Let’s start at the end—at a funeral.
All the brightest stars in the hip-hop universe are gathered to mourn the death of Chris Lighty. He was their friend, their brother, their late-night confidant, the man who discovered them, or saved their careers, or made them millionaires. He was a hip-hop legend. But to understand how we got here, we have to go back to the beginning—back to a time before hip-hop even had a name.
CREDITS: Mogul is hosted by Reggie Ossé. This episode was produced by Eric Eddings and Meg Driscoll, with help from Isabella Kulkarni, Peter Bresnan, and Jonathan Menna. Our senior producer is Matthew Nelson. Our editors are Lynn Levy, Caitlin Kenney and Chris Morrow. Sound design and mixing by Haley Shaw. Music direction by Matthew Boll. This episode was scored by Prince Paul & Newkirk, with additional music by Open Mike Eagle, Haley Shaw, and Bobby Lord. Special thanks to Victoria Barner and Caitlin DiLena.
Episode 1: That Beat, That Beat Right There
Fat Joe: Whoever the fuck you name on the planet Earth was at that funeral, like Lauryn Hill, Mary, whoever on Earth, and I remember when I walked in there, like people started crying and hugging me and shit ‘cause they knew my relationship with him…
Jessica: Well of course LL was there, and ummm…
AB: Nick Cannon, Chris used to manage Nick…
Jessica: 50 was there, Puffy was there.
Nicole: So many people. My brother was well loved. So many people.
All these people were gathered at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan.That’s the same place where funerals for stars like Aaliyah, Luther Vandross and The Notorious B.I.G. were held. If you were on the street outside that day, you might’ve thought this was a red carpet event. Celebrities stepping out of SUVs with blacked out windows. Paparazzi were there too, looking for a spot to take the perfect shot. Bodyguards did their best to hold them back.
But inside there was no awards show. No new album dropping. Just a casket. Holding the body of a man named Chris Lighty. Who just a few days earlier, had shocked the world.
Archive: The medical examiner has ruled the death of hip-hop mogul Chris Lighty is a suicide. Lighty was found with a gunshot wound to the head at his Bronx home on Thursday. Police say they found a black handgun at the scene, but no note. The 44-year-old worked with some of rap and R&B’s biggest stars, including New York acts LL Cool J, Mariah Carey, Sean Diddy Combs and 50 Cent.
Chris also worked with Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown, Q Tip. He signed some of the biggest endorsement deals in the history of hip-hop. This guy was a king. And a king maker.
Which is why no one saw this coming. Powerful Black men like Chris Lighty do not shoot themselves. It makes no sense. Not when he fought and thought his way outta the hood. Not when he beat the odds and didn’t end up in jail. And certainly not when he achieved so much, contributed so much to the culture, and made so much damn money along the way.
But somehow there he was, lying in a casket with a bullet through his skull.
Here’s Chris’ mom Jessica, reading the eulogy she wrote for her son:
Jessica: My son was the eldest of six children, born in the Bronx New York. From a very young age he was encouraged to be independent, dependable, loyal, and true to his family and friends. He lived that way throughout his short but eventful life. He leaves a legacy that his children can cherish and use as a benchmark in defining what makes a person successful in life. It was not the fame, the material possessions, nor even the love a career he enjoyed every day of his adult life. It was much deeper than that. My son was a lover of God, family, friends, and life itself. And as we all do along life’s journey, he made some wrong turns. But he never wavered in that love. Sleep well my son, we all love you so much.
Matt: [in background] That was beautiful.
From Gimlet Media and the Loud Speakers Network, I’m Reggie Osse and this is Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty.
The story you’re about to hear is about the birth of hip-hop and the birth of a hip-hop legend—but it’s also about the darker side of the industry, and a lot of shit that people in our world would rather not talk about …It’s the story of how Chris Lighty, a young kid from the Bronx, managed to rise so high. And how, when he got there, everything went so fucking wrong.
To really understand Chris Lighty, and hip-hop, we have to go back to where they both came from: The Bronx. Chris was born in 1968, came up in the 1970s, a time when New York City was fucked up. Most of the wealthy and middle class had fled, taking their tax dollars with them, leaving the city borderline bankrupt.
And of all of the boroughs, the Bronx was easily the most fucked up. Crime skyrocketed. Employment plummeted. Gangs with names like the Black Spades, Savage Skulls, and the Sedgwick Sisters patrolled the streets. And there was an outbreak of fires across the borough …
Archive: Once that smoke on the horizon signified industry, progress, jobs… now it means someone is burning down a building. A landlord for profit. A tenant for revenge. It happens 30 times a day, and the flames are a signal of a natural disaster.
The Bronx was burning. Literally. All of this was happening right outside Chris Lighty’s front door. But kids are kids, no matter where they grow up. They go outside. They play. Here’s Chris’ sister, Nicole:
Reggie: What’s your earliest memory of Chris?
Nicole: My earliest memory…Oh my brother, there’s so many. Riding our bikes on Stickney Place in the Bronx. We had to be in the house when those lights came on but we would ride our purple bikes up and down the street. Man…memories.
Reggie: Was he fearless, on his bike?
Nicole: No, he made us fearless. He was our oldest brother. We had to do all the dirty work. He put us up to it. And, we did it, of course. We trusted him. But we played a lot, there was six of us. We did childhood stuff in an environment where you wasn’t allowed to really have a childhood. And we made sure we had one.
One of the reasons they could have such a normal childhood in such a tough environment was because of Chris’s mom, Jessica. She did her best to insulate her kids from what was happening in the Bronx. She kept them in solid, working class neighborhoods. They went to church every Sunday. And she sent them to the best schools … which, in Chris’s case, were white schools.
Jessica: And I remember when he was maybe in 8th grade, and he said to me, “Ma, why do I have to go to that school?” He was the only black person in there and because he would have to fight. And I would tell him, “You are black, you are male, and you have to not be just as good as them, you have to be better than them if you’re gonna succeed. That’s why you have to go to those schools.”
Chris may have gone to a fancy school, but at the end of the day he always had to come back to his own neighborhood. And in that environment, being book smart was not enough. You had to be street smart. And you needed a crew so you always had somebody to watch your back.
Darryl: Yeah, you know, everybody had their little gang. In certain areas you needed a crew so you could move around, because if not you would get bullied or picked on or whatever the case may be. And you know, walking through projects like this, you know, every time you had to prove yourself.
That’s Darryl Thompson. He and Chris met when they were a little older—freshmen in high school.
Reggie: Yeah, what high school did you guys go to?
Darryl: Samuel Gompers, Gompers Stompers. Once again, Gompers stand up, graduates of ‘86: Yes.
And from then on, they were inseparable.
Darryl: You know how you get to somebody and you talking to somebody and you talking back and forth, and sometimes you don’t even have to talk. But you’re around that person and you already know, you know, that’s my boy forever. That’s it. And that’s how me and Chris was.
Something the pair shared was a love of fly gear. This was huge for kids growing up in the inner city. Definitely for me, and that’s a big part of why I’m drawn to Chris Lighty’s story… In some ways, Chris and I lived parallel lives. We both grew up in New York City around the same era. Chris in the Bronx, and me in Brooklyn. And like so many city kids, we fell in love with the hip-hop culture that was starting to take shape around us. We dedicated our lives to this. Chris became one of the most powerful men in the industry, while I spent over a decade as a successful music attorney. We ran in similar circles, made a few deals together, both made names for ourselves. But deep down, we were still kids from the neighborhood, trying to stay fresh.
When I met with Darryl, that’s exactly what we bonded over.
Darryl: We didn’t have much growing up, so whatever we had, we had to keep clean. Like, I had a pair of Adidas —
Darryl: $54.99. Went to Franks on Park Avenue in the Bronx, in Tremont. Park Avenue, Tremont, favorite spot. And there was a spot called Jew Man.
Reggie: The famed jew man. Which is where everyone went from uptown and harlem to get fresh. What was the color scheme? Was it white on what? White on black?
Darryl: I had the white on white. So when I cleaned it, like I said, we never had much, so what we did is we cleaned everything. I had my toothbrush. Oh my god, the whitener
Reggie: The whitener. You put on the whitener when it was all fucked up.
Darryl: When it was yellow.
Reggie: Because that shit – when you put the white on, the adidas would look like some zombies man.
Darryl: Exactly. And then you know, the stripe, you couldn’t put the white on the stripe, so you had to clean it with the toothbrush, and then while it was still a little damp, you put powder on it.
Reggie: I didn’t know that.
Darryl: That’s how you kept it white.
Reggie: My first pair was green on white. So I had white with the green stripes. That was ill, man.
Darryl: That’s crazy. That’s what it is. We like to stay clean.
There was this sense that, because we didn’t have much, what we owned was worth so much more. Clothes, sneakers, watches. Whatever you had, you wanted to show it off. To say to the world, I may not come from a fancy place, but at least I have fresh sneakers on. I’m clean. I’m fly.
The problem was that, if you did show off what you had, you were putting yourself at risk, because people might try to jack it from you.
Darryl: You go to your friends house you got to make sure you don’t have, you know, anything clean on because if you don’t, if you have something clean on, you got to fight the people that’s there, people that want to rob you. One dude asked me, he said, “What’s your size?” I say “Why?” He said, “Because I like your sneakers.” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” You had to fight for everything back in the days.
Jessica: The biggest thing for children and for parents…the challenge for parents was…you work hard to provide decent clothing and and shoes coats for your kids. You do not want to have your children experience being held up at gunpoint and told to strip because they want to take what your kids have. That was a challenge that every parent faced back then.
Matt: That happened to Chris?
Jessica: Ya, it did. Once.
Nicole: I don’t know if you’ve heard this story. But one of the things that he bought when he was 17 was that bomber jacket.
The jacket Nicole’s referring to was Lighty’s pride and joy. A black leather bomber, kinda like the one Tom Cruise wore in Top Gun. Bombers were essential to being fly. We all wanted one. But they were fuckin’ expensive. You’d have to get an after-school part-time job and save up the money to cop one. Or some of the kids, they said fuck it and just laid in the cut, waited until cats like us bought our bomber jackets and then they robbed us.
And one day, while he was walking home alone, this is exactly what happened to Chris.
Nicole: He came home furious. And I was like, what’s wrong, what’s wrong? Ya, he was furious, just grabbing anything to go attack them with. But you know, it was definitely a turning point, for you to be doing the right thing and still someone do something wrong to you. Kinda takes that innocence away, you know, or puts a pinch of reality, I guess, that you don’t really want to be a part of. I mean, you know, no one wants to be violated. You know, ever. It takes something from you. And you don’t want that to happen. So, I would have to say that that was his first and last of being violated. Ya. I would have to say that.
One thing that keeps coming up in the story of Lighty’s childhood: no matter how much his mom tried to protect him, he was surrounded by violence. It was out on the streets, where the rule was: if you want something, you take it. And it’s not like his home was a place of sanctuary either.
Chris’s father left when he was six, and when his mom remarried, her new husband was physically abusive. He hit her, sometimes in front of the kids. For a while, it got so bad that Chris was sent away to live with a relative.
Jessica: And that was for his safety because he was now of a size and an age that he could challenge my ex-husband and I knew that I had to leave but I had not figured out how I was going to be able to leave yet.
With all of the chaos on the streets and inside his home, Chris needed an escape. A place where he could get away from all of this shit. But if you’re an inner city kid, there aren’t that many outlets. You can play basketball, handball. Read a comic book. Or get into trouble.
But Chris, he threw himself into music.
Nicole: Man, I remember when Chris got his first boombox, silver boombox, this big, oh my goodness, double cassette, you know, you had to have that. It was a big deal, that boombox is a big deal.
The early 1980s, those were the days of the boombox. Remember those? Big-ass radio and tape players that we’d carry around blasting the latest jams. They were so synonymous with the streets that people called them Ghetto Blasters.
Nicole: We had dance contests in the house, all of that, it was great. I have a twin brother, Mike, me and Mike are twins, and Michael was the breakdancer so we did everything, from the cardboard box on the floor. But ya, ya, Chris and his boombox, that boombox… man I don’t even know when he got rid of that. But that was a big part of our childhood.
What the Lightys were doing here was a little-kid version of something they were seeing right outside their of window. Across the city, DJs hooked-up turntables and speakers to lamp posts and would spin records in parks, courtyards, handball courts … anywhere there was space for a crowd … we called them park jams … It was at these park jams that what we know today as “hip-hop” was born.
MUSIC DIPS DOWN
COMING UP AFTER THE BREAK, CHRIS FALLS IN LOVE … WITH HIP HOP.
Welcome back to Mogul.
So, back when Chris Lighty was a kid, hip hop music didn’t sound too much like it does today. We’re talking pre-Sugar Hill Gang hip-hop, over a decade before NWA hit the airwaves, and before Kanye was even born. Nowadays when we think of hip-hop, we think of rappers. But back then, rappers were sidekicks. Everything was about the music. And the DJs controlled that. They were the stars. And the DJs that played the park jams were masters at rocking the crowd, keeping people dancing for as long as possible. One of the first to play this new sound was a DJ called Kool Herc. Today he’s known as one of hip-hop’s founding fathers, but back then he was just this tall, cock diesel kid from Jamaica who loved funk and soul records.
Here’s hip-hop journalist Dan Charnas talking about Herc’s great innovation…
Charnas: The Incredible Bongo Band did this remake of this song originally performed by an English group from the 1960s called The Shadows. The song was called “Apache.” This was one of Herc’s trademark records, right? And the Incredible Bongo Band remade this song with several incredible instrumentals breaks.
The break is the part where there’s no lyrics, just instrumental, just pure percussion. Ideal for dancing to.
Charnas: Herc wouldn’t even let anybody see what this record was. His job was to find these records and play them. And the boys who came to listen to this stuff and dance to it, right? This was like their favorite jam, and they would wait for that instrumental break to come.
Now we get to the invention, right? So Herc begins to realize that the dancers go crazy on these instrumental parts, the break downs, that come up 2 minutes into a song, 3 minutes into a song. Is there a way, he asked himself, that I could just take those little bits that everybody likes and extend them? Or just go from break to break to break. So the first invention was the merry-go-round. He would just go from the break section of “Apache” to the break section on “Bongo Rock” to the break section on “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose.” But then, after that, he got the idea to do two copies of the same record. So he could take the break section on “Apache” and crossfade right into the break section for “Apache,” and keep it going and going and going, from the left turntable to the right, back to the left, so that that ten-second break-down could become this ten-minute beat-down. That was the invention of hip-hop.
So remember, Chris and Darryl were just kids when Herc started spinning at park jams. But by the time they were teenagers, hip-hop music as we know it was starting to take shape. And now, rather than watching from their bedroom windows, the boys were right there in the mix.
Here to break down exactly what it was like to attend a park jam, we have Darryl, plus Chris’s cousin, AB Butler, and his friend, Joan Morgan.
Darryl: Okay. We in the school yard. They put the DJ right there in the front. And they make sure they close to that lamppost because they need the electricity to keep the music going and making it loud. So they taking a long extension chord and they put it into that lamppost. It was so crazy how we used to steal electricity back in the days from the lamppost.
Joan: You would hear there’s a jam in the park and you would just go.
Darryl: About 6 o’clock they start setting up. Then the music come on, and then you start hearing the music a little bit, so now everybody’s like oh the jam is starting! People run upstairs, put on they good stuff, cos you know you got the girls in there now, so now you want to make sure you cute. So you go in there, you put on your new green leather jacket, or you put on your new Pumas.
AB: Back in the days, I will be wearing…
Joan: Heels, flair leg Lees, my name graffitied down the side.
AB: Sweetie’s Knits, that’s pants, that is different kinds, you got the rainbows.
Joan: And like a name belt-buckle.
AB: You got the mock necks, you got the bomber jackets, you got the, you know, it was just…wow.
Darryl: You put on a ring or a watch if you got it, or put on your Kazows, or you Kangol cap, or whatever it was you had that made you look good. That’s how you came out with you and your friends.
Darryl: And, this is one of the best things, you could drink! You had a brown bag or you had a 40 ounce or a 32 ounce.
Reggie: Or Pink Champale.
Darryl: Pink Champale, Old English, that’s how it started, hip-hop. You got weed in the air outside, you listening to these DJs mix these records that you never heard before, and the way they mixed it is in tune. It’s like sounding like one long record. They scratch and then they got this next beat coming in, it’s like oh my god! I’m loving it!
Darryl: Don’t forget you had to breakdance. Bring the cardboard boxes out, start breakdancing, or you doing the electric boogie.
AB: We do the wop, we do the Pee Wee Herman, you might know how to do the Pee Wee Herman. Oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh.
Matt: Chris would do that?
AB: He’d do all the dances. You know, we was young.
Darryl: You locking and you popping and you moving at the same time and you moving, and you got your muscles pushing, and you got the shoulders moving, and you moving your head one way and then you moving your head the other way. Crazy.
AB: It’s free. It ain’t got come out your pocket. Nobody felt that they was better than anybody else. And it wasn’t corporate America, it wasn’t involved in it.
Darryl: To me, that was hip-hop.
AB: I loved it.
Darryl: I could listen to that one all day, that joint is crazy. Me and Chris Lighty, we love that beat, that beat right there.
Chris and Darryl and were children of hip-hop. They were there for its birth. They played in the same parks where it was it was created. They grew up together. And like them, hip-hop changed as it got older. If the park jams of the 1970s were the childhood phase, the culture started to reach adolescence in the 1980s. That’s when the music started to migrate from the park jams to the Manhattan club scene. And so did they.
Chris and Darryl’s favorite spot to go and hear the latest hits was a Manhattan nightclub called Union Square.
Reggie: Tell the listeners how Union Square looked, can you describe it?
Darryl: I think I still can. When you first walk in, there was a curtain, so you couldn’t even look inside the club. You on the top floor, and when you walked in, the top floor drapes around the first floor, it’s like you lookin’ down onto the dance floor in Union Square. Just to see how it filled up so quickly. After, say, about 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, everybody’s coming in. At 10:30, that place is packed. Psssh. That’s a sight to see.
He didn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of something big. It was here at Union Square that Chris would take his first step into the music industry. He’d go from being a fan, to becoming a part of the scene.
And the man who could make all of that possible? This dude right here:
Red Alert: Propmaster. Uncle Red. The BUM.
Reggie: The BUM, why the BUM?
Red Alert: BUM stands for Black Ultimate Man.
Reggie: Okay, the Black Ultimate Man.
Red Alert: And the last and latest right now is The Coolest Legend.
But most people know him as DJ Red Alert. Red was one of the DJ’s at Union Square. He got inspired to DJ when he started going to block parties and park jams in the Bronx. He looked at the guys spinning there and said to himself, “I can do that.” So he assembled his own record collection and started spinning. After a few years, he built a reputation for being one of the hottest DJs in New York City and even got his own radio show on KISS FM.
Announcer: Don’t touch that dial. We’re jamming with Red Alert, on 98.7 KISS FM.
For kids like us, Red Alert was major. He was one of the handful of DJs playing hip-hop on the radio in New York City. If you wanted to hear the hottest new shit, you had to catch his show. But in 1986, Red started spinning at Union Square.
Red Alert: When I started the first night, a couple fellas from the Bronx came on down. There was Chris, along with Darryl. It was about maybe four, five of them all together.
The young men had a proposition for Red: They’d look out for the DJ, and make sure no one fucked with him. They’d be his muscle. And in return, they wanted to get into the club for free, and all of the perks that came with hanging out with a star like Red. Red did need muscle…but not how Chris and Darryl imagined …
Darryl: Red was like, yall want to get in, you need to carry these crates.
Those crates, they were filled with Red’s entire record collection. This was the mid 1980s, remember. Music wasn’t digitized back then, so a DJ like Red Alert would have to carry all of his vinyl from show to show … unless he had some industrious kids who were willing to do it for him.
Darryl: These crates was like thirty, forty, fifty pounds each full of records. We had to carry two each. They were metal crates. They wasn’t – there was metal crates and some, like —
Chris: The milk crates.
Darryl: Those joints was heavy.
Reggie: Of course, a DJ is not supposed to carry his own crates.
Darryl: Why, when you got us. I don’t know how he got those crates downtown. Thank god we had somebody that had a truck. Because the back of the truck was always low. Because that’s how many records he had. Those crates—it was like you was almost doing a wheelie going down the block. Because that’s how it was, he had many records.
Still, the job, if you could call it that, had its perks. In fact, it totally changed the young men’s experience of going to the club. Before, they were nobodies … but now that they were down with Red … now they were somebodies.
Darryl: When you a regular person paying to get in, you get in on line. But you know, running with Red… psssh, pay who? Pay what? Nah. Stand on line when? Never that. We never got on line. Soon as Red come, all of us walk up and we get to the front. And they see us. “Oh Red, who you got?” Right, psshaw.
Reggie: How’d it feel with all those eyes on you?
Darryl: It felt good because everybody was looking. They like, “Who the hell are them guys?” Then we started making a little name for ourselves throughout the underground. Because the underground is always talking.
Chris and Darryl were young. They were brash and they were handsome. And they wanted to capitalize on that. And when they saw a girl they liked, they were not afraid to spit game. Regardless of whether she were alone or not, and that was a dangerous game to play in a club like Union Square. If that girl you’re talking to came with a stick-up kid from Brooklyn, or a drug dealer from Queens, you were going to have a problem. But Chris and his crew didn’t give a fuck.
Darryl: When we would walk into Union Square, we was sitting right there waiting for these girls to come in.
Red Alert: Now, if they with some guys,
Darryl: We gave them a look. And when the dude walked away, we came over and we took them from them, usually.
Red Alert: They gonna go ahead like, yo. Before you know it, they gonna put their rap onto that girl, influence them, taking that girl away from the guy.
Reggie: So you saw this happen?
Red Alert: I was seeing this! Behind the set, I’m watching on the side, say, “Yo, what these guys doing?” They just kept on bogarting. You know?
If some dude wanted to stop one of them, he had to go through all of them. Chris, Darryl and their friends. They all had each other’s backs. That’s how deep they rolled. They were becoming a real crew.
And what does every classic crew need? A name.
There was the Paid In Full Posse from Brooklyn. The Supreme Team from Queens. But Chris, Darryl and their boys? They were nameless. Until one night, when Red Alert came up with something …
Red Alert: Any time they took over on another person, they said, “Ah, we just violated him.”
Darryl: Red said, “You know what, y’all always violating, you know what, from now on, y’all are violators.”
Red Alert: That name stuck.
Darryl: And that’s how it started.
That skinny kid who got his bomber jacket taken from him few years back? He’d become a young man who was not afraid to step to anyone. He would never be violated again.
Violator. That word comes up again and again in Chris’s story. It was more than the name of his crew. It was more than a joke about a group of cocky teenagers. It became an attitude, a way of living. And it followed Chris through the rest of his life.
Those nights weren’t just about macking on girls and getting into fights. There was something happening with hip-hop. The thing that started out with DJs stealing electricity from lampposts was becoming a thing. It was in the club. It was in the streets. People were spending money to hear it. And that money was going to end up in someone’s pocket.
Red saw it happening. And he saw something in Chris.
Red: I sensed something about Chris with his character. You know, about how he come across with a business. And when him and I talk I listen to his lingo. And when I listen to his lingo it’s like, this guy’s got something there.
Red was right.
In our next episode, Chris meets the person who can take him from hauling around records to making them go platinum: Russell Simmons. And it doesn’t go exactly as planned.
Chris: Maybe it was just the one night that I shouldn’t have met Russell. People were still allowed to bring animals into the club and all types of crazy shit like that. Snakes and all types of stuff, they were walking around with snakes and…it was crazy that night.
That was Chris, by the way—you get to meet him for real in episode 2. And we’ve got Russell, too.
Russell: It’s not me and snakes, it’s me and the head of fucking Sony Records.
New episodes of Mogul come out every Friday. Mogul is a production of Gimlet Media and the Loud Speakers Network. This episode was produced by Eric Eddings and Meg Driscoll, with help from Isabella Kulkarni, Peter Bresnan, and Jonathan Menna. Our senior producer is Matthew Nelson. He’s the guy with the Scottish accent you’ve heard asking a couple of questions. Our editors are Lynn Levy, Caitlin Kenney and Chris Morrow.
Sound design and mixing by Haley Shaw. Music direction by Matthew Boll. This episode was scored by Prince Paul & Don Newkirk, with additional music by Open Mike Eagle, Haley Shaw, and Bobby Lord.
And a big thanks so Victoria Barner and Caitlin DiLena for all of their help behind the scenes.
Fact Checking by Michelle Harris.
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