The Mysterious Death of Hip-Hop Manager & Power Broker Chris Lighty

From The Daily Beast:

Police say Chris Lighty, the Violator Records founder and legendary manager, killed himself. But friends like 50 Cent are bankrolling an investigation into his death—and sources offer Allison Samuels conflicting versions of the day he died.

It was supposed to be a celebration of Chris Lighty’s life. But the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta quickly and unexpectedly turned into something else.

During an emotional musical tribute Saturday to the late hip-hop power broker, a fight broke out backstage between the rappers Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, potentially casting an even larger shadow over the legacy of the man whose life, friends and family say, ended far too mysteriously on a recent August morning in the backyard of his New York home.

Lighty, 44, called one of “the most influential talent managers” by Forbes magazine in 2006, was found dead Aug. 30 in the backyard of his home in Riverdale, N.Y. The New York City medical examiner ruled his death the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But many of those who knew him well don’t agree. Famous friends such as 50 Cent, Russell Simmons, Q-Tip, and Busta Rhymes have reportedly all joined Lighty’s mother and family in questioning how he died.

In life Lighty was a man hard to miss, with his overpoweringly large frame, which he put to good use with frequent bear hugs. Born the oldest of six children to a single mother in the Bronx, he turned down several scholarships to college in the mid-1980s to help his struggling family. During the day he worked as an electrician, but his nights found him pursuing a career in hip-hop, a new form of music that was rapidly dominating the landscape.

“Chris lived and breathed music and hip-hop,” said a family friend. “He wanted so badly to be in that world and to become a part of that industry from the inside. He loved every aspect of the business.’

Early stints hauling crates of vinyl records for DJ Red Alert and serving as the road manger for the hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions were followed by an internship for Russell Simmons’s Def Jam Records. There Lighty’s formal education really began in the marketing and brand building that would later go on to define his career and legacy. Former employees say Lighty was an instant star at Def Jam, where he was able to work directly with Run DNC and Warren G, among other stars.

“He was an amazing example of how a passionate kid from the street can go to the most even-keeled, smart, thoughtful manager in business and generous philanthropist,” said Simmons shortly after Lighty’s death.

Lighty’s legendary hustle would take him far, and he explained how his early childhood in a rough section of the Bronx inspired his work ethic to Forbes in 2006: “Street entrepreneurs had set hours. They created sales and cultivated a viable product. And given the volatile nature of most hood enterprises, businessman had to have the leadership skills necessary to run an organization that could easily run amok if left to its own devices.”

After exiting Def Jam Records in 2000, Lighty would strike out on his own, forming Violator Management and Violator Records. His business model was so impressive, he received partial financing from one-time Hollywood honcho Michael Ovitz. The label instantly became an urban music powerhouse, attracting the music and hip-hop greats Mariah Carey, Q-Tip, LL Cool J, P. Diddy, and 50 Cent. In Violator’s heyday, Lighty’s clients ruled the music charts, earning several Grammy Awards and even an Oscar.

But Lighty’s true genius lay in creating strategic multimillion-dollar opportunities for his artists in film, television, advertising, and finance, to great media fanfare.

In 1997, Lighty masterminded a prominent Gap commercial for LL Cool J and also struck lucrative endorsement beverage deals for clients Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest. His highly publicized negotiations with Glacéau gave rapper 50 Cent a minority stake in the beverage company.

Known for lavish spending and blowout parties, Lighty famously bought two apartments in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood for more than $5 million each in 2008. As his status grew, so did his reputation as a ladies’ man, though he finally settled down in 2005, marrying Veronica Lighty.

The good times were very good for the world of hip-hop and Lighty, but they wouldn’t last. Violator would soon suffer financially as the music industry experienced a downturn. Adding salt to that wound was Veronica Lighty’s divorce filing last year, a move some say changed Lighty’s demeanor and personality for the worse.

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