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An architect of the business of hip-hop has died. Chris Lighty made it possible for artists from the streets of the Bronx to get multi-million-dollar endorsement deals and global brand status. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's hard to remember, but there was a time when hip-hop artists were seen as too risky to sell jeans. And in 1997, Chris Lighty got LL Cool J into a Gap commercial


LL COOL J: (Unintelligible).

ULABY: It was a breakthrough. Lighty got rappers into mainstream commercials, on magazine covers and in movies. Danyel Smith is a former editor at Billboard magazine.

DANYEL SMITH: People forget because hip-hop is so - is such an assumption now in terms of our culture. It's so everywhere.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Get your freak on, get your freak on...

ULABY: Before he became a manager for Missy Elliot, Diddy, Mariah Carey and many others, Chris Lighty was raised along five siblings by a single mom in a Bronx housing project. He started by lugging crates for an important early hip-hop figure, the deejay Red Alert.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Rapping) I was sitting on the corner, (unintelligible). I got on the microphone and what do you see, (unintelligible).

ULABY: Lighty had his own company by the time he was in his 20s and was well-known for his exacting nature and ferocious work ethic. In a recent documentary about the group A Tribe Called Quest, Lighty described how hard it was to wrest an album out of the band.

CHRIS LIGHTY: Sometimes the creativity becomes a block.

ULABY: He gets so animated telling the story, he knocks over an ice bucket.

LIGHTY: Give me the apple. I'm out of here. And we turned it into jive.

ULABY: One of the motivating factors behind Lighty's ambitions for himself and his artists stemmed from his own serious study of the history of African-American music, says Danyel Smith, and exploitation of black musicians in earlier eras.

SMITH: Who were taken for less show money, less publishing money, no songwriting credit, can't get booked in the club, can't stay at the hotel in the town where the white performers are staying, dying broke.

ULABY: Lighty negotiated a famous deal in 2004 between the musician 50 Cent and Vitamin Water. It gave the artist a stake in the company and an estimated $100 million. His artists got innumerable Grammys, sold untold millions of albums, and Lighty made sure they were compensated like superstars.

His clients, the group Three 6 Mafia, won a 2006 Academy Award.


THREE 6 MAFIA: (Singing) You know, it's hard out here for a pimp. (unintelligible).

ULABY: Recently, Chris Lighty was reportedly dealing with financial troubles, and his marriage had fallen apart. He was found dead yesterday from what seems to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Danyel Smith says shock does not begin to describe the feelings in the music industry.

SMITH: His clients and former clients are some of the loudest people on Twitter, and yesterday the silence from them was so telling.

ULABY: Chris Lighty died at a home he kept in the Bronx, the place where he and the music he loved so much were both born. He was 44 years old. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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