Position Of Power
Kevin Liles is way more than an ex-label head and savvy businessman—he’s hip-hop’s biggest believer.
Words kris ex
Images Dustin Cohen

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of XXL Magazine.

As Kevin Liles makes his way through the lobby lounge on the 35th floor of Columbus Circle’s Mandarin Oriental, New York hotel,
he has to politely inform every worker he comes across that he’s just taking a stroll to his old “office.” That office is a low corner table surrounded by plush chairs in one of the suites. Here, a wall of windows permits a panoramic scene of Central Park; the downtown view has a huge electronic CNN billboard, which displays the weather and the time.

After Liles left his position as executive vice president of Warner Music Group in 2009 (where he helped take the company from being privately held to going public), he spent every day holding court at this table. To him, the view of the most visited urban park in the country was a sign from God telling him that the world was his playground. Similarly, the CNN logo meant that he was to fulfill a mission to “create a new network.” Liles also liked knowing the time and the temperature.

“I’m a creature of habit,” he laughs while walking through the Mandarin. “If you ask me what I eat every day, it’s fish, chicken and vegetables. If you ask me where I particularly stay, it’s Four Seasons and Mandarins. In NY, I’m especially tied to the Mandarin just based off of the experience here. I almost moved here.”

He’s been patronizing the hotel since it opened in 2003. He estimates that he’s stayed in 60 percent of the rooms; he’s seen every room in the hotel, eaten at all three of its restaurants. And it’s where he wants to start his interview, because in many ways, that table is where the latest chapter of his life started. “If I’m here, they reserve it the whole day, and they treat me like it’s home,” he says while unbuttoning his tailored blazer and sitting down in his special suite with a view of everything Manhattan has to offer to the east.

He speaks about his various business ventures: Medxcom, a HIPPA-compliant smartphone app that allows doctors and patients full access to and control over their medical records while serving as a 24-hour answering service; KevDar, which provides high purity processing equipment for the pharmaceutical, food and dairy, and beverage and brewery industries; TrueComm, a telecommunications company that provides system integration and IT solutions to the private sector and government; and NextGenEDU, which supplies students with services that match their interests with educational paths and career opportunities—something he refers to as having an “owner’s manual” for your life. With his agency, KWL Management, he guides top-name rappers, R&B stars, producers, singer-songwriters, models and history-making sports figures—representing it as a small part of a portfolio based on a bullet-point philosophy that he’ll revisit countless times in conversation over the next few hours.

“The next phase of my life, there’s three things that anything I do have to be a part of it,” he informs. “Love and Leadership, Generation E—which stands for education, entrepreneurship, empowerment and employment—and then I want people to be passionate about the value proposition and what they do. Some companies I could never work for
if I’m not passionate about them. I vest heavily into those things and work hard every day, and all my businesses are personal to me. Every day when I wake up, I’m happy to look in a mirror and say, ‘I’m Kevin Liles, and I’m making a difference.’ And my life is based on those things that cause me to live—not cause me to go to work.”

If he sounds like a motivational speaker and a personal coach, it’s because he is. If not formally, then to his partners, his clients, his employees, everyone he meets. When he speaks about his accomplishments, he’s not bragging; he’s expounding on possibility. When he mentions his relationship with name-brand politicians and Fortune 500 CEOs, or that he has both a track and field and football stadium at his old high school and a street in his hometown named after him, it’s with I-can’t-believe-it awe and an acknowledgment that he’s not only beaten the odds, he’s a testament to an alternative. He speaks in grand, uplifting terms, always (always) bringing the topic back to his core values in personal, acute terms. “I would have never dreamed about these things, all the different businesses that I have,” he says. “It’s all about empowerment and providing a platform for everybody else. I could have never planned my life. How could I plan my life? The life that I’m living right now? I’m with the president in the White House in the Situation Room one day, with the president of Rwanda talking about education and empowering youth, and then I’m on the corner in Philly talking to a new artist, Asia Sparks. I could never write that down.”