“Powerful black men like Chris Lighty don’t shoot themselves. It makes no sense, but somehow there he was, lying in the casket with a bullet in his skull.” This statement, shared by Reggie Ossé, captured many of our original thoughts when learning that hip-hop mogul Chris Lighty died from an apparent suicide in 2012.
Even if you’re not familiar with hip-hop history, chances are you are unknowingly aware of Lighty’s influence. He was the man largely responsible for the VitaminWater deal for rapper 50 Cent. He helped change the business of hip-hop. His former client list reads like a who’s who of hip-hop: Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, Missy Elliott and more. Some of your favorites have crowned him king. He was larger than life, in stature and status. So, to quote a snippet of Q-Tip’s reported reaction to his death: “This shit just don’t feel right.”
It didn’t feel right, and five years later, it still doesn’t feel “right.” The audio documentary titled Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty unpacks these emotions as it explores his impact on hop-hop.
It’s fair to say that Lighty grew up with hip-hop. He transitioned from a boy to an adult as hip-hop did the same thing. When hip-hop was that young dude in the park that most folks didn’t really know, Lighty was there. When hip-hop was only allowed to play in the homes within the community, hang in the local parks and hit up the block parties in the hood, Lighty was there.
Mogul is a nostalgic journey that takes you back to the days of DJ Red Alert, leather bombers and vinyl crates, with subtle nods to the Paid in Full posse from Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Supreme Team from Queens, N.Y.
Mogul is fair and authentic. It unpacks some uncomfortable truths. It dives into mental-health issues that are specific to black and brown people, and the pressures of fame; and it takes the listener on a journey of what it feels like to truly see our heroes as their complex, beautiful, flawed and powerful selves.
Ossé, also known as Combat Jack, the creator of the No. 1 hip-hop podcast The Combat Jack Show, is the key storyteller and one of the main reasons this project came to life. As one of the most recognized names associated with the project creation (within the hip-hop community), the pressure to tell this story in a fair and balanced way fell on him. It’s a delicate balance that had to be done carefully.
Any true lover of hip-hop will attest to how guarded we can be about it. As with everything else in black culture, many vultures have tried to sample our pain for profit and tell our stories for ratings to an audience far too Macklemore-ish to tell a Ja Rule from a Pac.
Mogul is fair, balanced, authentic, respectful and highly engaging. This is no small task, and when asked how he was able to make this happen, Ossé shared the credit with his team.
“I was able to complete this project because I had an amazing team. This is something that we’ve been wanting to do at Loud Speakers for a long time. I’m protective of our stories. We should all be protective of our stories. They are our stories,” Ossé told The Root. “I really must credit Gimlet Media. I have to say that they understood that. They did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of researching, but they knew that this wasn’t their story. When it came down [to] the story, telling it all, deference was given to me. Even when we bumped heads, if I saw that there was something that should (or shouldn’t be) in the narrative they always conceded.”
It’s critical for storytellers to remain authentic, even if this means bumping heads with teammates that don’t always understand this. As Ossé stated, “For over 400 years, our stories have been studied by ‘majority’ and still there is no understanding of who we are. We are at a time in history where our stories are being told so unapologetically black and so pure. This is the first time where we are saying loudly, ‘No, don’t dilute our stories, don’t add your assumptions about us into your story.’”
Even as a vet in the podcast game, Ossé knows he is not above reproach. He can get it, too. Black Twitter is not a game when it comes to calling bullshit. Yet for those who prioritize authenticity, the genuine responses from one’s core audience is valued. And let’s keep it 100—for the sake of one’s brand, nobody wants to get thrown on that Summer Jam screen. With Mogul, Ossé noted, far more was at stake.
“Yes, it was my voice and it’s my brand, but most importantly, this is Chris Lighty’s story. I knew I had to be careful,” Ossé said. “For one, Chris is a very private person. If he were alive, he would not approve of this project, and he would have done everything in his power to shut this project down.
“The other side of this are the people that are close to him,” he continued. “I always considered his family and friends. In the end, I know that Chris might not have approved, but he would have said, ‘Damn, you really did it for hip-hop, and you took it to the next level.’”
And in true Ossé form, he did, in fact, raise the bar and tackled some hard stuff: domestic violence, rumors of a married Lighty having a community dick and, of course, the mental-health component. This is some pretty ugly stuff, and the pushback could have been messy. It’s easy to see how a person could want to casually gloss over that stuff. Ossé told The Root:
To be honest, I have to credit the Gimlet team with some of this. There were a lot of elements of this story that I didn’t want to fuck with. Particularly the stuff around domestic violence. I didn’t want to go there. Even when we are truthful, a lot of us kill the messenger, and I didn’t want to put myself in that position. That was one of the things we fought about, and I had to just convey the story and share where my heart was.
This wasn’t a story where we were looking for things to say, “Ohhh this guy was a scum bag.” No, this wasn’t the case. This guy was tortured on so many different levels. I made it clear to the whole team that I didn’t want to go into all of this [domestic violence], but if we are going to do it, we are going to do it carefully and as respectfully as possible for the family. We made sure to get the blessings of his family before we ran with it.
It’s interesting to know how this project is going to be received on a few levels. Particularly how Lighty’s legacy will be discussed. Black people are held at a higher standard of expectation than anyone else. It’s like the same rules don’t apply to white people. The irony is that the same people who might want to dismiss the impact that Lighty had after listening to this documentary are the same people who turn a blind eye to white men who share the same history.
Does this mean that black folks should get a pass on things? That we shouldn’t be held accountable ’cause white folks aren’t? Never. It just means that it’s a real thing that happens. Telling honest stories about black men like Lighty means that his legacy will be under a level of scrutiny that white people will never have to face. This is a concept that wasn’t lost on Ossé.
“I understood the weight of this fact. The more research we did, the more I learned about him. I learned some things that I would have never imagined. I learned about some things that I personally would never condone and really struggled with it,” he said. “I allowed the listeners to experience how hard this was for me. While doing this project, I experienced a range of emotions. It wasn’t all laughs and nostalgia. I immersed myself into the full story and even the darkest parts of it. In the end, I had to tell a full story.”
As with any project telling the story of a person who is no longer around to dispute fact vs. fiction, it’s critical to listen to the feedback from family and friends and in general. According to Ossé, “The response has been nothing but praise. Some of the people closest to him haven’t been able to listen to it fully yet because it’s difficult. The only criticism was that it was too short. On June 16, it will be released on other platforms (iTunes, SoundCloud, etc.). We will add extended content.”
It was short, but it took me a long time to finish it because I couldn’t listen to the final episode. I know this is because it disrupted the narrative that plays in my head about who commits suicide.
“It is true that he didn’t fit the narrative that sometimes plays in our head,” Ossé said. “It’s crazy because it wasn’t until we started doing this project that I realized that I suffered from a mild case of depression at one point in my life. So many of us seek these highly coveted positions in entertainment (or any high-profile position), and then you get them and don’t realize mentally what it takes to keep them. You have to always be on. To stay in that position, you have to keep winning, and so many people are depending on you to keep winning. That’s a lot of pressure.
“You get these positions and doing what you’re supposed to do, and you don’t know why you’re not happy. We look at these people that have everything, but we have to start talking about what that’s like. It’s an endless cycle,” he continued. “I hope this project plays a great part in conversations about suicide and depression in hop-hop. That’s part of what I want the listeners to get from this documentary. I want them to enjoy it and to learn about the history of hip-hop and more about Chris, but also, I want them to feel free to retire that pressure to always be excellent.”
It’s too early to tell how impactful Mogul is in terms of generating in-depth discussion around mental-health issues in the black community. However, it is clear that already this documentary is cutting-edge, bar-raising, dark, entertaining, raw and brilliant. All of which are the core of hip-hop and the essence of Lighty.