The Man Behind the Scenes
Contributor D. Chandler:
It wasn’t just a little quake among members and fans of the hip-hop music industry. It was a magnitude eight on the Richter scale; there’s almost no coming back from that. And they’ll be no coming back for the innovative music endorsement pioneer Chris Lighty who died Thursday morning at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Lighty was 44 years old when he died of what law enforcement sources called, an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after 11:30 a.m. local time. The cause of death was undetermined pending a police investigation and autopsy results.
Lighty was a quiet man behind the scenes who maneuvered and fashioned giant deals, which netted young hip hop stars millions upon millions of dollars in endorsement payouts. When it came to enhancing an artist’s revenue portfolio, the hip hop industry came to rely and count on deals that Lighty engineered. That’s why at present, the industry is in shock over the loss of such a valuable friend and asset. Blindsided might perhaps be a better word to describe the impact.
According to Paul Browne, chief spokesman for the New York Police Department, no note was recovered, but a 9 mm handgun was found at the scene and there was no sign of forced entry.
The medical examiner’s office will determine a cause of death, but authorities say the shooting appears to be self-inflicted.
The Bronx native got his start by hauling record crates for DJ Red Alert in the late 1980s.
The Founder and chief executive of Violator Management/Brand Asset Group, Lighty has been a key figure on the music scene since 1988 when he joined Russell Simmons and now-Warner chief Lyor Cohen at Rush Management.
Among the list of music moguls managed by Lighty were Sean “Diddy” Combs, 50 Cent and Mariah Carey.
“I only work with artists I love, people I’d leave my vacation for,” he told “Forbes” back in 2006.
Lighty was behind some of rap’s leading figures, helping them not only attain hit records but also lucrative careers outside of music. He had been a part of the scene for decades, working with pioneers like LL Cool J before starting his own management company, Violator.
An ongoing theme in Lighty’s career was trying to find ways that advertisers could borrow a bit of his clients’ street credibility, without compromising that credibility in the process.
Twitter was abuzz with condolences on his death just hours after the body was found at about 11:30 a.m.
“R.I.P. Chris Lighty,” Fat Joe posted on his account, “The man that saved my life!”
Diddy wrote: “In shock.”
Rihanna posted: “Rest peacefully Chris Lighty, my prayers go out to family and loved ones! Dear God please have mercy.”
And Mary J. Blige wrote: “U never know what can send a person over the edge or make them want 2 keep living; take it easy on people.”
50 Cent said in a statement issued through his publicist that he was deeply saddened by the loss: “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.”
Lighty was the architect of what turned out to be one of the most lucrative deals in hip-hop history–50 Cent’s VitaminWater pact. In exchange for letting the brand develop the beverage Formula 50 and appearing in commercials, the rapper received a small equity stake in VitaminWater parent Glaceau.
When Coca-Cola paid $4.1 billion for the company three years later, 50 Cent walked away with $100 million; Lighty received an undisclosed sum.
More recently Lighty was hoping to repeat the VitaminWater feat–but with a charitable component–through 50 Cent’s Street King energy shot line. For every unit sold, a meal would be donated to a child in need through the United Nations’ World Food Programme.
The show will have to go on without him.
The tributes just kept pouring in online from musicians and industry colleagues.
“So very sad about Chris lighty..Great long time friend,fellow bronxite and peer…incredible businessman and person,” tweeted Jeff Robinson, CEO of MBK Entertainment [Alicia Keys, Elle Varner] and a friend and professional peer of Lighty. “Its very sad..noone knows what pressures we all really have behind the masks put on for the public and even family and friends..” he adds; a concerned sentiment echoed by many this evening in reaction to the news.
Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun wrote: “hard to believe it is true but RIP to my friend Chris Lighty. gone too soon.”
Lighty was raised by his mother in the Bronx, one of six children. He ran with a group called The Violators, the inspiration for the name of his management company, according to the company website. He was a player in the hip-hop game since he was a kid DJ. He rose through the ranks at Rush Management (Simmons’ first company) before eventually founding Violator Management in the late 1990s. (Mona Scott and James Cruz are partners).
Lighty explained his approach in a 2007 interview with The Wall Street Journal, saying that he was trying to broker a productive relationship between artists and advertisers.
“Today, we lost a hip-hop hero and one of its greatest architects,” Simmons tweeted.
Lighty’s roster ranged from Academy Award-winners Three 6 Mafia to maverick Missy Elliott to up-and-comer Papoose and perpetual star Carey. He made it his mission not so much to make musical superstars, but rather multifaceted entertainers who could be marketed in an array of ways: a sneaker deal here, a soft drink partnership there, a movie role down the road.
In a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, Lighty talked about creating opportunities for his stars — a Chapstick deal for LL Cool J, known for licking his lips, a vitamin supplement deal for 50 Cent.
“As music sales go down because kids are stealing it off the Internet and trading it and iPod sales continue to rise, you can’t rely on just the income that you would make off of being an artist,” he said at the time.
But Lighty had been having recent financial and personal troubles.
Lighty is survived by his two children. He and his wife, Veronica, had been in the process of divorcing. The case was still listed as active, but electronic records show an agreement to end it was filed in June.
Among these troubles was City National Bank, which sued Lighty, whose given name is Darrell, in April, saying he had overdrawn his account by $53,584 and then refused to pay the balance. The case was still pending.
He also owed more than $330,000 in state and federal taxes, according to legal filings. His tax problems were much steeper a year ago, but he cleared away millions of dollars in earlier IRS liens last October, after selling his Manhattan apartment for $5.6 million.
In 2011 Lighty’s management company, Violator, formed yet another joint venture, this time with independent music publisher Primary Wave. Primary Violator Management’s agenda was similar to the Brand Asset Group’s. A third partner in the venture, former Outkast manager Michael “Blue” Williams, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment; nor did a spokeswoman for Primary Wave or other executives at the company.
If you were able to capture what artist perceived Lighty to be, perhaps they might say; he was an innovative music endorsement pioneer who worked effectively behind the scenes.
In a video interview last year with the WSJ, Lighty and Michael “Blue” Williams reflected on their careers. Watch the video below.