Remembering Chris LightyAugust 31st, 2012
The death of legendary music executive Chris Lighty was a true tragedy for the hip hop world. When news of the Violator founder’s suicide broke, shock, sadness and an outpouring of love flowed across social media timelines and blog feeds as the countless lives he touched tried to come to terms with the sudden loss. Forbes reported that the apparent suicide occurred after Lighty had an argument with his ex-wife. The New York Daily News said that “a gun shot was heard and Lighty was found lying face-up with a 9-mm pistol next to his body” But why would the man largely responsible for the success of Mariah Carey, Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent want to end his own life? Sadly, it’s likely we’ll never truly get an answer, only more questions.
This whole situation is hauntingly similar to the death of Shakir Stewart, former executive vice president of Def Jam, who was found dead in his home in 2008 from a reportedly self-inflicted gunshot wound. Why would these two bright, successful, powerful Black men leave their families, careers and lives so suddenly? The lack of clarity surrounding both deaths is troubling, but what’s more troubling is the pattern that seems to be forming. I do not want to dishonor the dead by aimlessly speculating on the circumstances of their deaths, but we should at least explore and ask questions to find out why these tragedies happened and how they can be prevented.
While hip hop and corporate America have been in business together for nearly three decades, their relationship has been strictly exploitative, never friendly, and Lighty and Stewart were both on the front lines. On “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” Jay-Z vowed to “take over the industry” and “overcharge” label owners for “what they did to the Cold Crush (Brothers)”— referencing Grandmaster Caz, who wrote the hit “Rappers Delight” but never received compensation from Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson. Learning from the past, artists like Jay, Sean “Diddy” Combs and 50 Cent have attacked the corporate side of the game with a ferociousness that’s made them hundreds of millions through lanes outside of music.
Chris Lighty had been a key player in the dynamic since the 1990s when he began brokering endorsement deals between rap stars and corporate brands. He matched LL Cool J with The Gap, Busta Rhymes with Sprite, and hooked up the largest brand endorsement deal in hip hop history in 2004 when Coca-Cola bought Vitamin Water for 4.1 billion. Lighty helped 50 Cent make off with a cool $100 million from the deal. In a recent interview with AlLindstrom.com, Lighty proudly referred to 50, Jay and Diddy as “the Big Three” and stated, “The industry will never let the Big Three happen again. Because they’ll never let us rape and pillage the game and then go make tens of millions of dollars outside of the game.”
His innovative, even revolutionary, approach to the music business made him who he was, but is it possible that it also killed him? Reports of both Lighty and Stewarts’ deaths suggest personal problems as a cause, but could it be possible that their jobs played a part? Lighty was known to say that he got his “MBA in hell,” referring to the Bronx projects that raised him. But how could the survival instinct that drove him from poverty to the peaks of the music industry cut off just as he was reaching the top of his game? The same goes for Stewart, who took his life after signing superstars Beyoncé, Young Jeezy and Rick Ross and replacing Jay-Z as executive vice president of Def Jam.
OZONE magazine publisher Julia Beverly tweeted about both Lighty and Stewart yesterday saying, “Chris Lighty, Shakir Stewart…people only see the fame & $$ but people in the industry are often dealing with some heavy sh–.” How heavy? I can’t say for sure. But it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the circumstances of their deaths were darker and more sinister than we may ever know.