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POP MUSIC : WHO’S HOT : Out of the Mouths of Babes : Kris Kross may be 12 and 13 but their ghetto raps aren’t kids’ stuff

It’s everybody’s favorite question these days in music: What are a pair of 12- and 13-year-old rappers from Atlanta doing outselling Garth Brooks, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson?

The duo, Kris Kross, started an assault on the charts last month when its “Jump,” a kinetic dance single, raced to No. 1 faster than any debut single in more than 20 years.

Thanks to the success of that record on pop radio, the group’s album, “Totally Krossed Out,” also shot into the Top 10, where it now stands at No. 2--behind only Def Leppard’s “Adrenalize.” (See review on Page 72.)

The young rappers were as caught off guard by their success as anyone else. Six months ago, Chris (Daddy Mack) Smith, 12, and Chris (Mack Daddy) Kelly, 13, probably would have settled for total album sales of between 50,000 and 100,000. But the album is already at half a million in sales--and some sources at Columbia say it may eventually go as high as 3 million.

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“I still can’t believe this is happening,” says Kelly, who seems overwhelmed by all the attention. “We’re still trying to get used to it. It’s fun . . . I guess.”

Part of the charm of Kris Kross is the group’s youth. We’ve seen gangsta rappers, political rappers, white rappers, female rappers and pop rappers, but never--on a hit scale--baby rappers. The closest anyone has come to what Kris Kross is doing is Another Bad Creation, another Atlanta group that deals with rap, but only in a wider R&B; context.

Don’t get the idea that “Totally Krossed Out” is just kid’s stuff. Without resorting to swearing, they examine ghetto life in some songs as if they were much older.

“Kid rappers simply hadn’t talked this way before,” says Michael Mauldin, the group’s manager. “It’s so different that people are strongly attracted to it.”

For their age, Smith and Kelly, who have been friends for years, are exceptional rappers. Developing those skills, however, wasn’t easy. Kelly says they were just talking the lyrics--not really rapping them--last year when they met Jermaine Dupri, who produced the debut album and who is just 19 himself.

Though the pair’s fondness for baggy clothes worn backward gives them a trademark look, it’s no gimmick handed them by the record company. It’s their own gimmick--something they dreamed up with Dupri, who discovered them in an Atlanta mall two years ago.

“He just liked how they looked,” manager Mauldin says. “He saw some kids who reminded him of himself when he was younger. I’m Jermaine’s manager so he brought the kids to me to see if something could be done with them as artists. When Jermaine found them, it was a stab in the dark that paid off--one of those one-in-million whims.”

Mauldin credits Dupri both with creating the musical concept, doing most of the work in assembling the album and turning Smith and Kelly into accomplished rappers.

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When Mauldin was seeking a record deal, labels didn’t jump at the opportunity. Kris Kross, which started out playing Atlanta skating rinks, finally signed with Ruffhouse last spring, after being turned down by other labels.

Some marketing strategy--chiefly photo layouts in music magazines before the release of the album--helped create a buzz for the record.

“In the magazines, we almost treated them like models, stressing the clothes idea,” Mauldin says. “That seemed easier than trying to sell the group as recording artists.”

Armed with that backward-clothes image to promote in the pre-marketing plan, Columbia sent videos of “Jump” to local video shows around the country, says Fred Ehrlich, vice president and general manager of Columbia Records.

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While the campaign pushed the single high onto the charts, a March 29 appearance on TV’s “In Living Color” was a key element in building an audience for the album.

“I saw that show and I was knocked out,” says Violet Brown, a buyer for the 300-store Wherehouse chain. “I figured the group was going to be hot so I ordered a lot of copies.”

John (Big John) Monds, program director and disc jockey at KKBT-FM in Los Angeles, also cites the TV appearance as critical.

“That’s when our phones really started ringing off the hook,” he says. “People were impressed by the kids, but the bottom line was the music. ‘Jump’ is one of those songs that when people hear it, they instantly love it.”

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As for Kris Kross themselves, they don’t seem intimidated by the challenges of the pop world. In fact, Smith says they already are looking forward to producing their own records.

“I know a lot of people probably think we are some flash in the pan, but we’re planning to be around for a long time . . . a long, long time.”


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