Glamour and introspection don’t always intersect, especially in the realm of documentary. Sometimes, the life and achievements of a particular individual shine so brightly that it’s easy to be blinded to the full effect that one life has on the other people in their orbit. But “Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty,” the latest podcast from Spotify, Gimlet Media and the Loud Speakers Network, chronicles the life of a hip-hop entrepreneur with awe, concern and a heavy heart.
It’s a tricky combination of emotions that powers a show like this, but finding a delicate, satisfying balance has helped gain some much-deserved notoriety. “Mogul” is one of the most popular new shows in the podcast world, firmly in the top ranks of the iTunes charts and with an additional prominent placement in Spotify’s growing foray into the podcast sphere.
As host and narrator Reggie Ossé explains at the opening of the show’s first episode, “The story you’re about to hear is about the birth of hip-hop and the birth of a hip-hop legend—but it’s also about the darker side of the industry.” This darkness extends beyond the details of Lighty’s 2012 suicide, the untimely death referenced in the series’ full title. It’s the show’s twin appreciation for music history and desire to understand the full range of experiences that went into creating it that gives the show so much strength.
Though “Mogul” exists as its own fulfilling entity, the timing of its release before and after HBO’s recent doc series “The Defiant Ones” make the two projects ideal companion pieces. While Allen Hughes’ four-part TV series highlights the rise of West Coast hip hop, Ossé and “Mogul” show what was happening concurrently in the New York area. That all-consuming balance between creative and financial success is present in both projects, as is a measured consideration of the way that acts of violence intertwined with successive developments in the industry’s evolution.
“Mogul” avoids the convenient, reductive shorthand of painting Lighty’s story as a simple example of the American dream. Rather than focus purely on the heights of Lighty’s achievements as a manager and promoter — an extravagant 2003 wedding, sizable sponsorship deals and an expansive Manhattan office setup do all take center stage at certain points — Ossé takes great pains to show the ambition and hardships that helped prime Lighty for a life in the business.
Lighty was the impresario behind Violator, the record label/management company/marketing firm that came to represent some of the biggest names in the industry: Nas, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Missy Elliott. But there’s just as much time spent on Lighty’s early days spent managing The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest and the New York hip-hop scene that was forming around him.
“Mogul” goes out of its way to capture the spirit and the atmosphere of ‘80s Brooklyn, using a lush production design and archival footage to give a sonic representation of what it was like to be there during the time, rather than an abstract one. Early installments of “Mogul” focus on the family tree of New York-area hip-hop and the specific spinning and rhyming techniques that helped craft such a unique sound. Interviews with artists like Warren G and fellow mogul Russell Simmons help to paint a full idea of how those beats made their way from amateur cassette tape recordings to speaker systems the world over.
Ossé isn’t just a passive observer of Lighty’s story. His personal history as a music attorney and editor at The Source gives him special investment in the story that he doesn’t shy away from. As much as “Mogul” focuses on the details of Lighty’s biography, Ossé brings a curatorial ear to the acts and anecdotes featured in the series. It’s as much a history of an era as it is a history of one of its pioneers.
That personal connection to the subject matter makes some of the revelations in this series explicitly difficult to reconcile. In the newest episode released to all listeners on Friday (Spotify subscribers currently have access to the entire series), Ossé describes the details of a 2005 domestic violence incident police report involving Lighty and his wife Veronica. “I even have a picture of Chris Lighty on my desk,” Ossé explains in Episode 4. “And I built up this portrait in my head of who he was and what he meant to people. And this police report didn’t fit into that portrait. It smashed it all to pieces.”
The series sees that Lighty’s achievements as a promoter do not absolve the chapters of pain that he helped visit upon members of his family and inner circle. A full biography of a complex, tragic figure, “Mogul” exists as both a rich documentary experience and a means for understanding that iconic figures are not exempt from scrutiny, even by individuals who loved them in life.
In the series finale, as Ossé grapples with the circumstances preceding and following Lighty’s suicide, there’s careful consideration given to the many perspectives that friends and family have in the wake of his death. Like many of the other chapters following Lighty’s rise and tragic passing, “Mogul” approaches this closing statement with an understanding that the separation between his professional achievements and his personal shortcomings means that it’s impossible to frame his life around a single emotion.
It’s another example of how the show exists as more than a hagiography of a music icon. This is a carefully considered history of what one man’s impact can have on the careers and culture of the people who surround him. Lighty is presented as the vehicle through which careers were forged and partnerships were tested. That lifelong saga makes for a fascinating retrospective, one made all the more compelling by the thoughtful storytelling at the show’s center.