The founder of Violator Records leaves behind a tremendous legacy and some troubling questions.
Chris Lighty’s life and career represents all the best that hip-hop had to offer. His is the kind of story that inspires others to keep striving when all hope seems lost. It's the story of a young black man raised in the Bronx’s Castle Hill projects who went from carrying record crates for DJ Red Alert to managing artists like the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, Missy Elliott, LL Cool J, to founding his own recording, management and branding company—named after his old rough-riding rap crew The Violators.
He would go on to build the G-Unit brand with 50 Cent and broker an innovative Vitamin Water stock deal that netted his client over $100 million. As fellow hip-hop heavyweight Lyor Cohen, who worked with Lighty at Rush Management, once put it: “Chris isn’t just about making deals; he’s about making deals work.”
Which is why his apparent suicide is not just a devastating blow to his family and friends and business associates. It’s also a blow to hip-hop as a whole and anybody who cares about making dreams come true. After the horrible news broke on Thursday afternoon, Fat Joe tweeted a simple tribute to Lighty that spoke for many: “R.I.P. Chris Lighty. That man saved my life.”
He had this hunger, this strong brute force in a negotiation. But at the same time he did it with charm. The way he could light up a room was crazy. Watching him do his thing with 50 was just a master class in entrepreneurship.
In a 2000 interview, Lighty explained his special gift in this way: “We are able to articulate 125th Street, 118th Street, and Castle Hill to the corporate boardroom while at the same time protecting the integrity of the streets.” He gave most of the credit to his mother. “We were always left of center,” Lighty said. “We grew up in the projects, but our mother raised us in a very structured Jehovah’s Witness household. She always told us, ‘If you want to succeed, you have to be 10 times better than that white kid next to you, because otherwise he’s gonna get that slot—understand it, embrace it, and learn it.’ She was setting us up for the world. Do you think that Michael Ovitz would have wanted to talk to me if I wasn’t better than that white kid?”
Complex founder Marc Ecko, who partnered with Lighty on the G-Unit apparel deal, remembers Lighty as “one of the best salesmen in the business. He had this hunger, this strong brute force in a negotiation, but at the same time he did it with charm. The way he could light up a room was crazy. Watching him do his thing with 50 was just a master class in entrepreneurship.”
Fifty released the following statement: "I am deeply saddened by the loss of my dear friend and business partner Chris Lighty. Chris has been an important part of my business and personal growth for a decade. He was a good friend and advisor who helped me develop as an artist and businessman. My prayers are with his family. He will be greatly missed."
With all that he achieved in his 44 years, it came as a terrible shock when his body was discovered outside his Bronx apartment today, reportedly after an argument with his estranged wife. “We’re out here in front of his house right now,” Lighty’s longtime friend and Violator employee John Turk said this afternoon. “I’m out here. Flex is out here. D-Nice is out here. Busta’s out here. We’re just trying to figure this shit out.”
Havoc of Mobb Deep, who worked with Lighty during the Hell on Earth era, also had a hard time digesting the grim news. “I don’t want to get into any conspiracy theories, but I want to see a full investigation,” he said. “I just don't believe it. He was the kind of guy who would talk me out of doing something crazy.”
Lighty didn’t just sell hip-hop culture; he lived it. He came up running the streets with The Violators and rapped on Black Sheep’s first album. Unlike many other hip-hop moguls, he avoided the limelight, preferring to put his artists first. Although he was known to splash money around, he mostly kept his head down and handled his business. But whenever there was trouble, he wasn't afraid to man up.
I don’t want to get into any conspiracy theories, but I want to see a full investigation. I just don't believe it. He was the kind of guy who would talk me out of doing something crazy.
Though he never posed for photos smoking cigars or reading the Wall Street Journal, Lighty was an avid investor. In 2009 he confirmed to the New York Post that he was one of the clients burned by Bernie Madoff. "Nothing to talk about. It's not life-threatening," Lighty told the Post. "Not worth the ink you would waste."
The first real sign of trouble arose last November when Lighty separated from his wife Veronica, who worked with him at Violator. Veronica reportedly filed for divorce soon after Violator Management merged with Primary Wave Talent Management to form Primary Violator Management.
The merger may have been necessitated by pressing financial problems, including a reported $5 million tax bill. According to The New York Post, Lighty did not try to hide his displeasure during his first day on the new job last September. “He introduced himself to the staff saying, ‘My name is Chris Lighty. I’m not in a good mood right now. That’s all I’m going to say,” a source told Page Six. “It sucked every ounce of oxygen in the room.”
Months later Lighty’s Twitter bio still described him as “Husband • Father • Leader.” The background of his page showed his smiling face, a Violator logo, and cassettes with hand-written labels (BDP’s Criminal Minded and Violator: The Album). Struggling to make sense of such an incomprehensible tragedy, we're left with fragments of information left on his Twitter timeline.
This past July 20 he tweeted a photo of a carton of pineapple juice and a nearly empty bottle of coconut Ciroc with this caption: “This is where the week has taken me. Shout out to everyone who has contributed to my stress... Coco loso take me away.”
Three days before his death he remembered his old friend, Boogie Down Productions’ Scott "La Rock" Sterling on the 25th anniversary of his murder: “Rest in peace to my main man The Grand Incredible DJ Scott La Rock. I am still Criminal Minded. 8/27/87.” That same day he also tweeted some inspirational words: “Momentum is the word of the week. Create it.”
The following day he retweeted a quote that feels tragic in retrospect. “Life is about perspective. It’s not what you see, but how you see it. What you see is what you get.” Two days later his body was discovered with a gunshot wound to the head, a 9MM by his side. We can never know exactly what Chris Lighty saw. But we only wish he knew what so many of us saw in him.