This past June, I took a weekend road trip to visit a friend who had stayed at Dartmouth for summer session — a popular option there given New Hampshire is one of the few places with worse winters than Ithaca. At some point in the weekend, we found ourselves at a “Christmas in June”-themed party, which is the only thing more gloriously tacky than actual Christmas parties. Ugly sweaters, Santa costumes and hot chocolate were out in full force, but the real holiday cheer came from the soundtrack. The usual suspects were all present and accounted for, as Mariah Carey’s legacy-defining “All I Want For Christmas Is You” tore the house down on multiple occasions.
After a certain point, though, even holiday music lovers such as myself began to grow tired of monotonous commercial cheer — anyone who has listened to the radio in December knows that there’s only so much you can handle. Christmas music’s indefatigable joy is almost always conveyed through a pop soundscape. Elton John, Jackson 5, Bing Crosby: These are the voices that dominate public spaces when ’tis the season. Even Bruce Springsteen, that mournful mouthpiece of working class struggles, forces a smile for his rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” This all makes for a redundant, one-note expression of holiday cheer, which is why a well-timed spin of Kanye West’s classic G.O.O.D Friday single “Christmas In Harlem” proved a nice change of pace for the increasingly mellow crowd.
“Christmas rap” is a tradition mocked about as often at is mentioned — perhaps because the concept itself seems paradoxical. It’s easy (but reductive) to view hip-hop as having an inseparable relationship with aggression, as it was born — in part — out of struggle, and often favors rhythm and percussion over soft melodies. The word “rap,” after all, is also a synonym for “hit” or “knock.” Many people, older generations in particular, allow gross generalizations of “gangsta rap” to guide their conception of the entire art form’s possibilities. And while this has begun to shift in the last decade or so, a rapper’s “credibility” was once a potential source of scandal and invalidation (Jack Jones ’18 wrote an entire column on this subject). At its core, though, rap is a means of sharing lived experiences, for the enjoyment or benefit of others who can relate.
Holiday music, on the other hand, is a genre that has no relationship to personal experiences and consists of infinite covers to the same eleven songs. The “Christmas album” is an oft-regretted rite of passage for pop, jazz and folk artists alike, and one that is often used by labels to cash in on artists with waning appeal. It’s a low-risk, low-effort gambit that tends to land in the $3.99 bucket at Wal-Mart alongside Nickelback’s entire discography. Every so often, though, genuine classics such as Michael Bublé’s Christmas — which will endure longer than any of the singer’s original tunes — come along to make the inevitable holiday parties just a little more enjoyable for everyone involved.
We’re barely past Thanksgiving at this point, but I already foresee myself losing patience with repeat spins of Bublé’s Rat Pack-invoking classic and Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe (if you need convincing on the latter, look no further than the Busta Rhymes-featuring take on “Drummer Boy”). In an effort to stay ahead of holiday fatigue, I’ve taken it upon myself to properly research the history of that underappreciated, niche tradition of the Christmas rap song. Some entries into the overlooked genre feature rappers lamenting the lack of Christmas in the hood, while others end up as laundry lists of holiday-inspired references to eggnog or Santa Claus. All of them are sincere, unabashed embraces of the holiday spirit.
Any article on this topic would lose credibility right off the bat for neglecting to mention Run-DMC’s 1987 single “Christmas in Hollis,” quite possibly the O.G. of holiday-themed rap music. Featuring a sleigh bell-heavy instrumental produced by the group themselves alongside Rick Rubin, the song describes the three M.C.s’ journey through Queens to return Santa’s lost wallet. The accompanying video is every bit as joyously tacky as a holiday sitcom special and set the standard for decades of Christmas rap to follow, including the group’s own “Christmas Is.” It is, to use a Hollywood comparison, the Miracle on 34th Street of hip-hop.
In 1996, Death Row Records was in a dire place. Still reeling from Tupac’s untimely death, the once infallible label took another blow with the incarceration of Suge Knight. To avoid losing hard-earned good will, the company put out an entire album of holiday music entitled Christmas on Death Row, supposedly donating the proceeds to charity. The result is a one-of-a-kind record with more misses than hits, but there exists perhaps no greater purveyor of the holiday spirit than Nate Dogg (RIP) and Snoop Dogg’s “Santa Claus Goes to the Ghetto.” A classic G-funk bass line loops behind smooth rhymes about Yuletide cheer, and the video is everything you could hope for from a Snoop Dogg Christmas song. A year later, Puff Daddy would create the same magic with Rev Run and the Christmas All-Stars’ “Santa Baby,” effectively crystalizing hip-hop’s place in the canon of holiday music.
Thankfully, the Christmas rap tradition has carried its way into the 2000s. Apart from Kanye’s classic, Run the Jewels made an indelible entry into the genre as recently as 2013 with “A Christmas F*cking Miracle.” The album-closer even came accompanied by a Dickens-inspired video that boasts the glorious sight of Killer Mike dressed as Ebenezer Scrooge. If that alone isn’t a sufficient sales pitch for holiday-themed rap music, then enjoy your life as a Grinch.
Chris Stanton is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.