Milli Vanilli, the dancing duo who lit up the music scene in the late ’80s and were later revealed to be lip-syncing faux musicians, had a profound effect on my “Renaissance Man” guest and the trajectory of his career. Though one could argue music executive Kevin Liles also had a significant impact on Milli Vanilli.
When Liles was a Baltimore teen rapping with his group Numarx, he wrote a little song called “Girl You Know It’s True” for his collective. It wasn’t intended for German-French pop stars in spandex and shoulder pads, but that’s where the tune landed.
“I wrote this record that sold like 100,000 copies, but somebody stole it from me and sold 18 million copies,” he told me.
“I’m a young kid. I found out that somebody remade my record because I was home chilling and this girl said, ‘They’re playing your record.’ And I’m talking s–t: ‘Of course, they played my record. They played my record all the time.’ She said, ‘No, [the] videos about to come on.’ I’m like, ‘I never made a video.’ And damn if I didn’t see Milli Vanilli doing my song on the video. So that’s how I literally found out. So you can imagine, I’m 17, 18 … I’m trying to figure out. But that was the moment, J. I told you I didn’t want to be in the music business anymore. I wanted to be in the business of music.”
At the time, he was opening up for people like LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa and Will Smith. Kevin was a “regional star” on the music scene, and was studying electrical engineering at Morgan State University. However, the Milli Vanilli affair redirected him toward the boardroom instead of the studio.
He worked his way up from internal to president of Def Jam, where he nurtured the careers of hip-hop’s biggest stars, including LL, Jay-Z, DMX and Kanye West, and helped push hip-hop and rap into the mainstream — allowing it to be embraced by corporate America.
In 2012, he co-founded 300 Entertainment, which signed artists like Fetty Wap, Young Thug, the red-hot Mary J. Blige and Megan Thee Stallion. It was acquired by Warner Music Group in December for $400 million. And last month, he announced that they were launching a film and content studio and their first project would be “Race: Bubba Wallace,” a six-part Netflix series on the only African American driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. It dropped this week on the streaming giant.
“I tell a lot of stories through audio, but I wanted to get back into the [film] space. So I wanted to tell one of the stories that I think if I didn’t push for it to be told, it wouldn’t be told. And that’s the journey of Bubba Wallace,” he said. Their timing was incredible, because as they were making the series in 2020, the world radically embraced social justice activism. “I didn’t know that the George Floyd thing was going to happen. I didn’t know that Breonna Taylor … I didn’t know all of this, but we were filming the guy because I wanted to tell a story.”
That powerful series is just an appetizer. They have over 20 projects now in production.
Kevin has been in the industry for three decades, working alongside everyone from Run-DMC and Method Man to Kanye, TI and now Megan Thee Stallion. He is a walking testament to the evolution of the industry and art form, but he doesn’t use the word “reinvention.”
“I don’t really reinvent. You know, the only thing’s been different about me is when we met, I was 320 pounds. That was a reinvention,” said a now-svelte Kevin.
“I say it to say, I just tell my truth. I wanted to serve the artist and serve the culture … It’s culture. This ain’t just music … I don’t have artists, I have human beings … I am not trying to be everything to everybody. I have a point of view,” he said.
He must also have a crystal ball.
“My job is to stay ahead of where the business is, but always go back to: Is it telling a story? Is it cultural? I have to feel the records,” said Kevin, adding that $not is the young rapper everyone should know about.
Kevin Liles is a legend. His impact is immeasurable. And my next order of business is pitching a documentary to 300 Entertainment called “Gotta Blame It on Something: The Untold Story of How Milli Vanilli Inadvertently Shaped Modern Rap.” I hope he greenlights it.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.