Christmas in Hollis

By Bill Carbone, Director of Education and Partnerships

RUN-DMC.’s Raising Hell was one of the first cassettes I ever chose to buy. I’ve now read many analyses of its importance within the Hip Hop genre–the hard, cold beats, the minimalist approach to harmony and structure, the Rap-to-Riff-Rock crossover–but as an elementary school kid, I just felt it. I can still picture the corner of my mom’s bed where I would sit, maybe a foot from MTV, pondering the meaning of “Walk This Way,” and, later, giggling through “Christmas in Hollis.”

In 1987, I was just one among several million people cheering RUN-DMC along a winning streak. Their 1986 album Raising Hell contained four charting singles and went triple-platinum. Raising Hell, and particularly its reimagined version of Aerosmith’s 1975 track “Walk This Way,” catapulted RUN-DMC from the Black catchall category “R&B” to mainstream commercial success, i.e. the Billboard Hot 100. In the video for “Walk This Way,” which I watched so closely, so many times, the members of RUN-DMC and Aerosmith literally smash through the walls that separate them in order to perform on the same concert stage, a perfect representation of what they did for Hip Hop on MTV writ large. Band member Darryl “DMC” McDaniels summed it up in a recent A.V. Club interview, “We were on a roll! Everything [we] touched turned to gold. It was crazy.”

When RUN-DMC was approached by their label with the idea of following Raising Hell with a Christmas single, their answer was an emphatic “no.” I get it. The band had just spent a half decade successfully cultivating a tough-but-safe-enough-for-TV image. Everyone now knew they rocked Adidas with no laces, leather, and put sucker mcs in their places–where, exactly, did Yuletide cheer belong?

Thankfully the band’s DJ and producer, Jam Master Jay, egged on by Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, found inspiration in opening riff of “Back Door Santa,” a funky 1968 Clarence Carter release that he sampled, slowed down, and massaged into a new track. The rest of the group got on board and “Christmas in Hollis”–now a certifiable holiday classic–was born.

Part of the tune’s success was, as DMC puts it, because “it’s dope.” No argument. But when I look back at the lyrics, and especially the video, I think some of the track’s longevity has to do with the way the group crafted a story that presents a loving, positive image of American family life, lived by some regular Americans. Regular Americans who happen to be Black folk in Hollis, a section of the New York City borough of Queens.  

There’s probably not much sledding in Hollis, and open fires, or even fireplaces, don’t really cut it amidst blocks of tightly packed apartment buildings and brownstone townhouses, but Run (Joseph Simmons) and Darryl paint a picture of a warm, love-filled hometown.

Run weaves a tale about Santa visiting Hollis to start the track, but Darryl forgoes legend and drops a verse about Christmas at his family’s place. His mom has cooked a meal to feed the extended family and then some–DMC describes it in detail–and she appears, standing with the classic RUN-DMC arms folded posture, in the video as well. The actors are black, the song is rapped, but the experience–gathering with a family on a holiday–transcends any of America’s many racial and cultural barriers.

“Listen,” says DMC, “when I was a kid, Christmas, New Year’s, birthday parties, Fourth Of July—that was always at the McDaniels house… My mother and my father always worked when I was little, but… me and my brother were treated to five- and six-course meals…  And I think the importance of food is a big part of the reason why that song was able to touch so many people—Asian people; Hispanic people; Italian people; Catholics and Buddhists and Muslims. People could relate to that video, because what do you do during holidays and celebratory times? You sit down with your family and share that special meal.”

Happy holidays. We wish you a great feast.

Oh, and “Christmas in Hollis” wasn’t the first Hip Hop Holiday Jam. Kurtis Blow dropped one in 1979!