300 Entertainment CEO Kevin Liles Gives Insight on Success of Gunna’s ‘Pushin P’ Trend, the Perfect Storm of DS4Ever Album and More
Thanks to Gunna, the entire country is “Pushin P” right now. Ever since his No. 1 album, DS4Ever, dropped on Jan. 7, blue P emojis have been unavoidable on social media. Brands like Nike, hall of fame level artists like Smokey Robinson and sports teams like the San Francisco 49ers are just three wide-ranging examples that have taken part in rap’s biggest moment of 2022 thus far.
The song about what is and isn’t player, featuring Atlanta legends Young Thug and Future, has been sitting cozy in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 as well, soundtracking a cultural movement that’s grown to rival the imprint of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl Summer" with Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign, Migos’ Lil Uzi Vert-assisted “Bad and Boujee” and Fetty Wap’s diamond-selling “Trap Queen.” The common denominator that everything above shares is being under the 300 Entertainment umbrella, cofounded by seasoned industry veteran Kevin Liles, who serves as Chairman and CEO of the label.
Over the course of more than three decades in music, Liles, an inaugural member of our recently launched XXL Awards board, has worked with Jay-Z, DMX, The Wu-Tang Clan and pretty much every other creator who has their face painted next to the definition of hip-hop. He's worked at record labels past and present, witnessing moments like Gunna's "Pushin P" take over the world on a constant basis. However, he’s quick to note that these rumbling occurrences can’t be premeditated. Liles gives all the credit to his unrivaled roster of talent and God. But don't get it twisted: behind every championship-level win, there's a coach that knows how to draw plays and create lanes for their players to thrive as he has.
Consistently, some of your favorite modern moments in rap have come under the wing of Liles and his franchise. He has played a vital role in the creation of Migos' Culture album, also deemed as a trap classic; Tee Grizzley's "First Day Out," which has gone down in history as the purest example of how those post-incarceration tracks should be executed and, more recently, two No. 1 albums last year from Young Thug between Punk and the YSL compilation Slime Language 2. So, the recent success of Gunna's latest Drip Season project should be a shock to no one. The list truly goes on.
In light of his most recent win, briefly catching up with XXL, the 300 Entertainment CEO shares his perspective on Gunna’s "Pushin P" movement, championing Young Thug and his YSL family, Megan Thee Stallion’s star power, what the rap game is currently missing and more.
XXL: What can you share about putting Gunna's DS4Ever project together from your perspective?
Kevin Liles: I don't feel that anyone should take credit except the artist. You talk about the last installment of something... Look at the last installment of Star Wars or the last of Rocky or the last installment of Matrix. You know that the pressure is to not only be a celebration for ages, but it's also a defining moment of where you're going. And so, I think [Gunna] thoughts around this was that it's DS4Ever, meaning it will always be drip season. But I'm going to take you on a different drip trip. I'm going to show you the growth and my album is going to be a collection of my thoughts, experiences and my vulnerability. And this is his best album to date.
This is an album that he allowed audibles to be called on, whether it was him and [Young] Thug or [300 Entertainment A&R] Geoff [Ogunlesi], or me flying to Saint Martin, or us listening to records at my house and having the staff over to talk about them... This was a 18-month, two-year process, to put this into perspective, but it was also a lifetime of your career. This was just a collection and the perfect storm for him.
The campaign of "Pushin P" has really expanded over the last few weeks. Everyone from Nike to IHOP is tweeting it. P emojis are flooded on every app and the verbiage is being used for any and everything. What does that phrase mean to Kevin Liles?
These are moments in time. The viral things happen because they touch a nerve in our culture. It wasn't like, "Oh guys, we're going to create something called 'Pushin P.' And we're going to make sure that Nike says this." No, you can't control that. You can't plan that. It was a moment in time. And it drifted so great because you travel with him through his fashion and in his growth as an artist. He wanted to step the bar up. He wanted to define being player or what "Pushin P" was. And wanted to say what it was not. And then once you set that tone, people take a whole other meaning to it.
They’re putting it on hats, cupcakes, T-shirts, selling words with the emojis. That's something that you can't make up. All credit goes to him being in the moment, him being present and him having the courage to risk take and say we're all "Pushin P." I didn't hear these records in September. That wasn't originally on the album. The Drake record wasn't on there. We saw where "Pushin P" went and shot the video in one day down in Miami. But when we talk about movements and cultural moments, these are a collection of things that I've had my whole life, that I've been able to be part of back in the early days at Def Jam. So, I'm just blessed that he's still evolving. He's still creating what's necessary. And being vulnerable at the same time.
People thought that “Pussy Power” with Drake coming out late was a power move to secure a No. 1 over The Weeknd on the Billboard 200.
No, we couldn't get the Donna Summer sample cleared. It was such a potent record. Drake wanted to be a part of the album and the movement. His management and us, we worked feverishly to get it done. When it got done, it came out. I want to be very clear: out of Gunna's mouth, "It's about being better than I was." It was never about who we could beat. It was about being better than I was. We don't think about the competition. We don't put albums out around other albums or worry about whatever people are doing. It was Drip Season 4. People should be afraid to look at what we're doing because we're really not paying attention to what everybody is doing. We're just doing what's best for Gunna. We constantly kept pushing the envelope to define DS4 and how we could make it forever. And these are the things that Gunna over-delivered on.
On that note, let's get into Thug. People are saying he’s the best mentor in the game with artists like Gunna, Lil Keed and more under his umbrella. He also had two No. 1 albums last year. What do you think is the most important ingredient to his success?
I think it's him. I get back to saying it's him being with a company that allows for audibles. Who puts out two albums in one year? We consistently allow him to innovate. And don’t get stuck in a way you have to do things. We encourage him to do it his way. We encourage him to not just put out records but to tell stories, to have cultural moments in time. Think about when we had "Hot" out. And then we come back with "Ski" and then they came with "Pushin P." You can't make this shit up.
To say Thug is a genius is even shortsighted because he's an entrepreneur. He's art. He's one of one. He's also a great copilot when necessary. He'll play whatever role he needs to play. You saw him out everywhere with Gunna when the album came out, getting on the plane, arguing with the pilot, getting thrown off of a plane. I just think he's a special individual. He's a friend. We talk about real things, about life and so there's a trust factor between him and YSL and Gunna and 300 and management that is unparalleled in our business because we put him first.
What made you trust in the people that Thug was championing in YSL? You have dozens on dozens of artists on your roster. Everyone wants to do a compilation and put their team on.
You know, this is not my first compilation. I've done them with Def Squad and with the Wu-Tang Clan and Redman and Method Man. Compilations are moments in time. My whole thing is #FamilyBusiness. We had a family meeting and everybody got to come and sit around and say what they say and we made an album of it. That's what Slime Language 2 was. It was family getting together saying, “We all got to say.” And I'm following Thug's vision. I'm proving a value proposition because I understand what he was trying to accomplish. He wanted to say that we're the biggest family. He wanted to refine what a family is.
Who are the people around you and what do they contribute to you? Think about how proud it is to have a No. 1 album with your family. That's like saying all of your cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters get together, you make an album and it goes No.1. To me, it's just a blessing to be led by him and to be of service in his vision. And that's what you'll get on [Slime Language] one and [Slime Language] two and whatever else he decides to do with the family of YSL.
We have to talk about Megan Thee Stallion as well. Look at how she’s blossomed from No. 1 songs to Grammys and everything in between. What was the moment that you recognized her star power?
A guy who does A&R for me named Selim [Bouab] said, “There's this girl in Houston. We gotta go here.” She was signed to 1501 at the time. And I remember her mom, God rest her soul, and her coming up to the office with everyone. There was just a feeling in the room that this was family. Her mom being a former artist, us having a deep relationship in Houston from way back to the Rap-A-Lot days, to Suave House… It was like, look at what we did with Thug and Migos and Fetty Wap. But we didn't have a female.
And so Meg, again another prophet to say, feed you, do you, get educated, stand your ground, tell people what the new millennial woman looks like and take control. Meg is a boss. She told me, “Kev, I'm the best female rapper. I'm the best rapper.” She just doesn't stop man. It's "Savage," it's "Hot Girl Girl Summer," it's "WAP." You can't stop her. I'm just proud that she chose us. I'm proud that to this day we're able to service her and provide her with a great value proposition that she cherishes.
You’ve been in the music business for over three decades. Where it stands right now in 2022, what do you think the game is missing?
More people of the culture making the decisions at the top. I think we have a lack of diversity. I think we have the No. 1 music in the world in our culture and the seats are not representative of who we are. Other than diversity in the seats, I don't think the industry is missing anything other than time to get back to the truth. Who we are, what we are and why we are. Tell a story of that moment. Going through the process of not just making a record for people to listen to but making a record for people to feel.
As someone who knows the true meaning of a legacy, what’s the secret to making a mark in the game?
When I turned 50, I said I want to listen, I want to learn, I want to love and I want to lead. Lead is the last thing because longevity only happens when you have evolution. When you're not tied to what was or what is, but you flow like water and you allow yourself to be fluid. When we started 300 [Entertainment] eight years ago, they were like, “Y'all are crazy.” Then Fetty Wap was the biggest-selling streaming artist. Migos made Culture one. Young Thug comes. Tee Grizzley's “First Day Out.” I can only tell you because I'm listening and I'm still learning and evolving and having a mindset of independence where I put the artist first. I empower people. I don't want to run the company. I want the company to run.
So, when I give you the responsibility of running the company, think about the decisions you're going to make. You're not going to make the decisions to be selfish. The weight of your directions is for 80 people, for 60-70 artists. Everybody doesn't want that rock. Everybody in my company wants the opportunity because they see when you do take that last shot, whether you miss or win, you learn, you don't lose. You learn and that's why I always say lead, love and learn. Those Ls are a muthafucka, boy.