Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Run DMC's Other Christmas Song

Everybody knows Run DMC's "Christmas In Hollis," even curmudgeonly old Scrooge boomers who can't stand rap.  It used to get heavy, mainstream MTV rotation (i.e. not just on Yo! or their more urban-themed dance shows), and radio play all over the world each holiday season, even those "absolutely no rap" 100-type stations, largely because it was treated like a novelty record.  This wasn't anything too edgy or threatening for the wee ones to hear; this was "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" pt 2.

That's not a knock on the song itself; I still dig it.  It's not the first Hip-Hop Christmas record, but it's the first one most of middle America ever heard, and it's still well produced (that's a killer Clarence Carter sample) and holds up well today.  It's been released and re-released countless times over the years.  It was featured on Profile's classic Christmas Rap album - still the single greatest Hip-Hop Christmas album to this day - and I was once gifted a cute little 45 on clear red vinyl.  The #1 movie of 1988 - Die Hard - opens with it, The Simpsons have played it, it's been used for car commercials and Adidas even made a "Christmas In Hollis" shoe!

But "Christmas In Hollis" wasn't originally recorded for that Profile album or as the major Run DMC single it became.  It was made for, and first released on, a 1987 A&M charity record made to benefit The Special Olympics called A Very Special Christmas.  It was a big deal at the time, and Run DMC were the only Hip-Hop artists on it, which is a big part of why "Christmas In Hollis" spread to the mainstream.  The album featured Christmas songs and covers by artists like Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Bon Jovi, so everybody's parents who bought the album for those guys wound up with a perfectly charming, head-nodding Hip-Hop song as an unexpected little bonus.  Like Run DMC's single, it's been pressed and re-pressed over the years.  It featured artist by the incredibly popular Keith Haring, and really, you younger cats probably don't appreciate just how widespread this album was.  Not only did the music stores bring out the displays every Holiday season, but it had full page ads in non-music magazines, and even places that didn't otherwise sell music, like supermarkets and drug stores, had these at the register.

So of course A&M followed that up with a second album.  And of course they asked Run DMC back.

But Hip-Hop audiences are fickle.  1987 was right at Run DMC's peek, right between Raising Hell and Tougher Than Leather.  "Walk This Way" had already come out and they were already being hailed as not just rap but rock superstars.  By the time of A Very Special Christmas 2, it was 1992, long after Back From Hell, and just before Pete Rock briefly resurrected their careers with "Down With the King" and they traded in their hats and Adidas for hoodies and Timbs, trying to find a new image and blend in with Naughty By Nature era.  So I guess that's why nobody seems to remember their second Christmas rap anthem, "Christmas Is."

The album itself did just fine.  They had another stacked line-up with some new folks and some returning, like Luther Vandross, Cyndi Lauper, Bon Jovi, Boyz II Men and Tom Petty.  Again, Run DMC were the sole token rapper guys.  But they tried; they even shot a video for it, which got a little time.  But stations mostly decided to keep airing "Christmas In Hollis."  It's a solid effort, though.  It's still produced by Larry Smith and JMJ.  It doesn't have the undeniable instant smash hit power of that Carter sample, but it has a respectable, more timely 90's sound with sparse jazz samples and big, but more natural drums.  Their flows are a little more nimble.  They still open with a little Christmas carol jingle and rock the sleigh bells, but it definitely has less of a holiday feel to it, which is part of the problem.  By the time it gets to their "give up the dough!" shout chorus, they've definitely forgone any crossover appeal the first one had.

Listening to it now, it actually sounds more dated than "Hollis," but I still like it.  In fact, it's a plus in my book that it's less kitschy and angrier about socioeconomic inequality.  If only Run DMC had managed to keep up with the times without giving up their identity to chase all the trends, I think this one would at least have lasted longer in the Hip-Hop community (there's no way this was going to be another crossover sensation).  I mean, it is flawed.  Instrumentally, they're leaning heavily into DITC's lane, which sounds good but derivative.  But lyrically, they try so hard to flex faster, more tongue-twisting lyrical skills, they wind up fumbling: "Christmas, this must be that time of year/ Leggo of your Eggo, rather ego, me go there/ And here, my dear, so give a kid a beer/ Cause every time you give it's coming back, let's get it clear."  It's both everything great and everything embarrassing about 90's rap at the same time.

...But is that the end of Run DMC's Very Special Christmases?  No!  The A&M albums kept on truckin', and it would've been a bad look to forgo Run DMC (and with them, all of Hip-Hop).  So even though Run DMC had sort of split up by then (they came together for Crown Royal, but it was rocky), so 1997's A Very Special Christmas 3 featured a Rev Run solo song.  Solo... but with a bunch of guests.  Remember "Santa Baby," with Mase, Snoop Dogg, Pepa, two fifths of Onyx and Keith Murray?  You probably remember that song popping up on the internet back then but maybe didn't realize it was the third chapter in the Very Special Christmas saga.  It's kind of a mess.  The line-up feels pretty arbitrarily slapped together with half the groups appearing incomplete, the singing on the hook is weak and instrumentally, they're just biting a beat from a Fugees record.  But it's still an amusing little treat to have seemingly randomly popped up on the scene.

The fourth Very Special Christmas took a different track in 1999.  It's a live album, featuring a lot of classic covers and renditions of songs from the previous albums.  So you've got a lot of Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi, plus artists like Mary J Blige and Sheryl Crow.  Yes, they got Run DMC back and of course they covered "Christmas In Hollis," not "Christmas Is."  The last song is a cover of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" featuring all the acts that had performed that night, and yes that includes Run DMC.  But it's literally just Run shouting "yeah, who's got the Christmas spirit? Somebody say 'hoooo'!!" at the beginning and "yo, you better be good for goodness sake" at one point mid-song.  Afterwards, they get to shout out Hollis and the Special Olympics, but it's really a number devoted to the singers and they're just on it as a technicality.

2001's A Very Special Christmas 5 is the one where they finally give up on Run DMC entirely.  They bring in another token Hip-Hop artist, and I bet you can guess who.  Yes, Wyclef Jean, who mostly just sings, but he does bust a corny freestyle on a Stevie Wonder song.  It's another live album with regulars like Bon Jovi and Tom Petty returning.  Then by 6 & 7, they finally seem to feel comfortable not having any Hip-Hoppers on there at all, and it's just two more live albums with artists like Reba McEntire, Miley Cyrus and Willie Nelson.  It's nice what they've continued to do for the Special Olympics, but I think most of the world had checked out of this crap by that point.

But yeah, "Christmas Is!"  Awfully dated is what it is; but it's still pretty cool... better than most of their late career stuff, and doesn't deserve to be completely forgotten.  I recommend giving it at least one spin this Holiday Season.

Friday, December 20, 2019

So I Watched Everybody's Everything...

This is my relationship with Lil Peep: he's the guy everybody asks me around the holidays, "hey, you're into rap.  Do you know Lil Peep?"  And I say, yeah a little.  I heard of him when he became too famous not to have heard of 'im, and I checked out two or three Youtube videos, and as you guys could probably predict, his stuff wasn't really my thing.  Then I didn't give him another thought, really, until he passed.

It's a weird (and obviously tragic) thing when a young, popular artist goes right at the peak of their success.  Would they have continued to flourish and cement a superstar legacy, or had we already seen their entire flash in the pan run its course?  Like, when you look at how The Wu-Tang Clan's Beautiful Tomorrow album completely fizzled out even after a huge onslaught of hype.  Biggie and Tupac went out at the very top, but if they hadn't, would they just be two more dull old school MCs unable to capture the attention of the millennial generation in 2019?  And before anybody runs up and smacks me for implying Lil Peep could be on the same level as The Wu, B.I.G. and 2Pac, my point is that he seemed to be for a sizeable number of fans, or at least just one or two more break-out tracks shy, and this got me curious.

Because sure, that sing-songy The Weeknd style has never appealed to me.  Shit, I remember even back when Domino dropped "Getto Jam" and I was like, "I don't like where this is going..."  But at the same time, I try not to be closed minded to a whole style or sub genre.  I remember when DWG was putting out Unique's Die Hard EP, and they said they were just leaving off the synth-y songs.  Sure, dusty old jazz loops are great, but synthesizers weren't born evil.  Hell, the Beverly Hills Cop theme is pure synth, and the only people who don't love that are dead inside.  And honestly with elite, I actually prefer something like "Homonym Holocaust" to "Don't Even Try It."  Sure, "Don't Even" has that classic K-Solo/ Penthouse Playas/ King Tee/ Poison Clan loop you can never go wrong with.  But I'll take Joey Robinson's "cheesy synths" over the After School, anti-drug message rap stuff.

So anyway, my point with all that is: even if it isn't my preferred style, I'm interested if this kid's got some thoughtful lyrics and something interesting to say.  I remember one of tiny handful of Peep songs I checked out ("Life Is Beautiful") being pretty compelling.  And now here comes this documentary, that sounds like a more engaging way to dive in and see for myself if I thought this was an artist who really had something going for him or if he was just the next in an infinite line of Kreayhawns, Mykko Montanas, and every other rapper the kids forgot about as quickly as they blew them up.

But, uh... this movie didn't really help.  It doesn't really explore his art at all, except to say that he started from very humble, low-fi beginnings and people seemed to like it.  But otherwise the doc doesn't seemed interested in his music, that just happens to be what propelled him into the rags-to-riches story they want to tell.  He could've just as well gotten famous manufacturing widgets for all this film seems to care.  There's a bit where one of his Gothboi Clique members said that when he heard Peep for the very first time, his opening bars were so on point, he knew he had to work with Peep.  And then... they don't play those bars!  I mean, come on, that would've been a perfect opportunity for a very quick soundbite to go a long way towards demonstrating what Peep could do.  I wanna hear those bars, but nope.

So, okay, moving on from what the movie isn't, what does the movie actually deliver?  Well, like I said, it's basically another typical rags-to-riches story that ultimately, of course, ends in tragedy.  I mean, if you swap out Peep for another musician we've lost, then you've already seen this movie a dozen times before.  It can get pretty hammy, as they dramatically read these sappy emails his grandfather wrote Peep like narration over half the film, and a lot of the interviews are pretty superficial.  Most people seemed like they just latched onto the fact that he was popular for some - any - reason and wanted to cash in.  There's a scene where one of his managers (or promoters or whoever) said they asked if he wanted to continue making videos or played stadiums, and when he replied that he wanted to play stadiums, that's when she realized that's when he was a real star.  What?  Ask any third grade class if they want to be rockstars and play stadiums, and two thirds of their hands will go up.  Wanting to play stadiums doesn't mean he could or couldn't do so successfully.  Apparently, Peep's next big move was going to be to start a clothing line?  You wouldn't know from this film if he was a beloved songwriter or just another Instagram Influencer.

But there are interesting moments.  His girlfriend has a refreshingly candid little insight into his relationship with his face tattoos and his family seems nice.  The filmmakers have some of his childhood home movies, and he sure was a cute kid.  You definitely feel bad for his mother and grandfather that they lost him so early.  At its best, Everybody's Everything is touching in a Dear Zachary-lite kind of way.  But that's about a third or a quarter of this film, and the rest just feels like a by-the-numbers E! True Hollywood Story that doesn't tell you anything you didn't already know about the guy... even if, as in my case, you didn't know all that much.  And I came in wanting to learn; I don't think you could've asked for a better audience than that.  I think even Peep's fan club will be looking down at their phones during most of the movie.  Terrence Malick produced this?  I expected more.