Christmas music has never ranked highly among music aficionados. It exists, but no one likes to think about it much. Still, to create Christmas music is to belong in America. I don’t think this is a religious phenomenon. It is about homely feelings, about playing at tradition in a land that hasn’t any real ones. Americans imported their traditions from other lands and then went on to neglect them generally. Christmas is our pathetic, if charming, attempt at compensation.
The big question no one was asking in the 1980s was whether rap music could ever go that far. Was rap American enough to accomplish the Christmas song? When you do the Christmas song you are solid, you are in the club. Moreover, you are in the club to stay. A successful Christmas song will make it into a radio-cum-internet rotation that is beyond the vicissitudes of time. Think of “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. No one has heard of the band, every person in the world hears that song dozens of times every December. When the season rolls around, the songs do, too.
It fell, thus, on the broad shoulders of Run-DMC to accomplish this singular and difficult task. Such tasks were always confronting the hip-hop boys from Queens. They had to get white college kids to listen to rap music. Mission accomplished with Raising Hell. They had to make rap seem like the heir to rock and roll. Witness the collaboration with Aerosmith in “Walk This Way.”
It is no wonder, then, that one of their musical acts as good Americans was to produce a Christmas song. They called it “Christmas in Hollis.” Hollis is a neighborhood in Queens that only black people know about. Sadly, it is also the place where Jam-Master Jay, the group’s brilliant DJ and sound engineer, met his fate at the wrong end of a bullet some years back. But rap music came out of such neighborhoods. People used to joke that rap stands for “Rhythmic American Poetry,” the particular sound and beat of the American inner city (by which everyone generally means black neighborhoods). Run-DMC weren’t simply going to brave the Christmas song; they were going to situate it in Hollis.
Like all great Run-DMC songs (and thanks to JMJ) the song kicks in with a very likeable beat. It is brought alive by the horn section (a witty sample from soul singer Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa”). Run opens up the lyrics, as he often did, with a little playful ghetto jibing. We’re on a dark street and there is a weird looking dude up ahead. But wait a second: It’s Santa Claus!
It was December 24th on Hollis Ave in the dark
When I seen a man chilling with his dog in the park
I approached very slowly with my heart full of fear
Looked at his dog, oh my God, an ill reindeer
That’s a good moment and it hits the right mood. Christmas music is inherently corny. But it’s the second verse that seals it for me and, evidently, for the rest of the country, too. This is when D comes in. D has a deep voice (Chuck D from Public Enemy was the only guy in those days who could compete). He lays down a couple of lines with typical DMC bravura that still raise hairs on the back of my neck (in the good way). The lines make you proud that America produced hip-hop.
It’s Christmas time in Hollis Queens
Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens
That says it all, really. With one line, Run-DMC made collard greens as American as apple pie. And the song even has a momentary reference to traditional Christmas music with a sample from “Joy to the World.” Run himself went on to become a practicing minister of some sort or another. But the song is firmly secular at its core. It is about the American fantasy that Christmas, if nothing else, offers a brief interruption to the drudgery. That it brings about something special — some break — in the normal flow of time. Run-DMC showed that Hollis Queens has as much purchase on that fantasy as anywhere else. • 18 December 2008