratulations again. How do those shows change the plight of the ambitious intern? And given the fact that you’ve seen firsthand how an intern can make a meteoric rise, do you think that these shows make it more difficult for an intern to get the attention of their higher-ups?

KL: I think these shows celebrate the intern, because they make people more aware that interns can be presidents. Sometimes these kids transform companies. What I don’t like about some of the shows is that they really degrade some of these kids, who really only want that opportunity to succeed. It’s a life mission for them—it’s not just a job. So I [hope] that we characterize their life mission with a little bit of respect for the hard work that they’re putting in.

CP: What were some of your most outrageous duties as a record-label intern?

KL: I had to make a lot of cups of coffee. And I tell people this every day—I’ve made 2,227 cups of coffee. I make the best damned coffee you’ve ever tasted. Now, people might [have said], “Kevin, but you just make coffee.” But I’d say, “See, you don’t understand.” I got sick one day, and they called me at home and said, “Kevin, what happened to the coffee?” Make yourself an asset. If it’s going to get tennis shoes, going to get coffee, putting CDs on an iPod—make yourself an asset.

CP: What is the For a Better Baltimore Foundation and why did you create it?

KL: I wanted to create a foundation that starts in Baltimore, but it ends up all over the world. There’s Kevin Liles For a Better Baltimore, but I want there to be a Jermaine Dupri For a Better Atlanta. And I want [there] to be a Snoop Dogg For a Better Los Angeles, I want there to be a Jay-Z For a Better Brooklyn and a Ludacris For a Better Bankhead. I want to start a movement. And mine is Kevin Liles For a Better Baltimore, because I’m claiming it. I’m claiming that we’re going to have a better city. And every day, we should make it our mission.

CP: Was there ever a time in your music career when you wanted to give up?

KL: The single thing that got me loving the business of music, was . . . you know I performed and wrote the record “Girl, You Know It’s True” in ’86. Milli Vanilli remade it in ’89, and I didn’t even know they remade it. I was sitting at home watching TV, and two other people were singing my song. That single moment made me think, You’ve got to learn the business of music. This is what God said to me: You’re really not a rapper Kevin, so I’m going to take that mic from you. But I truly believe God always had a plan. He put that mic back in my hand, and now I’m going out here teaching kids.

CP: What does the office of an executive vice president look like? Cushy? Panoramic view of the city?

KL: I’m on the 32nd floor, the highest floor in our building. You have to have a private elevator to get to my office. The views are amazing. But an office doesn’t make a man—a man makes an office. So at the end of the day, I’m about the struggle, and I remember that corner I was on in Baltimore. So no matter how far up I get, I go home consistently to remember that corner office.

CP: Rock the Vote made it clear that hip-hop programs can work to empower young people. In the wake of the federal government’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina and the many doubts that some people have about President Bush’s administration, why is it important that the hip-hop generation take a stand on politics? And do you think that stand could make a difference?

KL: It has already made a difference. We just put a mayor back in office in Detroit.

What we’ve been taught is that we cannot make a difference, and that our vote won’t make a difference. But you saw what those kids did in [France].

It’s been proven that young people bring about change, because we’re not going to put up with being treated badly and not having access and opportunity. And in hip-hop, you know we came from people telling us we were going to be a fad. So we will make a difference politically, socially, and financially to our culture.

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