TALK ABOUT CONVENIENT ONE-STOP shopping. When Chris Kelly and Chris Smith hit the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta one day in 1990, they were just 12-year-old pals looking to buy sneakers. By the time they left, they had careers in the bag as well—all thanks to a 17-year-old producer who saw their future in feats of the musical type. Within months, the 4'9" seventh graders had belted size-36 jeans around their bantam butts, shaved their eyebrows and found success as Mack Daddy (Kelly) and Daddy Mack (Smith), collectively known as Kris Kross, the country's hottest rap duo.
The pair's first single, "Jump," spent eight weeks at No. 1, and their album, Totally Krossed Out, has sold more than 2 million copies since its release last February. And it's more than music that the public is buying. The Smith and Kelly "look" has also sparked a mini fashion craze in Kross-dressing: oversize jeans and team shirts worn backward, or, in Kross talk, DE-SSORK style.
"From obscurity to all this just since February," marvels Chris Kelly's mother, Donna, a 33-year-old divorcé who lives in suburban Atlanta with her widowed mother, Rosina Williams, and her new "little celebrity." The latter is just back from the New York City taping of a video for Kris Kross' second single, "Warm It Up," and an appearance at Macy's (where all the window mannequins were dressed backward in the duo's honor). "We're not entirely used to this yet," says Donna, a mortgage loan collector until three months ago, when she quit to join her son on the road. "Who in the world would have thought this would happen?"
Jermaine Dupri, for one, an intensely focused young music producer who was shopping with a friend of Donna's that day when he first spotted the Chrisses (as Smith and Kelly are known to friends). "In a whole lifetime of going to malls, I had never seen kids being looked at just for nothing," Dupri says. "There were little girls and adults, all watching them. I'd never seen anything like it. I thought they must be a group."
Though only 17 himself, Dupri had already produced one rap album for a local group and was no dummy when it came to shopping for talent. The next day he invited the pair to the Riverdale home he shares with his mother and began the business of starmaking. "Chris and I were always rapping," says Smith, a friend of Kelly's since first grade and one of three children born to Lunnie Smith Sr., a program representative for the Georgia Department of Corrections, and his wife, Angela, assistant manager of an Atlanta bank. "We learned other people's lyrics—our favorite was Run-D.M.C.—and we'd do it all over the place, at school, at home and walking around the neighborhood. But we never thought of doing it like this."
"What I am is an idolmaker," says Dupri. "They thought they knew how to rap, but they didn't really. I taught them. We'd work forever on the weekends. It was hard work, like drill school. Nothing—not even their braids and shaved eyebrows—was an accident. Everything, the whole clothes thing, has been thought out." On the other hand, adds Dupri, "I'm still a kid myself, so if they wanted to go to Six Flags, we'd get in the car and go."
Six months later Dupri took Kelly and Smith to a local roller-skating rink, where they made their public debut as Kris Kross—an event marked by "screaming, yelling and pushing" on the part of the audience, says Donna. Even Grandma Williams, herself a veteran of a 1947 amateur-night appearance at the famed Apollo Theater, was impressed. "It was awesome," she reports.
Now the pair travel with an entourage that includes a road manager, a tutor, a security guard and 39 pieces of luggage. Mall appearances, which at this point create mob scenes, tend to be avoided in favor of such TV shows as Good Morning America, In Living Color and The Arsenio Hall Show. "People keep asking us what we do for fun," says Chris Smith, "but what we're doing is what's fun. The best part is the performing, all the screaming, the traveling around and being on television."
Slated to spend next month in Europe, where they're the opening act on Michael Jackson's tour, Kris Kross will have, as always, at least one parent along to make sure the duo keep their priorities straight, even if their clothes aren't. "We've been giving them a good foundation for 13 years," says Lunnie Smith, "but that can be lost very suddenly with all that's happening. Right now we're focusing on the boys' keeping a level head—and eating enough vegetables with all the hamburgers they eat on the road."
GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta
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