Thirty years ago this Oct. 12, A&M Records released the Special Olympics benefit LP A Very Special Christmas. Adorned with album art by Downtown New York icon Keith Haring and overseen with love by producer Jimmy Iovine, the album featured the likes of The Pointer Sisters, Sting, Stevie Nicks, The Eurythmics, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, U2 and Whitney Houston offering updated renditions of their favorite holiday songs.
To this day A Very Special Christmas remains one of the best-selling holiday albums on the market, thanks in part to the album’s sole original track: Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis.” With Jam Master Jay scratching up the main groove to R&B great Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” from the 1968 Atlantic Records compilation Soul Christmas, Rev. Run and the Devastating Mic Controller deliver bars of yuletide cheer that take the listener from the North Pole to the McDaniels family table in Queens, NY, for a holiday feast for the ages. And 30 years later, it remains one of the most iconic, enduring Christmas songs of the season.
To celebrate the anniversary of hip-hop’s most famous Christmas carol, Billboard spoke to D.M.C. about the unexpected legacy of “Christmas In Hollis” and its present status as one of the mightiest evergreens of the holiday season.
As someone who was in 8th grade when A Very Special Christmas first came out in 1987, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long since first hearing “Christmas In Hollis” on the radio. Or in my case, it was actually seeing the video on MTV.
Yeah, 30 is crazy. I was thinking maybe it’s been about 20 years, but not 30! You know we didn’t want to do it at first, right?
We didn’t want to do anything corny. We actually thought they were trying to ruin us, trying to make a joke out of us. The last thing we wanted to do was make a corny Christmas record.
Even despite the presence of such legit holiday rap fare as Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rap” and the Treacherous Three’s “Santa Rap” from Beat Street?
People tend to forget a lot of things about hip-hop, and number one was that Run-D.M.C. did not make the first Christmas rap record. It was Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rap” which dates back to 1979. And that was all we needed, really. We were not trying to disrespect the culture. But the thing that changed our minds was Bill Adler, who was our publicist at the time, said, “I think you should do it over this,” and he played us “Back Door Santa” by Clarence Carter. When we heard that, my pen immediately came out and I wrote my rhyme. It was hard; it was B-Boy; it was soulful; it was hip-hop.
And it sounds just as fresh in 2017 as it did in 1987. I have a five-year-old son, and he made me play “Christmas In Hollis” three times in a row the other day. He said, “Play it again!”
Wow (laughs)! It’s funny with “Christmas In Hollis”…somebody asked me recently if I ever thought that it would be Christmas forever for Run-D.M.C. Because prior to “Christmas In Hollis,” the two main staples of Christmas were Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” But now it seems like “Christmas In Hollis” is now included in that iconic, forever, historical, culturally relevant pantheon. And when I really thought about it, I was like wow, it’s not just a rap song anymore. It’s a Christmas song. Look, I get people from all walks of life—Jewish people, Muslim people, Hindu people—they all talk about how happy they get when they hear “Christmas In Hollis.”
The best was your verse about the Christmas dinner spread.
That’s how it was, man. And that was actually my mother in the video standing next to me.
How did your mom cook her chicken?
She fried it in pieces. She’d put some grease in the pan on a stovetop and fried ‘em up. My mom made the best chicken and macaroni and cheese EVER.
What was her macaroni and cheese like?
Her mac and cheese was the cakey kind, not the loose kind. Just like it looks in the video. I’m actually thinking about opening a restaurant—Nana McDaniels’ Chicken and Collard Greens.
That’d be awesome. Where would you open it?
I’d do New York first. Then I’d do London and Tokyo. I think a lot of people would come out to eat there.
The other thing that definitely keeps “Christmas In Hollis” such an enduring holiday classic is that it’s featured in Die Hard, which has become this unofficial Christmas tradition for action film fans. What was your reaction to hearing Argyle cranking up the song in the limo for John McClane?
Man, I had no idea back then because I hadn’t seen the movie when it first came out in theaters. But I remember that opening weekend, remember pagers? Well, my pager was blowing up with people ringing it off the hook. And when I finally got to a pay phone to find out what was going on, someone told me, “Yo, your record’s in Die Hard!” A lot of people were introduced to the record because of that movie.
A Very Special Christmas features artwork from the late Keith Haring. How tight was Run-D.M.C. with him way back when?
Keith Haring’s foundation actually designed a pair of Adidas for us in 2013 called the Christmas In Hollis Superstar 80s. Haring loved hip-hop and was always around, at our shows and hanging out with us at restaurants. It’s funny you should ask that; when Basquiat died, he had a ticket to see Run-D.M.C. at the Ritz in his pocket. Those downtown artist guys were down with hip-hop since the beginning. If you were to walk into say Danceteria or The World in the mid-80s, you would see Keith Haring and Basquiat with Blondie, Afrika Bambaataa, The Ramones, Lou Reed, Run-D.M.C., and we were all hanging out together. It was all one thing.
You mention the Yule Log in your verse. For many people who grew up in New York, the WPIX Yule Log has been must-watch TV on Christmas morning for over a half-century. How prevalent was it in your household?
My whole life! It was on my whole life, and that’s why I said it in the song. When I wrote that verse, I wasn’t coming from a fictional storytelling place, I was coming from reality. And I think that’s why people go right to my rhyme anyway. It’s real. It’s visual. Everybody can relate to that festive yule log style. Run’s rhyme was brilliant, but it was about Santa Claus. My rhyme wasn’t fantasy. My rhyme was real.