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."
That same year, Liles launched KWL Enterprises, based in New York City and anchored by a brand and talent development firm called KWL Management. From his offices on Park Avenue, the CEO and his small team provide a full-service home for entertainers, athletes, models and the like, working closely with each to chart development of their brands, forge partnerships, and cultivate all areas of their careers.
"I take a holistic vision of an artist," says LiIes, whose clients include musicians Big Sean, D'Angelo and Trey Songz; NASCAR driver, Darrell Wallace Jr.; and Victoria's Secret model Selita Ebanks. "I collaborate with them on everything from release of a record to a show to their charity work."
To maximize a celebrity's brand and profitability, Liles says an honest, consistent and coordinated approach is key.
"When we sit down together, I challenge my clients to tell the truth, to be a giver, to be art. Then I feel comfortable being a COO to them. If we're transparent and focused, there's nothing we can't accomplish together."
Liles notes that in today's entertainment marketplace, income is generated from a multitude of different sources. A manager might juggle projects that run the gamut from music, film, TV and digital, to corporate partnerships, endorsements, merchandising, licensing, and more.
"Gone are the days when you wait and expect deals to be incoming," he says. "Our system is proactive. You have to go out and find opportunities and partners based around your clients and their visions."
Among Liles' latest endeavors is collaborating with industry friends Mariah Carey and Jay-Z to launch their own beverages through Go N'Syde, a new brand that Liles created. Customers can hold any smartphone device up to a Go N'Syde bottle and gain access to entertainment curated by the celebrities, allowing them a behind-the-scenes peek into their worlds.
Jay-Z's 40/40 is a tea and lemonade-flavored sports drink, while Butterfly, packaged in a pink bottle, is described as a "melodic" beverage inspired by the "magic" of Mariah Carey.
"We had in mind that it would be a nonalcoholic drink for an independent woman who wants something light and refreshing, especially after a long day," he says. Both drinks are now available (the cost is about $1.99) at Walgreens and New York metro area Duane Reade locations.
That's not all Liles and his team — which includes second wife Erika, who is expecting the couple's second child — are working on these days. He has joined former Def Jam colleague Lyor Cohen and other industry veterans to form a new music and entertainment content label, 300 Entertainment.
Cohen says working with Liles over more than 20 years led to the new collaboration.
"His commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship connects not only our minds, but our hearts," says Cohen. "With building a new company from ground zero, what better partners to have than those that provide a platform built around trust and transparency?"
The independent label, which is distributed by Atlantic Records and has such investors as Google, aims to be nimbler and more efficient than traditional music companies, with a focus on giving the artists creative freedom.
"We want to reward artists who are risk takers and entrepreneurs, the kind of people who are making their own videos and building their fans online," Liles says of a roster that currently includes hip-hop group Migos, singer-songwriter Eric Bellinger and "The Voice" singer Jacquie Lee, among others. "We have the knowledge to help them navigate the industry, and give them more influence and energy around their music."
Other businesses in the KWL Enterprises portfolio include a sports management firm, Revolution Sports, which has recently signed several NFL draft picks, and NextGen, an online education provider.
Liles also serves as a board member or adviser to several organizations focused on empowerment, diversity and social justice.
"God has touched my son. What I know is that we have angels all over the place," says Fennoy. "Kevin has soared, but he has not forgotten where he came from. He has a heart to help others."
In addition to the congressional award, Liles was honored in July during the 11th annual McDonald's 365 Black Awards in New Orleans, where fellow recipients included the Rev. Al Sharpton and TV host Iyanla Vanzant.
"Kevin has made countless philanthropic and charitable contributions throughout his rise to success as a music and media mogul, demonstrating that part of success is a willingness to give back, and that the growth of whole communities far outweighs personal achievement," says Cummings.
Despite a hectic schedule that takes him around the world, Liles doesn't operate his foundation from arm's length. He will be in Baltimore for next weekend's back-to-school festival and is deeply involved in the details, says Robinson.
"He wants top barbers to cut the kids' hair. The supplies we order are of quality. If a folder is bent, we won't give it out," she says. "He wants the best."
Liles' philanthropic efforts are also well known among his music industry colleagues and friends. Musician Trey Songz attended last year's event and well remembers the look on the faces of the children who received the backpacks.
"He has instilled in me that we are more than in the music business, we are in the business to change lives," says Songz.
For someone who has written a book, had his old Baltimore street named after him (Kevin Liles Drive) and made millions of dollars, Liles has remained humble, according to those who know him.
"Kevin is a good man," says hip-hop legend Russell Simmons, who has been a professional mentor and friend dating back to their days at Def Jam, the label Simmons founded.
While there are certain trappings of success — Liles and his family reside on a New Jersey estate, belong to a country club and vacation in locales such as Martha's Vineyard and St. Barths — the Baltimore native judges his accomplishments on a different scale.
"Everyone has their own measure of success," says Liles, who likes to unwind by playing golf, sipping fine wines or occasionally popping into the Grand Havana Room, a cigar lounge in Manhattan. "Some might value a big house, others value a big smile. I know that for whatever time here I have on earth, I know that I'm to be of service — to my family, the entertainment industry, the community."