How a Jacket Sparked an Epic Rise Through the Music Business

This entrepreneur opens up about how a Def Jam jacket given to him by Russell Simmons inspired him to start his own company.
How a Jacket Sparked an Epic Rise Through the Music Business
Image credit: Kevin Liles
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the July 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

I went to college for engineering. The problem was, I’d also fallen in love with hip-hop. I was the rapper and manager in a group in high school, the Numarx. I was deal-making at 15. So while my body was in college, my soul was in hip-hop. One day I turned on MTV and saw Milli Vanilli playing a song I wrote when I was 16. The record company I’d signed to had stolen my rights. The song was “Girl You Know It’s True.” It sold 18 million copies.

Related: 4 Simple Strategies to Turn Your Passion Into a Paycheck

I sued and won, but that was the moment I decided I didn’t want to be in the music business -- I wanted to be in the business of music. And I figured was the best place to learn. So I called them. They offered me an unpaid internship. I took it.

Back then, Def Jam had these jackets, and getting one was better than getting a gold plaque. It meant you’d done right by the label. Whether you were an employee or an artist or a DJ or a store owner, when you got that jacket, it was like being crowned a lord. I remember this one guy in D.C. who got one. He said, “Man, you know what this jacket gonna mean to me? I got more power in the street than a police officer. That’s what that logo means to me.”

I wanted one bad.

Related: What the Color of Your Logo Says About Your Company (Infographic)

Eventually I got promoted to a paying job. I was giving out jackets with Def Jam founder one day, and he said, “Kev, you got one of these?” I said no. He said, “What? You ain’t got one of these?” And he gave me the jacket off his back. To be given that by a founder of one of the greatest rap labels of history -- it was such a special moment.

Within a decade I was president and CEO of Def Jam. After that I became an executive vice president at Warner Music Group. I started to feel that again, so I started my own company, 300 Entertainment, with my partners. We’re only three years old, but we’ve had a lot of early success.

Related: Why Small Businesses Need Strong Logos

I recently brought the Def Jam jacket to the office to show people. I told them we’re gonna build our own company, and we’re gonna have people clamoring for our jacket, like they used to for the Def Jam jacket. That’s it: I just want to make a jacket that means as much as this.

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