Hip-hop is, more often than not, a culture defined by youth. To be young is to be unencumbered by tradition and empowered by your potential. For every JAY-Z or Masta Ace, a hundred nameless teens are cutting their teeth in homemade studios, spitting on small stages, and plotting on a come-up. These days, it seems stardom is hitting younger, but 2019 is hardly the first time kids have picked up the mic.
When we cast a glance at the first wave of child emcees, their names forgotten and careers elapsed, we see there are lessons to learn and warnings to heed. It’s tough being a kid, and it’s tough being an emcee, but it’s tougher still to be both—wading in the deep end of a complicated industry, buoyed by novelty and the fickle confidence of a record label.
The golden age of child emcees kicked off in the early ‘90s. Though it’s difficult to say who made the first move, Michael Bivins of Bel Biv Devoe pushed the culture forward when he signed Another Bad Creation, a six-piece new jack swing group from Atlanta. Their 1991 debut, Coolin’ At The Playground Ya Know!, opened with the aptly-titled “Parents,” with childlike enthusiasm by way of the turntable. “Playground” doubles down on this feeling. Dave boasts about being “four feet tall,” while RoRo spits “it’s Mario Brothers when it’s time for bed,” a bar that presumably hyped kids and puzzled adults alike.
With assists from Bivins, Dallas Austin, and Boyz II Men, Another Bad Creation served as a cute extension of BBD’s popular strain of R&B. Though signed to Motown Records, the act hardly took off: a couple of hit singles landed, but by the time the group dropped their second album in ‘93, they were no longer a priority at their record label. None of the singles charted, the album bombed, and the group broke up.
The kiddie-rap approach appeared to run its course in short order, but in 1992, another Georgia act was beginning to emerge. Jermaine Dupri, a producer and songwriter from Asheville, North Carolina, signed Chris Kelly and Chris Smith—collectively known as Kris Kross—to his So So Def record label after coming across the pair in an Atlanta mall. Though he wasn’t the only entrepreneur with an eye on exceedingly young talent, Dupri was the most successful, and the release of “Jump” kicked the craze into a higher gear.
“Jump” was so astronomically successful that the record eclipsed all other attempts at kid-fronted hip-hop fame. In 1991, Da Youngsta’s—comprised of brothers Taji and Qu’ran Goodman and cousin Tarik Dawson—popped up in Philly, but their 1992 debut, Somethin 4 Da Youngsta’s, inauspiciously released between the rise of “Jump” and the album on which it appeared. Even though the brothers’ father, Lawrence Goodman, an established music industry figure, penned most of their debut, the record hardly registered among the masses.
Kid fronted groups imparted revelry and exuberance more than violence and eccentricity. Though not quite family-friendly, “Jump,” which opens with an ABC diss, was still relatively tame. For Kris Kross and acts like them, this irreverence was their greatest asset until, suddenly, it wasn’t. As the commercial landscape shifted, so too did their direction.
Kris Kross released their sophomore LP in August 1993, and as the title suggests, Da Bomb represented a new confrontational style for the once-innocuous pair. Lead single “Alright” was a direct shot at Da Youngsta’s, who considered “KK fake and manufactured,” while both Dupri’s writing and Kris Kross’ initial branding were undercut by hardcore claims. This new approach alienated early fans, and the duo’s non-existent pen game substantiated any claim against their reputation. In deliberately pivoting to the most promising subgenre in hip-hop—hardcore—Dupri made an inauthentic pass at authenticity. It’s no surprise it didn’t quite take, but unsurprisingly, the record sold anyway.
Da Youngsta’s, who’d made the same stylistic pivot months earlier, fared only slightly better. The group enlisted producers such as Pete Rock, Marley Marl, The Beatnuts and DJ Premier to bolster their sound, and group member Quran produced three tracks. Nonetheless, they failed to sell themselves as formidable gangstas, and though they’d started writing some of their own rhymes, the trio was still propped up by industry nepotism. Illustrating the contrived nature of their beef, Naughty By Nature emcee Treach—who’d penned “Jump” for Kris Kross—wrote Da Youngsta’s “Crewz Pop,” dissing his onetime beneficiaries with allusions to the songs he wrote.
The next act to enter the fray was Illegal, a newly-formed duo signed to Rowdy Records. Their debut record, The Untold Truth, was helmed by veteran creative Dallas Austin, who’d written and produced for Another Bad Creation. Austin’s approach had changed dramatically in the years that followed his work with ABC. Illegal singles “Head Or Gut” and “We Getz Buzy,” both produced by Erick Sermon, took serious swings at their competitors. “This ain’t nothin for Da Youngsta’s,” member Malik Edwards declares. Later, he addresses Kris Kross directly, rapping, “You’re no threat to me, can’t write ya own rhymes, sellin’ Jermaine’s life stories.” Illegal were credited with writing their own lyrics, but the short-lived pairing failed to record or release a sophomore album.
While most juvenile acts were born in Atlanta, 850 miles north in New York, the Wu-Tang Clan, with their ever-expanding roster of affiliates and offsiders, aligned themselves with a stylistically similar 14-year-old. Hardly a teen when he dropped his solo debut, AKA The Rugged Child, in April 1994, Shyheim proved to be one of the most incredible examples of juvenile emceeing. Later that same year, he was invited to contribute to Big Daddy Kane’s six-man posse cut, “Show & Prove.”
“He had a voice that sounded like it’d been through something in Shaolin,” JAY-Z wrote in his 2010 memoir Decoded, later admitting it was Shyheim who he originally wanted on “Coming of Age.” Passing on the offer would’ve been his biggest mistake. In 2010, after reading the passage in Decoded, Shyheim admitted he didn’t “necessarily know who made that call,” and clarifying that “[he] personally didn’t say no.”
Shyheim’s lack of career control—manifest in a complete betrayal that robbed him of his greatest opportunity—speaks to the issue of agency, one that coursed through the juvenile rap wave. A power imbalance exists between an underaged artist and their management. Due to the complicated trappings of the music industry, the politics inherent in that system, and the inequality of knowledge, these flashpoints are ripe for exploitation.
Though not always cut-and-dry, exploitation has many overt and insidious forms. Michael Jackson, himself no stranger to childhood exploitation, signed Quo, a young rap duo comprised of Wade “Kaos” Robson and DeWayne “Syco Smoov” Turrentine, in 1994. The pair released one album before fading into obscurity, though Robson emerged 25 years later as one of the two subjects of documentary Leaving Neverland, in which he accused Jackson of child sexual assault.
In a textbook case of financial exploitation, 14-year-old emcee 2 Low filed a $28 million lawsuit against Houston’s legendary Rap-A-Lot Records Inc., alleging the label owed him money for both live performances and his 1993 record, Funky Lil Brotha. The group settled for an undisclosed sum, but the damage was already done. 2 Low didn’t deliver his sophomore album until... 2018.
Of course, not every child act is a victim: Dupri called Chris Kelly of Kris Kross “a son [he] never had,” and Chris Smith is on record as saying “it was a blessing to achieve the success, travel the world, and entertain Kris Kross fans all around the world with my best friend.”
In a 1994 article in Billboard, Marisa Fox, a New York-based writer and editor, wrote, “There are just as many cases of kids turning their early successes into career longevity as there are teen sensations later screaming about being exploited.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with rhyming preteens, but there’s something suspicious about the machinations of their fame and the motives of their enabling entourage. Sure, longevity isn’t necessarily a mark of earnest artistic expression, but many of these acts vanished as their age-based novelty started to wear thin.
When Another Bad Creation fractured in 1993, so did the careers of the original six members, none of which have resurfaced nearly three decades on. Chris Kelly and Chris Smith of Kris Kross bowed out on 1996’s Young, Rich and Dangerous, the last whimper of a rapidly depreciating act. Kelly died of a drug overdose in 2013, aged just 34.
Quran of Da Youngsta’s, which fizzled out one year earlier in 1995, produced cuts for Slick Rick, Method Man, and Missy Elliott before fading in the mid-2000s, a whole eight years after fellow Youngstas Taji and Tarik went quiet. Illegal quietly disbanded the same year. Member Jamal Phillips later ran with Busta and Redman, and Edwards with Warren G and Snoop. Fox’s Billboard article spoke glowingly of Edwards’ then-forthcoming solo record, with his own mother being quoted as saying she “[wasn’t] worried about him being washed up by the time he’s twenty.” Though Phillips released his solo debut that same year, Edwards’ completed solo LP never saw the light of day.
Even Shyheim, perhaps the most promising pubescent emcee of his era, fell by the wayside. His sophomore album, 1996’s The Lost Generation, would be his last charting LP. The onetime prodigy faded into mildly productive obscurity. He made the news in 2014, facing felony charges for a hit and run for which he’s now serving up to 14 years.
There are always exceptions to the rule—Monica, Lil Wayne, Bow Wow, Lil Romeo, to name a few—but typically they serve to stress how immediate and forgettable the kids of yesteryear were. In pursuing dreams that seemed so far beyond their station, eager children were turned into endearing vessels for hot trends, as disposable to their managers as their CDs were to the audiences that devoured them.
Almost three decades on from the heyday of child emcees, and they’re little more than hip-hop trivia.