Reggie Ossé on the Making of ‘Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty’
"I made podcasts Black"
“Sir, do you mind if I vape in your car?”
Reggie Ossé has sat in his Uber for less than 60 seconds, yet still needs air. He also needs some nicotine to balance the two double servings of Jameson now streaming out of his freshly shaven cranium. The array of springtime pink and blue dots and patterns underneath Ossé’s elephant-gray suit should have the man known in media as Combat Jack looking cool. Instead he’s rolling out of his Crown Heights, Brooklyn neighborhood feeling pretty hot––and nervous.
“G’head smoke,” says the Uber driver. “Just roll down the windows.”
Reggie’s dancing nerves are understandable. In 25 minutes, he will be arriving at Manhattan’s Marquee nightclub, where a celebration will be hosted for the highlight of his professional career: Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty, an audio documentary series that Ossé’s Loud Speakers Network—a conglomerate of podcasts—created with the financial and production backing of Gimlet Media. The seven-episodic doc, which lives on Spotify, unfolds the impossible career and tragic demise of one of music’s most storied executives.
Chris Lighty rose from the hellish streets of the Bronx in the early Eighties by forming a protective crew, eventually called The Violators. Said crew became the roadies for, at the time, NYC’s biggest hip-hop DJ, Red Alert. Red hired Lighty to road manage his nephew’s rap group, The Jungle Brothers. This would be the spark of an unparalleled career in artist management. One that became a power source for the careers of rap comets like A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent. The latter was the beneficiary of a 5% equity acquisition of Vitamin Water, which later profited upwards of $150 million once the beverage company was sold to Coca Cola. Lighty negotiated the initial deal.
If you strip the term “urban legend” of its racist connotations, it sufficiently speaks for the Chris Lighty story. His nonfiction tale possesses all the ingredients loved by fans of great storytelling: Humble beginnings, a victim, victims, violence, money, ascendance and tragedy—the worst being Lighty’s alleged suicide. While each Mogul episode is a meaty serving of fine journalism—from reporting to writing to oration—Ossé claims the anecdotes left on the editing floor could’ve made a Mogul sequel. While bathing in the Manhattan Bridge breeze that shoots through his backseat window, he reveals that “Most of the gems in this story are, unfortunately, off record.” Mainly, the one Chris’s friends tell of him being kidnapped by one of the Big Apple’s most notorious gangsters over the mother of his first born.
This posthumous music-biz biography would’ve made for excellent television cinema. Last winter, BET dedicated three consecutive nights to the legendary R&B group New Edition. Instead, this black story was told, unprecedentedly, through audio alone, lifting hip-hop journalism to new heights. Not a coincidence that the Combat Jack mantra is #raisethebar.
Says Spotify Global Head of Hip Hop Programming, Tuma Basa, “The beauty of this Mogul series is I can take in all of these stories about Chris Lighty without having to stop doing what I’m doing—whether it’s ironing my clothes or [driving through] traffic. If Mogul was on TV, I’d have to devote all my attention and that [time would be] gone. I can still smell, feel and taste, but those other two senses are occupied. Whereas with audio, it’s just one!”
A former music industry attorney and exec, Ossé debuted The Combat Jack Show in 2010. In 2012, he and his partner Chris Morrow founded the Loud Speakers Network. Chris, an Irish Jew, whom Ossé refers to as the Morpheus to his Neo, is who felt the linear podcast platform could evolve into a multi-dimensional medium––similar to the gold standard of podcasts, This American Life and Serial.
While Loud Speakers was preceded by other hip-hop-rooted pods, like Peter Rosenberg’s Juan Epstein and Itsthereal.com’s Hype Men, it was among the most durable and influential with helping to usher in a newer, younger and darker wave of editorial for the culture. Rappers like Joe Budden and Nore would jump into the pool. Top radio personalities like Charlamagne teamed with comedian Andrew Schultz to form The Brilliant Idiots, dispelling the myth that podcasts were only for those who couldn’t make it on mainstream airwaves. “I made podcasts Black,” says Ossé, speaking on behalf of Loud Speakers. “I brought the soul to the game.”
“The reason we can own that is because I remember the resistance initially,” says Marrow. “I would hear ‘Podcasts are for middle-aged white guys. Nobody is gonna listen to audio.’ I was hearing this from some of the higher ups in hip hop. But the issue was nobody was creating content that spoke to [hip hop].”
Swag aside, Marrow and Ossé are quick to credit their business partners for making Mogul a reality. Spotify is a popular music stream service, but unknown for podcast programming. Gimlet, which Marrow calls “the HBO of podcasting,” is huge in the tech world, but not so much within brown culture. It was the perfect triumvirate. “I applaud Alex Blumberg, who runs Gimlet,” says Ossé. “We did an epic Black story and he put his check down. White boys don’t do that.”
“Chris Lighty felt like the cleanest story arc and the one that was gonna take us in a bunch of interesting directions,” says Blumberg. “Like there’s this guy who’s a pretty compelling character, and then he’s been in [hip hop] since the beginning. So you have this guy and the story of the birth of this art form at the same time. Who says no to that?”
Mogul does a sterling job of not trying to be Serial. Its final episodes delve into the sketchy death of Lighty. Gimlet’s small team of writers and producers managed to give voice to all surrounding opinions on whether this was a case of suicide or murder, while avoiding the temptation to establish a sensational final verdict. Instead, they meticulously (and responsibly) unpacked fine-tooth research and interviews for the listener to ingest and form their own conclusion.
Ossé won’t expand on the record, but he shares the same opinion as many close to Lighty as to the cause of death. “I do, and it’s very tragic,” Reggie says with a sigh, staring across the Westside Highway’s adverse traffic into the Hudson River’s blackness. “This game is very hard. Relationships are hard. Who you choose to live your life with is hard. I’m going through a divorce right now and this was the best and most painful story to tell.”
But how would a man like Chris, who seemingly spent much of his life keeping both he and the devil’s details private, feel about an audio documentary that features and informs on the closest people to occupy his time on Earth? “First off, Chris Lighty would be like ‘Fuck this project,’” says Ossé, now mere blocks from Marquee. “Secondly, he would say, ‘You took hip hop to the next level.’”