Chris Lighty was one of hip-hop's great impresarios. Before he died on August 30 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the 44-year-old founder of Violator managed the careers of, at one time or another, 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott, Nas, Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J, N.O.R.E., Fat Joe, Funkmaster Flex, Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. He was widely admired for arranging branding deals between his artists and major companies like Sprite and the Gap (which featured LL Cool J in a pioneering 1997 TV ad). And he pulled off the famous licensing deal between 50 Cent and VitaminWater that netted the rapper a reported $100 million dollars.
There are other reasons why the average rap fan knows Lighty's name, whether it's the Jungle Brothers shouting out "the Violators" in "I'm Gonna Do You" or "Baby Chris" himself appearing in Native Tongues' videos back at the dawn of the 1990s; he even dropped a few rhymes on Black Sheep's "Pass the 40." Lighty turned Violator, which he ran with Mona Scott, into a recognizable hip-hop brand, plastering its logos on numerous rap albums and two compilations: When Q-Tip's "Vivrant Thing" from Violator: The Album was released in 1999, the hit was credited to "Violator featuring Q-Tip." As a result, Lighty was a constant presence in magazines like The Source and XXL, the leading outlets for industry info and gossip before the blogs and websites took over.
And there's nothing wrong with that. Hip-hop has reserved a very large cultural space for its machers and money men, the ones who rescue poor but talented kids from the urban streets and turn them into stars. (Maybe too large a cultural space, but let's save that argument for another time.) Lighty, Russell Simmons, Lyor Cohen, Sha Money XL and Paul Rosenberg are celebrated as titans of industry, while the average rock and pop fan, by comparison, could hardly name the men who run the powerful management group The Firm or the indie-rock booking company Windish Agency. A glaring example is Jimmy Iovine, a record producer and label owner since the 1970s who only turned into an American Idol-worthy celebrity when his well-documented association with Dr. Dre and Eminem launched him out of the industry trade papers and into the gossip rags.
Among these proudly bellicose business leaders, Lighty was considered a pioneer, one of the figures who helped make hip-hop a mainstream juggernaut in the 1990s. Amid the stream of obituaries that appeared hours after his demise, Fat Joe's Tweeted tribute stands out: "That man saved my life." Here's some of the music he's partially responsible for.