“Freestyling is a part of hip-hop but we’re not just celebrating one thing, we’re celebrating every entrepreneur, every writer, every producer, every executive, everybody.”
A seat at the executive table for some of music’s major record labels — Def Jam Recordings, Warner Music Group and 300 Entertainment — wasn’t initially the career path Kevin Liles’ had embarked on. After “freestyling” his way to an unpaid internship at Def Jam Records in 1991 (at the time, he was an electrical engineering major at Morgan State University), Liles earned his stripes and became an integral figure in hip-hop, building up the careers of a myriad of artists, from JAY-Z, Mariah Carey and LL Cool J to his current roster, which includes the likes of Young Thug, Migos and Tee Grizzley.
Liles, along with super producer London on da Track and Verizon, is looking to emulate the same success he’s had over the years with his new talent competition, the #Freestyle50 challenge. The challenge was inspired largely by Verizon’s 8GB for $50 offer — available exclusively at Walmart. In pursuit of the next biggest rapper, Liles and his super crew wanted to celebrate the history of freestyle rap and issued a social media challenge for rising talents to submit freestyles on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #Freestyle50. Over 9,000 entries were submitted but only eight were chosen to take the stage for the finale in Los Angeles with the hopes of notching a record deal with 300 Entertainment, $10,000 and a single produced by London on da Track.
Chicago rapper Y.K Supe clawed through the competition and became the newest signee to Liles’ 300 Entertainment imprint. “I was looking for someone who cared so much about the culture that they were willing to give up something and when our winner, Y.K Supe, found out he was in the finale, his job told him that he if goes, he might not have a job when he comes back,” Liles said. “He told them, “Look, I’ve been working for this my whole life — I have to go,” and won the competition. You couldn’t have asked for a better story than that.”
Just a few weeks after hosting their second #Freestyle50 challenge, Billboardcaught up with Kevin Liles and London on da Track to discuss the national talent competition and what they look for in a new artist.
How did you guys develop the idea to launch the Freestyle50 challenge?
Liles: I think one of the things I started to see in our culture was that we were not celebrating the progress and the success that we individually take in our careers. If I had to write down what I was going to be when I was graduating, it wouldn’t have been the CEO of Def Jam or the CEO of 300 Entertainment. I went to school for electrical engineering. London on the other hand, he’s had instruments in his hands since he was two years old so maybe it wasn’t a producer he was initially thinking but he knew something was going to come.
Nobody taught London how to make a beat; nobody taught me how to run a record company, nobody taught Tory Burch how to do fashion but these are all ways people freestyled their way through life. We were sitting around talking and Verizon had an idea to do something and I said how about we call it the #Freestyle50 challenge but you can’t have a freestyle50 challenge without one of the greatest producers in the world participating in it.
So, I called my good friend London and he said, “Hey man, you’re asking me to do what I do” and I said great. You have Verizon, you have 300 Entertainment, London producing the track, so we said let the games begin. We’ve had two successful years. The first year we had the big launch here in NY and the finale in Atlanta and this year we had the big launch in New York and then the finale in LA with Tee Grizzley and Redman. You don’t discover talent one way anymore, you discover it a lot of different ways and Freestyle50 is another opportunity to participate and give people an opportunity.
Why choose London to partner with as opposed to any other producer in hip-hop?
Liles: Check the charts. [laughs]
Liles: But the reality of it is you can’t just provide [the winner] a beat. They have to be taught how to make records. London prides himself on not just sending somebody a beat to rap over, but actually going into the studio, and vibing around the record. I wanted a producer that was on the rise, I wanted someone who was committed to the amount of work and level of commitment you have to have to cut 30,000 entries to the 9,000 people who actually qualify, then cutting it down to picking only eight people — somebody needed to be committed to that. London, not only being a friend, he fit all the qualifications and to be honest with you, I enjoy working with him and applaud him for everything that he’s done so far in his career.
London, why was it important for you to accept Liles’ invite and join in on the Freestyle50 movement?
London: I just like seeing people be great. Greats don’t call themselves great, they help others become great so I just want to see new talent and be able to help them let their dreams become a reality. It was like giving back so I definitely wanted to be a part of it.
Why launch social media talent discovery challenge especially knowing the amount of entries you guys would have to sift through?
London: Social media is the new wave, you can find everything on there so it’s the best way to get somebody’s attention. Everybody is on their phones, everybody is on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and it’s just the best way to find new talent.
Liles: I can’t tell you how many people called me, my Instagram blew up, people started coming to the office freestyling, it just became so crazy. With Verizon being one of the leaders in technology and consumer engagement and 80 percent of 300 Entertainment’s revenue being streaming, we felt like the new street is social media; it’s traveling faster and faster around the world. Back in the day, you used to put out a flyer, now you put it on Twitter or Instagram.
You used to make a video and send it to BET and MTV, now you put it on YouTube; you used to write on graffiti walls now you write on your Facebook walls, so to me all we did was take what we know is passionate, cultural, partner with a technology company — you can call them a phone company if you want — and do it where the kids are. We know where they are, we know what they’re doing and we’re allowing them to freestyle their way to success.
What did you notice was missing in the music industry and how is the Freestyle50 challenge filling that void?
Liles: Opportunity. Opportunity to come from everywhere and anywhere and to be with some of the best. It’s like coming out of college and getting the opportunity to play on the Golden State [Warriors] because you know Golden State won the championship this year. You have key players: Verizon, 300 Entertainment, London on da Track and you have $10,000 in your pocket. You’re starting off at the beginning but what it’s gonna take to get you there is the struggle, the hardships and we wanted to suit up whoever won for success. We wanted to say, “Hey, you went through the battle now here’s your armor. Let’s go out and slay people,” and that’s really what we’re trying to provide Y.K Supe with. It was an opportunity for us to give back to the city.
What are some of the characteristics you both look for in an artist? What makes a new artist stand out to you?
London: Energy and confidence, they have to be confident in what they’re saying as far as when they’re freestyling — no mess ups, I want beast mode. I want them to be accurate and confident.
Liles: I was looking for someone with a “beast mode” attitude, people who are hungry to freestyle their way through life and are constantly looking for opportunities. Last year, our 2016 winner Tre da Kid’s mom and dad passed within the six months of him entering the contest and winning the contest but he was at everything.
What do you wish to see more of in today’s hip-hop scene?
Liles: Truth and honesty. I think when you have a kid like Tee Grizzley out there getting shouts from Lebron and Hov it says something. This is the opportunity where you get new talent, make undeniable collaborations and this opportunity is; I don’t think it could’ve happened at a better time than now where hip-hop and R&B are the top genres in music.
Hip-hop was built on the freestyle culture so why was it necessary to celebrate the freestyle movement with your challenge?
Liles: I’ve been in the culture for a very long time and I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to see the greatest entrepreneurs, executives and artists grow and it all comes from freestyling your way through life. Freestyling is a part of hip-hop but we’re not just celebrating one thing, we’re celebrating every entrepreneur, every writer, every producer, every executive, everybody.
What have you learned as a producer working with Nicki Minaj, Young Thug, Gucci Mane that you can use as you make your transition to an artist?
London: Me becoming an artist is me just branding myself better. I can be on the scene now and let people know who I am and not just behind the scenes as a producer making beats. Being an artist also lets me approve the songs and put it out the way I want to put it out instead of someone else putting it out the way they want to put it out.
As prominent figures in the music industry who have worked with young and older generations, where do you guys stand on the new school vs old school divide in hip-hop?
London: You either get with it or get lost.
Liles: One of the things that’s important to understand is that in hip-hop, the new always challenge the old. There will always be that competitive conversation. My back in the day isn’t the same as the back in the day of a new artist so I don’t take them not acknowledging the older generation as a disrespect, I take it as part of them growing and learning and hopefully they’ll realize that the only way they got here was because someone was there before them.
It’s like London saying he doesn’t understand the contributions of Timbaland or Mally Mall or all the others who laid the foundation for him to create. London understands there was somebody before that gave him the opportunity to create what he does right now.
What wisdom have you both imparted on the past winner and the most recent winner as they begin their musical journey?
Liles: I think our job is to not just make a record, I don’t think London’s job is just to produce, really we have a responsibility to empower and inspire young people to be the best that they can be and I say we’re really helping young men and young women freestyle their way through life. The best advice that I could give them is that there are no limits. The barrier of entry is so low right now, you can be a social media star one day to becoming TV star the next day to having one of the biggest rap songs in the world the next day.
There are no limits and with no limits comes responsibility, hard work, focus, collaboration, partnership and most importantly, showing up. A lot of people want success but don’t show up and show up doesn’t only mean coming to the studio, it means to show up to win the battle, show up to be number one. My advice to Y.K Supe was, “These two days that we go in with London, treat it like you treated the stage that night and make sure you come out a winner.” Nothing should stop you from being great and London and I told them, “Don’t come in here and treat this like just another day in your life, capture the moment, lose yourself in the moment and create something great.”
Do you see the #Freestyle50 challenge expanding its reach to other genres?
Liles: I think we are just getting started and with the vision that Verizon has shared, we want to take this all around the world and to different genres. Why couldn’t we freestyle our way to success with a new app? I don’t think its limited and for every good business, you have to have a pilot program that shows success and shows that it increases value and then you talk about expansion. In my mind, I want this #Freestyle50 to be great but I call it “freestyle” because eventually I want to give the next fashion designer the opportunity to freestyle their way through life or a new app developer — our pilot program has worked tremendously and we’re going to keep pushing the envelope to work harder on this.
Liles: I’m just happy to continue to go forward with our culture and give these artists an opportunity to create and have a platform for them to feel confident that their voice will be heard.