At press time, industry colleagues and artists were trying to come to grips with the unexpected death of Chris Lighty. The savvy entrepreneur and hip-hop visionary, who founded the game-changing company Violator Management, died this morning of an apparent suicide. According to published reports, Lighty was 44.
"Chris was a longtime friend, fellow Bronxite and a true pioneer," MBK Entertainment CEO Jeff Robinson tells Billboard. "He taught so many artists how to become business juggernauts while making timeless hits at the same time."
Music Choice VP of programming Damon Williams adds, "Chris always had his hand on the pulse of hip-hop. He was a bridge that brought his artists, music and the culture together with consumers and brands. His work set the tone for what could be done in business with hip-hop."
As news spread of Lighty's death, Twitter exploded with tributes. Fellow manager Scooter Braun tweeted, "Hard to believe it is true but RIP to my friend Chris Lighty. Gone too soon."
And early management client Fat Joe said simply, "R.I.P. Chris Lighty. The man that saved my life!!!! I Would Be Nothing Without YOU!!!"
At the time of his death, Lighty was COO of Primary Violator--the powerhouse merger between Violator and Larry Mestel's Primary Wave Talent Management that took place last September. The post-merger roster of artists includes Mariah Carey, Soulja Boy, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Diggy Simmons, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Cee Lo Green.
"We are extremely shocked and sadden by this tragic news," Mestel said in a statement. "Chris was a friend, business partner and most of all, an icon, role model and true legend of the music and entertainment industry. He will be missed by many, and we send love and support to his family."
Lighty, together with Primary Violator Management president Michael "Blue" Williams, appeared on Billboard's inaugural Urban Power List (Billboard, July 7). At the time, Lighty told Billboard that next on the company's agenda was brokering more brand extensions for its clients and breaking artists on multimedia platforms. "We're constantly trying to move the culture forward," Lighty said.
Raised by a single mother in the Bronx River Houses in the South Bronx, Lighty -- nicknamed Baby Chris for his youthful looks -- was the eldest of six. He got his start in hip-hop in the mid-'80s, carrying records for DJ Red Alert and worked with KRS-One's Boogie Down Productions. From there he became manager for several prominent rap groups linked to the influential Native Tongues collective, including Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen recruited Lighty in 1989 to work at their Rush Management, rap's first major management company. Lighty brought clients A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul into the firm's fold, and worked with Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy, Brand Nubian and Eric B. & Rakim, among others, while with Rush as well. He even moonlighted as an occasional rapper in the late '80s/early '90s, rhyming on the Black Sheep track "Pass the 40," from the duo's acclaimed 1991 debut, A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing.
In 1990, while still at Rush, Lighty founded Violator. When Rush closed down a few years later, Lighty brought along several Rush clients (including Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest) as he and former co-owner/president Mona Scott-Young began focusing solely on Violator.
The pioneering entertainment conglomerate -- which eventually included management, marketing, label and multimedia wings -- took off, boasting a roster that included Missy Elliott, Mobb Deep, 50 Cent and LL Cool J, becoming one of hip-hop's biggest, most prominent firms. Lighty helped his clients land high-profile endorsement deals at a time when many corporations were still hands-off with hip-hop== linking A Tribe Called Quest with Sprite, Busta Rhymes with Mountain Dew and LL Cool J with the Gap. Perhaps most notably, he negotiated 50 Cent's massive partnership with Vitaminwater, giving the rapper a stake in the company, his own flavor drink--and a payday estimated to be worth up to $100 million when Glacéau sold the company to Coca-Cola in 2007.
Through its label division, Violator released a series of noteworthy projects, including two compilation albums: 1999's Violator: The Album and 2001's Violator: The Album, V2.0. The albums spun off two R&B/hip-hop top 10s, "Vivrant Thing" featuring Q-Tip and "What It Is" featuring Busta Rhymes and Kelis. Expanding into the marketing arena, Lighty formed Brand Asset Group, a joint venture with Warner Music, in 2007.
Through the years, Lighty also served as an executive at Jive, Def Jam and Loud Records.
According to a report in the New York Daily News, Lighty died the morning of Aug. 30 after an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound following an argument with ex-wife Veronica at his Bronx apartment. The paper also noted that Lighty may have owed up to $5 million to the IRS. Although an the Associated Press reported that according to legal filings he owed "more than $330,000 in state and federal taxes."
In recent weeks, Lighty's tweets were reflective and downcast: "Hell is empty. All the devils are here," he wrote in June. The last item on his Twitter page is this retweet: "Life is about perspective. It's not what you see, but how you see it. What you see is what you get."
At press time, a statement from Primary Violator was still pending, as were funeral arrangements.
Additional reporting by Alex Gale.