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.

1 comment:

  1. Didn't even realise this track was about. Gonna check it now. Thanks for the info boss