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From Kris Kross to Heavy D: Pop-rappers led hip-hop’s commercial takeover

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The sudden death of former Kris Kross member Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly sent shockwaves through the music community. Though the former teen rap stars’ heyday was over 20 years ago, for a generation of hip-hop fans, the Totally Krossed Out duo represented a significant part of their adolescence and a time when hip-hop still seemed to bursting with possibilities, ideas and variety. The last few years have seen the untimely deaths of several “Golden Era” hip-hop stars, including Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Nate Dogg, Guru of Gang Starr, Pimp C of UGK, Heavy D and now, one-half of Kris Kross.

While acts like Kris Kross may not get the same level of “legendary” reverence or critical acclaim that is routinely heaped upon innovators like the Beasties or Gang Starr, contemporary hip-hop fans would be remiss to ignore the importance of the “pop-rappers” of the late 80s and early 90s.

Acts like MC Hammer, Kid ‘N Play, Young MC, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, along with the aforementioned Heavy D and Kris Kross, helped solidify hip-hop’s pop culture takeover as the genre began expanding commercially and artistically towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Run-D.M.C. kicked the door down back in the mid-80s, with platinum sales, blockbuster tours, feature films and endorsements; but as that legendary group’s peak ended, it was pop-rap acts that furthered hip-hop’s push into suburbia and, by extension, Madison Avenue.

Although, at the time, many hip-hop “purists” derided these types of artists as commercial “sell-outs,” these artists were helping to solidify the genre’s mass appeal.

From 1988 to 1992, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince became the winners of the first rap album Grammy award and the Fresh Prince became a sitcom star. Kid ‘N Play starred in a hit teen movie, MC Hammer landed his own cartoon and numerous endorsement deals and Kris Kross got their own video game. While the streets and the critics fawned over Public Enemy‘s political fire and N.W.A. gangsta nihilism, the pop-rap acts continued to prove that hip-hop’s commercial power. By 1992, even legendary “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson was featuring Heavy D and Kris Kross in his music video and on tour.

Today, rappers like Lil Wayne and Rick Ross are making headlines because their offensive lyrics are costing them millions in major corporate endorsements. As we fondly remember light-hearted rap stars like Kris Kross and Heavy D, we should never forget that it was these types of artists who made it possible for rappers to land those types of deals in the first place.

And the entire hip-hop industry owes them a debt of gratitude for that.