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Emmys 2017
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Article

At play with Kid 'N Play

With ”House Party 2” and a new album, the duo is back

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”We’re makin’ MONEY, baby!”

When you hang out with Kid ‘N Play, the Fun Guys of rap, you hear that over and over: It’s a joke that breaks the tension, a slick slogan that punctuates a point, a hip-hop cri de coeur bellowed with satirical abandon. Watch these two guys, decked out in baggy jeans and matching gold Rolex watches with pave diamonds, ducking in and out of a waiting limo, making deals on their cellular phone. They’re whisked from their publicist’s office to a well-known Manhattan restaurant for lunch, from a TV studio to a radio station, at each stop hyping their new movie, House Party 2. Make no mistake, Kid ‘N Play are makin’ money, baby, and havin’ the time of their lives doin’ it.

Kid ‘N Play had already carved out a niche as upbeat, soft-core rap stars when filmmakers Reginald and Warrington Hudlin tapped them for their 1990 comedy House Party, the story of middle-class black teenagers who throw a wild party when their parents are away. Kid ‘N Play’s first two albums, 2 Hype and Funhouse, had sold nearly 1.5 million copies combined, and their videos had sold MTV viewers on their hip-and-happy images: Kid (Christopher Reid) had That Hair, a six-inch-high flattop fade that meant he could never be lost in a crowd, and Play (Christopher Martin) had a slicker, lover-not-a-fighter persona. But when House Party, which cost only about $2.5 million to make, grossed more than $28 million, it helped set the stage for the wave of black films that followed and catapulted Kid ‘N Play to a whole new level of fame. Suddenly they were a highly marketable duo with crossover appeal, and along came the Sprite commercial, the now-canceled NBC Saturday-morning cartoon, and the MTV comedy specials.

With the inevitable House Party 2, a $4 million production that jumped straight to number one at the box office on its opening weekend, and a new, grittier album, Face the Nation, in the stores, Kid ‘N Play are now out to prove that they’re more than rappers with a high school kid’s comedic edge. In a symbolic break with the past, Kid’s high hair has been replaced by a marginally tamer tangle of dreadlocks. Play wants to spend more time building up the custom-clothing business and hair salon he owns in their old stomping ground, East Elmhurst, in New York City’s borough of Queens. They may be having fun — and making money — but they are plotting their futures with meticulous care.

It’s easy to imagine Kid and Play as childhood friends: Play was tough and street-smart; the more articulate Kid was book-smart but cool enough not to let everyone know it. Growing up in East Elmhurst, a rough neighborhood in the shadow of Shea Stadium, Play was notorious as the son of a narcotics dealer known as ”Skull” who later became a minister.

”I was very lucky,” admits the 29-year-old, who wears a black satin jacket with his company’s ”IV Plai” logo on the back and digs at his cuticles with a large pair of scissors. He and Kid are sitting in a small, airless conference room at the Terrie Williams Agency, the publicity firm that handles such clients as Eddie Murphy and the Hudlin Brothers.

”Being from the streets, I used to dabble I used to stick people up a long time ago with a sawed-off shotgun,” Play says bluntly, not pausing to notice the effect his words have had on his listener. ”I’ll never forget one particular time when I knew God was in my life. Me and another gentleman — he’s incarcerated right now — wanted to get money to go to a rap concert. We went in the vicinity of where all the white people lived, and that night, for some reason, I still don’t know why, when it was time to load up the gun I said, ‘No, we don’t need to load it. When people see this thing, they know it’s real.’

”We ran up on a lady and I put the gun to her body and she chose to struggle. She hit me with the gun and it went up to her head and by accident my finger clipped the trigger and it went off. Time just stopped. Me and my friend just looked at each other because we knew what could have happened — she would have been a goner and I would have been caught in no time. That’s one of the things I can look back on and realize I was saved.”

Kid has been sitting quietly during this story, popping cherry Certs one after the other and twisting locks of his hair. His childhood eerily echoes that of his character in the House Party movies. His mother, who was white, died in a car crash when he was 9 (Kid was in the backseat), and he went to live with his father, a black Jamaican who was a strict disciplinarian not unlike the film’s Pop.

”When I read the script, I asked Reggie Hudlin, ‘What up? Did you know me beforehand?”’ says Kid, who refuses to give his age but says he’s a bit younger than Play.

While Play dropped out of high school, Kid attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, then graduated from Lehman College, where he majored in English. By the mid-’80s, Kid and Play had rapped together at parties for years, but were discouraged by the chances of making it. Then ”Kid and I were listening to a live remote on the radio from the Apollo Theater,” says Play. ”Friends of ours were performing on the show. We knew we were just as good, if not better. I remember saying, ‘We’re gonna do this.”’

Kid and Play are seated behind an anchor’s desk on the set of Comedy Central’s Short Attention Span Theater. Host Jon Stewart asks how HP2 differs from the original.

”We’re makin’ MONEY, baby!” screeches Play.

”I categorically deny that!” booms Kid, suddenly lurching forward in his swivel chair, his dreadlocks springing out from his head. ”I think this is a high-tech lynching of a rapper!” he declaims, pounding the desk, clearly thrilled with this unexpected opportunity to satirize Clarence Thomas, whom he and Play had been arguing about. ”I categorically deny my involvement in House Party 2!”

”Are you planning on writin’ a book?” asks Play, picking up the riff with his imitation of Alabama senator Howell Heflin.

”I categorically deny that!” yells Kid, who then smiles into the camera. ”We’ll be back with more high-tech lynching,” he says, anchorlike, ”after this.”

Kid ‘N Play’s teamwork extends beyond performances. Though Play is the entrepreneur, Kid takes the lead in making business decisions, reading the movie scripts (Play has yet to read one), watching the dailies, and meeting with directors and writers. Though their managers, publicists, accountants, and lawyers call frequently on their beepers, Kid ‘N Play are never handled.

”Look at this!” shouts Kid, holding up a publicity shot of himself looking bug-eyed and startled on the set of HP2. He and Play have just been asked by a publicist to sign a stack of the stills.

”When they put these in a high school newspaper,” says Play, ”they’ll look as grainy as I don’t know what. New Line sucks!” he says, referring to the small, innovative studio that has produced the House Party films. Then he picks up my tape recorder. ”That’s right,” he says into the mike, staring gleefully at the worried intern the Terrie Williams Agency has sent. ”I said it: New Line sucks.”

”We had input on the script and character development,” says Kid. ”We didn’t realize we’d have to go down the line to still photography.”

”Did I mention they suck?” asks Play.

Kid grabs a Magic Marker. ”I look like a dick. Let me sign these. ‘Signed, the Dick,”’ he says, laughing. ”’Best wishes, the Dick.”’

”Kid ‘N Play really helped us execute our vision,” says HP2 coproducer-director Doug McHenry, who, along with his partner, George Jackson, took up the House Party mantle where the Hudlins left off. The sequel substitutes some Hollywood flash for the endearing low-budget enthusiasm of the first film, but McHenry bristles at some critics’ suggestions that HP2 is overly slick. ”As long as African-American films look like they’re discounted from the ghetto, the media thinks they’re great,” he complains.

”People loved HP because it was the underdog,” says Play. ”What scares me is how the audience reacts to people when they reach a certain level. Look at the careers of your Whitney Houston, Vanilla Ice, possibly your Hammer. When they were humble and down there, they were the people’s champs. And suddenly they’re not in fashion anymore.”

But even if HP2 has gone a bit Hollywood, it still weaves in the themes about black pride, feminism, and education that distinguished the original. In a sense, HP2 is the lighthearted flip side of Boyz N the Hood and New Jack City (which Jackson and McHenry also produced).

”Reggie (Hudlin) set the tone for messages in these hip-hop films,” says Kid. ”Spike (Lee) goes for the ‘Bang. It’s in your face. Here’s the message.’ But Reggie lets the audience laugh and pull the meaning out for themselves. They don’t walk out with it stamped on their foreheads.”

Kid ‘N Play plan to become even more of a movie presence. Warner Bros., which recently signed them to a three-picture deal, balked when Kid announced it was time to cut his hair, but Play backed him up. ”I took a stand for my man,” says Play. Kid’s transformation was worked into the script of their first Warner movie, A Class Act, which will be released early next year.

At the end of an exhausting day, Kid ‘N Play get back into their rented limo and pump up the volume on the stereo for the 20-minute ride out to East Elmhurst. Play works the phone, checking in with his sister, Teri, who runs his store, touching base with his ”neurotic” accountant, Cheri, saving his most important phone call for last.

”Hey, stinker, what you doin’?” he asks his 4-year-old son, Christopher. Play isn’t married to Christopher’s mother, but she is still ”a very good friend,” and he is calling for a full report on their son’s day at kindergarten. ”You’re writing your name? You know how to write your whole name? M-A-R-T-I-N,” Play says slowly, a broad smile sweeping across his face. ”Do you like the jacket and the hat I sent you? Are you wearing them? You be good for Mommy. Daddy loves you.”

Play is now in a ”serious relationship” with someone in the music business — he won’t say who. They are discussing marriage and he has just bought a four-bedroom home with a pool in Syosset, N.Y. Kid says no woman he’s dating is past ”the physical and a movie, maybe dinner.”

Just before dusk, the black limousine pulls up outside Play’s IV Plai office on the rundown edge of Astoria Boulevard in their old neighborhood. A TV crew has arranged to shoot Kid ‘N Play for the 11 o’clock news and is setting up inside. Play, standing outside the small black storefront, watches three young men hovering outside a market across the street, his old ”corner crew.” He seems subdued, aware of how far away they really are.

”See those guys? That was me four or five years ago,” Play says quietly. ”That’s Wisdom. That’s Tyler. Standing right there and shooting the shit. Get bored, get drunk. These guys know me. I know what they’re about. They’re about nothing.” The TV crew is waiting, but Play has other business — he walks quickly across the street to greet his friends.