Relentless Rhythm

His heart was in hip-hop, so Kevin Liles of West Baltimore followed his pulse to Def Jam's headquarters and made it his own.

January 06, 2002|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to the Sun

Kevin Liles may head the world's most successful rap label, may inhabit a universe punctuated by the thumping beat, rhythm and rhyme of hip-hop.

But his personality suggests another type of music, harks back to an era when silky smooth sounds poured like honey from gleaming instruments, when cats like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker ruled. Jazz, man.

Jazz musicians are innovators, possessing not only raw talent, but also the all-important ability to ad lib, improvise.

Liles knows all about improvisation: It's juggling college courses, a full-time job and assorted disc jockey gigs at night. It's starting a singing group, your own music label and hawking the records from a car trunk. And it's making the choice to leave home, family and friends in order to pursue even bigger dreams.

Now, at age 33, the West Baltimore native is president of Def Jam / Def Soul, the multimillion-dollar global enterprise whose very name is synonymous with the rise of rap music and hip-hop culture. Stars, cars, flash and cash -- it's all part of the daily existence of a young rap mogul.

But Liles has another story to tell, one that shatters stereotypes branding those in the rap game as thuggish, sexist, profane. It's a familiar tale, really: hard work, sacrifice, family, overcoming adversity. More hard work.

An American success story, set to a hip-hop beat.

From small clubs to big business

When it began in the early 1970s, rap music was the domain of urban youth, an imaginative art form concentrated mostly in the boroughs of New York City.

DJs would scratch and spin vinyl on turntables at clubs, house parties and skating rinks. Wordsmiths with lyrical, often boastful tales of the street would engage in serious games of musical one-upmanship.

From those humble beginnings, rap has since become big business.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group that tracks the music business, rap / hip-hop generated more than $1.8 billion in sales last year.

Industry figures and other sources suggest that white, suburban, teen-age males buy most of it.

"It is really not surprising to see this gain in rap and hip-hop," says association spokesman Jano Cabrera.

Once limited to a handful of specialty labels, "Now all the major record companies have multiplatinum albums of that genre," says Cabrera.

Founded 17 years ago by rap pioneer Russell Simmons and then-partner Rick Rubin, Def Jam began as a tiny start-up run from a New York University dorm room.

These days, the label is, to use a hip-hop term, "large."

On Friday, Liles and Def Jam were celebrating over news of Grammy Award nominations, including best album nods for Ja Rule and Ludacris, and one for DMX in the best rap solo category.

Sales exceeded $215 million in 1999. (More recent figures were unavailable.) The company and most of its 85 employees are housed in Manhattan, in an upscale office building. Def Jam also has a West Coast branch, and regional outfits in nearly a dozen U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago and Dallas. In the last year, the label has also opened a string of international offices, signing foreign rap acts in England, Germany and most recently, Japan. Brazil, France, Poland and Spain may follow.

Def Jam is also now part of the world's largest music company, Universal Music Group, the result of a $10.6-billion merger in 1998 that joined European-owned Polygram (Def Jam's former parent company) and the MCA / Universal portfolio.

More than a dozen labels, artists and workers were affected, with acts dropped and hundreds getting pink slips in the restructuring process.

Thanks to what insiders say was the business acumen of Simmons and other top executives, Def Jam and its employees emerged intact and stronger than ever.

Starting at the bottom

There is literally music in the air as the elevator opens onto the 29th floor of Worldwide Plaza, the skyscraper that houses the Island Def Jam Music Group. The colorful waiting room hints at a work environment that blends corporate efficiency with the laid-back vibe of a cocktail lounge.

A big-screen television built into one wall is playing music videos -- both BET and MTV. Walls are lined with celebrity posters, gold and platinum records. There are listening stations equipped with CDs and earphones.

Multi-ethnic, Generation-X types bustle back and forth, sporting looks from casual chic to rugged street gear.

The company's baby-faced president is also comfortably but neatly dressed. On this day, Liles wears jeans, super-white leather sneakers and a blue button-down shirt by Phat Farm, the popular clothing line that is also part of the Simmons empire.

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