A decade ago, hip hop (in its more commercial forms) was taking
its place as the sound of popular music in America and around the world. Nelly
was the biggest thing on the charts that summer, Missy Elliott‘s monster
success almost made up for the absence of all other female MCs and Jay-Z was
settling into his role as the Michael Jordan of rappers. Hip-hop affect went
from the way pop acts showed a little edge to a key requirement to compete in
the industry. This had a great deal to do with the lightning-fast rise of a
talented young MC named Marshall Mathers.
But really, its roots began a decade earlier with a duo named Kris Kross.
The generation of suburban teens for whom Eminem was a
revelation first cut their hip-hop teeth on the pre-pubescent pair who burst on
the scene with the single “Jump.” Jermaine Dupri, then the 19-year-old son of a music-industry exec
looking to make a name for himself, had discovered young Chris Smith and
Chris Kelly at a mall in their native Atlanta a year earlier, and recognized in them a star power worth harnessing. He couldn’t have been more right — lead single
“Jump” bounded to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts, resting there for
eight weeks. With its Dupri-produced track (heavy with samples from the Ohio Players, The Jackson 5 and Honey
Drippers) imbuing a catchy, age-appropriate levity on the song, “Jump” was
the rap record Tipper Gore would’ve bought for her kids. Unbeknownst to most
parents (and in retrospect, probably a lot of kids, too), it was essentially a diss
track aimed at the reigning, Michael Bivins-mentored kiddie crew Another
Bad Creation in an entirely manufactured (and ostensibly one-sided) feud.
The paradox of the song’s content and its popularity would essentially
be a template for the reception to Totally
Krossed Out. Here were two boys, 12 and 13 at the time, who wore their
ridiculously baggy clothes backwards (not inside out, like those “wiggity wack” ABC kids), went joyriding
in convertibles in their videos and had female video dancers ranging in age from teens
to twenties. They were the perfect figures to inspire rebellion in their young
audience (who did, in fact, begin turning up at middle schools nationwide with
backwards clothes). Yet, their baby faces meant that to most parents, they
were not the least bit threatening. Ruffhouse Records couldn’t keep their album on shelves.
The album’s remaining three singles went on to be top-20 Rap hits (though
second single “Warm It Up” was the only other top-20 on Pop), and they were an
instant phenomenon. As the album approached quadruple-platinum status, they
racked up the television appearances (both talk and scripted), cameos in videos
by artists like Run-DMC and TLC (with whom they even shared a
media-speculated, if logic-defying flirtation) and even saw their music videos inspire a monumentally
awful SEGA video game. Soon, they were asked to
join Michael Jackson on the European
leg of his ill-fated Dangerous tour.
Now at the top of the pile, they soon came under fire from
upstart tween rappers Da Youngstas
for not writing their own rhymes. But this couldn’t have been news to anyone with a functioning
pair of ears — with its profanity-laced braggadocio and mostly pop-eschewing
production, Totally Krossed Out felt
entirely too adult (and thus, forced) to reasonably have been the expression of a pair of pre-teens. Sure, it had age-appropriate moments like “I Missed The Bus”
and “Party” (which perfectly captures the musical and narrative vibe of the era’s
House Party movies). But for the most
part, with loosely dropped n-bombs and casual references to “‘mos,” it was clear Dupri
was positioning them for the rising tide of gangsta rap that would engulf the
culture in the coming year.
It is, for the most part, a weird collage of
linguistic hood affectations from a pair of kids just recently unhooked from
phonics. The album’s most ludicrous moment comes at the end of “You Can’t Get
With This” where, after a round of tough talk aimed at rivals, the duo break
into mocking laughter. But this section intended as a mix of menacing and humiliation, ends up the most utterly heartwarming “chorus of children’s laughter” moment a Hallmark executive could have hoped for. And in the end, that may be the album’s main undoing — it’s a work of thematic ventriloquism that lends Dupri a
decidedly unsettling Gepetto-Svengali air. One made especially crass when, a
near-decade (and a fresh tween act) later, Dupri brags about “still
spending that Kris Kross cream” to an audience that had long forgotten the kids whose futures he once held in his hands.
Yes, after the staggering success of Krossed, each subsequent album yielded underwhelming commercial results,
and the group was done soon after 1996’s middling (yet pretty satisfactory) Young, Rich, & Dangerous LP. Dupri, on the other hand, went on to
great success discovering a plethora of new acts like Da Brat, XScape, and Lil’ Bow Wow (in addition to work with established artists like Usher, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson). While it’s true that there probably would be no Bow Wow (described by many as Dupri’s next attempt at kidsploitation) without Kris Kross, I would argue that, the duo’s greater accomplishment was
the infiltration of millions of homes in Middle America. With that one monster album, they implanted in suburban kids an openness to hip hop that would eventually bring an
economic power to the genre that its founders had never dreamed possible.
when you think back on the raucous cries of “mazel tov!” at your decidedly Catholic wedding reception, or your college roommate’s analysis of the heat in “hurr,” know it all began because somewhere, 20 years ago, some kids jumped, and jumped, like their
lives homeroom reputations depended on it. Simply because they were told to by a pair of gangsta cherubs.