The tragic end of a child star's life.
Written by Kelley Carter (@KelleyLCarter)
Just a few months ago, Jermaine Dupri celebrated the 20th anniversary of So So Def, the label he founded in Atlanta, and praised the artists whose creativity had such an impact on American music and hip-hop culture.
At a private dinner on February 21, he toasted a crowd of that included Bow Wow, Da Brat, Jagged Edge, LaTocha and Tamika Scott, Bonecrusher, Youngbloodz, Dem Franchize Boyz, Fresco Kane, and Chris Kelly, one half of the rap duo Kriss Kross: “In all these years, this is the first time that Bow Wow and Chris Kelly have ever met,” Dupri announced. “Bow Wow is a product of Kris Kross, so the fact that we can bring everyone together like this means a lot. This is my way of saying thank you for helping me build the So So Def empire. This is a historical moment, so tonight I’m celebrating you. Sit back, relax… I’m gonna serve you. But enjoy it, because that will never happen again!”
And it won’t—not like it did that night, not with that same assembly of artists. Because on the afternoon of May 1, Chris Kelly was found unresponsive in his Atlanta home. He was rushed to Atlanta Medical Center and pronounced dead at 5:30 p.m.
Chris Kelly was the Mac Daddy to Chris Smith’s Daddy Mack. They were 13 years old when an 18-year-old Dupri discovered them in Atlanta's Greenbriar Mall. Together, the three Atlanta teens captured a worldwide audience and collected millions of fans with their innocent boy-down-the-street faces, radio-friendly hip-pop sounds and funky, trend-setting style of dressing. Since Kelly's tragic death, folks have been dusting off album crates, hitting up the iTunes store, and reflecting back to a time when it was cool to throw on a pair of disheveled jeans backwards.
The sound was masterminded by JD, who got his start at age 12 as a dancer for Whodini. Kriss Kross's music was fun, and the time was ripe for young faces to dominate the scene. Acts like Another Bad Creation were already tearing up the charts, and Dupri and Kriss Kross were poised to make history. Their first album, “Totally Krossed Out,” was released on Ruffhouse Records in March of 1992. It sold more than four million albums domestically on the strength of the No. 1 pop single "Jump,” which hung on Billboard Hot 100 charts for two months.
Kriss Kross made hip-hop music fun and accessible, with their better-than-average rapping and catchy call-and-response hooks. At a time where hardcore sounds from the east and the west coasts were dominating the charts, Kriss Kross proved that two kids from Atlanta could get the whole world grooving. A crowning moment of their success was when they opened for Michael Jackson’s 1992 “Dangerous” World Tour.
By the time their second album came out in 1993, Kris Kross had competition—a sure sign that other labels were studying their winning formula. Da Youngstas gave Kriss Kross a run for their money, and down in New Orleans, pre-teen rapper Lil Wayne was starting to make noise as part of the duo "BGz." Meanwhile Kriss Kross's sophomore effort Da Bomb failed to sell as much as their debut, but still was a respectable million-seller. In 1996, they introduced a more mature sound on their third album, Young, Rich & Dangerous, highlighted by the single “Tonight’s Tha Night”—but the album sold just a half a million units.
The group split up shortly after that and wouldn’t reunite until February for the So So Def reunion concert. When they reunited and did “Jump” live for the first time in over a decade, the crowd at Atlanta’s Fox Theater went insane.
"We actually all performed on the same stage about a month or two ago," Lil’ Jon said after the news of Kelly’s death broke. "Jermaine Dupri had his 20th anniversary for So So Def and they opened up the show. It was good to see Kris Kross together doing their thing after so long. It's a shock that this happened today."
According to police reports, Kelly’s mother, Donna Kelly Pratte, said that her son became ill after taking a mixture cocaine and heroin the night before he died. She had reportedly been taking care of him as he tried to recover from drug use, suffering from nausea and passing out.
“For a group who had incredible success at a very young age, it's hard to ever adapt to normalcy again," said Hot 97 personality Peter Rosenberg on the air after news of Kelly's fatal drug binge broke. "Supposedly after that So So Def concert, he got a check, he was poppin'. He was in the clubs partying hard, getting into that cocaine... it's hard. It's a hard adjustment. Nobody ever goes, ‘Listen, this is gonna be over one day.’”
Years after Kriss Kross broke up, Dupri recruited another 13-year-old named Shad Gregory Moss, aka Bow Wow. His 2000 debut, Beware of Dog, picked up where Kriss Kross left off. The music was well-received by an older audience, largely because of a co-sign by Snoop Dogg and quality production from Dupri. Bow Wow went on to have a successful career, and is now the host of BET's 106 & Park.
Meanwhile, Chris Kelly held on to his music dreams. In a 2009 video interview, he spoke about his efforts to rekindle a rap career with his own independent label. The former child star, who was by then suffering from alopecia, a condition that causes severe hair loss, listed his activities as "Going to school to be an engineer," and "taking care of my family just doing music... I don’t foresee me doing anything else. It’s just the love of it. And at the same time I want to help other people get on and fulfill they dreams as well." He added that he didn't really hang with anybody in the music industry, not even Jermaine Dupri. "We shake hands in passing," he said, "but as far as hanging out… Nah."
For his part, Dupri is devastated. The producer released a statement that said: "To the world Chris was Mac Daddy but to me, he was a son I never had. When I think about it, I spent more time with Chris and Chris than damn near anybody in my whole life, so you can imagine how bad this hurts. I will always love you Chris, and I will never let the world forget you."
Not that we ever would.