Remembering "Holiday Banger," the Uniquely Strange Christmas Song We All Need
We speak with Tone Tank, Kool AD, and Scott Thorough about their Kwanzaa-referencing, Bible-skewing masterpiece, released five years ago this Christmas.
Image via screenshot
On a November evening five years ago, the relationship between hip-hop and the holidays reached its peak in Park Slope, Brooklyn with the birth of “Holiday Banger.” It was The brainchild of rapper, visual artist, and bootleg toy creator Tone Tank, and his cohorts Kool AD (formerly of the group Das Racist) and the producer, film score composer, and podcast host Scott Thorough. The track is a seasonal smorgasbord that serves up a gangsta rap-styled account of the origin of Jesus, imagines a bloody beef between Santa and the Grinch, and features a Wikipedia-assisted breakdown of the tenets of Kwanzaa. This happens over tough but ebullient production that pays homage to Paul McCartney's sentimental "Wonderful Christmastime.”
“Tone texted me in the morning like, ‘Yo, I want to make a holiday song,’” recalls Scott, who’s met up with Tone today in Brooklyn to retell the origin of “Holiday Banger.” (They originally crossed paths with each other when one of Scott’s friends was buying weed from one of Tone’s pals; since then they’ve struck up a canny musical bond.) Tone explains that his festive idea was prompted by "these weird mixtapes of rap Christmas songs" that Doc Strange—who’s produced for the MC on a Black Flag-themed project—used to send his way. He also wanted to try his hand at the sort of seasonal story-telling Run-DMC kicked on "Christmas In Hollis,” while also paying homage to Eazy-E’s “Merry Muthafuckin’ Christmas.”
"I went off and made a beat sampling my favorite holiday song, which is the Paul McCartney joint," says Scott. "I've always wanted to flip that and it had only been flipped before by De La Soul [on “Simply”]." Using Pro Tools and Fruity Loops, plus a software version of the Prophet synthesizer that McCartney used on the original sample source, Scott put the beat together in an hour and embellished it with a vocal grab of golden era rapper Sweet Tee boasting, "You didn't know Christmas went hip-hop?” from her 1987 track “Let The Jingle Bells Rock.” A snippet of Eazy-E’s high-pitched holler—"Merry Christmas motherfuckers!”—also made its way into the mix.
Later that day, Tone headed over to a studio run by Steel Tipped Dove, a producer and engineer who works out of the building that housed the now-shuttered Southpaw music venue in Brooklyn. Kool AD was already there, in part to re-record a verse for a track on Tone's solo album after Scott lost the original take. (It's a gaff memorialized in Kool AD's rhyme on “Didn’t Tone Treat You Right?” as he laments losing lyrics about Public Enemy DJ Terminator X's fabled ostrich farm.) Corresponding from Mexico, Kool AD says he met Tone back in 2009, when the latter was working as a set designer on the video for his own "surrealist boy band" project Boy Crisis's "Dressed To Digress.” The video's director was also Kool AD's roommate and hipped him to Tone’s bugged-out “King Of Surf Guitar Rap" short. Once Scott also turned up at the session, the producer played the two rappers the "Holiday Banger" beat and they set about writing their verses on the fly.
Tone’s opening rhyme begins with him boldly proclaiming, "This motherfucker named Jesus was being born / I was rolling through the desert on a camel not a horse / To go and see the Lord / Running from the law / Hit the corner store for some frankincense and myrrh." Soon after, he’s messing around with “this lady named Mary” but forgets to use protection: “I didn’t wrap it up ‘cause there wasn’t no diseases / Then Mary had a baby, motherfucker's name was Jesus." For his second verse, Tone breaks down a beef between Rudolph, Heat Miser, Santa, and the Grinch that ends in a gangsta fairytale-style drive by shooting.
Tone says he was “raised Catholic until the age of seven, loosely,” only really adhering to the principles of the religion at Christmas and Easter. He looks back on his lyrics about the birth of Jesus and says, "It didn't even cross my mind that that would be offensive to people. I was just having fun with it. But maybe if those people would be offended by it, and Jesus was there, he'd be like let's ditch these people and come hang out with us.
“As far as how I came in on that first verse, I can’t say it enough: I think Jesus would have gotten what we are doing. Just having fun, fooling around, love in our hearts, constant elevation.”
Kool AD's contribution to "Holiday Banger" involves two edutainment-based verses all about Kwanzaa. The lines include him detailing the holiday’s dates (December 26 to January 1), bigging up Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga, and running through the seven core principles known as the Nguzo Saba—which helpfully allows him to rhyme in the name of an ex-girlfriend also called Saba. He says he decided to rap about the holiday because "there weren't any Kwanzaa songs that I knew about and I kinda didn't really want to make a Christmas rap. I wanted to keep it Afrocentric." To that end, Kool AD buffed up on Kwanzaa facts on Wikipedia—and cops to the process in verse as he self-deprecatingly spits, "Kool AD specialize in knowledge / Kwanza was invented at Oberlin college / Wait, I just checked on the Internet, my fault / Kwanzaa was invented UCLA, my fault.”
Summing up his and Kool AD’s respective verses on “Holiday Banger,” Tone says, "His shit was like KRS-One and my shit was like Eazy-E.” (Scott Thorough, who’s Jewish, adds that they contemplated drafting in the rapper Serengeti to write a Hanukah verse, but it never panned out.)
After laying down their rhymes, Tone and Kool AD left the studio with Scott and chowed down on shrimp basil dishes at the nearby Song Thai restaurant. Over food, they also created the track’s artwork, which showcases a graffiti-styled cartoon character clutching a wrapped-up present. Back in the studio, Steel Tipped Dove began engineering “Holiday Banger.” "Scott's beat bangs so hard and Tone and Kool both have voices that can cut through any sonics and stand right at the front so you hear their brilliance," he recalls, writing via email. "Dude, as I'm answering these questions I just remembered there's a damn video! I'm watching it now. It deserves 600 Oscar awards, holy shit."
The video in question is brilliantly nuts. Directed, styled and overseen by Kate Bryant—whose credits also include the visuals for Lakutis’s warped "Jesus Piece"—it was filmed a year on from “Holiday Banger”’s original release date. The video opens with Tone’s dog at the time, Bailey, sporting reindeer antlers, then cuts to the cast riding through desert lands on camels that Tone crafted out of clay, plaster and papier-mâché affixed to low-rider bikes. Next up, the camera zooms in on Kool AD’s head, which features plastic toy doll arms sticking out of his neck as he plays the role of baby Jesus in a manger backdrop that Tone’s artist colleague, Z Behl, originally made out of tree branches as shade for the summer. Snow cascades down onto Kool AD’s face. “I remember they were pouring instant mash potato flakes on me,” he recalls. “I ate some of them. They were nasty.”
The “Holiday Banger” video ends with the artist Azikiwe Mohammed taking on the role of a drunk Santa who bestows presents upon the musicians at a seasonal house party. Kool AD beams as he unwraps an oversized blunt.
Weighing up the legacy of “Holiday Banger,” Scott recalls how at a wedding last year in California, Kool AD told him, “Man, that “Holiday Banger” song is gonna be the one that’s gonna make us rich one day. "'Holiday Banger' is the reason why relationships happen,” he says.
At this juncture, Tone confesses that his mom was “mad offended” when she saw the song’s video. She told him she was “disappointed” and said she was unfollowing him on Facebook. But, he adds, “Just for the record, I think everything I’ve heard that Jesus said, I agree with, I really do. Most things in most religions are actually dope if you don’t get it twisted.” Then Tone sums up the “Holiday Banger” spirit in full: “In the bigger picture, Jesus would be such a great dude that he'd think [the song] was dope and funny because who doesn't want to laugh? I don't want a God that's bitter and stern all the time with no enjoyment."
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