It was supposed to be a celebration of Chris Lighty’s life. But the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta quickly and unexpectedly turned into something else.
During an emotional musical tribute Saturday to the late hip-hop power broker, a fight broke out backstage between the rappers Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, potentially casting an even larger shadow over the legacy of the man whose life, friends and family say, ended far too mysteriously on a recent August morning in the backyard of his New York home.
Lighty, 44, called one of “the most influential talent managers” by Forbes magazine in 2006, was found dead Aug. 30 in the backyard of his home in Riverdale, N.Y. The New York City medical examiner ruled his death the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But many of those who knew him well don’t agree. Famous friends such as 50 Cent, Russell Simmons, Q-Tip, and Busta Rhymes have reportedly all joined Lighty’s mother and family in questioning how he died.
In life Lighty was a man hard to miss, with his overpoweringly large frame, which he put to good use with frequent bear hugs. Born the oldest of six children to a single mother in the Bronx, he turned down several scholarships to college in the mid-1980s to help his struggling family. During the day he worked as an electrician, but his nights found him pursuing a career in hip-hop, a new form of music that was rapidly dominating the landscape.
“Chris lived and breathed music and hip-hop,” said a family friend. “He wanted so badly to be in that world and to become a part of that industry from the inside. He loved every aspect of the business.’
Early stints hauling crates of vinyl records for DJ Red Alert and serving as the road manger for the hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions were followed by an internship for Russell Simmons’s Def Jam Records. There Lighty’s formal education really began in the marketing and brand building that would later go on to define his career and legacy. Former employees say Lighty was an instant star at Def Jam, where he was able to work directly with Run DNC and Warren G, among other stars.
“He was an amazing example of how a passionate kid from the street can go to the most even-keeled, smart, thoughtful manager in business and generous philanthropist,” said Simmons shortly after Lighty’s death.
Lighty’s legendary hustle would take him far, and he explained how his early childhood in a rough section of the Bronx inspired his work ethic to Forbes in 2006: “Street entrepreneurs had set hours. They created sales and cultivated a viable product. And given the volatile nature of most hood enterprises, businessman had to have the leadership skills necessary to run an organization that could easily run amok if left to its own devices.”
After exiting Def Jam Records in 2000, Lighty would strike out on his own, forming Violator Management and Violator Records. His business model was so impressive, he received partial financing from one-time Hollywood honcho Michael Ovitz. The label instantly became an urban music powerhouse, attracting the music and hip-hop greats Mariah Carey, Q-Tip, LL Cool J, P. Diddy, and 50 Cent. In Violator’s heyday, Lighty’s clients ruled the music charts, earning several Grammy Awards and even an Oscar.
But Lighty’s true genius lay in creating strategic multimillion-dollar opportunities for his artists in film, television, advertising, and finance, to great media fanfare.
In 1997, Lighty masterminded a prominent Gap commercial for LL Cool J and also struck lucrative endorsement beverage deals for clients Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest. His highly publicized negotiations with Glacéau gave rapper 50 Cent a minority stake in the beverage company.
Known for lavish spending and blowout parties, Lighty famously bought two apartments in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood for more than $5 million each in 2008. As his status grew, so did his reputation as a ladies’ man, though he finally settled down in 2005, marrying Veronica Lighty.
The good times were very good for the world of hip-hop and Lighty, but they wouldn’t last. Violator would soon suffer financially as the music industry experienced a downturn. Adding salt to that wound was Veronica Lighty’s divorce filing last year, a move some say changed Lighty’s demeanor and personality for the worse.
“He loved her very much,” said Les Levine, a private investigator who worked with Lighty for years and who is now investigating his death. “They had a volatile relationship throughout, but he truly loved her.”
But while friends agree Lighty was deeply smitten with his wife, they have questioned her intent before and during the marriage.
“She just wasn’t as much of the loving wife that you would expect during their marriage,” said a former client and close friend of Lighty’s. “She did help him with his business, but I think that was more for her sake than for his, really. She knew he was blinded by love for her and used that against him to get what she wanted.”
Veronica Lighty could not be reached for comment.
The divorce papers were filed just days after her husband announced a merger with another more mainstream music company. As part of the deal, Chris Lighty was allowed to bring a few former employees with him and was given the title of COO. At the time, many industry insiders speculated Lighty was compelled to merge his business to cover the cost of the impending divorce and the bulk of his other financial issues, which included debts to the IRS of more than $5 million—which he had paid down significantly through real estate sales--and an overdrawn bank account totaling more than $50,000.
Each of those problems was arguably enough to force anyone into a deep depression, even more so for a man who’d come so far with so little. Lighty was said to be emotionally down in recent meetings and even tweeted shortly before his death that the music industry was nothing but modern-day slavery. But friends close to Lighty insist he would not have committed suicide, even in light of all he was facing.
Levine said he spoke to Lighty two days before his death and had expected to meet with him a few days later.
“I do not believe Chris committed suicide,” he said. “No one who knows him thinks that, and that is why we are investigating. I worked with Chris for years and saw the good and bad times, business-wise. I don’t believe he took his own life, no matter what was happening.”
Close friend and client 50 Cent has added his own doubts about the suicide theory, saying he and Lighty had just signed a multimillion-dollar deal for a worldwide tour. A hugely successful music tour would have ended many of Lighty’s financial woes by possibly bringing in millions of dollars to both rapper and manager.
50 Cent announced last week that he is helping to bankroll an investigation into his manager’s death at Lighty’s mother’s request.
A family sources says pressure also is being applied to the New York Police Department to take another look at the Lighty case.
Contributing to friends’ doubts are the events, as they describe them, of the morning Lighty died. He reportedly arrived home early from a meeting to find his estranged wife and moving trucks in front of his Riverdale home. He was selling the property, according to friends, but whether he had planned to move that day is unclear.
The huge fight between the couple reported by the movers shortly after his arrival would appear to indicate not. The movers were inside and out of the home and told friends of Lighty that they were too were confused at how the shooting unfolded.
“The movers told me the fight was upstairs and that his wife came downstairs to say he had shot himself. So how did Chris end up outside in the backyard?” said a close friend who says he arrived at the scene before the police.
Earlier reports indicated that the couple’s two children had run to a nearby park to escape their parents’ argument. But a friend says the movers told him the kids were taken to the park after the gunshot.
Dave Lighty, Chris’s younger brother, told a New York radio station last week that he and his family just needed answers about what may really have happened to his brother.
The speculation surrounding Lighty’s death and investigation was heightened by the release of his will last week, which stipulated that the majority of his estate go to his wife and a much smaller amount to his children. No other beneficiaries were included.
“You’d think [Veronica would] want to talk to us for this investigation, to have this solved,” said Levine. “But she has not cooperated so far and I don’t think that is going to change.”
Scott Leemon, long-time attorney for Chris Lighty confirmed that the manager's family and many of his former famous clients have asked him to look into the premature death of their friend and colleague. Leemon added that Lighty's mother wants to know if anyone is legally responsible for her son's death and if a wrongful death case can be brought against them. "As Chris's friend, I agreed to do this for his family so that they will get the answers they need,'' said Leemon.
Veronica Lighty has told investigators that she is in mourning with her children and cannot be reached. In an earlier interview, shortly after her husband’s death, she acknowledged that their relationship was rocky but added that she had halted the divorce proceedings shortly before Father’s Day. A few weeks ago, Veronica Lighty denied to the Daily News that she and her husband had financial or marital woes. "He just wanted peace and to be relieved of all his stress. Let him die proud.'' She said there needed to be a halt to all rumors and suggestions of foul play.
“No one is saying Veronica did anything,” said a longtime friend of the couple’s. “But something here isn’t right and she has to know that. This isn’t going away just because she wants it to. People want to know what happened to Chris, and the people who want to know will find out.”