Like many a good hip-hop story, Chris Lighty’s begins in the Boogie Down Bronx. Born into a large Jamaican family (his siblings all work in the music business, including brother Dave, director of A&R at Jive, and Mike, who heads Emmel Communications and is currently 50’s road manager) Chris came up during hip-hop’s exalted golden era, when fabled, since-shuttered nightspots like Latin Quarter and Union Square were the pulsing epicenter of a nascent youth culture. At age 17, Lighty was one of the younger cats coming up under Afrika Bambaattaa’s Zulu Nation—a group whose philosophy of peace and unity would influence the Native Tongue movement and a futre generation of conscious rappers. Light ran with a gritty crew called the Violators, whose job description included holding down the legendary DJ Red Alert.
“ I said, ‘Please let me carry your [record] crate,” Lighty laughs, “So I can get to the other side of the room. And he was like, ‘I’ll get back to you.’”
Schlepping vinyl would eventually lead to other opportunities. Through Red Alert’s involvement with an up-and-coming rap trio called the Jungle Brothers, Chris scored his first real industry gig as their road manager.
It was 1989, Lighty was about 20, and as the JBs’ Mike G recalls, “Chris had the mad babyface, mad freckles.” Even in those innocent times you Lighty often found himself in the midst of some drama. “I have to say this,” says G, “but trouble always kinda followed Chris. Not in a way that he was a provoker. But back in the day, Baby Chris, he was the cute one, pulling all the girls. Heads would get jealous and try and step to him.”
Eventually, Lighty would extend his duties into a more solid managerial position with the JBs, landing the group a deal with Warner Bros., where they released the seminal Done By The Forces Of Nature in 1989. Lighty was the unofficial fourth member of the group, and his success caught the attention of Lyor Cohen, who offered Lighty a gig at Rush (the management arm of Russell Simmons’ Def Jam empire). At Rush, Lighty worked closely with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, who name-checked their manager (“What is Chris Lighty if he wasn’t such a baby?”) on “What?” from the 1991 classic, Low End Theory.
“Those were the good old days,” says Chris wistfully. “Before I had money and problems. Back then, we had no money and a love of music. We had problems…” He pauses and smiles. “But of how to get money.”
Was he happier then? Does Lighty pine for those times on the Boulevard of Linden? He nods his head. “Absolutely. No question. And then,” he adds somewhat quixotically, “it’s just as good a time now. I wish… I wish… I wish for another Tribe album, it’s a give and take. You gotta give the kids what they wanna hear, an—hopefully—try and send out a little message.”
Combined with his passion for the old days, Lighty’s pragmatic takes on the realities of the contemporary marketplace is the key to his longevity. “Chris had a good knowledge of the history of the music,” says Mike G. “And where it’s going.”
Despite the chaos that swirls around him Lighty remains optimistic.
(Granted, that’s not that hard when you’re earning truckloads of cash.) And he’s an ardent fan of the current crop of top hip-hop artists. His ears are fine-tuned to the sound that only street dogs can pick up, and even in the messages imparted in “In Da Club” aren’t quite as expansive as those on a vintage De La track, Lighty keeps the faith. “Everything we work with,” he says, “you have to be a fan. Otherwise, it’s hard to get up at three a.m. and take that call. I’m always excited to hear new music from our clients, and people in general. I’m always in the place of being a fan, because this is what I grew up on. I really grew up on Afrika Bambaataa and Red Alert and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”
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