When Chris Kelly, one-half of the teen-rap duo Kris Kross, was found dead of an apparent drug overdose last week, it was a tremendously sad day for Southern hip-hop. Not just because it provided a tragic ending to another tale of a child star struggling with post-fame adulthood, but because his passing robbed the world of a talent that helped turn an entire generation -- black, white and brown-- onto a genre of music that was still finding its legs in the pop landscape of the early '90s.
Led by the infectious, platinum single "Jump," Kris Kross' music -- penned and produced by another young savant, Jermaine Dupri -- proved that mega-selling rap records needn't all come from New York or California, foreshadowing Atlanta's ascension to the center of the hip-hop universe in the decade to follow. Ultimately, that's how Kris Kross is likely to be remembered: as much for the music they helped to inspire as for the tunes they created.
A detail that may not be remembered quite so well is the profound contribution that the group made to Houston hip-hop. The song "Da Streets Ain't Right" from the group's third and final album, Young, Rich and Dangerous, provided the beat for DJ Screw's "June 27th," the freestyle track that would come to define the chopped and screwed sound for which Houston hip-hop is best known today.
Recorded in honor of Screwed Up Click affiliate DeMo's birthday, "June 27th" featured off-the-dome flows by local legends including Big Moe, Yungstar, Big Pokey and others. It would become the best-selling tape of Screw's career, looming large enough to make its titular date something of an unofficial holiday for local hip-hop heads.
The freestyle track's legacy far outstrips that of the original Kris Kross song, which was released years after the "Jump" phenomenon had run its course. Sampling the Romantics' 1983 hit "Talking in Your Sleep" as well as a verse from the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Warning," the track served as the B-side to their 1996 single "Tonite's tha Night."
Wreckshop Records would release DJ Screw's Chapter 012 -- June 27 in 1997. Two years later, "Da Streets Ain't Right" lent its beat to another late-'90s H-Town classic, Yungstar's "Knockin' Pictures Off the Wall."
Much like the teen-rap explosion spearheaded by Kris Kross, Screw's trademark slowed-down sound was initially dismissed by some as a gimmick. Today, of course, his influence can be heard in the music of platinum artists from A$AP Rocky to Beyoncé. Canadian superstar Drake even released his own "June 27th" tribute track, titled "November 18th," on his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone.
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Sadly, Chris Kelly's death now connects him to Screw in a more unfortunate manner than the sample ever could. Both men were important Southern hip-hop artists, each in his own way, who were taken down long before their time by drug abuse. Their music, at least, lives on -- both in the recordings they left behind and in the tunes they inspired in the artists who followed.