Kevin Liles' meteoric climb from street kid to unpaid intern at Def Jam Records to executive vice president of the Warner Music Group is far more than a rags-to-riches story. It is a tribute to Liles' work ethic, discipline and confidence in doing his thing his way -- the hip-hop way. No matter what version of the American Dream you choose to explore, this book will help you to empower yourself and Make It Happen. Kevin Liles is the executive vice president of the Warner Music Group. He works in New York City.

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By Kevin Liles and Samantha Marshall. My cousin Tony always told me there are three kinds of people in this life: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen and those who let it happen to them. Which kind do you want to be? From early on, I decided to take control of my fate and put myself in that first category.

If I was ever going to be a success in life, I had no choice. Every day is a struggle to survive. My hometown is one of the crime capitals of America. Every year, about three hundred people are murdered. As a young black man, I stood a better chance of getting shot or thrown in jail than getting a good-paying and respectable job. I wanted to be a success. Despite what you read about the bling, the Bentleys, the Benzes and the beefs, those are trappings that have nothing to do with the true spirit of the culture.

We are all about overcoming the odds and making success happen for ourselves by being ourselves, only better. Whatever our detractors say, we pulled ourselves out of the ghetto the old-fashioned way—through hard work. Every real success story in hip hop comes down to the same thing: someone who finds the will, focus and drive to achieve. You could be a firefighter, a rapper, a banker, an athlete or a nurse.

If you fight against the odds to realize a dream and be the best that you can be at whatever industry you choose, you are doing it the hip-hop way.

For us, impossible is nothing. When I was fourteen I watched another kid get beaten close to death with a baseball bat. When I was eighteen one of my homeboys was shot in the head at a basketball game over some beef. I was no angel. I did things that were strictly dumb.

My friends and I used to hustle car stereos, whatever could get us a few dollars. Once or twice I came inches from getting thrown in jail. The day of my high school graduation from Woodlawn High was a turning point. The time for playing around was over. Still in my graduation gown, gripped by a sudden panic, I stood on the street outside the commencement hall and turned to my mother. My mother, Alberta Fennoy, made all the reassuring noises good parents do, telling me I could do anything I put my mind to.

Kevin, she said. You will be successful, you just have to decide that you want to be. I wanted a roof over my head and the ability to provide for my family. I chose a different path: business. I made it from intern to president of Def Jam in nine years, before I turned thirty. My hard work has given me so much success, access and opportunity that I now experience things most of us only dream of: travelling by private planes, vacations in places I never knew existed and the best of the best that life has to offer.

So how did I make it happen? Some of those kids I grew up with are still there on the corner, many struggling to survive, many more not making it, ending up in jail or worse.

But my success is no accident. I made it happen because I had the will. I came late to that block party. In the business of hip hop, I was the outsider who started from next to nothing. If I can do it, so can you. Anyone can make it happen, but they have to want it badly enough. I always knew I wanted to make money, but by age fifteen I was determined I was going to be a rapper. I joined a group with my friends.

We had dreams of making it. Who, me, sit in an office pushing papers? To hell with that! But take it from me as a music executive—a lot more people can make it in business than as a rapper, basketball player, boxer or in the crack game.

Business is a democracy. The business world is the only truly level playing field. Anything is possible if you work hard and show results; you can make it. Whoever you are, you will be measured by what you bring to the bottom line and the work ethic that you play by. Just look at Def Jam.

It was never an exclusive club. It was built on not having access. We fed on talent, drive and passion, not connections, politics or pedigrees. Creating access and opportunity is the hip-hop way. We might not be as smart, but we made a niche and found a way. Our culture has created a mind-set that mainstream America wants to emulate.

People used to say hip hop would die. Our culture used to be out on the fringes, something to be dismissed. We own the youth market that corporations desperately want a piece of. The rest of the world is latching on to hip hop to sell everything from hamburgers to mobile phones. Soda, sneakers, airlines, JCPenney back-to-school sales and even the Serta counting-sheep are rapping.

Of course, hip hop is more than just a mainstream marketing tool. We had to. We had to prove ourselves and do everything better so the businesses of mainstream America would come knocking on our door. Damon John got so tired of getting turned down by the big national clothing distributors that he struck out on his own.

Now he owns the corners of major department stores across America. Our artists sing about doing it for themselves and coming up from a life of poverty. Sometimes the message is materialistic. They rap about Louis Vuitton and Jacob watches.

Sometimes our words are violent and angry. But even the nastiest lyrics can be educational. They reflect the raw truth of the world many rap artists come from. To make it happen you need to get educated and learn the skills. You need to play your position to the best of your ability. Be disciplined. Be tough, especially on yourself. Find the passion to succeed and the will to learn and you can make it.

The traditional music business has also taken a beating. Hundreds of jobs were lost. I have personally had to lay off dozens of close friends at Def Jam.

We got sued for tens of millions of dollars. It ate up even more of our profits. After a tumultuous few months, I followed, but it hurt my heart to leave the label I grew up with. As soon as we start thinking we deserve our place at the top of the heap, God lets us know that what he gives he can so easily take away. We turn disadvantage into advantage. We keep the passion burning by constantly pushing and stretching ourselves.

When other people knock our hustle, we get stronger. I have to learn to put the right people in the right positions. I have to learn how to delegate so that I can see the big picture, have a life and stop putting out every little fire on my own.

But I can take you on the journey that got me to this point. How an ordinary kid from Baltimore made it from intern to president at the company of his dreams. We sued their record label for taking our song and won the royalties and our rights. That experience taught me how artists need to know the business of music. Instead of continuing my career as an artist, I took a job as an unpaid intern at Def Jam. I was willing to do anything to get to the heart of the hip-hop music industry.

BET became a reality because one man believed it was possible. Real success is happiness.


Make It Happen: The Hip-Hop Generation Guide to Success

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