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'Mogul': Even In Death, Chris Lighty Takes Hip-Hop To Another Level

Chris Lighty in 2009. Lighty, who died in 2012, is the subject of a new podcast series called <em>Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty.</em>
Jemal Countess
Getty Images
Chris Lighty in 2009. Lighty, who died in 2012, is the subject of a new podcast series called Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty.

Reggie Ossé never set out to become a pioneer among hip-hop podcasters. But seven years after the inception of the Combat Jack Show, the show's DNA of intelligent interviews and irreverent talk continues to spawn successors. A former entertainment attorney who exited the music industry after years of burnout, Ossé was just trying to find his own voice when he started. The one he settled on was a decidedly "anti-NPR voice," as he calls it in retrospect. Yet it's become the definitive voice of a burgeoning genre, one whose growth Ossé (aka Combat Jack) has worked to capitalize on by co-founding the Loud Speakers Network, a family of podcasts, in conjunction with his business partner Chris Morrow.

Their newest venture, however, is an effort to pioneer the genre again — or, as Combat Jack would phrase it, "raise the bar." In the new Spotify-exclusive series Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty, Ossé chronicles the rise and tragic fall of one of hip-hop's most beloved and pivotal industry executives through in-depth interviews with the former celebrity clients, family and friends who knew him best. In the process, Ossé may be crafting yet another voice for hip-hop culture.

A collaborative production between Loud Speakers and Gimlet Media (Startup), Mogul is the first major foray into narrative storytelling for a hip-hop podcast. It's also the result of a cross-pollination between two digital media companies with very different core audiences and platforms — one known for producing personality-driven shows with in-depth interviews and loose talk for urban listeners, the other spawned from the public radio world where journalistic, serial storytelling is prized. The result is a six-part series, available exclusively on Spotify for eight weeks, that dives deep into the groundbreaking success and questionable death of a figure as instrumental to hip-hop's mainstream dominance as the stars whose careers he guided.

More than an artist manager, Lighty was a street legend who "fought his way from the Bronx to the boardroom to become one of the most powerful players in hip-hop," as Ossé describes in the podcast's preview. Lighty's own transformation reflected hip-hop's origin story as the culture rose from the concrete jungle of the South Bronx, where white flight, urban decay, poverty and gangs left a void ripe for rebirth. True to his roots from the streets to the suites, Lighty would use the name of his former crew of hard rocks, the Violators, to brand his eventual Violator Management company and later, Violator Records. A shortlist of his clients reads like a roll call for hip-hop's hall of fame: A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J, Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, 50 Cent and so on. Because he was of the culture, too, he earned a reputation as a manager who spoke his artists' language and translated it into monumental deals.

But it's Lighty's tragic passing, ruled a suicide in 2012, that makes his story similar to so many hip-hop icons whose deaths remain mysterious. It also made unearthing the details of his life that much harder. With the first two episodes now live exclusively on Spotify, Ossé talked about why making Mogul was such a scary endeavor, how he gained the trust of those closest to Lighty who were reluctant to participate, and what he hopes this narrative endeavor could mean for the future of hip-hop podcasting.

Rodney Carmichael: You helped pioneer the hip-hop podcast, but you're really breaking the mold with Mogul. Is this an attempt to raise the bar?

Reggie Ossé (a.k.a. Combat Jack): Thank you for saying I'm a pioneer cause I really just stumbled into this. But I'm a big fan of This American Life, of Startup and Serial — the heavily-produced podcasts. And my partner Chris Morrow at Loud Speakers has been a student of the podcast game even before I got in. So about two to three years ago, we started talking about how to get into this. How do we raise the bar? How do we begin producing highly-produced long-form content? But the thing that was holding us back is that, as much as we've made an impact with the network, it's still a mom-and-pop shop. The resources, the manpower, the researchers, the writers, that's something that was beyond our grasp. But towards the end of 2015, I got a tweet from Alex Blumberg [of Gimlet Media, formerly of NPR and This American Life] saying he'd love to meet Combat Jack. And I had no idea who Alex Blumberg was, but once I saw a couple of the tweets behind it saying, 'Oh s***, Combat, you better follow through.'

I DM'ed him and we just started going out for coffee and building. He told us how fascinated he was about how we were able to tap into this so-called invisible black audience unrecognized by most people. It was like a revelation, like there's a "black audience" out there. And I was blown away cause I was like, really? But then again why should I be because that's the story of our lives, right.

What did it take to sell this idea to people outside of hip-hop that may not have understood Chris Lighty's cultural significance?

I would say it wasn't a sell. Gimlet came to us and it was through a very organic process in our relationship that we started talking about collaborating on a project. So, myself and Chris came up with three or four ideas and the one that stuck the most was the concept of doing this story about the life and death of Chris Lighty. It wasn't a sell as much as it was a conversation. When I look at the landscape of mainstream podcasts, a lot of people now are very hungry to tap into the black audience. But a lot of people still are very scared to pull the trigger. So I give Alex a lot of credit for having the foresight and the fortitude to pull the trigger. It was very organic. And it fit into what Chris and I had been talking about three years ago.

You've worked with some of the biggest names in the history of rap.

Yeah, I even did some deals with Lighty back in the day, so there was a connection there.

Why was his story the one to begin this foray into narrative hip-hop podcasting?

There are very few of us that made it through almost every era of hip-hop and made an impact. Chris really is from the South Bronx — from the days of BDP to the Jungle Brothers to A Tribe Called Quest, and then jumping into the '90s with LL Cool J and taking Def Jam to the next level. Def Jam was almost a wrap until Chris Lighty came in and saved them with the Warren G deal. Here's a guy that withstood the worst of times — the crack era and the South Bronx burning, and the new millennium and everything that surrounded 50 Cent, which was a whole new thing that we had never seen post-East Coast/West Coast, going through the era of the streets bleeding into the industry with the beefs and the Violator offices getting shot up and the whole nine. Having transcended all of that, [it felt] like, "What the f*** happened, my brother?"

With all the mystery surrounding his death, how has doing the podcast changed your perception of his alleged suicide?

When we set out to do this story, we didn't set out to solve the mystery. We didn't set out to be Serial. We wanted to tell his story. But in telling his story — particularly with people that were closest to him; his family, his friends — there were some things that really didn't make sense with regard to his passing being ruled so quickly as a suicide. Once again, we don't set out to solve the mystery as much as tell the story as completely as possible. And then, if you're familiar with the Combat Jack Show, one of the things that I've been very committed to is talking about mental health in the black community, particularly with black men, depression and things like that. I really wanted to bring that to the forefront and I'm fortunate that this story is allowing us to really dig into that deeper with a particular subject that made such an impact in this industry.

You mentioned doing industry deals with him, how well did you know Chris in life?

We went to a couple of meetings, but I wasn't in Chris' inner circle. I can't say that he was a close friend as much as he was a colleague. He was somebody [I recognized] from day one, even before I was in the industry, when I was in college at Georgetown Law and hearing the Jungle Brothers mention "Baby Chris," or seeing him in some of the videos [like] "Buddy" with Native Tongues. I was like, yo, he's not a member of any of these groups but why does it seem like he's the glue between all of this? So, in a sense, I was a fan that became a colleague.

It was on the Combat Jack Show that Dame Dash famously began his crusade against "culture vultures," or outsiders exploiting the culture. Chris Lighty was not only of the culture, he approached business in a way that empowered hip-hop artists without pimping the culture. How rare is that today in the industry?

It's so rare. From day one, our culture has been pimped and our culture continues to be pimped. When Chris came into the industry, we still had the concept of what you call "black music," and you had black people (and white people and people of all cultures, but really black people) that really held the position of curating and protecting this culture. But times changed and now we don't have black music [departments]; we have urban music. And you go to a lot of these labels and it's become the norm that you don't see black faces in positions that are really empowered to curate this culture from a very intimate place.

So I think Chris — along with so many like Puffy [Combs] and Russell [Simmons] and Master P and Luke Skyywalker — was one of these that said not only am I going to protect and curate this culture from a sincere place, but I'm also going to break the walls and the ceilings of how this culture should be treated. We're going to go after the deals that everyone is saying are impossible. He really broke boundaries for hip-hop artists. But if you look at the nature of some of his deals, particularly the Vitamin Water deal with 50 Cent, he broke ground for every recording artist — rock artist, country artist, every artist said, "Oh s***, this is possible because of the precedent that Chris Lighty set." He bought into a mainstream soft drink and empowered his artist to walk away, not with a check but with ownership.

What was the biggest surprise you learned about him through talking to so many close people and legends whose careers he helped shape?

Once again, this goes to the issue of mental health and why it's so important to have help. Through my experiences, having therapy and someone to really assist you and walk you through those issues is a luxury, but it's so taboo in our community. Chris was a Violator from day one — from having to survive the streets of South Bronx to having to survive the chaos that went on in Union Square when Brooklyn n***** went buckwild, you know what I mean? Then, he really took this role as a mentor, almost like a father, to his clients. It got to the level where, not only did he have to support his clients 24/7, but also his family. Chris had a large family he was very responsible for, so his responsibilities never ended.

And when you talked to everybody that knew Chris, they said this dude was Teflon; you could not get through him. This dude was hardcore; he was solid. So to learn that there were issues that were breaking him apart from within, but that maybe he didn't have or trust outlets or friends to talk about his issues, that's what surprised me the most. It's like, damn, the weight that this guy carried behind closed doors. He was able to maintain his impenetrable façade, but was really going through a lot of s***. And I can identify, not even on that scale because I'm in no way saying I was ever on the scale of Chris Lighty, but just knowing when I was in the industry and feeling a certain way and feeling that I had to get out of the industry or I would die. And realizing Chris kind of went through that too. It wasn't until really tackling this story that I can look back now and realize, yo, I was f****** depressed, B.

You've said that the best career advice you ever received was when hip-hop socialite Jessica Rosenblum relaying that her late mentor Chris Lighty once said, "Stay in your lane and master your craft." What do you think Lighty would have to say about Mogul and you taking this leap of sorts?

It's really scary; I'll be honest. It's scary because Chris is connected on so many different levels, from the highest of the boardrooms to some gangsta a** n*****, you know what I'm saying. So throughout this process, there's been this fear: "Yo, am I doing this right? Can we get this complete story? Are we covering all angles?"

Chris was a very private person, so some of the people close to him initially would not talk to us. They said Chris would not want us to do this because Chris would never do this if it were us. So there's really this fear, this weight, this responsibility to do this right. Chris might be like, 'Yo, why the f*** are you doing a story about my life [when] I fought to keep some of these things that are going on personal and secret?' So on one end he might admonish me, but on the other end the Chris Lighty that was for the culture, the Chris Lighty that continued to break ground for every artist in the music industry today, he would sit back and say, "Yo, my n****, you did an amazing job."

I would hope that he would say that. And I guess the validation that we got really came from his mother, from his sister, from his daughter Tiffany and from his brothers. That was very important to me. On the Internets, we always have something to complain about and I'm almost certain some people will say that this is not the complete story or it didn't happen this way or it didn't happen that way. And I understand that. But at the same time we provided everybody with the opportunity to help us get this story right. Some people really came forward and helped us with this and some people said no, it's too close, and I get that. I understand that there may be criticism from some of the people that were closest to him, but the fact that we have full approval and support and cooperation from his family is so invaluable.

How did you establish that trust and get people to come around who'd initially refused to be involved?

Persistence, man. We've been working on this project for the past 12 or 13 months. Initially it was very, very difficult, particularly with regard to the family, because I think so many people have approached the family about doing projects about the legacy of Chris Lighty. And, understandably, this is so painful to them; it opens up so many raw emotions. When the listeners hear this, I'd be surprised if tears aren't flowing. But it was a matter of really working hard from nothing or the minimal elements that we could piece together. And every time we were able to create a sample or a trailer of what this project was, the first thing we would do was send it to people closest to Chris, his family and his friends, and say this is what we have, please help us. It got to a point where we felt that the narrative we were telling was robust and had context and really spoke of Chris' life and his voice [they said], "OK, we trust you enough now to come in." If anything, my main goal was not to betray the trust that Chris' family provided to us in telling this story.

You've talked about being inspired by Howard Stern and Star from Star and Buckwild. Listeners of the Combat Jack Show can definitely hear that influence. But did you have to work on your Ira Glass voice to make that shift for the new podcast?

Man, when we started out as Loud Speakers I was really primarily inspired by Stretch and Bobbito. My [sign-off] at the end of my show, "live those dreams," is [inspired by] Frankie Crocker. The pioneers in black radio and hip-hop radio, like Mr. Magic, were integral to making this thing the culture that it is today. The Combat Jack Show and the Loud Speakers Network initially started out with the goal of being the "anti-NPR voice." But along the way I had to learn, had to find the middle line between being the anti-NPR and coming as close to having an NPR voice. I think Loud Speakers, myself and Gimlet were able to present Mogul in a manner that perfectly balanced both voices. I had to learn the culture of Gimlet as they learned about the culture of Loud Speakers and hip-hop in general. It was an amazing learning experience for both parties.

With this being the first true narrative hip-hop podcast, what have you learned that might be instructive and inspiring for future hip-hop podcasters entering the genre?

I would say one of the frustrations I've had, particularly last year when there was an explosion of urban podcasts or hip-hop podcasts or black voices in this podcast space, was some people came in the game with that typical hip-hop attitude, like, "Yo, we're in the game, we're taking over, we're gonna knock you out the No. 1 spot." Not that it was a concern, but of course you feel it. But the frustration, even when we were taking shots, was [that] we haven't even scratched the surface of this podcasting thing. Our culture is so rich — not just in hip-hop but [black culture]. We have been the creators of culture since we hit this land. Let's look beyond the parameters that we already know and just really try to expand the dimensions of telling our stories. So it wasn't learning anything as much as having the commitment, belief, faith and, now, experience to know we really can do this. I wouldn't be surprised if, after this story, so many people and companies jump into this space. And I would say to everyone in our culture, when that check comes, when that opportunity comes to tell the next story, don't forget that you're still in command of making sure you tell the story right.

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.