Kevin Liles was born in Baltimore in 1968 to a teenage mother and a father he only began to make peace with after his funeral. (He reluctantly visited his biological dad on his deathbed and refused to be a pallbearer; when the casket slipped, he instinctively grabbed it to save it from falling and once again saw the hand of God in his life.) He grew up calling his grandmother mom and his grandfather dad “because they were there every day, and my parents were working every day.” He was a high school quarterback, but he began to pursue a rap career in his senior year. He attended Morgan State University on an electrical engineering scholarship from NASA, but he also DJed and, as part of an act called NuMarx, wrote and performed a song called “Girl You Know It’s True,” which became a hit when it was recorded by Milli Vanilli (or their ghost-singers) two years later. The song was a worldwide hit, but Liles and Numarx, not having their business correct, were not properly compensated or recognized. This led Liles to an unpaid internship at Def Jam Recordings in 1991. By 1999, he was the president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings and the executive vice president of Island Def Jam Music Group, creating unforeseen streams of revenue. While Def Jam founder Russell Simmons concentrated on expanding the brand with ancillary brands like the Phat Farm clothing line and the Def Poetry and Comedy Jam, Liles supervised the openings of Def Jam branches in California (Def Jam West), Atlanta (Def Jam South) and the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan, as well as Def Jam University. But his real accomplishments came with the ushering of what he refers to as his “Kevinism.”
“I had a different vision,” he admits. “I have an engineering background, so at the end of the day, I was always a techie. I was always interested in how we can use technology to broaden what we did and wasn’t afraid of trying different things and being quote-unquote a chief experimental officer, as long as we monetized what we did and people appreciated what we did.”
His chief experimentalism led to the creation of Def Jam Interactive, expanding the brand into mobile content and video games well ahead of the curve. During his years at the helm, the company’s bottom line doubled—which is a bragging right unmatched by any other urban music mogul. In a 2003 Crain’s interview where he was branded as one of the “40 Under 40,” he stated that he wanted to run a company “like Coca-Cola or American Express,” making it clear that he was playing on a different level.
“I never wanted to be head of Black Music of anything,” he clarifies. “I felt that I was an executive. You know what color I am—why are you gonna diminish my CEO-ism by saying I’m the president and CEO of a Black division? I had that luxury because Def Jam was just considered Def Jam. But I had the same human resources issues [major corporations] had, I had the same P&L [profit and loss] issues, I had the same innovation issues. So why not have the same respect?”