Sound Moves

Baltimorean Kevin Liles shares the secret of his success in the music industry


His ears are among the most important in the music industry. Often, they'll determine which, if any, of the 40 new CDs he receives each day you might one day listen to. But sometimes even Kevin Liles' ears need help.

So the Warner Music Group executive resorts to a tactic he learned two decades ago as a performer on the Baltimore music circuit: He opens the doors to his New York office, plants his stereo speakers facing outward and pumps up the volume until it pulsates loud enough to unhinge the doors.

And then, he waits.

If people pass by wincing, index fingers plugged in their ears, then the artists on the CD likely went through all that work for nothing. But if folks stream in, bobbing their heads and asking, "Who's that?" then there's a chance that a dream will be fulfilled.

But even then, it's still not a straight shot onto one of the more than 20 record labels he oversees at Warner. Liles will play Doubting Thomas - and the CD - for weeks on end. And then he must meet you face-to-face, because he is, after all, the man who wrote the words to a song that was later stolen and made famous by lip-sync artists Milli Vanilli.

His leap, from mere footnote in pop-music history to one of the highest-ranking African- Americans in the music business is the stuff of books - or rather one book, which he has just published.

Make It Happen: The Hip-Hop Generation Guide to Success (Atria Books, $24) is the 37-year-old Liles' step-by-step guide for not only making it in the music industry, but any endeavor. What gives him credibility is his own meteoric rise in a cutthroat industry, one in which he vaulted from intern to president at his former company, Def Jam Records, in just seven years, before leaving last year to become executive vice president of Warner.

The message of Make It Happen, which was written with Crain's New York business reporter Samantha Marshall, is similar to that of Liles' mentor Russell Simmons, the Def Jam mogul who has been preaching economic empowerment to youth.

"Don't come to me and say, `I want to be that next rapper,' " Liles said recently, addressing 1,200 students gathered at his alma mater, Woodlawn High School. "How about owning the record company that you rap for? Because the funny thing is, a lot of y'all can't rap."

Surely they've heard this before. But perhaps they listened this time, given the source: While they may not have heard of him, they do know the artists whose careers he has guided - such as Jay-Z, Ludacris, LL Cool J and Kanye West. Although he started as a performer himself, his success instead has been as a producer and developer of talent.

Dressed for success

The students might be even further swayed by his message if they could see him back in New York, at his office on the 32nd floor of 75 Rockefeller Plaza, with its plasma television, state-of-the-art stereo system and view of the Empire State Building.

There, he spent part of last Monday coordinating private-plane logistics for a trip the next day, from New York to Atlantic City, where he would pick up hip-hop mogul and friend Diddy - whose record label, Bad Boy, is owned by Warner Music - and then go on to Los Angeles to participate in BET's 25th anniversary special.

Those plans completed, he sat in on a few conference calls, monitored his BlackBerry and tended to a steady stream of callers waiting on hold. All while wardrobe stylist Shanieke Peru fussed over Liles to make sure he looked dashing for a 2 p.m. photo shoot for Time magazine

"I'm not feeling this tie," Peru said with a grimace, as she stood back and surveyed Liles' attire: Ermenegildo Zegna charcoal gray pinstripe suit and blood-red silk tie, Ike Behar dress shirt, Alfred Dunhill cufflinks, Dolce & Gabbana shoes and Robert Talbot pocket square. Liles opted to keep the tie but switched between a diamond-studded Audemars Piguet watch and a Rolex during snapshots.

After the photo shoot, there was more business: Mark Pinkus, senior vice president for strategic marketing at Rhino Records, got him up to speed on two new releases: I Believe to My Soul, a Rhino compilation of new recordings by R&B legends such as Billy Preston and Mavis Staples, and a Warner DVD of last spring's concert in London by the legendary British rock group Cream. The timing of the DVD release coincided with Cream's concerts at Madison Square Garden last week.

"It's the first time that Cream has played in the United States in 38 years," said Pinkus, his voice bubbling with excitement. "The whole town is abuzz about it."

Then Liles was off to meetings at Atlantic Records' offices a couple of blocks away. As he walked along 52nd Street, a dark blue SUV slowed to a crawl and a man on the passenger side rolled down his window.

"Hey, Kevin Liles!" he shouted, waving. Liles waved back, somewhat taken aback that he was recognized on the street.

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