Kevin Liles is a name that people in the music industry have been hearing for more than 30 years, for an impressive variety of reasons. He was a top executive at Def Jam and Warner Music, he managed Mariah Carey, D’Angelo and Trey Songz, and he was even a recording artist who had one of his songs covered by Milli Vanilli, of all people, on their multi-multi-platinum 1990 debut album.
But he got his biggest look yet in January, when the company he co-founded, 300 Entertainment, was acquired by Warner Music for a reported $400 million. That company, which releases music by such hip-hop and R&B stars as Megan Thee Stallion, Young Thug and Gunna, is now part of Warner Music group, and so is Liles — pictured above with Atlantic co-chairman Julie Greenwald and Warner recorded music chief Max Lousada — who not only remains CEO of 300 but is also CEO of Elektra Music Group, a free-standing label within Warner.
And as if the deal weren’t a big enough flex, just days after it was announced, one of 300’s artists, Gunna, beat out the Weeknd in a photo finish for the No. 1 spot on the Billboard albums chart — that’s a huge look for a company that until a few days earlier, was independent. Sweetening the deal even more, Mary J. Blige, who signed with 300 last year, not only is releasing a new album on Friday, she’s appearing with Dr. Dre, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg at the Super Bowl Halftime show, which is the biggest stage and the biggest audience in the entire world for a musician.
So how did Kevin Liles get here? Good old-fashioned hustle: Originally from Baltimore, he attended Morgan State University on an engineering scholarship from NASA, and at the same time was working as an artist in the DJ group NuMarx and interning at Def Jam. As he says in this podcast, the experience of having his song covered by a multiplatinum artists — even a controversial one like Milli Vanilli — made him realize the potential of the music business, and so did Def Jam, which at the time was part of a mini empire including Rush Management, which handled Run-DMC, LL Cool J and others, as well as the Phat Farm clothing line. So he focused on Def Jam and over the course of the ‘90s, rose from intern to president of the label. And while he was there, he made some of the strongest connections of his career — with 300 co-founder Lyor Cohen, with artists like LL and Mary J. Blige, and perhaps most notably with Greenwald, who is now COO/co-chairman of Atlantic Records and is now again his colleague at Warner. And on top of all that, 300 just launched a film and content division.
Kevin Liles has come a long way, but as you can hear in the podcast below, he feels like he’s just getting started.