In New York you’re always walking. You’re always out on the street, always trying to get some place fast. The city’s loud, it’s frantic. You hear the subway clanking, you hear the cars honking and the people yelling. And I’m talking about New York back when hip-hop started. The time when New York was at its MOST New York, its most gritty. Its most intense.
And the music sounded like that too. Take the quintessential New York artist, LL Cool J. By 1985, when he released I Can’t Live Without My Radio, he killed New York sound.
Just stop listen to LL, man. I mean, that drum loop. It’s rapid fire rhymes over rapid fire beats, you think LL is trying to kill you. He’s angry. It’s hardcore and in New York you had to be hardcore.
That’s the sound that Def Jam built. And for a long time, that sound WAS hip-hop, and Def Jam was on top of the world.
But it couldn’t stay like that forever.
Eventually hip-hop moved out West. And when it got to the west coast, it really started to change.
On the west coast you got this one consistent summer weather. You got the palm trees, the sun is out. The women are beautiful. And you drive, it’s a car culture, you’re driving with the top down and you’re smoking that good weed, man, and that comes out in the music.
The perfect example? Dr Dre’s “Nuthin but a G Thang.”
And by the early 90s, that west coast sound was starting to dominate. It sounded fresh, and it was what people wanted to hear.
Think of the groove like it’s floating. Like the beats are still there, but there’s more bass on the vibe. They’re selling a vibe, they’re creating a vibe. The music sounded like summer, forever summer, like cruising, like getting high.
And by the early 1990s, that west coast was starting to dominate everything. It sounded fresh, and it’s what people wanted to hear.
And that’s great if you’re making those funky west coast beats. But it's not so great if you're Def Jam and your signature sound is starting to get stale.
Russell: We were ice cold, we were very cold. A lot of the same go-to artists, they were still hot, they were still making a good record, but we had a lot of other artists that we developed that were not hot. And you know, there’s a moment where we were at risk of losing the company.
That’s Russell Simmons, one of the cofounders of Def Jam. If his company was going to survive, they needed some new sounds. And luckily, Chris Lighty had just been hired by Def Jam, and he had his ear to the streets.
I’m Reggie Osse, and this is Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty, a production of Gimlet Media and Loud Speakers Network.
So Chris Lighty was a Def Jam fan from way back. And landing a job there was his big break. He was NOT about to let his new employer go belly-up. That meant finding a star for them—someone to put Def Jam back on top.
But sometimes saviors come in the most unlikely forms.
Warren G: I used to have tape on my glasses because they would break. I didn’t get no screws or nothing. Back then they weren’t selling screws in the stores, you know. I never did get to an eye doctor to give them my glasses to fix it. So I would put tape on there and had an arm taped on there, like a nerd, just to keep my arm on. And that’s just how it was.
Warren Griffin was a little-known producer from Long Beach, California. He’d made some beats for other artists, and rhymed on a few other rapper’s records. But back in the early 1990s he was unsigned. And he was broke.
Warren G: I had moved back with my sister and was just producing tracks. You know, sitting around on her floor with my MPC60, a crate of records, and my turntable and mixer. Putting samples together and drum tracks. That’s pretty much was what I was doing, ha ha!
And that’s how he’d spend his days. Sitting on his sister’s floor. His shit piled up around him. Dirty socks. Vinyl. Taped-together glasses. And he’d dig through his record collection, looking for beats and samples. Honing his signature sound. Here’s Warren explaining it to my producer, Matthew Nelson.
Warren G: My sound was G funk.
Matthew: What’s G funk, for people who don’t know?
Warren G: Chords. Strings. We brings melody. That’s G funk.
Warren G: Live instrumentation with melodies.
Warren listened to a lot of different shit back in those days. He was into funk bands like Parliament Funkadelic, but he also fucked with cats like Pete Seeger and Michael McDonald.
For example, Warren loved to spin this track. “I Keep Forgetting.”
So there he was. Making beats. Coming up with all of these ideas. But getting no recognition.
To make matters worse, it seemed like everyone else was making moves. Warren’s step-brother, this cat named Andre Romelle Young, had just launched the hottest label on the west coast, Death Row Records. And one of his best friends, this dude called Calvin Broadus, Jr, was signed there too.
If those names don’t sound familiar it’s probably because you know them as Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg.
That’s right: That nerd with taped together glasses listening to Michael McDonald is the step-brother of one of the biggest names in hip-hop, Dr. Dre, and he’s childhood friends with Snoop Dogg! And he worked with them both. He supplied beats for Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop’s Doggy Style. But still no one was checking for Warren. He was just a name in the credits … and if they did know him, it was probably for this skit right here at the start of one of Dr Dre’s tracks …
[deez nuts skit]
So when this album came out, like, the biggest thing that we used to do—we would call people and prank them, and have them ask us a question about somebody. We would respond with “deez nuts.” Well, Warren G was the “deez nuts” guy.
So, Warren’s kinda awkward, but he’s obviously got talent. And he has connections. And he’s making beats for two of Death Row’s biggest artists. But here’s what’s kinda fucked up: Death Row never tried to sign him.
Matthew: Did it hurt your feelings?
Warren G: Yeah, hell yeah. All I knew was being with Snoop and Dre. Being separated from them—which, we wasn’t separated like that—but just not being on the same label and working together like we was was not cool for me, you know, because that’s my family. One thing I can say is my brother was like, “You should go out and be your own man and build your own outside of this, because I don’t want you to get into no bullshit."
An opportunity for Warren to be his own man arrived when he met a record executive called Paul Stewart. Paul was working as the music supervisor for the film director John Singleton.
Paul: He hired me to music supervise the Poetic Justice film. And so I was in the studio, Death Row studios.
Paul was there to collect soundtrack songs from some of the label’s biggest artists.
Paul: It took a lot of time hanging around those guys to get the song delivered. Dre and them were really high. They weren’t pressed about it. They wanted to do it, because it was John Singleton’s new movie, you know, and all that kind of stuff, but they weren’t super pressed about it. And so I hung out at the studio a lot.
Warren was hanging out at the studios a lot, too. He noticed Paul and sensed an opportunity.
Warren G: It was unusual for a white guy to come in like that in those days. If he’s in here he must be somebody. I heard him talking about soundtracks, and they were looking for songs for soundtracks.
Paul: He craftily kind of pulled me to the side and said—I remember, he specifically said, “Yo, cuz, I got my own stuff.
Warren G: Let’s go outside and sit in the car and we’ll play it for you.
The track was a song Warren had co-written and produced for another rapper, a cat called Mista Grimm. Warren popped up on a couple of verses, but he was pitching himself as a producer here.
Paul: Warren came out. I remember we got into the truck. It was a handwritten cassette and it was Mista Grimm, “Indo Smoke.”
It played through the first verse and hook and I ejected it
Warren G: He said stop.
Paul: Like, it only played for 45 seconds, and he looked at me crazy.
Warren G: You know, I just took as, like, what the fuck is up? You know, like, what’s happening? Like, you don’t like this shit? So I felt a certain kind of way then, but he said, “Let me take the tape.” So when he said, “Let me take the tape,” I was like, “Oh. Shit going ahead.”
Paul: It was an incredibly funky Warren G funk track. That loop is a monster, you know what I mean? And like, you know, and the way—
Warren G: —I was rapping was different from everybody else. Plus, I wrote a lot of “Indo Smoke,” so it’s like, “one for the money, two for the bitches, three to get ready, and four to hit the switches.” Oh that’s the wrong one. Ha ha ha! Hey! “Indo smoke. Pass me the joint so I can take a toke. One puff two puff three puff [coughs] — wait a minute! Gotta clear my throat. One puff two puff three puff four puff five; I’m feeling real high. I’m leaning to the side in my motherfucking ride with the OG gangster glide. [continues rapping] Different. It was different.
Paul: In my career finding certain hits and things—I can remember better than others, you know what I mean? But I distinctly remember knowing, this is fire, we’re doing this. I’m fucking with you. You know what I mean? The whole conversation was pretty short.
Paul knew that the track was hot, but at the time he saw Warren more as a behind the scenes guy. A producer who could help big name artists make hits. So he signed on to be Warren’s manager. His next step, get him working with a label.
To promote Warren, Paul sent the song to all of the influential people in his Rolodex. This is the 90s remember...people still used a Rolodexes.
Paul: My insider A-list. You remember, Reggie? You used to get these kind of things. You know what I mean? These are your industry insiders. They might work at another label or whatever, but they’re in the industry. They’re an important, right, person. They might be a DJ, they might work at the source. You know what I mean? We mailed out about 30 of these.
This is where Chris Lighty enters the story.
Paul: And I remember clearly, Chris Lighty called me back after he got his, and he said, “Hey, who’s the guy in the third verse rapping?” And I said, “Oh that’s Warren G.”
Lighty wanted to know who the unknown rapper in the third verse was because he saw—and he heard—something that all of the other industry executives and even Warren’s his own brother had missed.
The unknown producer with the broken glasses could be a star.
Paul: I think Chris was really smart to recognize that this guy could be a big artist. And I got to give him all the credit, like I said, me and John, who were managing him, didn’t even have that vision. I know I didn’t. So I just think Chris was such a visionary that he understood what a big artist Warren could be. He saw a good-looking young cat from the west coast that had flows, that had a personality, that could produce, that was affiliated with Dre and Snoop. I mean, what wasn’t to see? You know what I mean? Like, I smacked my head a million times afterward going, “Man, how come Chris was thinking about this before me, in some regards,” you know what I mean?
Coming up after the break, Chris turns on the charm and tries to sign Warren G …
Welcome back to Mogul.
Once Chris had decided that he wanted to sign Warren G, he knew it wasn’t going to be as simple as collecting a signature. Back then, west coast artists rarely signed for east coast labels, and vice versa. Warren G would have to be convinced that he should break tradition and head to Def Jam. And it was Chris Lighty’s job to do the convincing.
But signing Warren G wasn’t going to be a case of simply collecting a signature. Back then, west coast artists rarely signed for east coast labels, and vice versa. Warren G would have to be convinced that he should break tradition and head to Def Jam. And it was Chris Lighty’s job to do the convincing.
Warren G: Chris came out, I ate dinner with him. He told me they wanted to sign me. I said we’ll see how it pans out.
Matthew: How did he try to persuade you? What sort of stuff was he saying?
Warren G: I can’t remember everything he said. I just know everything we did was—it was late out, you know, and I had never been treated to dinner or, you know, showed a good time like that back then. Super shit in Beverly Hills. You know, big steaks I had never seen before. Seafood. Just different things I had never had, like sauteed shrimps and stuff like that. I had shrimp, you know, in my neighborhood, but it was different, you know. Rice pilaf, and just different. Shit, you know, and somebody bringing your drinks to the table. You know, that shit was live, we did a lot of that, eating and bossing up because that’s how it was.
Rice pilaf wasn’t Chris Lighty’s only method of persuasion. He had other tricks up his sleeve when it came to impressing Warren G.
Warren G: They flew me to New York. I’d never been on an airplane. Me and the twins.
Matthew: Who were the twins?
Warren G: They was one of my groups. Told my buddies, “Y’all come with me.” The first night I stayed there I was just chilling, enjoying being in New York, able to order whatever I want. Steaks, whatever, liquor, in my room. Me and the twins we was lifted. We went down to Times Square. We was on 47th and 2nd at the Embassy Suites. So the next morning I get a phone call. And I was like, “Hello?” And it was like, “Hey, this is LL Cool J. I’m downstairs, come here.” So I was like, “Huh?” So hung the phone up, so he called back and was like, “Yo, this is LL. I’m downstairs, man. Come down, I want to holler at you.” So I said, “Okay.” So I called twin. I was like, “Man, come with me down stairs. There’s some dude sitting up here telling me he’s LL Cool J. Let me see who the fuck this is. So uh, back then you could get on the plane with guns. I had a glock. And so we went downstairs. Sure enough it was LL Cool J. Jump in the car with him.
Matthew: Did you have the gun with you?
Warren G: Yeah. He didn’t know it. Because he probably wouldn’t have let me get in the car. We went to Queens, went shopping at the mall. He took me to his house. Showed me how he started, with all his clothes laid down in the basement. Just really laid it out to me on how, you know, how his story was. How he built himself and how he, you know, what it took. And I thought that was the greatest shit ever, because I was—I am still, and I was a humongous fan of LL Cool J. So that really, like, blew my mind. Just to meet him and be in the fucking car with him. All of that came from working for Chris Lighty, man.
Warren signed with Def Jam. And that Michael McDonald track he was fucking around with in his sister’s crib … Warren transformed it into this.
That song, “Regulate,” became a massive hit. I was in Brooklyn when it dropped and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing that song.
As for Warren G. what do you do when you go from sleeping on your sister’s floor to the penthouse? You party. You fucking party hard. And that’s exactly what Chris and Warren did.
Warren G: We had some good parties together. I gotta say, you know, like how NWA had Wet n Wild? This is Def Jam. Bikinis. Shorts. Summertime. That was the mode. We rented a mansion. We had shuttles, people would park in Beverly Hills. We had the shuttles bring everybody up the mansion. We were the ones that started that, by the way. Everyone in Hollywood, from movies to hip-hop, and music in general, they do that now. We started that, me and Chris Lighty. Everybody else followed after that. So that’s how we had it, man, and we had it to where everything was laid out when you come in the door. You got a bar. You walk up another level, you can eat live barbeque, steaks, whatever you wanted was right there. And you go up again, you got the dance floor. And we had other side rooms. Cards, dominoes, whatever. And just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of beautiful ladies. Me and Chris was in the middle of it all.
I’m going to tell you what the trip about the whole thing was. There was a lot of the beautiful ladies, from New York to the west coast, they used to always say me and Chris looked like brothers. Everywhere we went, they used to think we was brothers. He loved that, because a lot of women was probably on him because of me. Ha ha ha! Hey! But it was all good, you know what I’m saying, because Chris was a cool dude and for somebody to say that we look alike, that was cool.
Matthew: Did you listen to Warren G at those parties?
Warren G: Oh, we was banging everything. Warren G. Death Row shit. Everything. Even 80s. Rock music. Everything was playing at our shit. You know, because it wasn’t just blacks, it was blacks, whites, Mexicans, Asians, Dominicans, everything. We played everything, man, we played all types of good music. That was my friend and boss. That’s how we used to do it. Man, have fun, man.
Warren G’s first album sold over three million copies. It went triple platinum. The album made Warren a star. And all of the money it brought in managed to save Def Jam.
Russell: For sure, nigga, we was dead, we was gone. So it was a very special moment for us, because it gave us a little breathing room, it gave us freedom, and it gave us billing. It made the company hot.
Charnas: They were 33 million dollars in debt before Warren G. And then when Warren G came out, they had a 33 million surplus, right? So good job, Chris Lighty, right?
Warren G: You goddamn right. I probably wouldn’t have signed with them if I had known that they was in debt, you know, back then. I’m just happy to be a part of history. You know, and like I said, Chris Lighty opened that door. Lyor Cohen opened that door, and Russell Simmons opened that door. Chris was the guy who did the groundwork.
Def Jam made the most of its second chance. In the second half of the 1990s, the label had a new golden era with acts like DMX, Method Man, Ludacris, Foxy Brown, and Jay Z.
But the deal didn’t just change the course of Def Jam’s history, it changed Warren G’s life, too.
Warren G: But I just wasn’t taking no shit back then. I was really hot-headed back then. You know. And if it wasn’t for Chris Lighty, and the Def Jam situation I’d probably be in jail right now. You know, probably for shooting somebody.
Matthew: You really think that?
Warren G: I know it. And so they pretty much saved me from going to jail, and I saved them from crumbling as a company.
By the mid-1990s, Chris Lighty had established himself as a force at Def Jam. He was promoted to Vice President of A&R and it seemed like he’d become the guy that Lyor Cohen wanted him to be. The executive. The businessman. Corporate Chris Lighty, not Violator Chris Lighty.
So it’s true that Chris had come a long way. But he hadn’t entirely left the streets behind. Not because he didn’t want to. But because he couldn’t.
Let me break something down that I know from personal experience: In hip-hop there is no clear way to differentiate between the streets and the boardroom. No matter how high you rise up the corporate ladder, most of the music still comes from the street. And a lot of the people you work with are street. There’s this dance that goes on between both worlds.
And the street exploded back into Chris’s life when the Warren G deal led him on a collision course with the most feared man in hip-hop: Death Row Records’ co-founder, Suge Knight.
A few things to know about Suge Knight. First off all, he is not to be fucked with. He was a huge guy. Built like a NFL player. In fact, he was one. He played two games for the LA Rams back in 1987.
And when it came to his business, Suge ran his label, Death Row, like a gang. They had a reputation in the music industry for using strongarm, violent tactics to get what they wanted. Death Row didn’t just use lawyers to negotiate, they used baseball bats and guns. There’s this famous story that Suge dangled Vanilla Ice by his ankles off a 15th-floor balcony to get him to sign over royalties to his hit record“Ice Ice Baby.” Now, that’s a bit of a tall tale— Ice denies that it ever happened. But still, it’s a big part of the legend of Suge Knight.
So, not the kind of man, or label, you want to clash with. But that’s the position Chris found himself in when he and Lyor were in Los Angeles at a De La Soul concert.
Suge and his entourage were there too. Chris explained what went down in an interview he gave to Def Jam biographer Bill Adler.
Chris: Suge comes in saying, I want to talk to Lyor. I need to talk to Lyor.
Bill: And Suge’s not happy.
Chris: Suge’s not happy.
Suge and Death Row were pissed Warren G signed with Def Jam. Nevermind that they didn’t try to sign him themselves, that they totally ignored him. What mattered was that Chris had gone into Suge Knight’s backyard and taken something without permission. You don’t do that. And now that Chris and Lyor were in LA, on Death Row turf, Suge wanted to do some Death Row-style negotiating with them.
Lighty saw trouble brewing and told Lyor: Head for the exit. He’d handle this one alone. It was time for the Violator to return.
Chris: I was like you know I’m involved in the whole Warren G thing.
Bill: That’s what he says to you.
Chris: I say that to Suge. I’m involved in the Warren, so you can talk to me. And he’s like, “No I wanna talk to Lyor.” And I was like, “No, you can’t talk to Lyor. Lyor left. I just told him to leave. So now you gotta talk to me.”
Lighty wasn’t just protecting his mentor here. He was protecting the reputation of Def Jam. Get played by Suge, and the label would never live it down.
Chris: Like he woulda tried to embarrass Lyor. Because it’s the white guy. It wouldn’t have been a good look for Lyor. I don’t know what would’ve happened, him smacking Lyor or something like that. We’re the mighty Def Jam, Lyor can’t get smacked.
So there Chris is, toe to toe with Suge Knight. Now Lighty’s a big guy, 6 foot plus. But he’s not in the same weight class as Suge. Chris did have a friend with him, though. And his friend was packing.
Chris: And my friend is there. And I said yeah it’s gonna be okay.
Bill: Who’s your friend? Big?
Chris: My friend is not big, he’s actually a little shorter than me. His name is Light, but what he’s holding there’s nothing light about it. So Light has no problem showing him what bodily harm he could do to Suge at that moment.
Bill: Suge possied up?
Chris: Nah, he was possied up. But they would’ve caught it too. Who wants to go first? You’ve seen the movie. You’re definitely getting shot. You’re next. I might get hurt. But you’re definitely getting hurt. There’s no doubt you’re getting hurt.
Bill: You spelled it out—
Chris: I didn’t have to say anything! I said, “My man’s doesn’t feel that way.” So he just pulled out and said, “Hey.” And I said, “So you’re not gonna see Lyor tonight.”
Chris convinced hip-hop’s most famous bully, Suge Knight, to back down. And in doing so, he saved Def Jam’s reputation once again.
You might think that getting into it with Suge Knight is as intense as it gets. But you'd be surprised. Now that Lighty had proved himself, the pressure is just going to get more and more and more intense.
Next time on Mogul: Even more chaos comes Chris’s way.
Bubba Barker: And I think he just loved it so much. He just let that shit consume him, from sunup to sundown.
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, Jonathan Mena, and Peter Bresnan. Our senior producer is Matthew Nelson, you heard him earlier in the episode. Now, one of our favorite moments that didn’t make it into the episode was when Matthew asked Warren G one too many questions.
Warren G: Same shit I just told you. So what else do you want me to tell you? How I walk to the bathroom and piss and was drinking Hennessy and shit and probably eating food? What! What else do I need to tell you? What socks I had on? Ha ha ha!
Matthew: Do you remember?
Warren G: No, I don’t. Ha ha ha.
Nice work, Matt.
Our editors are Lynn Levy, Caitlin Kenney and Chris Morrow.
Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Sound design and mixing by Haley Shaw. Music direction by Matthew Boll. This episode was scored by Prince Paul and Don Newkirk, with additional music by Open Mike Eagle, Haley Shaw, Matthew Boll, and Nana Kwabena.
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