15. Chris Lighty
Title(s): Founder of Violator Records and Violator Aritst Management
Artists They Worked With: Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, 50 Cent, Ja Rule, Mobb Deep, Diddy, Missy Elliott
In the beginning, Chris Lighty didn’t have business on his mind. “Baby Chris,”as he was dubbed by Kool DJ Red Alert back in the 1980s, was the pretty boy in a loose but tough crew called “the Violators.” Lighty kept one eye on Red Alert in the nightclubs, and his other on other guy’s girls.
But Red Alert saw a glimmer of light in Lighty—the solidity of his word and his restraint under pressure. Red made Lighty the road manager for his group, the Jungle Brothers. Lighty was in many ways the fourth member of the trio, but instead ended up taking on more management duties, this time on behalf of De La Soul, as Red Alert transitioned away from the music business.
Lighty migrated his artists to Rush under the aegis and tutelage of Lyor Cohen Lighty’s turn as a creative executive came when Cohen and Russell Simmons decided to close shop. Lighty quickly arranged for a production deal for his “Violator Records” with a large independent label called Relativity, signing three acts—Fat Joe, Chi Ali, and The Beatnuts. Cohen quickly decided that he had made a grave mistake in letting Lighty and his talents slip away: He made Lighty Def Jam’s head of A&R.
In the building, it was Lighty who championed the signing of Foxy Brown, over the initial resistance of Cohen. His repertoire direction reinvigorated and reinvented LL Cool J’s career. Lighty brought in Warren G, which imparted to Def Jam real relevance in the West Coast-dominated mid-1990s.
The A&R angel is a fickle friend, and Lighty seemed to lose his luster just as Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo’s A&R star rose with DMX and Ja Rule. Friction between the two, and Lighty’s unwillingness to jettison his management company, led to Lighty’s departure from Def Jam. Within a few years, Lighty signed the artist who would vanquish Gotti and his artists: 50 Cent. Lighty relinquished 50’s recording contract to Dr. Dre and Eminem in return for retaining management. But it was a shrewd move that in essence purchased his artist’s superstardom.
Lighty returned to management thereafter, maintaining a stable of artists from LL to Busta to Soljah Boy. When Lighty was found dead from a self-inflicted gun wound in 2012, he was mourned by many in the hip-hop industry.