29 years after the release of Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” the song remains a cultural force to be reckoned with and an essential addition to any holiday-themed playlist. But before DMC and the future Reverend Run laid down their iconic verses and created the best holiday rap record of all time, they needed some prodding from a Def Jam publicist and the production wizardry of Jam Master Jay and Rick Rubin to get them in the holiday spirit.
Bill Adler, Def Jam’s director of publicity from 1984-1990, first proposed the idea of a Christmas record to Run-DMC. Although Adler hadn’t celebrated Christmas growing up, that changed when he married his wife Sara Moulton and adopted the holiday spirit with her family. Finding his in-law’s Christmas soundtrack “typical and shopworn,” he started compiling his own Christmas mixes, a tradition he continues today. This led to an unparalleled collection of holiday-themed vinyl from every genre imaginable.
In 1987, Adler decided to take his affinity for quality holiday tunes and enlist the services of Run-DMC to create a new Christmas classic. With the blessing of Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen, Adler asked the group to appear on the A Very Special Christmas compilation with other industry heavyweights to benefit the Special Olympics.
“I was well suited to the job because I was pretty deep into Christmas music by then, and I had a title and concept that suited the occasion, namely ‘Christmas in Hollis,’” he told the Genius website. “I thought, let the guys write a new song, something that speaks to their lives, their neighborhood, and the ways in which they celebrate Christmas.”
Although Adler was by now a Christmas music enthusiast, the group members were resistant to his good cheer. “At first we were like, “Nope. We’re not doing it. That’s what they try to do to Hip Hop. They commercialize you and try to make you corny…If it ain’t beats and rhymes and DJ-ing and graffiti, we ain’t doin’ it!” DMC recalled the group saying in an A.V. Club interview.
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!!! “Christmas in Hollis” made a dent on the Billboard 200 — thirteen years after it was released.
With time and coaxing, Adler was able to convince them they could take the genre of Christmas music and turn it on its head. They set off to Chung King studio, the same place they recorded their seminal Raising Hell album. With no instrumental track to spark DMC and Run’s creativity, Adler and Jam Master Jay started rummaging through Adler’s Christmas crates for sample ideas. “Run and D walked off to smoke a joint in the other room, and Jay and I went to work on the crate of Christmas albums I’d lugged into the studio,” he recalled to Genius. “He usually didn’t need more than ten seconds or so to decide whether a given track was worthwhile. It was just needle drop — next! Needle drop — next!”
After passing on several albums in the crate, they came upon the Atlantic records Soul Christmas compilation. “Jay puts the needle down on a song called ‘Backdoor Santa’ by an artist named Clarence Carter, and he didn’t have to go very deep into it before he thought maybe he had something,” Adler said. “The instrumental introduction was enough.”
For those familiar with the Clarence Carter original, “Christmas in Hollis” owes a significant debt of gratitude to the original. The break at the beginning of Carter’s inappropriate ode to infidelity made for a perfect backdrop for DMC and Reverend Run to rhyme over. With a bit of tweaking and pitching down the sample, the beat was complete and the creative juices began to flow.
The importance of the sample selection and Jay’s role in the song’s creation is not lost on the surviving members of the group. “You look at a show like CSI when the people are in the lab, when Jay was at work, he was like a pioneering mad scientist,” DMC told All Hip Hop.
“Jay is the reason why the song came out dope.” – DMC
In DMC’s mind, it was Jay’s experience as a DJ that made the beat such a hard-hitting classic. “DJ’s always make the best producers,” he said. “If somebody else would’ve called and said they wanted me and Run to put down a Christmas record, I don’t think we would’ve done it and I don’t think we would’ve had a classic.”
While Jam Master Jay deserves credit for his masterful use of Clarence Carter’s original, DMC deserves equal credit for adding a dose of reality to holiday music. The forced cheer that exists in many holiday songs can be exhausting. It speaks to a fantasy life that few of us are living and often fails to resonate. When DMC wrote his verse for “Christmas in Hollis,” he took holiday music out of the fantasy realm and give listeners a taste of the holidays in Queens, rhyming “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens. Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens, rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese.”
Sneakerhead Immortal: In 2013, adidas Originals partnered with Run-D.M.C. and Keith Haring for a special edition of the Superstar 80s. All inspired by one song.
The fact that his verse painted outside the lines of a typical holiday anthem is not lost on DMC. “Every other Christmas song is like a fantasy,” he told the A.V. Club. “But my story is what really happened in real life, about real people, and what it was like as a kid growing up.”
DMC believes that after all these years, the song and video continue to resonate with people of all ethnicities and religions. “Not only does that record touch black people in the hood,” he said. “It touches Jewish people, German people. It touches people all over the world. They can relate to what those rhymes about Christmastime symbolize.”