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Old School Archives

Looking back at Run-DMC's holiday anthem

In 1986, with Raising Hell, Run-DMC helped to propel hip hop from the street corners that spawned it towards the daring end of the mainstream. A year later, they released a holiday song in what might seem retrospectively like a surprising move, but given the fact it was for charity, it actually proved in keeping with the same tenet of societal change that proved central to the rise and intent of Run-DMC

As part of the album, A Very Special Christmas, the rap collective contributed the single ‘Christmas in Hollis’ in homage to the Queens, New York neighbourhood that they herald from. A few years earlier, Kurtis Blow had made history by becoming the first rap artist to have a single released on a major label—it just so happened to be a Christmas song. With ‘Christmas in Hollis’, Run-DMC followed in his footsteps by subverting the typically festive with a street corner feel.

At first, however, the group were sceptical. “That’s what they try to do to hip-hop,” Darryl McDaniels recalled about their initial rejection of their management’s plan, “They commercialize you and try to make you corny. We’re totally against anything that’s going to be fake.” Soon, however, their manager Bill Adler pushed the charity front and how the song could be a vehicle for change and the group decided to hang up their misgivings and dive straight in.

When they found a beat that seemed fitting in the form of the already tongue-in-cheek classic Christmas soul track with Clarence Carter’s ‘Back Door Santa’ they signed up for the album and set about trying to rival Blow’s 1979 rapping festive anthem. Rather than strict to the usual holiday tropes, DMC decided to give it an authentic feel by revealing his own Christmas traditions. He later mused: “It’s soulful. It’s family. It’s real. ‘Christmas In Hollis’ is real, because of my verse.”

It was real in more than one sense too, and as a result, it helped to become a genuine driving force of the rap movement. The compilation album A Very Special Christmas might have featured a slew of huge 1980s artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and more, but Run-DMC’s track was the only original. For punters buying the album, this proved noteworthy and extolled the message that rap was a new and exciting genre truly on the cutting edge amid a stilted commercial mainstream. 

Since its release, it has become a touchstone for alternative Christmas anthems. It neither forgoes the tenets of the genre that spawned it nor refuses to delve into festive vibes for the sake of being cool. As a result, it resides as an anthem that proved to be a great advocate of the ascending rap movement, by placing the relatable alongside the fresh.