Chris Lighty: Remembering a Hip-Hop Innovator

The death of hip-hop manager Chris Lighty last Thursday shocked everyone who knew him. Those of us at Google Play who'd worked closely with him over the last year are still trying to wrap our heads around the tragic news. We've also been sharing our memories and admiration for the man's quiet but effective style and subtle humor. We didn't know him nearly as well as those whose careers he's guided for years, but the loss stings deeply, and we share the recollections that follow because honoring his life is the best way to lament his passing as he's laid to rest today.

14 months ago I sent Google Play's Gwen Shen a three-sentence email letting her know Busta Rhymes was label-less and interested in working with us. I asked her if she wanted to join a meeting in a week when both Chris and Busta were stopping by to play us songs from a new album Busta had completed.

Gwen leapt at the chance, and I remember being struck that, eager as she was to meet Busta, she seemed even more excited that Chris Lighty would be in the room. That was the first of many times over the coming year that I would hear Chris' name invoked with a slight lowering of volume, an almost-reverential tone that probably transcends business cultures, but is unmistakable in the music industry for meaning: this person knows and does things other people can't.

Now, I usually dread playback meetings with managers and label reps, doubly so when the artist is in the room, as politeness demands smiles and enthusiastic nods whatever your actual emotional response to the music might be. But that initial session with Chris, Busta and Gwen was among the most enjoyable two hours of my career. It helped that I genuinely liked the new songs. More than that, though, it was simply a thrill to talk about possible ways to distribute that music with a manager who didn't waste any time hyping you—he let the music speak for itself (notably, not by saying anything trite like "the music speaks for itself") and went straight to what we might do together.

A lot of managers just demand the outrageous and negotiate down from there. Others overwhelm by being the biggest, loudest presence they can manage, and grind everyone into submission. Chris' style was unique. He listened far more than he spoke, and when he did speak he was soft and persuasive.

That laid-back style could be deceptive, as he was also a fierce negotiator—something we learned over the next three months, hashing out a deal for exclusive online rights to Busta's next album. Even when Chris was at his most intractable, though, his voice never really raised, and the things he was demanding weren't the typical ego-appeasing tributes many managers settle for. They were crazy smart. They were actually things that made the odds of the release succeeding greater.

Gradually, we learned to read that style, so that, even when his volume didn't rise, we could tell if he was displeased or happy. I'll never forget the evening our video guru Lauren Tabak and I pitched Chris the "Spit Like Busta Rhymes" concept. It was late enough on the West Coast—and past 10 p.m. where Chris was—that we weren't in the office, and were instead huddled over my mobile's speakerphone. When we finished our spiel, there was a very long pause. When he finally spoke, we could barely hear him over the street noise as he said in a monotone, "I like that." Lauren was convinced we'd blown it. "No, no," I explained. "That's his excited voice. Really."

We were privileged to hear that deceptively quiet excited voice numerous more times over the next year. And will miss it terribly now that it's gone. – Tim Quirk, Google Play


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