Hear How Warren G Saved Def Jam Records (Audio)
Warren Griffin, III is revered as a Hip-Hop underdog. The MC/producer/DJ better known as Warren G came up as the shy half-brother of Dr. Dre. Raised in Long Beach, California Warren is the man many believe is responsible for the introduction of Snoop Dogg. Warren, keeping the music going at one of Dre’s epic early ’90s house parties, slid in his own group’s tape: 213. The collective of Warren, Snoop, and the late Nate Dogg would breed three separate star careers all in the G-Funk canon. For Warren, he quickly watched both Snoop and Nate get signed to Dre’s Death Row Records, leaving him the odd man out. While Warren (and reportedly his musical input) was always welcome at the studio sessions to The Chronic and Doggystyle, he was never offered a contract, a label medallion, nor likely much in the way of money (Warren did receive a co-writing credit on single “Ain’t No Fun”). By 1993, Death Row’s ship was full speed into oceans of money, fame, and notoriety—and the “G Child” watched from the shore.
In a new Spotify series, Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty, Combat Jack (aka Reggie Ossé) examines the life of executive Chris Lighty (who died in 2012). The founder of Violator Entertainment and its crew of the same name, the Bronx, New York native is perhaps best known for his work managing A Tribe Called Quest, 50 Cent, and LL Cool J at the height of their careers. In less than 10 years, Lighty went from carrying DJ Red Alert’s crates into The Latin Quarter to overseeing the acts making records in literally every DJ’s crates. While Lighty’s time with Warren G was not long, and often overlooked, it is telling of his legacy, Warren’s patience, and just how important both men were to Def Jam Records.
Episode 1 looked at Lighty’s family and his upbringing in a rough and tumble New York City. Episode 2 followed Chris as an adolescent known for confronting trouble in the clubs, on the road, and always finding the epicenter of Hip-Hop’s sound and culture in New York. Episode 3, “Rice Pilaf” finds Lighty in his mid-twenties, becoming one of the taste-making execs at Def Jam (as VP of A&R). Working under Lyor Cohen, Lighty was hoping to bring in the next wave of talent to the label that still housed ’80s signings like LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Erick Sermon, and Pete Nice.
In 1993, Warren G was managed by executive Paul Stewart and film director John Singleton. While Stewart hung around the Death Row studios seeking soundtrack submissions for John’s films, Warren quietly submitted material. As a result, Mista Grimm’s “Indo Smoke” was an early G-Funk example under Warren’s leadership that found its way to the Poetic Justice musical companion. Stewart had a working relationship with Lighty. He included the exec on a mailing of approximately 30 “Indo Smoke” promos serviced. “I remember clearly, Chris called me back after he got his [package]. He said, ‘Hey, who’s the guy in the third verse rapping?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s Warren G.'” While Mista Grimm would have been the focal point to most, the Violators founder was drawn to the smooth delivery of the producer/guest vocalist. “Chris was such a visionary that he understood how big of an artist Warren could be,” Stewart says nearly 25 years later. He admits that Singleton and himself were not even thinking that far ahead. “He saw a good lookin’ cat from the West Coast that had flows, had personality, could produce, was affiliated with Dre and Snoop…I mean, what wasn’t to see?”
“Everything we did was laid out. I had never been treated to dinner or showed a good time like that, back then,” says Warren, of Chris flying to L.A. and courting the underdog to the once alpha label. Big steaks, seafood, hotels, and Warren’s first flight (accompanied by The Twinz) were Lighty and Def Jam’s way of showing the kid who admits he had tape on his broken glasses that he was worth the effort. While Death Row excluded Griffin, Def Jam put him on a pedestal.
When Lighty brought Warren to his turf, the treatment only elevated. Warren and his Twinz proteges of Trip Loc and Wayniac stayed in plush Times Square hotels. One night, LL Cool J called up from the lobby, prepared to take a Warren (in disbelief) to his childhood home off of Farmers Boulevard in Queens. With LL telling Warren about his own journey into the spotlight, the G Child signed to Violator/Def Jam soon after.
With him, Warren brought “Regulate”…a song he had reportedly been tinkering with (using his sister’s Michael McDonald record) for some time. That would become Warren’s biggest hit. Of Chris, who rented a mansion/party-pad with the artist, Warren says, “That was my friend and boss. That’s how we used to it; we used to have fun.” The two young men celebrated life, as 1994’s Regulate…G-Funk Era went on to triple-platinum.
For Def Jam Records, while the turmoil may have not been known publicly, Warren G’s success could not have come at a better time. “For short: nigga, we was dead. We was gone,” says label co-founder and then-president Russell Simmons. “So it was a very special moment for us, ’cause it gave us breathing room, it gave us freedom, and it gave us billing. It made the company hot.”
Mogul reveals that “Def Jam Records was $33 million in debt (a 1994 figure), and then when Warren G came out, they had a $33 million surplus. So good job Chris Lighty!” Warren jokes that had he known his backers were in debt, he likely would never have signed. “I’m just happy to be part of history. Like I said, Chris Lighty opened that door. Lyor Cohen opened that door. Russell Simmons opened that door. But Chris was the guy who did the groundwork.”
Within four years of Warren G’s debut, Def Jam would become an arsenal once more. In 1998, DMX, Jay Z, and Method Man all achieved #1 albums. The label would experience a boom that lasted well into the 2000s. As for Warren, after one more album (1997’s Take A Look Over Your Shoulder), he would leave Violator for Restless Records.
“If it wasn’t for Chris Lighty and the Def Jam situation, I’d probably be in jail for shooting somebody,” Warren states. Asked if he believes that, the LBC native says, “I know it.” Lighty, who faced bullies and unfair circumstances as a kid in the BX related to Warren. Together, they made incredible music reach the masses, a pile of revenue, and saved Hip-Hop’s most trusted imprints. “They saved me from goin’ to jail, and I saved them from crumbling as a company.”
Elsewhere in the audio documentary episode, hear footage of Chris Lighty speaking to Bill Adler about backing down an incensed Suge Knight, who was out to have words with Cohen. Each week, new episodes are added to Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty by Combat Jack, Gimlet Media, and Ossé’s Loud Speakers Network.