Remembering the doomed classic ‘Christmas on Death Row’
(Credit: Death Row)

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Remembering the doomed classic 'Christmas on Death Row'

Hip-hop is bursting with instances where legends have released festive singles or albums. Given just how much of the music market that hip-hop releases have occupied for the past 40 years, there’s no surprise that many of the biggest names in rap have got in on the popular music tradition. It’s a source of income that lines an artist’s coffers for the Christmas period. 

Ostensibly, it started with Kurtis Blow‘s single ‘Christmas Rappin”, which was released by Mercury in 1979, and was followed by tracks such as The Treacherous Three’s ‘Xmas Rap’, The Juice Crew’s ‘Cold Chillin’ Christmas’ and Run-DMC’s classic ‘Christmas in Hollis’. 

On December 3rd, 1996, the world was treated to a Christmas hip-hop record that is well worth its weight in gold, frankincense and myrrh and is potentially the finest in all of rap. For those of you who are true hip-hop fans and old enough, you may remember Christmas on Death Row, the only Yuletide-themed compilation released by legendary label Death Row Records. It was conceived as a means of giving back to the community, and it’s aged like fine wine. 

The compilation features some of the biggest names in the business and comes from the era where gangster rap was at its zenith. Production was helmed by Kevyn Lewis, alongside Danny Boy, Daz Dillinger, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight and more. In terms of vocals, there’s takes from Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Bad Azz, Kurupt, Big Tray Deee, Michel’le and others. Featuring a mix of covers and originals, it’s one of the most refreshing festive albums you’ll hear. A team effort, made when Death Row was really under the cosh, it’s a brilliant act of sonic defiance against the lemons that life tends to throw at us.

In 1996, Death Row was the most prominent label in rap, and was home to the most influential West Coast names. Prior to the release of Christmas on Death Row, every record the label had released was certified platinum at the very least. However, their Christmas record wouldn’t follow suit. It didn’t even reach gold, which is down to many different reasons. 

The release of the album was preceded by three momentous moments, that would change the trajectory of the label, and set it on its course to bankruptcy in 2006. 

Firstly, the in-house producer and master of G-Funk, Dr. Dre, had left the label after heated arguments with boss Suge Knight about personnel and contracts. Therefore, it didn’t sound like a Death Row record and lost out on the enormous pulling power of having Dr. Dre’s name attached to it.

Secondly, in October that year, Knight had been sent to jail for violating probation after an altercation in Las Vegas. With Knight out of the game, operations were left to Death Row’s head of security, Reggie Wright Jr., who had no prior business experience. Knight was known for spacing out releases to squeeze the most profits out of albums, but Wright turned this ethos on its head.

In November 1996, he released three albums, Makaveli’s The Don Killuminati, Snoop Dogg’s The Doggfather and Death Row’s Greatest Hits. So, when it came to December 3rd, the market share available for Christmas on Death Row, was significantly reduced. 

There was another factor that led to Christmas on Death Row being overlooked. This was that label icon, Tupac Shakur, who had been shot and killed in September, leaving the label’s staffers and roster, many of whom worked on the album, distraught and in no fit state to promote. Given the circumstances that occurred in the run-up to the album’s release, you’d be right in labelling it doomed. 

Against all the odds, those who worked on the album’s production, namely Kevyn Lewis and Danny Boy, killed it. They overcame the odds and delivered a brilliant Christmas record. The Tha Dogg Pound cut, ‘I Wish’ is ’90s rap at its finest. Soulful, funky and catchy, ironically, it sounds like a Dre track.

Kurupt, half of Tha Dogg Pound, said in a recent interview with the New York Times: “The main thing we wished for at Christmas was love, and that’s what we got from our mothers and that’s what we got from our fathers.” 

He explained that the Christmas album showed a human side to a label that was known more for its violent reputation than its music: “It’s showing people we’re human. We have hearts. We have families. That Christmas album gave us an opportunity to show them a different side to us.”

Of the songs covered on the record, Kurupt said: “These are classic, classic records that we grew up with… I looked at it like, ‘We stars now. We made a Christmas album, cuz.'”

The Christmas spirit that Kurupt wanted to instil on the album is there front and centre. A refreshing departure from all the violence and death that had engulfed the label at that point, it is perhaps the last great record they made before their decline was made irreversible. Those who were left to pick up Knight and Dre’s pieces did an unbelievable job.

Listen to Christmas on Death Row below.