Happy 20th Anniversary to Violator: The Album, originally released August 10, 1999.
When discussing some of the most important personalities in hip-hop culture, some are surprised when I immediately invoke the name of a man who doesn’t have a single bar of rhymes or production credits to his name. His resume, however, consists of playing integral roles in some of the most impactful and lucrative business dealings that shaped hip-hop in the ‘90s and ‘00s.
Casual followers of hip-hop may not even be familiar with the name Chris Lighty, but the late great mogul fully embodied the elements of my beloved culture. From his formative years in the Bronx River Projects, which gave him a bird’s eye view to hip-hop during its fetal period, to his unfortunate passing in 2012, Lighty spent the years in between living a hip-hop fantasy that reads similar to a Charles Dickens penned novel. In August 1999, fans like me were fortunate that his adventurous life inspired one of hip-hop’s best compilation albums, simultaneously serving as his autobiographical soundtrack of sorts.
Lighty’s legendary power moves like helping orchestrate the more than 4-billion-dollar deal between Coca-Cola and rapper 50 Cent’s Vitamin Water is perhaps the definitive example of using hip-hop as a vehicle to escape poverty and achieve the highest levels of corporate dominance. Especially when you consider his humble beginnings of carrying crates for DJ Red Alert on the hip-hop party circuit. Although this was surely a coveted position for a young man entrenched in hip-hop culture, Lighty never settled and eventually seized this opportunity to advance as a road manager for one of DJ Red Alert’s nephews who was a member of an up-and-coming group known as the Jungle Brothers.
Seemingly, within no time Lighty began showing signs of becoming a cultural icon, performing acts of great heroism like forcefully retrieving The Low End Theory (1991) from the perfectionist grasp of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and delivering it to the frustrated executives of Jive Records to prevent it from becoming an album that never was. Years later, his savvy would be sought by Def Jam Recordings, where he would become even more of a folklore hero by helping save the storied label through some of their toughest times by signing a relatively unknown rapper/producer/step-brother of Dr. Dre named Warren G. Def Jam’s left coast signee would go on to add new dimensions to the G-Funk sound with his triple platinum 1994 debut Regulate…G Funk Era.
Honing his business acumen in the less traditional environment of New York City nightclubs as a protégé of DJ Red Alert and on the road with the Jungle Brothers, Lighty’s Violator Management would begin by representing Native Tongues affiliate acts like Chi Ali and The Beatnuts. By the time the Violator imprint was ready to release a compilation album with their acclaimed client list, it seemed fitting to launch the solo career of longtime associate Q-Tip. Successfully charting, “Vivrant Thing”—featured on the Tribe co-founder’s debut solo album Amplified later that year—scored as one of the late summer radio and club bangers of ’99.
With a hot lead single that would eventually help push the LP to earn a gold plaque, Violator: The Album was balanced with the promotion of newer clients like Mysonne and established artists like Busta Rhymes, who both made four appearances on the LP. Mysonne has carved his own lane recently through maintaining a relevant social media following by dropping thought-provoking freestyles and fighting for justice for families like the Garners in New York City. The then-aspiring emcee proved why he had ascended to the top of his draft class circa 1999, holding his own in solo songs “The Truth” and “Nobody” along with featuring alongside his early mentor Ma$e and southern space-age lyricist Eightball on “Do What Playas Do,” before making a memorable appearance on the LP’s star-studded album closer “Violators.”
Busta Rhymes’ signature voice helps energize the entire album, particularly with his home team Flipmode Squad blessed posse cut “Whatcha Come Around Here For.” Rah Digga quickly raised the bar for her counterparts with the rhymes “Lyrically inclined and inclined to get lyrical / checkin’ for residuals / rhymin’ be the ritual / ill individual / bad habitat / watch my voice rattle cats, while I'm spittin’ battle raps.” Not to be outdone, Busta makes his boisterous entrance rhyming, “ Now who you be god / I be the soul controller / I burst gats like the fizz outta your Coca Cola / live s**t like the energy of solar / with thug n****s wit names like Bullet Head and Cobra.”
Songs like “Beatnuts Forever” featuring Triple Seis and Mobb Deep’s “Nobody Likes Me” showed that Lighty hadn’t forgotten his Bronx River roots and connections to neighborhoods like Lefrak City. The rugged street anthems also spoke to his less than corporate side which, legend has it, included violently shutting down an exclusive industry party for Queen Latifah, running interference for fellow industry titan Lyor Cohen to escape the wrath of Suge Knight, and even sustaining a tooth extracting sucker punch from DMX.
One of the greatest musical feats of Violator: The Album was the cross-region pairing right at the dawn of the southern takeover of hip-hop. The aforementioned southern rapper Eightball was stellar alongside the Terror Squad duo of Fat Joe and Big Pun for the aptly titled “Heavyweights,” and the partnering of Queensbridge native Cormega with Magnolia Projects’ Lil Wayne may have been truly revolutionary at the time.
A hardcore, mostly East Coast album that helped fend off any resurgence of the “shiny suit” rap, Violator: The Album was surely a celebration of Lighty’s close-knit clientele, with songs that were crafted to detail his rise to prominence.
In his time that was far too short, Chris Lighty helped shape the culture like none other, with his keen foresight of music and fashion trends, and incredible eye for talent. Violator: The Album is just a brief look at many of the artists that he and his partners at Violator Management helped develop, along with embodying his street smarts in the form of an LP. The rap mogul is missed by an entire community and remembered as we listen to this exciting ensemble collaboration that helped us close out the final summer of the ‘90s.
Rest in Peace: Darrel “Chris” Lighty (1968-2012).