Drive to succeed leads to a drive

The Baltimore Sun

Neighbors danced in the street yesterday as the 2900 block of Presstman St. in Baltimore was renamed after a fellow west-sider who rose to become one of the most powerful executives in the music industry.

Kevin Liles, executive vice president of Warner Music Group and former president of Def Jam Records, stood beside Mayor Sheila Dixon on a platform as a street sign was unveiled reading "Kevin Liles Drive."

In an impassioned speech, Liles urged residents of his struggling neighborhood to take responsibility for themselves and their community, and not wait for the government to solve their problems.

"My grandmother, Icelene Bowie, didn't just sweep her porch. ... She swept the whole block," said Liles, 39, who graduated from Woodlawn High School. "It's always funny when I look to the government for financial assistance. ... I never looked to them to help me, if I wasn't already helping myself."

With the help of strong parental support, Liles earned a NASA scholarship to enroll at Morgan State University's engineering department. In 1991, he took an unpaid internship at Def Jam Music's regional offices in Baltimore.

One of his first breaks was writing the words to a song, "Girl You Know It's True," that was later stolen and made famous by the lip-sync artists Milli Vanilli. Liles' former Baltimore-based rap group, Numarx, sued Milli Vanilli's record label, Chrysalis, and won back the rights and royalties to the song when Liles was 19 years old.

Liles dropped out of college and worked his way up to become president of Def Jam Music at age 30 in 1998. He built the company's annual revenues from less than $100 million a year to more than $400 million annually, helping to make it one of the most influential music companies in the world. He guided the careers of such artists as Jay-Z, Ludacris, LL Cool J and Kanye West.

In 2004, Liles left Def Jam to become executive vice president of Warner Music Group. He also wrote a book about his life, Make It Happen: The Hip-Hop Generation Guide to Success. He founded a nonprofit organization devoted to helping his former neighborhood, called Kevin Liles for a Better Baltimore. And he donated $150,000 to his alma mater, Woodlawn High, to restore its football field.

More than 300 people crowded around a stage set up yesterday at the end of the street where Liles grew up. Presstman Street was blocked off and decorated with balloons for the festival. The music thumped as his former neighbors danced and ate ice cream, hot dogs and hamburgers.

"It's a wonderful thing, to see one of our own do so well," said Rita Neale, 81, who lives nearby.

Liles' aunt, Rebecca Brown, still lives in the brick rowhouse near the end of the 2900 block of Presstman where Liles grew up with his parents and extended family. She recalled how she used to call Liles "Old Man" even when he was a child, because he was so respectful of his elders and serious about learning.

"He was a good listener, always learning," said Brown, during an interview in her kitchen, where the family had prepared a huge sheet cake. "He wasn't one of the rowdy kids. ... When other kids were into other things, he was always concentrating on what he was working on and listening to older people."

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