What’s your favorite song to listen to during the festive season? Ben Apatoff, the author behind Body Count’s Body Count, tells us about his favorite and why Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” continues to be a festive classic. So settle in folks, It’s Christmastime in Hollis, Queens…
Making Christmas mix tapes meant spending hours combing through one’s albums, trying to fill two 45-minute sides of a tape, or one 80-minute CD, with as much yuletide as one could find. For me, this meant my holidays were usually sound-tracked by the somber tones of “River,” “Jesus Christ,” and “Christmas in Prison,” or the dark humor of “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)”, “Fairytale of New York”, and “Father Christmas.” But the song that melts my frosty heart is “Christmas in Hollis.”
Countless artists have recorded Christmas songs, but few have written one of the very best. I first heard “Christmas in Hollis” on Run-DMC’s now out of print 1991 anthology Together Forever. I’d found Public Enemy through Anthrax, and Ice-T through Body Count, and this looked like a logical next step. A review from Eric Weisbard in the indispensable Spin Alternative Guide caught my eye, citing “the convinces-this-Jew non-LP ‘Christmas in Hollis.’”
It was the only original song contributed to A Very Special Christmas, the first of the benefit album series featuring Keith Haring’s artwork. Run-DMC were also the only rappers on that album, at a time when much of the world still viewed their music as a fad. “Christmas in Hollis” makes its case among standards performed by Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Sting, U2, and more. The RIAA website estimates that A Very Special Christmas has gone quadruple platinum (at least four million copies sold) since 1987. Seeing as how the first platinum rap album was only one year earlier (Run-DMC’s Raising Hell), “Christmas in Hollis” was likely the first rap song in numerous households. How many kids first heard hip-hop this way? How many of us learned what “the hawk is out” means from this song? A lot of people with CD players and A Very Special Christmas in 1987 probably skipped track 8. It is now by far the most streamed song from that album.
Run-DMC were skeptical about the album and did not want to record a novelty song. But when Jam Master Jay pulled Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” from journalist Bill Adler’s Christmas records and started working on a beat, it sparked an untapped part of the band’s creativity. Run wrote his verse over breakfast, they recorded the song in a few hours and left the studio while there was still daylight outside. Like Joni Mitchell’s “River,” it starts with an interpolation of the technically-not-a-Christmas song “Jingle Bells,” both paying homage to and subverting Christmas past. “Christmas in Hollis” maintains the “Back Door Santa” progression’s edge, if not the raunchy lyrics, which endeared the song to parents who recognized the Carter sample from Stax’s 1968 Soul Christmas album. (The same record which, through its 1991 reissue, popularized Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas”).
“Christmas in Hollis” makes the personal feel universal. It covers all the bases, with Run’s imaginative first verse and DMC’s realism in the second, the two of them joining in together on the third. It’s a dazzling Jam Master Jay arrangement, previewing the band’s more scratch-based music on 1988’s Tougher than Leather. The bridge is a medley of Christmas carols. It’s Christmastime in Hollis, Queens, and somehow it’s right in your living room, wherever you are, whether the yule log is in a fireplace or on WPIX Channel 11. It’s a song that eschews traditions and still ends with “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” It embodies Christmas on that thin line where you’ll find A Charlie Brown Christmas and Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration—a perfect dose of holiday cheer that expresses spirituality and togetherness without falling into piousness or commercialization. In DMC’s words, “‘Christmas in Hollis’ doesn’t overkill or underkill.”
It’s the greatest Christmas music video ever, including a dog with antlers (which seems to change breeds throughout the video) and an elf who seemingly knows two words (“naughty” and “nice”). Santa has a costume store beard, and in a moment worthy of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, a pack of cigarettes slips out of his belt. Run-DMC are having fun as themselves, celebrating in their usual B-boy gear instead of Christmas costumes. It helps that the mom in the video is really DMC’s chicken and collard greens-cooking mother Bannah, who became a Queens celebrity after the video’s release, beloved by families who got to introduce their kids to the woman who chased the elf out of her home.
It was an MTV hit eight months before Yo! MTV Raps debuted. Director Michael Holman (Graffiti Rock) was still in NYU film school when Rolling Stone critics awarded “Christmas in Hollis” 1987’s “Best Video.” By summer it was a conversation topic for De’voreaux White and Bruce Willis in Die Hard. It has since enjoyed numerous film and commercial appearances without ever getting watered down, growing into a classic that gets rewritten for SNL skits and IFC ads.
There have been Christmas rap songs since, and Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” still gets honored as the first. But only “Christmas in Hollis” is transcendent enough to be performed in school holiday pageants. It’s the only original American Christmas song in the last 40 years, other than Mariah’s, which could justifiably be called a standard. It’s gone from sharing a spot with pop stars on A Very Special Christmas to radio playlists between Nat King Cole and Brenda Lee. It makes me want to celebrate Christmas as much as Jimi’s national anthem makes me want to celebrate America.
“Every year, Jewish people, Muslim people, Asian people, Greek people, Jamaican people, people representing every race, creed, religion, and color, and people who would never eat mac-and-cheese on Christmas, holler my rhyme at me,” said DMC in 2022. “The big Run-DMC three are ‘Walk This Way,’ ‘It’s Tricky,’ and ‘Christmas in Hollis.’ I am only sure that the last one will live on generation after generation.”
Ben Apatoff‘s writing has appeared in Alternative Press, Loudwire, Ultimate Classic Rock, Metal Injection, MetalSucks, Daily News, The Deli, Electric Literature, Beyond Race, Outburn and MLB.com. He is the author of Metallica: The $24.95 Book (2021). To find out more about why and how he came to write Body Count’s Body Count, check out our interview with him here.
Body Count’s Body Count is available to buy in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com). Until Sunday 10th December 2023, you can get it 30% off in Bloomsbury’s Holiday Sale.