Chris Kelly may be gone, but he is definitely not forgotten. The Kriss Kross rapper's support system is far-reaching, and, according to mentor Jermaine Dupri, any member of his musical family would have stepped forward if they knew just how serious Kelly's drug use had become the night of his death.
"If I would have known, I would have tried to put my foot forward to help the situation," Dupri told Us Weekly's Ian Drew in an exclusive interview following Kelly's shocking May 1 death, adding that reports of a potential overdose was particularly hard-hitting. "I'm hearing about this just like everybody else and I'm not really too believing of all of it, but at the same time, I can't say that I didn't know. I wasn't there to know about it and I hate it because I feel like if there were people around and knew about it, then they should have waved the flag."
So So Def founder Dupri, who worked closely with Kelly since he first came up as a rising star with fellow Kriss Kross member Chris Smith in the early 90s, added that Kelly was like the Justin Bieber of his day, a "very fun kid" who loved sports and video games.
"It was like we were just kids that were into the same things and he played video games. He played basketball. He played baseball. He played football. He rapped. He swam," Dupri remembered of his mentee. "He was just a natural kid, like a person that you want to be around at all times because he would never not want to be doing anything."
Kelly's friends Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of 90s girl group TLC similarly remembered the young rapper as a "regular cool teenage boy."
"I used to hang out at his house with his mom and pick him up," Thomas told Us. "He was like a teenager and just the sweetest thing, just a regular cool teenage boy, so we were really close and then the last time I saw him was last year at a concert. …He was fun and funny, but just laid-back sort of. He was really sweet, very down to earth, didn't act all -- especially at that time, they were huge and he had a really humble spirit."
Kelly passed away on May 1 at the age of 34 after he was found unresponsive in his Atlanta-area home. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead soon afterward. An autopsy has been completed, but the official cause of death is still pending toxicology results.
The 90s rapper had reportedly been abusing both cocaine and heroin (a "speedball") the night before his death.
"It breaks my heart to see another young talent gone too soon. I will never forget the chance I was given by Jermaine Dupri and Kris Kross to sing on their demos," Watkins told Us in a statement. "They played a big part in me finding my signature sound. I will forever be grateful. I send my love and blessings to Chris' family."
Michael Mauldin, Dupri's father and Kelly's former manager, added that Kelly's death signals more than just a personal loss -- it is a huge hit to the music community at large.
"I've gotten emails and texts of people … with their shirts and pants on backwards," he told Us, referring to Kriss Kross' signature fashion statements. "That just shows the impact these kids had on the nation."
"I know we see it today with Justin Bieber and some of these young acts with age 12, but we didn't have the Internet and when you really think about it, Kris Kross was in a lane by themselves," Mauldin continued of the group's influence.
His son Dupri agreed. "I think that we as individuals, myself and Kris Kross, we went through a lot of scrutiny in the hip hop community when they were younger about not being real and not being too hip hop," the music producer told Us. "Kris Kross was the first group was that was basically accepted on both sides of the world where they could be on The Source and they could be on the cover of Disney at the same time. …I just want people to remember them for just having fun and making music."