I didn’t intend to tell Chris Lighty’s life story when I set out to write a book about the 40-year saga of hip-hop’s rise from subculture to global industry.
In truth, I didn’t intend to write about Chris at all.
It wasn’t until our mutual friend Sophia Chang urged me to talk to him that I even considered reaching out. But after several long conversations with Chris; dozens of interviews with friends, family, colleagues and clients; and several months of writing, Chris Lighty became the backbone of the final chapter of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.
Chris Lighty created and sustained more careers for more stars than any of his contemporaries because he had a simple formula: he thought big, worked hard, made that money, and kept it moving.
It wasn’t just that Lighty managed a bunch of superstar clients from LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes to Missy Elliot and 50 Cent. It wasn’t even that he had engineered what became hip-hop’s richest deal: the negotiation of equity for 50 Cent in Glaceau, the makers of Vitamin Water (who subsequently sold their company to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion).
What I just didn’t fathom, what eventually made Chris Lighty the virtual exclamation point at the end of 250,000 words, was that he was the great arc of hip-hop, personified. His life literally mirrored hip-hop’s journey. He came from the Bronx—from the Bronx River projects—just like hip-hop did. He didn't take himself too seriously at first, just like hip-hop. Gradually he learned the ropes and discovered how to make a living, just like hip-hop. And he learned the greatest and hardest lesson of all: equity, how to own yourself. Just like hip-hop did. I gather that, even at the level he played, it was exceedingly hard to keep that equity. Hip-hop, too, is experiencing that now.
How ironic now is that last scene in Chapter Eight? Chris is planning a party to celebrate the 50th birthday of his mentor, DJ Red Alert. Red had been aghast that Chris mentioned his advanced age. Lighty responded: “It’s great that you can be fifty in hip-hop,” considering that many of their friends and comrades hadn’t made it out of their 20s— from DJ Scott La Rock to Tupac and Biggie.
Chris Lighty, who took his own life Thursday morning at the age of 44, won’t make it to that milestone either.
More intrepid reporters than I will eventually parse the problems personal and financial of Chris Lighty, and tell thoroughly the end of his tale. What I do know is that Chris had seen his share of problems over the years and succeeded despite it all. It’s what made him so compelling as a character. Chris Lighty was passionately and sometimes violently loyal to his friends. The boy who busted up the Latin Quarter with his crew the Violators became the man who faced down Suge Knight to protect his mentor, Lyor Cohen. It’s that same heart that made him feel so acutely the pain of betrayal by people like Cohen, or Michael Ovitz, or any number of knuckleheaded artists who, to paraphrase that great poet Jerry Maguire, just couldn’t help Lighty help them. I remember vividly a Tweet from Lighty last year, practically begging his artist Soulja Boy to simply show up in the Violator offices to sign some contract that would bring the young rapper a million dollars.
Which brings me to a few points that I may not have made clearly enough in the book, so I will say them now for posterity.
Chris Lighty changed hip-hop because he taught hip-hop how to take artist management seriously.
Chris Lighty struggled to keep himself and everyone around him focused on business, not the dumb shit. Lighty weathered treachery from powerful entertainment mogul Mike Ovitz, and outlasted him. He endured baiting and bullets from Irv Gotti’s crew, and outlasted him. Like Michael Corleone, he kept trying to get out. The dummies kept pulling him back in.
Chris Lighty created and sustained more careers for more stars than any of his contemporaries because he had a simple formula: he thought big, worked hard, made that money, and kept it moving. He was content to play his position as businessman. He wasn’t a dick rider, a lackey, a svengali, or a shameless self-promoter. He had no desire to be an artist, nor share more of the spotlight than was his due. It’s why, frankly, I almost missed him.
I am glad I didn’t.
Dan Charnas is the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop; and marketing director for ooVoo.com