The untimely death of prodigious music executive Chris Lighty highlights the push by news and gossip Web sites to entice readers with speculation of behind-the-scenes turmoil. But the achievements of Chris, one of the driving forces behind hip-hop’s ascension to mainstream prominence, deserve to be the focus.
In the mid ’90s when rappers like Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G. were transitioning the genre from ashy to classy, the mega-manager and mogul was working to cement hip-hop’s place as a multi-billion-dollar business.
“If you were to put together a Mount Rushmore of people that advanced the game of hip-hop, you would have to put his face up there,” said Chris’ longtime friend and business partner, Michael “Blue” Williams.
As a fellow Bronx native and one of hip-hop’s most venerable executives, Blue got to know Chris well over the years; first as a competitor, and later as a friend and business partner. In September of 2011, the two merged Blue’s company, Primary Wave, and Chris’ Violator, to form Primary Violator.
Blue, the driving force behind seminal acts like Outkast, Nas, Cee-Lo Green and Cody Simpson, remembers Chris as a visionary, a genius and, most importantly, a dedicated family man. “Chris loved his family, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Blue said. "Being a father is the legacy I’m sure he would want to be remembered for.”
Unlike many managers who benefit from nepotism, Chris worked his way up from humble beginnings. He started out carrying records for DJ Red Alert and before long found himself working for Russell Simmons at Rush Management.
According to Blue, these experiences allowed Chris to relate to people at every level in a manner that most could not. “He earned his stripes, and he was part of a dying breed that came from the ground up. Coming up like that, you have a respect for everybody’s job, and because somebody gave you a chance, you’re always looking for that next person that impresses you.”
Blue pointed out that what made Chris unique was not only his undeniable ear for musical talent, but also his ability to spot keen business minds. “When you look at the executives that came out of Violator like Mona Scott, James Cruz, Claudine [Joseph], etc., you realize that this is a man that not only can identify and manage musical talent, he could identify and groom executive talent.”
In hip-hop’s constant war between commercial viability and lyrical meritocracy, Chris was the alchemist. He helped make nine-figure deals a reality for superstar rappers, while creating avenues like pleaselistentomydemo.com to help up-and-coming MCs gain an audience.
“He never saw a ceiling as far as how far hip-hop could go,” added Blue. “We both grew up in The Bronx, when hip-hop was at its birth, and to see where it’s taken us; to see (Jay-Z) at Yankee Stadium or Eminem playing in front of 125,000 people at Grant Park for Lollapalooza.”
It has been almost a week since Chris’ death and entertainment sites and social media serve as a daily reminder of just how loved and revered the executive was.
Chris’ death may be surrounded by a myriad of intrusive and overbearing questions, but his indelible contribution to a culture that went from underground to overseas will forever be a part of history.