Baltimore, Maryland gave Hip-Hop a gift when its native son, Kevin Liles began as a Def Jam intern. Like Sean Combs at Uptown, Liles worked his way to the top, and never looked back – or down. For those seeking to learn the secrets to Hip-Hop success, they can buy Liles new book, From Intern to President: Make It Happen. The self-help memoir offers advice by the pound, and President Liles breaks off a few ounces of wisdom for AllHipHop.com readers.
In celebration of the publication, Liles discusses Hip-Hops work ethic, plus a cross-section of Def Jam’s executive fraternity. Those who seek to be the buck-stoppers, read into the mind of a self-made-millionaire.
AllHipHop.com: First and foremost what made you start the book? That’s got to be something that a lot of people trying to get into the game would be interested in.
Kevin Liles: Here’s what happened. I was 13 years old. and Lyor [Cohen] said to me, who was President of Def Jam [at the time], “You remind me of Dick Parsons [CEO, Time Warner].” And I said, Who’s that? So whenever I think I’m ignorant about something, I go find out about it. Dick Parsons. I never thought about [people like him] because what I knew was only what I dealt with in Hip-Hop.
[Years later,] a Caucasian lady comes in and says to me, “I want to interview you Kevin, it should take about 15 minutes.” She left like two hours later. She calls me and says “Kevin, you’ve inspired me to take over the world.” I said, “Thank you…I was just doing an interview.” She was like “No, no, no…I feel like I can go out
and do anything. I was like “Okay, that’s great.” She said “Oh, but you have to tell the world the way you live your life. You have to write a book.” I said, ” But I’m only 27 years old, my life’s not over.
So for six months she stalked me…calling, calling. So I bumped into her and she said, See it’s meant to be…it’s meant to be, we have to do this.” [So I thought] It has to be a self-help book. So automatically I researched the self-help market and it was nobody there from the culture. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do this.” So the next thing you know I had nine publishers dying to publish this book just from the proposal. It took a year and a half to do. Made the sacrifice to get it done. Now I have something that can help young Americans, as a blueprint. IT can give them something to refer to instead of [books that dont recognize their culture].
AllHipHop.com: Do you think that the perceptions of rappers is changing? I see a lot of rappers like a Young Jeezy or Jay-Z to a degree, coming into the game as a businessman/rapper. Do you see that mindstate it might be changing a little bit?
Kevin Liles: I think that now that we know what the word CEO means. A lot of them didn’t know what it meant. They thought that if you sold a lot of records, you could be a CEO. Now people realize that you have to go and put in the work. You have to really respect it. Just as having a hot record as a CEO. So that’s why celebrate thought artist, from Jeezy to Jay to Usher now. For all of them wanting…cause very few of us thought of ourselves at a very early age. Ya know Puff was one of those guys that always thought of himself in that manor. But I tell people that even when I was an intern and I first learned what the term meant, I wanted to be the President of Interns. I wanted to be CEO of interns.
I had such a problem when I was growin up. You know I wrote rap records, I toured and when I went to see an artist perform and they say throw ya hand up in the air, wanted to see how many hands went up. And I wanted to count each one and multiply that times the ticket price and see how much money they made that night. I couldn’t just hang out backstage. I wanted to go to the front and see what type of people walked in, when they walked in, did they buy more posters or more gold florescent things. I always was
analyzing what made it work. I didn’t really just love the music. I
loved the business of the music.
AllHipHop.com: How would you suggest for somebody to just get
started to be legitimate. Ya know there’s the mixtape thing and
somebody might think that’s a business and it could be but a lot of
that is kind of street businesses, not necessarily legitimate. What’s
your recommendation on getting started in a legitimate fashion?
Kevin Liles: If I wanted to do it all over again, I’d intern for free for another two years. If right now if I wanted to change my career, make a U-turn and I wanted to do something that I had no experience in like if I wanted to get into real estate, I would start a the bottom. Cause I never got questions. No matter what position I took on. Even if I had to make coffee…I wouldn’t just make any kind of coffee. I’d make coffee! Aint nothing you couldn’t tell me cause I did it all. I can tell you what size shoe Russell wears and where he got them from and I can tell you he always wanted to order ten pair. And if he got ten pair I made sure three of the ten where for free. Even if I had to buy them I told him “They gave you these three for free.” So he would call the store and be like “oh thank you for hooking me up.” So they would come to me and say thanks and will give you something. But in all people don’t want to sacrifice. They felt that because I went to college and have X degree I deserve to make X amount of money. And it’s a sad day out there now, ain’t it?
AllHipHop.com: Ive always been impressed with the way you, Russell, and Lyor had that union. Was that not without bad blood at times?
Kevin Liles: You know what it is, we truly love each other’s spirit. We truly realized that we all have afforded different things in life. Without Lyor or Russell, Def Jam might not have survived. Without me, Lyor might not have been able to move on to go greater things. So we all feel the contribution that we’ve made to each other. I always call it the “isms. Russellisms, Lyorisms, and Kevinisms. And now you have Hovisms. But these people have some very big shoes. I was like how could I even live up to Russell, how could I even walk in the shoes of Lyor, or even think that I have the production quality of Rick Rubin. And now people say “I want to have the business sense of Kevin Liles.”
We have a friend that’s the president of Def Jam. And when I say friend, everyone knows Hov. That’s a friend that’s’ based on us doing everything for each other and serving each other. He’s one of the greatest CEO’s and artist that I’ve ever had to work for. And I’m sure that I’m one of the greatest CEO that ever served him. So that’s what I think is what keeps us all together. And I’ve never worked for anyone else in the music industry but them.
AllHipHop.com: When you left Def Jam what was the clash? What was the situation? Was it the case of you wanting to be in LA’s shoes or position?
Kevin Liles: The truth is that me and LA are friends. I could never…he don’t do what I do and I don’t do what he does. That’s why it worked. People don’t realize that we had it worked out. But it was a company built…and in order to change and to transition and to allow it to be a disciplined thought and a disciplined action I had to make sure that my man was straight I had to relinquish all my power to make sure that he could accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. Cause the worst thing that could happen is that it wouldn’t work for nobody. So I figure by moving my self out of it, it would give him the autonomy to put his own stamp on it and make it his. But by having Jay be the President, that would preserve the culture of Def Jam. If I would have stayed, and I could have stayed,
Jay wouldn’t be president. I need him to be president. I need LA to be successful, cause there’s so few of us.
AllHipHop.com: Jay-Z, is it a good idea for him to come back as an artist? We’ve been hearing things, being that now he’s considered a businessman, is it a good idea for him to comeback?
Kevin Liles: Hov is not the impossibility, he is the possibility. It’s really on him. I don’t think he should be pigeonholed. I tell people today, “You know what’s so funny, 15 years ago I help a microphone in my hands an I told people to throw them hands in the air and it made them feel good. 15 years later I’ve got a mic in my hand and I’m telling them, You can be a better person.
I can’t really say other than he knows how to make it happen. And one thing about him is that people respect him. He’s done built and sold companies to. He did it. He did it. So whatever he decides to do he knows as a fan, friend, and confidante that I’m there, whatever he decides to rock out. If he decided to go back, and truly wanted to just do the artist thing, I’d be there everyday to make it happen for him. And I’ll take his role on in the business so that he can do that and vise verse. As soon you do anything, he’ll call me and say “Kevin you doing a book tour? I’ll host a party I wanna go out and do a tape for you and let people know how much you… But that’s what people…we celebrate each other and we have to do more of it. And as people, as a culture, not Black, not White, we have to celebrate because we should feel good about the relationships we have and the things that we’ve accomplished, there’s nothing wrong
AllHipHop.com: On the flip-side, I’ll never forget the interaction between you and Dame in “Backstage.” What has Dame done wrong as a business man in your opinion, if anything?
Kevin Liles: I mean how could you say that you’ve built a brand from nothing, were a part of one of the greatest movements, have the whole world throwing up a sign that you created, what did he do wrong?
AllHipHop.com: I mean things have changed considerably…
Kevin Liles: Have they? What has happened? You don’t see him with Jay. What has changed?
AllHipHop.com: He hasn’t retained a lot of his artists.
Kevin Liles: We [Def Jam] bought the company so of course not.
AllHipHop.com: I’ll put it like this, and I’ll be honest, I’ve heard so many stories about Dame, you know the scene in that movie and I’ve heard that that has occurred on many levels, in the boardroom, from the interns.
Kevin Liles: Oh Dames an a**hole. But I think, it’s like I said man, we are all friends, man. That’s his way. Rule #2 of my book is “To Do You.” DO YOU! If that’s how you feel do you! I don’t choose to live that way. I wish him the best of luck. He has a lot to prove because people are questioning can he do it by himself. In my heart I feel he can. I think he can and if he needs me, I’ll be there for him.