Yes, 50 Cent is one of rap’s most lucrative entertainers. Yes, he’s sold more than 11 million albums, and yes, he has built a rap empire.
But no, 50 can’t count on selling his usual million albums the first week in these troubled musical times — which is why he needs manager Chris Lighty more than ever.
Lighty didn’t get to be hip-hop’s go-to dealmaker by accepting the status quo. So while sales may be down, Lighty is still working magic to make sure 50 — and other high-profile clientele like Diddy and Busta Rhymes — keep getting very paid.
During an interview in the swank cafe of the opulent Beverly Hills Hotel, Lighty rattles off various opportunities for 50, including a vitamin supplement deal, a role in a Brett Ratner movie, and his own condom line. Coming soon for another client, LL Cool J? A Chapstick deal for the rapper known for licking his lips.
“Now you have to as many strategic alliances as possible to market your music and market your brand, to grow the brand and then in turn hopefully grow and help another brand,” says Lighty.
“As music sales go down because kids are stealing it off the Internet and trading it and iPod sales continue to rise, you can’t rely on just the income that you would make off of being an artist.”
It’s an aggressive and diverse strategy as the recording industry grapples with sharply declining record sales — but not a new one for the 38-year-old Lighty, who has been a player in the hip-hop game since he was a kid DJ some two decades ago. He rose through the ranks at Rush Management (Russell Simmons’ first company) before eventually founding Violator Management 10 years ago (Mona Scott and James Cruz are partners).
“A lot of people look up to Chris Lighty because of the blueprint that he’s laid over the years,” says Grouchy Greg, founder of the leading rap Web site allhiphop.com. “He started with KRS-One and Scott La Rock, and if you listen to early hip-hop records, you’ll hear early mentioning of him. He’s been instrumental in a number of influential artists’ careers.”
Now, with a roster ranging from Academy Award-winners Three 6 Mafia to maverick Missy Elliott to up-and-comer Papoose, Lighty’s mission is to not so much to make musical superstars, but multifaceted entertainers who can be marketed in an array of ways: a sneaker deal here, a soft drink partnership there, a movie role down the road.
“He has helped me establish accomplishments on the level of business moves that have been very, very, very, very lucrative for me,” says Busta Rhymes, who has worked with Lighty for years.
Headaches, violence part of the job
On this day, a tour Lighty is setting up for Diddy and Snoop Dogg is causing him headaches. He constantly checks his Blackberry during the interview (he jokes that he only shuts the device off when he falls asleep, “whenever that is, and whenever I wake up I still look at it.”)
Then there are the more mundane troubles — a client with sagging sales, another looking for more attention, another questioning the direction of his or her career.
“I’ve had the ’How’d you mess me up?”’ Lighty says. “I rewind back in time, and say, ’I?’ We always make this decision together ... we always collectively make the decision. When things go left, we come up with emergency plans, and plan B, and C and D if necessary to move a project around.”
“We’ve gotten blamed, and then unblamed quickly,” he adds with a laugh.
He’s had to tell clients to stop throwing money at a project that’s not doing well. Or he’s worked even harder than expected to boost things for a client: “With Lil’ Scrappy right now we’re having a hard way with his album but I still believe in him as a star.”
But the commitment remains, through hits or duds. His relationship with many of his clients go back years — Diddy, an old friend, signed on recently for promotion of his latest album, “Press Play,” and clients like LL Cool J, who is coming out with a new album later in the year, have been connected to Lighty for more than a decade.
That’s why Rhymes stays with Lighty — and why, he says, no other agency has even tried to steal him away.
“They see the loyalty, they see the commitment, they also see the success and they see the history. And I don’t think a lot of people have the courage to compete yet,” he said. “What they would have to be offering me doesn’t even exist yet.”