Kevin Liles is an institution in the music business, not just in hip-hop. While Liles began his career as an intern at b-boy staple Def Jam Records, he eventually became Executive Vice President of Warner Music Group – the largest independent music content company in the world. With author and self-help motivator added to his resume, the music industry veteran has come from behind-the-scenes into the front putting his judging talents on full blast with VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy. A boss in his own right, Kevin Liles talks with The Urban Daily about his own judging eye, how the Information Age has helped creativity and why Rick Ross was only telling his own truth.
TheUrbanDaily: Now, people can see you on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy, as a judge. Are you any good at judging talent?
Kevin Liles: [Laughs] I don’t know if I have a judging talent; I think I have an eye for great employees. I’m from a culture that knows what works and what doesn’t work in that kind of environment. To have an opportunity to partner with Puff on a lot of grand schemes, I get a sense of where he’s trying to go overall with Bad Boy Entertainment worldwide. It’s more than music, more than fashion and advertising, he’s into a lot of different things and one of the reasons I’m there is to help bring clarity to that vision and put some people in place to help him accomplish these things. I call myself the “Voice of Reason,” “Mr. Possibility, Not Impossibility” and, of course, “Mr. Make it Happen.”
TUD: You helped to build up the Def Jam roster. And Puff, himself, started at the bottom and clawed his way up to the top. Do you think that anybody else from this show has those same characteristics?
KL: One of the sentiments here is that you have to make a decision on whether you want somebody to “do you” or if you want somebody to take your “–isms” and add their “–isms” to help build the company. This is seen after the person gets hired, but in our minds, we’re always thinking that we’re hiring somebody to continue the legacy of Bad Boy.
TUD: With all the reality shows that Diddy has put out, is this is a transition from , “Okay, I’ve tried music and doing groups, let’s see if I can push this business as a whole”…?
KL: A lot of great things have happened in hip-hop. We’re sitting in a room and we’re trying to figure something out and then somebody says, “Oh shit, we haven’t been able to find an assistant, so let’s find one! Let’s open it up to the world.” It’s sort of like looking for that right partner, you can go out on dates, do things and you never might find it… But you open it up to Match.com, Myspace, YouTube and you start to get all kinds of people. I love the multimedia approach. They went looking for the contestants and you’d be amazed at how many people feel the same way that I do about Puff. He’s a very inspiring person and he doesn’t leave any corner unturned. He feels that at any given moment, he can be the next president of the United States. It is truly a wonderful opportunity to work with him.
TUD: On the controversial side, there is a transgender contestant on the show, correct?
KL: There are people of every walk of life that applied to the show. I’m not going to answer the question directly but if they’re out there, we gave them an opportunity to work with Diddy.
TUD: Well, Diddy is known for being a “taskmaster.” What kind of things do you do to offset his very tough exterior and management style?
KL: If you did something to curtail that, you’d be lying. It’s like dressing a wolf in sheep’s clothing; I wouldn’t do that to anybody.
TUD: So you’re gonna be known for barking on people, too?
KL: No, I never bark on people. At the end of the day, you don’t have to join the Armed Services to travel the world and you don’t have to sacrifice whom you are to be part of a greater good. There’s so much greatness in working for someone who is in Paris one day, talking to Bloomberg another day, and doing fashion or a TV show by the next. Anybody who has that experience will go on to be a CEO or a president of a company. I can say it’s one of the greatest opportunities.
TUD: Your book also tried to give a spotlight on the industry and it was really good. Do you believe that more people now, with the advent of Facebook and the Internet, would even take the time out to read it or would you want them to tune into the show to try and learn what you’ve been trying to teach?
KL: The great thing about the book was that no matter where I went, I’d get stopped and get a thank you from someone for not teaching them about the music business, but teaching them what it is to be a better “me” in our language, in hip-hop language. People will read and I can’t say that they won’t watch. They probably watch more TV than read. One of the reasons I decided to be there for him [Diddy] as an advisor was to inspire people. He called me and said “Kev, I don’t want them to be disenfranchised with themselves because they didn’t win, I want you to help them understand that success is a process and motivate them to be inspired, to go on and do greater things; and it might be outside of me.” So, I have that Mr. Possibility, Not Impossibility role.
TUD: As an executive, would you advocate more of a truth telling in terms of someone’s back ground? A lot of people try to push a certain image that’s not entirely true and it comes back to blow up in everybody’s face on the business and personal side.
KL: I think we should challenge artists to tell the truth every day. Our responsibility as a culture is to make sure people are speaking the truth. You might be able to fool people one time, two times, even three times but at the end of the day you have to look at yourself in the mirror.
TUD: How do you, as a boss, make sure that everyone does that?
KL: I think our job is to push them to tell the truth; it’s not to tell them what their truth is and that’s what people get mixed up. I wish that somebody would tell me that because I’m African-American, because I didn’t graduate college, I’m suppose to do a certain thing. People tell others that every day. I’m not one to tell any rapper, any R&B singer or any musician what they should and should not be doing. I’m there to take a body of work and expose it to the world and constantly remind them that every day you wake up, you’re looking at yourself. Tell your truth even though it might be different from my truth. Who is to say a white boy shouldn’t rap? You’re not supposed to say that, to anyone! I’m a fan of those guys and if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t see their truths, you know… see their side. You and I know that everybody doesn’t tell the truth but it will set you free and it will come out at the end of the day. I hope that I will never comment on somebody’s truth. It’s for them to comment but I’ll push everybody who I talk to, to speak their truth.