Beef. It's a sometimes-harsh aspect of the Hip-Hop landscape.
In the age of streaming services and social media, rap beefs boil over in record time, with diss records hurled across the cybersphere at a breakneck pace, fueling trending topics and inspiring memes. In the 1990s, rap beefs played out over months, sometimes years, and could spiral in dizzying directions before fans even realized they'd happened.
In the early 1990s, a handful of artists became embroiled in a beef that made no headlines; even if you remember the era, you may not have even known that this beef existed. But it did. This is the story of the early 1990s kiddie rap wars; a multi-faceted squabble between a slew of pubescent rhymers who all happened to drop debut albums between 1991 and 1993.
Another Bad Creation. Kris Kross. Da Youngstas. Illegal.
Another Bad Creation had been the discovery of New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe member Michael Bivins. Bivins had been eager to put together a teen group in the vein of early New Edition ever since he'd seen The Boys, a group signed to Motown by former N.E. guru and labelhead Jheryl Busby. In the Atlanta-based ABC, Bivins marketed a group that had a combo of New Edition's early 1980s kiddie appeal and BBD's early 1990s street edge. The group's debut single, the Dallas Austin-produced new jack swing hit "Iesha" went to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in fall 1990.
The more rap-edged "Playground," was another big success in early 1991, almost matching the chart success of "Iesha." Another Bad Creation's second single was more directly Hip-Hop, but the group wasn't exactly marketed as a rap group. Nonetheless, the group's sound was teenybopper R&B intended to appeal to Hip-Hop fans and it's image was drenched in Hip-Hop swagger.
“The plan was to (make the kids) fit the ‘90s--hip with a street feel," explained their manager Kevin Wales in 1991. "The Jackson 5 and New Edition were more wholesome, which was appropriate for that time. But this is the ‘90s, and many groups with a tough image are making it big. We wanted a group that had a touch of danger to it--that looked and acted a little threatening. No kids’ group with that kind of image had ever made it big. We’re the first.”
Regardless of ABC's primary image as an "edgy" bubblegum R&B group, they seemed rife for parody when another platinum-selling teenybopper act emerged out of Atlanta just a year after Another Bad Creation's high-profile pair of hits.
18-year old up-and-coming producer Jermaine Dupri had seen middle schoolers Chris Smith and Chris Kelly walking through an Atlanta shopping mall and drawing attention with their hair and clothes. He saw the star potential in the younger pair, and Dupri immediately set about crafting an image and sound for the soon-to-be rap group. They'd never seriously aspired to be rappers prior to meeting Dupri.
"We thought about it," Smith explained to the Washington Post. "But you know, everybody thinks about that stuff. But you don't really think about it too much, because it might not happen. But two years later we got a record contract."
"They were real fresh. People were paying attention," Dupri told Fred Bronson in Bronson's Billboard Book of Number One Hits. "I said, 'If you have that captivation over people right now, if you had a record out, this might be ridiculous.'"
The rest is history.
"Don't try to compare us to another bad little fad..."
Kris Kross dropped their debut single, The Jackson 5-sampling "Jump" in early 1992 and the song shot all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. At the time, one of only 11 songs to top the Hot 100 for at least eight weeks, "Jump" opens with a very clear shot at fellow ATLiens Another Bad Creation; who were already beginning to spiral into obscurity less than a year removed from "Playground." If the assertion was that ABC was illegitimate, it was highly dubious for these guys to be taking shots when they themselves were the creation of a Svengali in Jermaine Dupri.
Da Youngstas dropped their debut single just two months prior to Kris Kross topping the charts. Comprised of brothers Taji and Qu'ran Goodman and cousin Tarik Dawson, the trio came out of Philadelphia with a hardcore East Coast approach, even if their still-adolescent voices and baby faces belied their youth. "Pass Da Mic" saw moderate success in the summer of 1992, thanks to a video and a single that had been remixed by Pete Rock.
Early on, much of Da Youngstas' rhymes were written by Taji and Qu'ran's industry vet father Lawrence Goodman, but the group had dismissed Kris Kross, (who were then riding the charts and touring with Michael Jackson), as manufactured. In a recurring pattern, one kiddie rap act who didn't write its rhymes went after the other. Despite their buzz, Da Youngstas' debut album Somethin' For Da Youngstas didn't make an impact.
Kris Kross had seen tremendous success after the release of "Jump" and their debut album Totally Krossed Out. They'd landed TV spots and endorsement deals galore, but by the time they released their second album, their maturing voices, backwards-pants image and changing times put the group on shaky ground. They released their second album Da Bomb in 1993, with a Supercat-assisted lead single called "Alright." Da Bomb would peak at No. 2 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and "Alright" went to No. 1 on the Rap singles chart.
"See I didn't come out wack, I came out right. Unlike those moes that chose to 'pass the mic.'"
"Alright" included a barbed shot at Da Youngsta's and the video proved to be popular on Hip-Hop video shows, but it failed to duplicate the world-beating success of "Jump" and the group's first album. It signaled the beginning of the end for Kris Kross as a major act, and their peers seemed to delight in watching them fall.
Da Youngsta's fired back at Kris Kross relatively quickly, with the hardcore single "Crewz Pop." The video received steady airplay on BET, but again failed to give Da Youngsta's any major success. It did receive some infamy, however; as by this time, Da Youngsta's were under the mentorship of Naughty By Nature. Treach of Naughty By Nature had an ongoing semi-beef with Jermaine Dupri: as he felt Dupri had bogarted Naughty's style to create Kris Kross and there have been long-standing rumors that he ghostwrote the song. Treach penned lyrics for "Crewz Pop" and would fire shots at the group he felt owed him on Naughty's 1995 single "Craziest."
And also in 1993, a pair of young emcees who'd been discovered by Dallas Austin dropped into this ongoing rap playground war.
Illegal was comprised of South Carolina product "Mr. Malik" Edwards and Philly native Jamal Philips. The kids would drop their first single, the combative "Head Or Gut" as the opening shot, but got little notice outside hardcore circles. Illegal scored a broader rap hit with the follow-up, the Erick Sermon-produced "We Getz Buzy." The track became a fixture on Yo! MTV Raps thanks to Sermon's prominent appearance in the vid but also because of the name-calling on the track. Illegal took aim at virtually every kid rap act that was prominent at the time.
"Now if you want beef, fuck it, 'cause a fuss/ And no, little kids, this ain't nothin' for Da Youngsta's/ Ya can't even see me/ It's no relation, so we can't run in the family/ Yeah, and I'm still the boss/ Cause I'm a straight up nigga, ain't nothin' bout me Kris Kross..."
Illegal called out Kris Kross, Da Youngsta's and Another Bad Creation, proclaiming themselves to be the bearers of rap authenticity for the chocolate milk set. The duo had a harder sound and image than any of the other groups had attempted at that point, and seemed to liken themselves to Sermon's EPMD and Hit Squad crews.
In a 1993 interview with 4080 magazine, the duo was asked if there was any truth to rumors that one of them had gotten into an altercation with Kris Kross.
"Nah, both of us did. We was at Ed Lover's birthday party. We performed that night. Nobody was paying them any attention and everybody was trying to meet us and shit. And they couldn't stand that. So they started gettin' on the mic with that old dumb shit. So we stepped to them and then Jermaine Dupri got smart so Jamal snuffed him. Then we just rushed 'em and busted their ass."
But Illegal never broke big. Mr. Malik would strike gold with some high-profile guest spots: he shone brightly on (his cousin) Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggy Style album (he's the baby-voiced rhymer on "Pump Pump") and finally got some chart love when he turned up on "Like This and Like That," a hit single for Monica in 1995. Jamal would drop his only solo album that year, featuring production from Sermon and Easy Mo Bee.
1995 would also see Kris Kross resurface one final time, with the gold-selling Young, Rich and Dangerous. The album saw the maturing duo drop their kiddie personas altogether, with some of Dupri's slickest production. Singles "Tonite's Tha Night" (which spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Rap/Hip-Hop Chart) and "Live and Die For Hip-Hop" would enjoy solid radio play that fall. But Kris Kross would disband shortly after the album's run and, like their early 1990s rivals, the group soon disbanded. Kris Kross would reunite in 2013 at Jermaine Dupri's So So Def 20th anniversary concert to rave reviews. But Chris Kelly would be found dead from an overdose on April 29th, 2013 at the age of 34.
The kiddie rap beefs of the 1990s didn't reshape the Hip-Hop landscape but it was an interesting time to be a child star in the rap game. As he genre was bursting through to the mainstream, these kids fought a war for rap credibility even as they traded on precociousness. It may not have been Death Row vs Bad Boy, but it was certainly a lot of fun.