When I heard about the death of Kris Kross member Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly, I instantly recalled the first time I saw the video for their smash 1992 single “Jump.” Like the two rappers on the TV screen, I was 14, but I wasn’t recording hit singles or touring with Michael Jackson. My parents were getting divorced and I was living in the basement of my uncle’s house, where the concrete floor always left my feet cold. Living there made me feel sad and lost, but when I watched the video, I didn’t feel sad. I felt alive.
Sure, the beat was infectious, the chorus was catchy and the verses were slick. But for me, the song had a deeper significance. At an age typically defined by awkwardness and insecurity, Chris Kelly and Chris Smith had swagger, before that’s what we called it. They were two teens so skilled that they rapped better than most adults, so confident that they’d started their own fashion trend. Their baggy pants, braided hair and reversed sports jerseys and jackets suggested that they’d found their identity at a time when so many of us were desperately searching for one.
I’d been listening to rap for five years, but this was the first time I personally identified with a rap artist as someone I might know, or someone I could be. When I watched these “two little kids with a flow you ain’t never heard,” the distance between the basement and the TV screen disappeared. I never wore my clothes backwards, but I embraced the larger lesson: Dare to be different.
I’m sure “Jump” left an indelible mark on many young lives. The song was ubiquitous in 1992: It played on radio and TV, at school dances and sporting events, eliciting a near-maniacal response each time. It spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and propelled Kris Kross’ debut album, “Totally Krossed Out,” to quadruple platinum status in the U.S. The duo fulfilled every up-and-coming artist’s dream by opening for Michael Jackson on his Dangerous World Tour. They appeared on Oprah and gave rapper Da Brat her start. They guest starred on shows like “A Different World.” At 14, I had barely worked up the nerve to talk to my high school crush. Chris Kelly and Chris Smith were global superstars.
But as is often the case with stardom, Mac Daddy and Daddy Mac fell almost as quickly as they rose. “Jump” would be their only Top 10 hit, and as they aged, they struggled to find a musical style that suited their maturity. Their last studio album was 1996’s “Young, Rich & Dangerous.” And then they went their separate ways and mostly disappeared from the spotlight. Until now.
It’s been reported that Kelly’s death may have been the result of a heroin and cocaine overdose, another sad reminder of the fragility of fame and the demons that young stars often battle behind closed doors. Since I learned of Kelly’s passing, I’ve searched for information about him on the Internet. All I’ve found are articles about his tenure with Kris Kross and his death. The intervening years are a mystery, save for an interview with Yahoo prior to the duo’s reunion for Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def 20th anniversary concert in February. Apparently, post-Kris Kross, Kelly went to school to become a music engineer. He struggled with Alopecia, which caused his hair to fall out and fueled false rumors that he had cancer. And he continued to wear his clothes backward. The rest of the story, we may never know.
How losing stars affect us
The loss of stars we grew up idolizing or identifying with is never easy to accept. Grappling with the death of icons like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston has been difficult, if not unbearable. Their songs defined our childhoods and changed our lives. The difference with Chris Kelly is that for my generation, he was not just someone we looked up to — he was someone we saw eye to eye with. He was one of us. For a brief moment in time, a couple of kids who looked like us, or looked like people we knew, or looked like people we could be, were on top of the world.
I am no longer living in a cold, cramped basement, and I have learned that you can survive a lot of things – things far worse than upheaval and divorce. But for me, “Jump” will always symbolize a feeling of empowerment during a time in my life when I felt powerless. It will always represent the seemingly impossible things that can possibly be achieved. It will serve as a reminder that we should all find ways to wear our proverbial clothes backwards. I am saddened by the loss of Chris Kelly, and my thoughts are with his family, friends and fans, but when I think of Mac Daddy and Daddy Mac, I still think of what I felt watching “Jump” for the first time on that cold concrete floor: hope.