Part 2: Not Just Me and Snakes
June 23, 2017
How to listen:
Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.
Chris is headed for the big time. Meeting Russell Simmons, landing a job at Def Jam, getting into Queen Latifah’s birthday party—the future looks bright. But before he can get there, he’ll have to prove himself by squeezing eight dudes into a Chevy Corsica that smells like White Castle and farts.
CREDITS: Mogul is hosted by Reggie Ossé. This episode was produced by Eric Eddings and Meg Driscoll, with help from Isabella Kulkarni, Peter Bresnan, and Jonathan Mena. Our senior producer is Matthew Nelson. Our editors are Lynn Levy, Caitlin Kenney and Chris Morrow. Sound design and mixing by Haley Shaw. Music direction by Matthew Boll. This episode was scored by Prince Paul & Don Newkirk, with additional music by Open Mike Eagle, Haley Shaw, and Bobby Lord. Special thanks to Victoria Barner, Caitlin DiLena.
Red Alert: My nephew, he always say, “Yo man, me and my friends want to make a record, we wanna make a record.” I didn’t really take them too seriously.
Reggie: We never take our nephews too seriously.
Red Alert: Nah, because we understand you’re going through the motions. You know, you’re in school and everything, you know what I’m a part of so you wanna join but I’m not knowing that you’re serious.
That’s the legendary Kool DJ Red Alert, you heard him in the last episode. If you haven’t heard that story, go back and listen now. The conversation he's talking about here, it happened back in the late 1980s. And even after Red said no, his nephew kept sweating him, kept insisting that him and his friends wanted to make a record. Finally Red was like, fuck it, okay, let’s see what you got. And he found a place for them to go and cut a few tracks ...
Red Alert: This studio’s way out there in Coney Island, off of Neptune Avenue behind the projects. And that’s where they used to go over there and start recording and they came up with an idea of a song of a saying that my older brother used to always say. He used to say Jimbrowski. Otherwise he’s talking about the male’s dominant situation, you know.
Reggie: He’s talking about the male’s member.
Red Alert: Jimbrowski, I tried to be as polite as I can in front of the lady.
Lynn: You don’t have to be polite.
Red Alert: Okay, well hey, I was raised that way.
Reggie: Jimbrowski was code for penis.
Red Alert: Right. Thank you, sir. So here it is …
[Jungle brothers plays]
Red Alert: Mike, who was my nephew, he took the idea from what my brother used to do, and he said, “Let’s go do a record called Jimbrowski.”
Reggie: And they became the group known as?
Red Alert: The Jungle Brothers.
Red Alert: And it came out a hit. So now, they’re coming out. Jimbrowski. So now they’re coming out, they’re starting to get hired to do different gigs in different places. So now I need a road manager. Who you think I pick?
Reggie: Who did you pick?
Red Alert: Chris Lighty.
From Gimlet Media and the Loud Speakers Network, I’m Reggie Osse and this is Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty.
In the last episode, Chris, along with the Violator crew, became a part of DJ Red Alert's entourage. That meant they had to carry Red’s gear, and slap any pushy promoters who tried to step to him. In return, Chris and his friends got into the club for free, and they could impress girls by being like, “Yo girl, I’m with the DJ.”
But then, in 1988, Red Alert offered Chris this road manager gig. Even though his only prior experience was carrying other people’s records and stealing other people’s girls.
Red Alert: I sensed something about Chris from his character. You know, about how he come across with a business sense. And when him and I talk I listen to his lingo. And when I listen to his lingo, I’m like, “This guy’s got something here, more than you’d expect.” He cocky, he arrogant, but behind that there’s something else I see about him when I have conversations with him. I see how he move and I see what he does.
He didn’t know it at the time, but this was a big moment for Chris. He’d go on to become one of the most powerful men in hip-hop. But that wouldn’t have been possible without paying his dues as a road manager. And Chris had a lot to learn. Right now, he’s still a kid. A kid who had no idea how to take his first act out on the road. And the Jungle Brothers, they were just kids too.
Mike Gee: My tasty techniques tantalizes your taste as my rhymes rock and roll right through place it was that bragging and boasting.
That’s Mike Gee. And this is Africa Baby Bam.
Baby Bam: I’m the MC on the mic who’s hard to chase I’m the ace in the place kicking rhymes in your face.
Together with their DJ Sammy B, they were the Jungle Brothers. And there was a lot more to them than rhymes about the bozack. The JBs were one of the first rap groups to fuse jazz and house music with hip-hop. Their shit was eclectic. But they were street, too. Peep how they came up with their name ...
Mike Gee: I’ll never forget. I was at my dad’s house. He lived in Queens, Lefrak City. Lot of cats don’t know there were a lot of gangs; there was a lot of drug gangs in Queens at that time. And where I lived had a view of the avenue, and we going back and forth like, “Yo, we gotta get a name! What’s our name going to be,” and it was like [rahhh]. I mean it was pandemonium in the streets. I look out the window, I’m like, “It’s like a jungle out here right now, it’s like, yo, they whiling in the streets.” Bam was like—
Africa: It’s the concrete jungle.
Mike Gee: I was like, “Jungle posse.”
Africa: I was like, “Mmm, posse’s gonna be kinda played out.”
Mike Gee: He was like, “Jungle something.” It was like we said at the same time.
Both: Jungle Brothers.
Africa: Because we brothers.
Mike Gee: That was it, from that day.
The Jungle Brothers and Chris had a lot in common. They grew up in the same kind of neighborhoods. They were all young. They were all ambitious. And they all sensed that hip-hop could take them places … where, they weren’t exactly sure. But they didn’t care as long as they could contribute to the culture … and it didn’t hurt that they could meet some chicks, and make a few dollars along the way.
Wherever they’d be going, the journey there would not be glamorous. To get from venue to venue there was no private jet, no Benz, no limo, not even a tour bus. All they had was Chris’s hoopty:
Mike Gee: The Corsica. The Chevy Corsica. I’ll never forget it. Who fits eight people in a Corsica? Chris Lighty. Word.
Reggie: How’d it smell, man?
Mike Gee: Who knows. Like arse. It smelt like arse. Ah man, it smelt like eight dudes rolling up in there, couple of white castles.
Reggie: Some farts got loose man?
Mike Gee: Let me tell you.
Talk about starting at the bottom ... And for real, that’s where Chris was at this moment. People like to fantasize about touring with a band. But they’re way off.
This road manager gig, it’s a cross between being a janitor, a babysitter, and a bagman. You gotta wrangle your artists, get them to the venue on time, make sure they’re not too high to go on stage. As for the bagman bit — Back in the day promoters would pull all kinds of shit to avoid giving up money. Sometimes they’d flat out refuse to hand over the bag. Other times, they’d pay you, then come over to your hotel room later that night to try to stick you. It was like a hood version of Mad Max or some shit.
And Chris had to figure out how to handle this stuff on his own. There was no manual for this shit. No training. He was making it up as he went along. And one of the first things he learned was a simple lesson in economics … more shows equals more money.
Mike Gee: We could rack up on a good weekend ten shows …
Africa: New York, Philly, New Jersey.
Mike Gee: No exaggeration now: We drove to Georgia and came back did another show.
Africa: Virginia, D.C., South Carolina, North Carolina, a bit of Florida, Boston, upstate New York. All these trips… we broke some records for real.
These road trips with Chris were the inspiration for the song, JB’s Comin’ Thru … If you listen closely, you’ll hear Chris getting a shoutout.
Mike Gee [rapping]: Uncle Sam, Mike Gee, Baby Bam, road manager Chris, five thousand booming watts, sound system state of the art —
I’m basically describing, like, this is the roll call this is who’s getting in the car and who’s going to the club to do the show, and this is what it sounds like. It’s a big, Five thousand booming watts. So it was like the song is telling you about the night, JB’s comin’ through. Like we going to be here we going to be there because that’s what we were doing we were going everywhere every weekend. So that’s how he got a shout-out on that record
And that was how I first heard about Chris Lighty. The Jungle Brother’s second album, Done by the Forces of Nature, was one of my favorite records back then, and I heard them shouting out this guy called Baby Chris. And there were pics of him in the liner notes, too. I was like, if he’s down with the Jungle Brothers this cat must know what he’s doing.
And I was right. Not long after he started road managing the JB's, Chris took on his next act: It was a group of young rappers from Queens. Maybe you’ve heard of them. They’re called A Tribe Called Quest. And they gave Lighty a shoutout on one of their songs, too:
Tribe blew up in 1990 when they dropped their debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. It went gold. And it looked like Chris’s career was going in the same direction.
It wasn’t just fans of Tribe and the Jungle Brothers that were becoming familiar with the name Chris Lighty. He was getting mentioned at the offices of Def Jam Records, too. They wanted to talk to Chris about joining their team.
It’s hard to overstate how big a deal that would have been at the time. When Chris and I were coming up, the words Def Jam were the gold standard in hip-hop. I was such a fan that I used to go to record stores and buy LPs simply because they had the Def Jam logo on them, regardless of whether I’d heard the music or not.
And that’s because Def Jam always stayed true to the streets. And that meant everything to me. To understand their importance to the culture you gotta understand what the first early break out rap records sounded like… back in the 1970s, before Def Jam existed.
That’s Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang. I fuckin’ hated this song.
It sounded fake to me, man, like, I grew up on the real stuff, where you MCs, like, spitting in the park. You know what I’m saying? Like, spitting in the projects. Like, real MCs like Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel, and when I first heard “Rapper’s Delight” on the radio it sounded so squeaky clean, so sanitized. It was fake. It had none of that grime. It had none of that grit. I mean, imagine somebody being a punk fan, like, somebody growing up on the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious, and then they hear Billy Idol — and I’m a fan of Billy Idol — but hearing Billy Idol, somebody telling you, like, “This is the epitome of punk rock.” That shit was fake, man.
I preferred the raw hip-hop sound. And I wasn’t the only one. There was this upstart party promoter from Queens who decided to create a record label dedicated to hip-hop.
Russell: The records I made were records that sounded like the club as opposed to sounding like the records. And in the clubs we played breakbeats a lot and the breakbeats were the records we wanted to rap over so why we making records were we rapped over R & B?
That’s Russell Simmons. Together with his co-founder, an NYU student named Rick Rubin, they created Def Jam. Rick and Russell wanted to make the kind of music that kids like me wanted to hear.
RS: We hated fucking R & B, Michael Jackson, Prince, all of them, didn’t give a fuck, we hated them. Because we were alternative in nature, we had to do something of our own. That’s what hip-hop was, hip-hop was a rebellion to what was given to us as black people.
Def Jam dismantled everything that acts like The Sugar Hill Gang represented. Gone were the corny rhymes and the glossy production. Their motto was to reduce, not produce. Rick and Russell wanted to be the the Anti Rapper’s Delight. Just listen to the difference between that, and a true rap classic: LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells ...
Russell: That was the intention, give people what they wanted, versus what everybody’s polish was. Let’s make some stuff that really represents the streets that we come from the sound that we liked.
Def Jam was the first authentic hip-hop label. Created by the culture, for the culture. They were also the first label to really take hip-hop acts seriously as artists. For a kid like me, they defined what rap music was, and what it could be.
After being launched by Russell and Rick in 1984, within the next several years the label would go on to release some of the most important tracks in hip-hop history.
1986: The Beastie Boys, No Sleep Til Brooklyn
1988: Slick Rick, Children’s Story
1990: Public Enemy, Fight the Power
And that’s the year when Def Jam, the biggest name in the game, noticed Chris Lighty.
One of the most powerful men at the company at the time was this cat called Lyor Cohen. He was Russell’s right hand man. And he wanted to recruit Chris.
Coming up after the break, Chris meets Lyor and Russell -- Two men who play a big part in shaping his career. But their first meeting isn’t your typical business introduction...instead snakes, yes real live snakes and cocaine are involved...keep listening..
Welcome back to Mogul.
One of the most powerful men at Def Jam was this cat called Lyor Cohen. He was Russell’s right hand man. And he wanted to recruit Chris.
Lyor Cohen got his start in the music business road managing Run DMC. By the late 1980s he’d established himself as the number two guy at Def Jam. Lyor is this tall, Israeli-American guy. Kind of looks like Lurch from the Addams Family. And he had a fierce reputation for being cutthroat.
Here’s hip-hop author Dan Charnas to explain Lyor:
Lyor got his start in the music business road managing Run DMC. By the late 1980s he’d established himself as the number two guy at Def Jam. Lyor is this tall, Israeli-American guy. Kind of looks like Lurch from the Addams Family. And he had a fierce reputation for being cutthroat.
Here’s hip-hop author Dan Charnas to explain Lyor:
Charnas: Somebody once told me that their memory of Lyor was that he was always chewing on something like the pins on his desk. So those jaws are always moving. And that’s an image of Lyor that’s really instructive. He had this insatiable hunger, essentially. And that, even when there was nothing to be gained by hunger, he would still consume.
Lyor thought Lighty would be a great get for Def Jam. He’d heard about the the work he’d done with Tribe and the Jungle Brothers and figured he’d be a perfect fit. So he invited Chris to meet Russell Simmons, the most powerful man in hip-hop at the time. But this meeting, it did not go as planned.
Dan Charnas again:
Charnas: If you wanna meet with Russell you go to where Russell is and Russell’s not in the office, Russell’s at the club. So he takes him to Nell’s. And Chris has seen a lot of things in his life. He’s seen guns, he’s seen knives, he’s seen fights, he’s seen the Bronx. But he’s never seen anything like what he’s seeing at Nell’s.
Nell’s back in the day it was one of the flyest clubs. You had to be somebody, know somebody, or stand out to get in. I used to get in, but only because I had a fly girlfriend.
I’m gonna let Chris Lighty tell the rest of the story from here. And I gotta say, I’m so hyped for you to hear his voice. Chris didn’t give many recorded interviews in his life. But we managed to get our hands on an archived recording of him telling longtime Def Jam publicist Bill Adler about the time he met Russell Simmons in Nell’s. Now, bear with me here, because the tape is a little distorted in places. Okay, here’s Chris Lighty.
Lighty: I had never been in a club with white people. I was like, “This shit is crazy.” Russell is sniffing coke. It’s fucking bananas. I used to go to the SMS club with old-school drug dealers and all of that and the Roxy and Funhouse. So the Roxy, there might have been two white people out of 2,000 people, you know. Funhouse was all Puerto Ricans and maybe a few black people. I went to Nell’s and there was maybe five black people and nothing but white people. People were still allowed to bring animals into the club and all types of crazy shit like that. Snakes and all types of stuff. They were walking around with snakes, and it was crazy that night. Maybe it was just the one night that I shouldn’t have met Russell but it was the one night that I met Russell. People had snakes around them; coke was everywhere. Too many white girls. And Russell is talking real fast and making no sense.
Reggie: You remember any of this?
Russell: I was high as fuck so I probably didn’t remember.
That’s Russell Simmons again.
Russell: A lot of industry people hung there, too; it wasn’t just me and snakes. So that’s going to be the interview the whole interview? It wasn’t just me and snakes; it was me and the head of Sony Records, the head of whoever my partners were, and whoever future partners or artists would be.
Regardless of what the snake to human ratio was, Chris looked around at all of this and decided that this scene was definitely not for him.
Charnas: So he basically says to Russell, “I’m not fucking with you,” and walks out.
Naturally, that pissed Russell off.
Russell: So I don’t know what made him say that, but I can tell you that’s not what a manager says. I would like him to celebrate him as much as possible but I can say that’s not a trait I would want a manager to exude, to be able to that I’m not fucking with you because there were white people and snakes in a room, or because we were in a place that was odd to him. His job is to go into every room and open every door and work with every person who can help every artist.
Despite the meeting going south, Lyor was still determined to bring Lighty to Def Jam. The young manager was raw, for sure. He needed to be polished up. But the kid knew how to make money, and all of his acts were blowing up. So Lyor keeps sweating him, hoping he’ll change his mind.
Lighty: Lyor calls me the next day and the next day, says, “What’s up? You going to take my offer?” So a couple of weeks later I go down to 298 Elizabeth Street and say, “You know what, I wanna learn so I’m going to take you up on your offer.”
Adler: What persuaded you besides his persistence?
Lighty: I mean, it still was, at the end of the day, I was still a fan of Def Jam.
In a few years, Chris had gone from hauling crates for Red, to driving the Jungle Brothers all over America in a hoopty, to getting a job at Def Jam, the Harvard of hip-hop. He was playing the game on a new level now, which meant Chris now had to play by different rules.
Africa Baby Bam told me a story that gets to the heart of the push and pull between Chris’s old world and the new one. Between the Violators and the executives Chris now rubbed shoulders with. Between the Bronx and the boardroom.
This story went down in 1989. It was Queen Latifah’s birthday party. And Latifah, she’s huge at the time, so this isn’t any ordinary birthday party. It’s this glamorous, red-carpet industry event. Anyone who’s anyone in hip-hop is gonna be there. Including Chris Lighty, the new Def Jam hire.
So Africa and Chris are lined up outside, and there’s a big crowd waiting to get in.
Africa: Lighty asked about the guest list to the lady standing behind the rope with the clipboard.
Chris and Africa’s names weren’t on the list …
Africa: And Lighty was like, “Oh come on, this is Jungle Brothers.” He got a little pushy.
The other people waiting to get in weren’t impressed. A group of guys in particular were like, “Yo who the fuck is this guy?” Then they shoved Lighty.
Africa: So then he pushed them back and then the shank came out and cut Lighty. It happened so fast all I could see was that his skin was cut, and he was bleeding, and he turned to me, and he looked at me and said, “Oh shit, am I cut?” I said, “Yeah, you cut but it’s a little, it’s just a little slit.” He said, “I’m bleeding. I said, “Yeah, just a little bit.” And he just looked at me and backed up and just reacted like, “What the fuck did you do duh duh duh,” you know. He was pissed. And then all hell broke loose.
The cut may have been small, but it was deep. Blood was pouring down Lighty’s face, and he was out for revenge. So he rounds up his old friends, the Violators, barges through security and chases the guy who slashed him. He runs into the club and that sparks this huge brawl.
This is a fancy place, remember. And inside there’s this big ass aquarium. Lighty grabs the guy who cut him, and throws him into it, face first.
Africa was left behind in all the confusion. A minute or so later when he got into the club, he told me it looked like …
Africa: Like a cowboy saloon. You know, like, broken glass, water and fish going across the bar and people screaming and Latifah going, “This is my party you can’t do this!” And Bobby Brown’s over there and Wesley Snipes is over there and the fire marshals are over there in their black and yellow jackets on and they got axes and fire extinguishers, and people screaming on the floor above that on the third floor like, “Ahhh.” I was like, “Wow, it’s nice in here but it looks fucked up now.”
And Chris was responsible. Fucking up a big industry event, and ruining Queen Latifah’s birthday? Not smart, b. And it would make a mark on Chris in a couple of ways. Dan Charnas again.
Charnas: This was a very sobering moment for Chris because he’s a beautiful guy. I mean, physically beautiful guy and his vanity has now been shaken by the fact that he’s going to have this scar, right? How bad is it going to be? That’s hard to deal with, right. And the other part is the chaos that he created, and it’s after this that Lyor took Chris aside and said, “You have to decide: Do you wanna be this or that guy? Do you wanna be the guy who is the businessman who sits in the office who goes out on tour, who handles things and makes money in that way, or do you wanna be still involved in the street life, in just petty street fights that mean nothing and get you nothing?” And Chris decided that he wanted to be this guy.
This guy. The guy who was all about being a executive. Not throwing people through fish tanks. So he started a process of reinvention. Gone were his old ways, and his old clothes. Here’s Africa Baby Bam again:
Africa: Oh, he completely changed up his dress code. Like, if you look on the back of the 12" cover for “What You Waitin For,” Lighty's got a red, black, and green hat and 40 below timbos on—you know, the street uniform. Then he transitioned into suits and trench coats, ties, shirts, shoes. He reinvented himself a bit.
But one of the most hardest things Chris had to change was his old relationships. If he really wanted to be this guy, things would have to be different with the Violators. They could still be friends. But they couldn’t be a crew no more. That became clear when one of the original Violators, Chris Ali, came into some money. He wanted to take that money, almost a quarter of a million dollars, and go into business with Lighty.
Chris Ali: I went to Chris, I was like, “Yo, listen, we can start our own Violator business blah blah blah.” At that point he was like, “That’s no money.” I was like, “That’s no money? I’m from the projects. That’s some money for me.”
Reggie: That’s some money for me
Chris Ali: When he said that to me, that kind of took me back. But later on when we sat down and talked about that, at that point when it happened I was like, how could he do that to me. We could start our own business blah blah blah.
Reggie: You were pissed off.
Chris Ali: I was pissed off. He said, “Your money isn’t as long as Russell’s money, as Lyor’s money.”
Gradually, Chris began to pull away from all of his old street associates. He couldn’t be this guy, if he kept running with those guys.
Chris: If you were to go back and talk to all of my guys, they’ll say there’s a moment where Chris disconnected from all of us. And I made a speech of, “I’m disconnecting from all of you guys. But we’re always going to be friends, you’ll always come to my house and whatever. But I can’t do this anymore.”
Charnas: Where do you think you’d be today if Lyor didn’t pose that dilemma?
Chris: I wouldn’t be here. You know, I wouldn’t have an office. 14, 15 employees. You know, a couple of houses and whatever. I wouldn’t be here. My mother wouldn’t be where she’s at. I’d either be in jail, dead, or in a terrible place.
Charnas: So in that moment, Lyor changed your life.
Chris: No question. That’s why I have undying, sometimes very bad loyalty to Lyor.
Next week on Mogul, that loyalty is tested.
Chris: You’re definitely getting shot. You’re next. I might get hurt, but you’re definitely getting hurt. There’s no doubt you’re getting hurt.
New episodes of Mogul come out every Friday. Mogul is a production of Gimlet Media and the Loud Speakers Network. This episode was produced by Eric Eddings and Meg Driscoll, with help from Isabella Kulkarni, Peter Bresnan, and Jonathan Menna. Our senior producer is Matthew Nelson. Our editors are Caitlin Kenney, Chris Morrow, and Lynn Levy. Lynn’s the one you heard telling Red Alert he didn’t need to be polite when he was trying to explain to her what a Jimbrowski is.
Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.
Sound design and mixing by Haley Shaw. Music direction by Matthew Boll. This episode was scored by Prince Paul and Don Newkirk, with additional music by Bobby Lord, and Haley Shaw.
If you like what we’re doing here, please do rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It’s a great way to help new people find out about the show. Come on B … do it for the culture!
Got Internets? Got Twitter? Follow us for all the latest news and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. Our handle is @ Mogul.
Until next time, continue to raise the bar.