Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" Is a Wholesome Alt-Holiday Classic
The trio didn't want to touch a Christmas song at first, but their 1987 single blew up. Part of that was down to its focus on a real good family meal.
You can tell a lot about a song from its parodies, so before diving into to Run-DMC's still-perfect 1987 holiday rap cut "Christmas in Hollis," it's worth watching "Jingle Barack," the Chance The Rapper-starring Saturday Night Live sketch from two years back that was thankfully a little less awful than most late-era SNL bits.
With Obama leaving the White House in a few weeks, Chance and Kenan Thompson wanted everyone to celebrate the holidays by stocking up on the sorts of things that decent societies provide to their citizens: birth control pills, legal weed, same-sex marriage licences. In the second verse, Chance took a turn for the apocalyptic—"This year I bought four Christmas trees / Stockpiled all the Home Alone DVDs / I got batteries, canned food, everything I need / There'll probably never be another Christmas Eve"—but even then he was suggesting it might be worth breaking his own arm before Obamacare was repealed. You had to get what you could before Trump cancelled Christmas "for a new holiday called Regular Winter." It was all about abundance.
That's what Run-DMC were driving at with "Christmas in Hollis" too. The second-ever hip-hop Christmas hit—the first being Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'," which we'll get to soon enough—was welcoming, wholesome, and a little fantastical. It retained all of the energy and bluster that turned Run-DMC into such a devastating trio in the mid-80s, but its lyrics embraced an ideal family holiday, tied together by gifts, lights, myths, and, most importantly, a gluttonous amount of food.
The song was cut for A Very Special Christmas, a charity record dreamed up by legendary record producer Jimmy Ioivine. He wanted to make a Christmas album in honor of his father, who had died in 1985, and his industry connections helped him to get just about all of the biggest names in pop music at the time: Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Madonna, and Bon Jovi.
Despite the esteemed company, Run-DMC flat-out refused to record a track for the album at first. They'd just released Raising Hell, a gargantuan LP that turned them into rockstars and helped to confirm rap as a commercially viable genre. (It hit the top-10 on the Billboard 200 and eventually went triple-platinum.) Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay were supposed to be hard-nosed insurgents, street poets, torch-bearers for an uncompromising and honest new movement. They didn't want to turn into a hokey punchline by following up with a novelty song. DMC told The A.V. Club in 2013 that they felt almost insulted by the idea. "We’re not doing it," he remembered saying. "That’s what they try to do to hip-hop. They commercialize you and try to make you corny. We’re totally against anything that’s going to be fake. If it ain’t beats and rhymes and DJ-ing and graffiti, we ain’t doin’ it! Here you go again with the corporate America powers that be and Hollywood trying to ruin hip-hop! We ain’t going out like that!”
But the band's publicist, Bill Adler, who knew how good the opportunity was, had a secret weapon. According to a New York Post article from last year, Adler collected oddball Christmas songs, so he brought a crate of stuff over to Jam Master Jay to see if anything would inspire him. They hit on Clarence George Carter's horny-as-hell 1968 funk cut "Back Door Santa."
"Run and DMC were in the next room and came in as if they’d been drawn to the scent of a big Christmas pie or something," Adler told The Post last year. "They nodded at Jay, and everybody knew that was going to be the sample."
Jay chopped it up, turning the original's parping horns into a blaring and unforgettable hook. With that solid base, Run and DMC were free to explore. They set their verses in their hometown of Hollis, Queens, but took two different stances. Run reached for the absurd, writing his own Christmas myth about encountering Santa in a local park, picking up his lost wallet, and dutifully trying to return the million dollars that St Nicholas kept in cash—though it turned out the money was Santa's gift to Run all along.
DMC instead went with realism, detailing past Christmases at his own home. It's all very sweet. He raps about Santa leaving gifts, the house covered in Christmas lights, snow on the sidewalk outside. And, most importantly, he raps about the food: "Mom's cooking chicken and collard greens / Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese."
This wasn't fiction. According to that A.V. Club interview, DMC's childhood home was full of good food and good spirits. He said that his mother would cook up six-course meals, steak, pork chops, clams, different meals every day. "My house was a restaurant," he said. "And I think the importance of food is a big part of the reason why that song was able to touch so many people—Asian people; Hispanic people; Italian people; Catholics and Buddhists and Muslims. People could relate to that video, because what do you do during holidays and celebratory times? You sit down with your family and share that special meal." DMC's mother even appears in the song's now classic video, chasing a troublesome elf out of the house with a broom while everyone else opens their presents.
One is an alt-holiday classic and one is a terrified send-up, but "Christmas in Hollis" and "Jingle Barack" have that much in common. The overblown threat to Christmas in the SNL sketch is a threat to basic human decency and a threat to their God-awful meal of "eggnog and chicken and turkey and fries." So, if you're looking for some form of political resistance this Christmas, look to DMC. Eat the best food you can, and lots of it.
Alex Robert Ross is chillin' and coolin' just like a snowman on Twitter.