Chris Lighty, an influential manager of hip-hop stars like 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Missy Elliott and Diddy, was found dead Thursday morning at his home in New York City, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 44.
Police said they were investigating the death as a suicide. A representative of Mr. Lighty's company, Primary Violator, did not immediately respond to requests for information.
One of the most powerful figures in the hip-hop business, Mr. Lighty helped establish the music genre as a major commercial force -- complete with huge record deals and tie-ins with commercial brands -- during its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s. Violator, which he founded in the early 1990s, was the dominant management company in hip-hop at the time, with a stable of stars who, like Mr. Lighty himself, had street roots and big-business ambitions.
Mr. Lighty arranged a prominent Gap commercial for LL Cool J in 1997 and also struck endorsement deals for clients Busta Rhymes (with Mountain Dew) and A Tribe Called Quest (with Sprite).
In one of his most notable deals, Mr. Lighty negotiated a partnership in 2004 between 50 Cent and the beverage company Glaceau that gave the rapper a stake in the company and his own flavor of its Vitaminwater drink. When Coca-Cola bought Glaceau three years later for more than $4 billion, 50 Cent's take was estimated to be worth up to $100 million.
In a blog post Thursday, Russell Simmons, whose Rush Management company gave Mr. Lighty his start in the music business, called him "an amazing example of how a passionate kid from the street can go to the most even-keeled, smart, thoughtful manager in the business and a generous philanthropist."
Mr. Lighty was born in New York's Bronx borough, one of six children raised by a single mother. He grew up in a housing project and, like Jay-Z and other giants of the rap world, he often said that he learned the basics of business surviving on the streets.
"I got my MBA in hell," Mr. Lighty said in an interview with The Daily News in 2007.
That year, his company announced that its clients had sold a total of 80 million records.
After getting his start carrying crates of records for the DJ Red Alert, he was hired by Rush Management, where he learned the ropes from Mr. Simmons and Lyor Cohen, now the chief executive of recorded music at the Warner Music Group. By the early 1990s Mr. Lighty had his own management and record company, which he named Violator after his old gang in the Bronx.
Over the years, in addition to working as a manager, he held executive positions at the record labels Def Jam, Jive and Loud, and later also served as the chief executive of the Brand Asset Group, a joint venture with Warner Music charged with seeking sponsorship and other branding deals. Last year, Violator merged with Primary Wave, another artist management group with a focus on branding, to form Primary Violator.