As the business force behind 50 Cent, Chris Lighty finds himself knee-deep in boiling beef. Still Violater feels he’ll weather the storm and stack more paper than LeBron James. Can he live?—
Words: Amy Linden
Images: Keith Major


News Flash: America loves fame. We crave it. We are convinced that those who achieve it will not only live forever, they will also learn how to fly.

When this writer was a wee Whitey, the people who were actually famous were pop stars. Actors. Basketball players. Serial killers. Today? Please. All bets are off. We have celebrity stylists, celebrity publicists, celebrity plastic surgeons, celebrity journalists, celebrity CEOs. We have an entire ancillary industry of people who are actually famous. All of which brings us to the subjext of this feature, Mr. Chris Lighty.

Chris Lighty does not rap. He doesn’t dance. He’s never been on Broadway or acted in a film. To the best of anyone’s knowledge he does not sing, play an instrument or throw a baseball 95 miles per hour. Yet despite all of these apparent negatives, Chris Lighty is famous. So much so that when my own in-house teen focus group learned that Mommy was going to interview Chris Lighty, he perked up and exclaimed, “Wow. He’s 50’s manager!” Yes, yes. Technically, Lighty comanages (with Sha Money XL) the career of 50 Cent, but that’s not the point.

Time was that the job of “artist manager” was a strictly behind-the-scenes administration position. You book travel. You type up itineraries. You get your man to the show on time. The only music manager that achieved any degree of notoriety was the late Brian Epstein. And let’s be fair, the man worked with the Beatles. But a rapper’s manager? Come on, that’s like knowing who a rapper’s accountant is. In a perfect world, anyone who knew such information would be too embarrassed to admit it.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in an Entertainment Tonight/Access Hollywood world. A world where box office grosses are news items and even civilians are hip to the Billboard charts. We lie in Puffy’s world. Dame Dash’s world. (You just knew it was all their fault.) Chris Lighty is famous no because of what he does, but because of who he does it for—and he does it for some of the best. As the founder of Violator Management, he has guided the careers of Missy Elliott, A Tribe Called Quest, Foxy Brown, Mobb Deep, Noreaga and Busta Rhymes, among others. Since the 1980s he has risen through the ranks from gofer to macher. And now, thanks to his association with America’s latest favorite dreamboat thug (that’s Fiddy), Lighty finds himself a full-fledged celebrity. He gets bumrushed for autographs in the frozen food section of his local ShopRite. That must be sorta cool, huh, to be that well known?

Not that cool. Sitting in his cluttered office, located in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, Lighty insists that fame is a heavy burden to bear. “I don’t want the limelight,” he signs.

Lighty’s aversion to attention may have less to do with a well-adjusted ego than with serious concerns for personal safety. The last few months have not been peaceful or calm for anyone around Violator Management. As has been widely reported (and exploited), 50 Cent has been embroiled in a war of words with (former Violator client) Ja Rule, Irv Gotti and their Murder Inc. camp that has escalated into something far more serious than the comparatively pacifistic contretemps between Jay-Z and Nas. On January 16th, 2003, still-unidentified assailants shot up the lobby of Violator’s offices. Lighty and much of the staff were present, but in an interior room. A month later, Busta Rhymes’ SUV was riddled with bullets while it was parked in front of the building. Busta was not in the vehicle, and thankfully no one was hurt in either incident. But quite understandably, the bullet holes have left Lighty and the rest of the Violator staff spooked. No one is sure of the intent of the attacks, but its notable that Lighty and Busta drive the same type of car. Lighty also admits in a tone both angry and remorseful that he now owns a bulletproof vest.


Upon meeting him, you’d be hard-pressed to figure Lighty for a marked man—even a famous one. Dressed casually, and still blessed with the boyish visage that earned him the nickname “Baby” back in the day, the soft-spoken 33-year-old is a striking contrast to the stereotypical industry bigwig. His manner is reserved, even a bit guarded. But make no mistake, the guy is a shot-caller. On top of running Violator with partners James Cruz and Mona Scott, Lighty was recently named vice president of the super-successful Jive Records.

“Jamaicans have to have 10 jobs,” he says, chuckling, of his decision to joint the label that boasts Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, ‘NSync and R. Kelly. “This will give Violator an outlet for the music, and also to just grow—myself, executive wise, career-wise.”

Lighty’s influence is already evident at HQ for pedophiles and pop tarts. He brought Mobb Deep over with him, and is anxious to facilitate the much-rumored reunion album from disbanded Jive act, A Tribe Called Quest. (He’s careful, though, to point out that the latter is a long way from fruition.)

This particular April afternoon Lighty is making a pit stop at the office he flies off to Miami in a private jet with Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine. Life is hectic, and Lighty is multitasking up a storm—checking his pager, answering my questions and staring intently at the flickering screen of his laptop. When I remark that, considering all the headlines, it might be dangerous to be in the same room with him, Lighty looks annoyed and defiant. “It’s a lot of hype,” he says, with a frown. “If they really wanted me, I walk the street every day.”

Lighty refers to the ongoing drama as “stupid,” and chalks up much of the underlying motivation to petty childhood issues stretching back to the Queens streets where 50 and Irv Gotti were raised. (The FBI is currently investigating the relationship between Gotti and convicted drug kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff.)

“It’s unfortunate that people in hip-hop want to do stupid thing,” he says, “and be envious and jealous and make dumb decisions. That’s why we’ll see where everyone’s company is in the next couple of months.” The reference seems aimed at Murder Inc., leading me to ask—though I’m pretty sure I know the answer—whether Violator thinks that Irv Gotti and his many men are behind the shootings. Lighty stares at me, his expression utterly deadpan, “We think? Yeah, we think. The police think. The newspapers think. The world thinks.”

(On January 18, New York Newsday reported: “A mysery shooter opened fire in the hallway outside a Chelsea firm that manages a number of high-profile rappers, including 50 Cent and Ja Rule [sic], police said Friday. Police suspect the shooting might be connted to the feud between the two men.” In May, in response to questions about Murder Inc.’s alleged connection to the Violator shootings, an NYPD spokesman refused comment, saying only that, “The investigation is still ongoing at this time.” A Murder Inc. publicist offered an official “No comment.”)

So what can be done to put out the fire?

“They need to see a psychiatrist or something,” Lighty shrugs. “I don’t know. We’re keeping it moving. There’s no more sitting down. No more conversations, no more waving white flags. It is what it is.”

When it’s suggested that all parties involved might do well with a little group therapy (taking Jay-Z’s “Sensitive thugs, y’all all need hugs advice to the next medical level), Lighty nods his head. “This reality is that we could all make money and never have to cross paths. It’s very childish and foolish to put people’s lives in jeopardy and have to have security, to replace walls, have bulletproof cars, bulletproof doors. It’s ridiculous…I have a 13-year-old daughter. It’s not cute that she has to read these things or that kids come up to her. It’s not good for their kids either. People live in real nice homes in New Jersey, Westchester is a nice area. Come on! We live in pretty well-made neighborhoods. I’ve been to all their weddings, brought gifts, it’s the stupidest thing that I’ve ever seen.”


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.”


A week after meeting Lighty in his office, this writer is finally getting a good night’s sleep. Safe in the knowledge that the American armed forces liberated the Iraqi people and destroyed all those pesky weapons of mass destruction (Uhh…hmm… well, one out of two ain’t bad) and that Violator is going to stop the madness and concertrate on making money. But then the bubble of bliss is popped when a catchy remake of 2Pac’s “Hail Mary” hits the streets. You know that song—the one where International acclaimed recording artist Chris Light cusses out Irv Gotti by name.

Uh, excuse me. Chris?

“I stepped out of character,” he ‘fesses up, speaking over the phone. “The reality is that as much I try to walk the line of saneness, I’m no Jesus Christ. How many times can something continue to happen to us and we bear the brunt and not say something?”

So you fucked up?

“It was poor judgment.”

And what have we learned from this, Chris?

“We’re not answered any more records. Ja Rule can make 200 million records about us, it doesn’t matter. It’s beyond us. It’s silly now. Really silly. We’re detracting from our business…” Lighty pauses. “Listen. Why are our disputes any difference than when Jimmy Iovine and Lyor Cohen have differences?

Hmm, the guns?

“Yeah. That’s where we have to go. Unfortunately, we have people around us who take everything to the streets. Where the reality is, were all making a lot of money. We got bigger and better things to be doing than chasing each other down the street. All I want to do is make records and be thankful to be in this business. I can’t be bothered with the bickering, it takes up too much time."

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