Ten-year-old Lashawn Bailey is screaming so loud that tears are streaming down her caramel-colored face. On this Saturday night, she and about 1,000 other little brown girls have packed into the Wiltern Theatre, in Los Angeles, dressed in their flyest gear. The girls are there to see their idol, but he's taking far too long to emerge. So they begin to shout at the top of their lungs, "Bow Wow, Bow Wow, Bow Wow,'' and finally, in a haze of smoke and bright multicolored lights, the object of their desire--14-year-old Shad Moss, a.k.a. Lil' Bow Wow--appears onstage in all his cornrowed glory. The girls go wild as the miniature rapper dances and skips, doing hip-hop proud with his fast-paced lyrical flow and diamond-studded Mickey Mouse medallion. "When I say 'Bow,' you say 'Wow'," he says--and do they ever.
In this age of 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, teen mania is finally crossing over. Kids 12 and up have been spending an estimated $155 billion a year on music and clothes, so it was only a matter of time before hip-hop took the cue. Enter Lil' Bow Wow and Lil' Romeo, baby-faced rappers with urban flair, kid-friendly lyrics and an appeal to an audience that hasn't had its own prepubescent idol since Michael Jackson.
Lil' Bow Wow may not be old enough to remember Jackson in his presurgery heyday, but Bow Wow's producer, Jermaine Dupri, certainly does. And Dupri felt it was time that black and Latino girls had someone to swoon over again. "I saw what the boy groups were doing and who they were doing it for," he says. "I saw the kids at their concerts--they were pretty much all white girls. I was like, 'Black little girls deserve to have someone who looks like them to scream about and dream about'.''
With a cinnamon complexion and hazel eyes, Bow Wow set hearts afire on impact when his first album, "Beware of the Dog,'' hit stores last year. It's since sold 3 million copies and fueled a sold-out summer tour. Discovered (and named) at 6 by Snoop Dogg, the Columbus, Ohio, native says he always knew he'd rap. But he never thought he'd become a teen idol--or have fans like Madonna, who called the 4-foot-7, 61-pound ninth grader in January to ask him to perform with her at the Grammys. "She was nice and cool,'' says Bow Wow. "I couldn't really believe she was calling me, but my mom was like, 'It's her, it's her!'''
Bow Wow's ascent paved the way for 11-year-old Lil' Romeo. Born Percy Romeo Miller, he was rapping on a karaoke machine at 4, and didn't have to look far for a record deal: he just asked his dad. Percy Miller Sr., a.k.a. Master P, would often find his son writing rhymes in his room and ask him to perform for him and his brothers, fellow rappers Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder. Romeo also rapped the intros on his father's records. "One day he asked me to let him record a track with a producer, and I just knew he was ready because he was serious about working," says Master P. "He went in and did the track like a pro.''
Lil' Romeo's self-titled debut album hit stores last week. Like Bow Wow, he sings profanity-free songs about the basic challenges of growing up. Basketball. Roller-skating. And girls. Romeo's first single, "My Baby,'' which samples the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," went to No. 1, making him the youngest solo artist ever to top the Billboard chart. The song finds Romeo rapping lyrics like "I'm in school making A's and B's, and all the little honeys can't keep their hands off me.'' Sappy, but cute. "I'm a kid, so I write with my dad about stuff kids talk about,'' says Romeo. "I used that Jackson 5 song because me and my dad used to sit around and listen to it together. He would tell how much he loved that song as a kid, so I would listen real hard to see what he liked.''
Both Bow Wow and Romeo have had their share of crossover success. Bow Wow has starred in several MTV movies, and sources estimate that he's sold nearly $1 million worth of his paw-printed merchandise. Romeo's video for "My Baby'' is No. 1 on MTV's "Total Request Live,'' and he's currently opening for 'N Sync. This fall, Romeo will star in a Nickelodeon show based loosely on "The Partridge Family." "We always planned to be multicultural and appeal to everyone," says Master P. "Bow Wow is a little more urban. We've always looked at the big picture for Romeo. Young kids aren't just into black and white anymore. They like talent.''