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The Kriss Kross sensation

The Kriss Kross sensation — 13 years olds Chris Smith and Chris Kelly are topping the charts

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In the backseat of a white minibus speeding toward a record signing at a Paramus, N.J., mall, 13-year-olds Chris Smith and Chris Kelly — a.k.a. rappers Daddy Mack and Mack Daddy of Kris Kross — are improvising a mock Q&A with the smooth air of professional interviewees. The topic is the Krossed Out style; that’s become their trademark: The two are wearing their size 34 and 36 jeans, extra-large T-shirts, and baseball caps — backward. Smith (grabbing a reporter’s tape recorder): ”The philosophy behind our clothes is totally crossed out. Backwards is the inverse, the inverse is the adverse….Do you have anything to add, Mack Daddy?” Kelly (expertly retrieving the machine): ”Always wear your jeans big and your T-shirts extra large. Got it?…Peace! Over and out!”

Don’t be fooled by their tender years — Kelly and Smith know how to work the mike. They’ve had a No. 1 single, ”Jump,” and their album, Kris Kross, leapfrogged Bruce Springsteen and Garth Brooks on the Billboard pop album chart. What sparked their sudden coming-of-age as a hot pop phenomenon? ”We came out kicking the mad flavor,” Smith says with a shrug. ”Everybody slammed us before our record came out,” adds Kelly. ”But we proved we were right — we showed ’em what’s up.”

The source of Kris Kross’ charisma clearly is their cooler-than-New Kids attitude. Taking a cue from their adult idols (hard-core rappers Run-D.M.C., Naughty By Nature, and Ice Cube), Kelly and Smith, who live in a middle-class Atlanta suburb, rap about such gritty subjects as drug deals, police raids, and drive-by shootings. Indeed, these ”Lil’ Boys in Da Hood,” as they call themselves in one song, are the latest rappers to take a tough line on teen delinquency. ”We don’t have any message, but what we want to say to everyone is, always have a goal,” says Smith. ”Strive for excellence and you can do, you will do,” adds Kelly.

The credit for discovering Kelly and Smith goes to 19-year-old producer Jermaine Dupri, who first spotted them shopping for sneakers at an Atlanta mall. ”I noticed how other people were checking the kids out, paying attention to them without even knowing who they were,” says Dupri. ”They’ve got a look that is kind of appealing. I said I gotta get a piece of this.” Dupri (who also produced songs for TLC, another hip-hop smash) may look and sound like a slightly older and taller version of Smith and Kelly (as a cocreator of the Krossed Out look, he, too, wears his jeans backward), but clearly he’s also a savvy marketer. To give the two Chrises a jump on the kiddie competition, he intends to merchandise a Krossed Out clothing line. ”There’s a billion other little-boy groups out there,” says Dupri. ”The boys know they gotta keep coming.”

However, the irrepressible duo hardly seems to need more momentum: Arriving at the mall, Kelly and Smith were instantly mobbed by a crowd of teens, many of them wearing their jeans backward. Although Kriss Kross seemed tired on the minibus (recovering from a late-night performance), they handled the signing like slick pros — patiently posing for snapshots and scrawling uneven, childlike signatures across CD covers and T-shirt sleeves.

Only one thing seemed to ruffle their composure: They were noticeably ambivalent toward the teenage girls with lipstick smiles and teased hair who hesitantly offered their phone numbers. ”Yeah, they’re always all over us,” says Smith. Adds Kelly: ”We’re interested. That’s why they call us Mack Daddies. It also means you get a lot of babes.” ”But we don’t really have no girlfriends,” says Smith. ”We don’t have any time. We’re always on a roll.”