Kevin Liles’s rise to presidency at Def Jam Records (at the ripe age of 30 in 1998) has laid the foundation for countless other ventures to take shape, which has created jobs, inspired lives and changed the world.
Liles’s flatiron-district powerhouse is the place where his “Make It Happen” doctrine infuses our culture, daily. He shared his perspective about our evolving culture and our place within it.
What’s your opinion of contemporary hip-hop?
My personal likes and dislikes are up to me and it should be up to every consumer out there to say “I consume the things that I like.” But, to be a true artist you have to be able to sell art. What I don’t consider art is when you walk down the street and nobody knows who you are, which happens when it’s more important to make a hit single than to be a brand. The first three words of “artist” is art. So you have to be art. You can’t just be a song. But then again you might be in it to just be a song. It’s like iPod saying they’ll only sell 60 Gigabytes, not Nanos. Or Mercedes Benz only selling Maybach not C-Class, but not everyone is a Maybach. So there are differences that exist in hip-hop.
Are there fewer artists with iconic potential, today?
There’s only one LL. There’s only one Jay Z. When Jay came out you didn’t know he’d be an icon. But when he came out you knew there was something special about him. To give any artist iconic status (at the beginning of their career) is a biased assessment. Icons are created by doing iconic work. Jay did it his way and that allowed him to flourish. Kanye did it his way and that allowed him his own lane. It’s like Trey Songz: You know what you get when you ask for Trey. He’s a brand; his point of view is 16 – 30 year old females. Simply put icons project, “I am what I am, be with me, respect me, love me, hate me, but I am what I am.”
What should indie artists be doing to get noticed by major record labels?
I think they’re doing it every day. They’re making records and labels are finding artists on the internet. One of my great signings was Ludacris. He started putting his own records out and 15 million records later… There are different opportunities now. It’s not just about the street corner and the cypher. The internet has exposed people to the world. The act of discovery is different, but the branding and the art development of it is the same. Look at Kid Cudi: Artists get found in so many different ways, but they still have to be developed. Artist development is key.
How common is it for artists to finance their careers?
It’s more common now for people to finance their albums, as did Master P., Ludacris, Cash Money, Jay Z, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. People self-financing their albums is nothing new. The internet makes it possible now for more people to put out what they want, when they want.
What are the biggest misconceptions indie artists have about what is required to succeed in today’s music industry?
That someone else will work harder for them than they will. You can’t pay someone enough money to believe in you the way you will believe in yourself. I love when people say, “I’m a C.E.O.” just learn what a “Chief Executive Officer” really means. I love when people say they’re a record label – but learn how to monetize a piece of product before you put it out. A lot of times you need disruptive innovation to reboot and redefine an industry. If you’re an indie artist and don’t see a value proposition, why get involved? Remember Rocafella: They could have gone anywhere, but they signed on to Def Jam because there was a value proposition. Nikki Minaj signed with Lil Wayne because there was a value proposition. If artists feel like they can make it without me, then I shouldn’t be their manager. If we can’t offer value to one another, we shouldn’t be together. But if together we can rule the world, then let’s rock out!
As an “ambassador of culture” what in your opinion is the formula for success?
Find your will – whatever you have a passion for – plus success. What is success? It might be financial, physical, spiritual or mental. But with it comes responsibility. My formula now is passion + success = responsibility, not cash. Responsibility to always be in search of freedom; freedom to wake up every day and do what your heart tells you to do.
What are the benefits you’ve seen from the Make It Happen Foundation?
The foundation was something I started because I wanted to acknowledge a lot of the good work I was seeing. I was being stopped by kids every day saying “I read your book and it helped me to be a better lawyer” or “be a better doctor.” I thought, I need to write another book, but I also thought that I needed to open business academies around the world for kids in the summers [which would show their commitment because they’d be sacrificing two weeks of their play time]. I launched a program at Morgan State University for 13 and 14 – year – olds and they’re learning things that I never knew at that age, like P.N.L’s, business plans and presentations. I also plan to open academies abroad. If you provide a platform, they will figure it out! They are Generation E: Entrepreneur, Education, Empowerment, Employment – all of those E-things that are very important for our culture. Not everyone is born into a family business. Not everyone’s born with the ability to go to great schools so I’m glad we have this platform.
Where do you see hip – hop in five years?
Hip-hop of the future will be more digital. Albums will be called “playlists.” Hip-hop will be more commoditized and linked to private equity companies.
We had a lot of fun. We did an amazing job of building one of the greatest artists and labels of all time.
What’s your mantra?
Never ask someone to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself.
You called on the voices of the most recognized artists in the game to encourage voting during Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign.
I try to tell all people that we have a responsibility to not only our president, our country, our state, our community – but to our block. All those places get touched by you taking responsibility. You shouldn’t complain if you’re not willing to do anything about it. Politically, find somebody you’re passionate about, and vote for them. That will equal change. When you’re sick and tired of being poor, what are you going to do about it? Poverty is unacceptable. CNN’s Steve Perry said this morning, “You’re sick and tired of underperforming public schools? Sue the school. You’re paying tax money, sue them.” When you’re sick and tired, do what they did in Egypt: Revolt.
What can we expect to see of Kevin Liles in the near future?
I’m focusing on entertainment, media and fashion. I partnered with Z!ink, and with MWW [Public Relations (where I’m president of entertainment], education marketing NEXGEN EDU – a “study when you can” program: I believe the future of school is online. Kids can get the same education, but they can’t get the same experience. Do what works for you. Your clothes and shoes are tailored to fit you, so should your education needs. I’m also focused on the telecommunications industry, TruComm, and KevDar – a high component purity company. My world continues to evolve.
God is good to me because I’m good to Him. Who says you can’t love hip-hip and love God, and not have a street named after you, and build stadiums and schools? I have the opportunity to work with some of the greatest talents in the world: Trey Songz, Keyshia Cole, Big Sean, Nelly, Bow Wow, Terrence J, Estelle and Selita Ebanks just to name a few.
For more information, visit www.kevinliles.com and twitter.com/kevinliles1