Baltimore native Kevin Liles is a big hit in music and beyond

The Woodlawn High grad long ago reached the top of the recording industry. Now he's making moves to expand his ventures globally.

August 15, 2014|By Donna M. Owens, For The Baltimore Sun

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NEW YORK CITY— Kevin Liles is riding high. On a bright August afternoon, the Baltimore-born entertainment mogul is ensconced 35 stories above midtown Manhattan, enjoying lunch at one of the city's most exclusive hotels, the Mandarin Oriental.

The restaurant is a favorite spot for the music impresario, who is dining with his mother and two of his three children.

"There's so much I want to do," says the 46-year-old entrepreneur and former Warner Music Group executive. "For me, success is helping other people achieve their best," he says.

Liles is known in music circles as an expert brand manager who has helped give hip-hop wider reach and turned artists such as Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, LL Cool J and Kanye West into global superstars.

The West Baltimore kid whose humble roots hark back to his grandparents' rowhouse on Presstman Street and the Liberty Road corridor with his mother, stepfather and three siblings, has come a long way.

His mother, Alberta Fennoy, credits her faith, parents and loved ones for helping her raise her oldest child, whose biological father was mostly absent.

"I had Kevin at 16," says Fennoy, who was unmarried at the time. "My husband, Jerome, stepped in when Kevin was 2, and we moved forward. In this family, we don't stop."

Today, Liles is honoring that tradition by reaching beyond his 25-year music career to a vast array of ventures, including a new entertainment label, celebrity-endorsed beverages, professional sports management and creative projects such as producing the 2013 Broadway play "The Trip To Bountiful," which earned Cicely Tyson her first Tony Award. In June, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings presented him the Congressional Foundation's Horizon Award for his work promoting youth wellness.

But the Woodlawn High grad, who has nearly a quarter-million followers on Twitter and is a regular at high-profile events with high-profile names, says philanthropy is the backbone of his "givers succeed" philosophy.

The Kevin Liles for a Better Baltimore Foundation is scheduled to kick off its third annual Back to School Festival at Security Square Mall on Saturday, Aug. 23. In addition to free haircuts and immunizations, children and their families will receive backpacks loaded with school supplies, electronics, gift cards, coupons and other goodies.

"We're expecting to give away 6,000 backpacks this year," says Nykidra Robinson, 31, executive director of the foundation. In addition to Liles, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and School Superintendent Dallas Dance are expected to attend, along with community volunteers.

Liles says the festival is a family affair that requires all hands on deck. "Everyone in the family has to work that day" at the Back to School event, he says. That includes his New York-based staff, who will travel to Baltimore. "We understand that when God blesses you, there's a responsibility to the community."

Liles attended Morgan State University on a NASA electrical engineering scholarship before leaving a few credits shy of earning his degree to pursue music full time.

In 1986, he and his group NuMarx co-wrote "Girl You Know It's True," the multi-platinum single performed by pop duo Milli Vanilli, initially without Liles' awareness or consent; a subsequent lawsuit and Grammy resolved the matter. Liles also co-founded Marx Brothers Records, with the group releasing several regional hits and opening for such acts as LL Cool J, Salt 'N Pepa and Run-DMC.

In 1991, he began his career at Def Jam as an unpaid intern delivering records to radio stations in the Mid-Atlantic. That job put Liles on the path to an unusual success story in show business. Quickly proving an indefatigable worker and visionary, he moved up the ladder, and seven years later was named president of the Def Jam Music Group at age 30.

He oversaw the development and creation of brands including including Def Jam South, Def Soul and Roc-A-Fella. Shortly after Def Jam merged with Island Records in 2002, Liles left the company of his own volition, he says.

"One of the lowest points in my career was when I made the decision to leave Def Jam," he says. "Def Jam raised me. It was my family."

After his departure, Liles joined Warner Music Group and was eventually part of the leadership team that took the company public.

But as the music industry's business model built around record and CD sales began to crumble, Liles made the decision in 2009 to step down and recalibrate his own professional goals.

"Technology disrupted our industry," he says. "I never left music, but I pressed the reset button."

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