The sparsity of successful Christmas rap is ironic when you realize that Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” is one of hip-hop’s earliest, most commercially successful records. It was even the first rap record on a major label, and sold over half a million copies; roughly as many as its follow-up, the undeniable classic “The Breaks.” Almost 40 years later, though, the dearth of holiday cheer in rap is far larger than in almost any other genre as popular and widespread.
When you look at both Christmas and hip-hop as modern social phenomena, it’s not that hard to see why the two blend so poorly. The moment Kool Herc decided to loop a drum break on two turntables, hip-hop became the voice of the voiceless. After all, it was the combined effects of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President Nixon’s policy of “benign neglect,” the ravages wrought by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, and the general poverty in large swaths of 1970s New York City that indirectly birthed the culture.
DJ Kool Herc used whatever instruments he had at his disposal—a mic and turntables—and fused his own ideas together with the musical traditions of sound systems from his native island of Jamaica. The cultural hybrid it spawned would go on to change the world.
The act of partying, and creating something out of nothing, by a people wholly discarded by their government, is in itself an act of defiance. Years before Melle Mel ever rapped “The Message,” and rap lyrics grew to encompass much more than boasts and party starters, hip-hop was already raging against the machine, simply by existing. By its very nature, no matter how popular it has become, hip-hop is a counter-culture.
Christmas, on the other hand, is a different animal. Though it ostensibly celebrates the birth of a revolutionary who preached against materialist craving, over the course of the 2,000 years since his passing, it has been turned it into the pinnacle of consumerism.
Even without that admittedly bleak outlook on this merriest of holidays, though, it’s hard to see Christmas as a counter-cultural phenomenon, especially within the Western world, where Christianity is still the biggest religion. Even to those celebrating it as a predominantly cultural rather than religious tradition, Christmas is about reflection, about being with family, being appreciative of that family, and for what one has been given in life. Christmas songs find comfort in conformity, and that makes them rap’s direct opposite.
Which also explains why coming from a rapper, a Christmas song is almost bound to feel corny; it’s an unconscious renunciation of rap’s status as an outsider and embraces the status quo. Hence the feeling that most Christmas rap records sound about as cool as Master Rapper Barney Rubble who is here to say, he likes Fruity Pebbles in a major way.
Taking a quick look at the few Christmas rap songs that actually do work essentially confirms this theory. Most fall into an almost parodying category, like Eazy-E’s “Merry Muthafuckin' Xmas,” Mr. Lif’s “Santa's Got a Motherfuckin' Uzi,” or Run The Jewels’ “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” by (over)emphasizing the rawness of rap, and juxtaposing it with the perceived corniness inherent to Christmas schmaltz. Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” however, takes a different, trickier approach.
“Christmas in Hollis” is perhaps rap’s only genuine contribution to the pantheon of Christmas classics, and is a completely earnest Christmas song without sounding corny. This is largely due to the way Joseph "Run" Simmons and Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels approached the subject—it's literally close to home—and the absolute rock star status the group had earned at the time.
Run-DMC was so revolutionary in both sound and image to a generation of pop music listeners, so far outside of the mold of any band of successful musicians in the known universe, and so confident in embracing what made them, them. They simply could not have been considered corny had they actively tried to be. Run-DMC, at its peak, was counter-culture in optima forma. That they could even get away with making a Christmas rap record makes them the exception that proves the rule.
There are a few other Christmas rap songs that work well and don’t fall into either category, but that’s mostly because they succeed on their own merits as songs, rather than Christmas songs. De La Soul’s “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” for instance, is a perfect example. The song is tangentially related to Christmas due to its title and subject, but with its harrowing tale about a molested girl exacting her revenge on a man dressed as Santa, it’s not exactly something to put on while sipping eggnog.
An even better example is “Player’s Ball,” OutKast’s 1992 debut single, which appeared on A LaFace Family Christmas two weeks after its release. “It’s beginning to look a lot like what..?” spits André, before diving into a tale describing the annual gathering of pimps in their hometown of Atlanta. The song is definitely festive, and the reference André drops in the beginning, coupled with the jangling Christmas bells in its production, certainly make it feel like at home on a compilation of Christmas songs, but is it really about Christmas?
“Player’s Ball” is obviously a classic rap song but it is rarely considered a classic Christmas song, or even a Christmas song at all. Those bells I mentioned earlier, they were a staple of hip-hop production in the early ‘90s. And the Christmas reference André makes at the beginning of the track is a fleeting one in the picture the song paints in its entirety. When the song found its way on 'Kast’s debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, which LaFace released the following year, it slipped right in without ever feeling unseasonable. By then, those bells made it feel like as much of a Christmas song as Nas’ “Halftime.”
The most genuine attempt at a Christmas rap song in recent years is Kanye’s “Christmas In Harlem.” The yuletide addition to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music Friday series has all the warmth of a Christmas song and celebrates the season without resorting to goofiness. The song also manages to steer clear of corniness with its soulful glow, and even though that should be considered a win, it’s really about all it does. “Christmas In Harlem” ultimately failed to etch itself into the pantheon of inescapable Christmas songs, a list that includes the work of Wham!, Paul McCartney, and Mariah Carey.
It does, however, bring us to Harlem, the New York neighborhood where The Diplomats created the most curious addition to the Christmas rap canon a few years earlier—Jim Jones’ A Dipset Xmas, a bonafide rap Christmas album.
The album shouldn’t work, at all. But somehow it does.
The words “Living fast and ballin’ at Christmas time” kick off the GOAT Christmas rap album. Saccharine bells ring out a familiar melody as Jim Jones’ perpetually strained voice welcomes the listener: “It’s finna be a good Christmas this year, Santa know when you good or you bad—huh. And we ballin'!”
On the project's first half, Jim Jones is host to Stack Bundles and Mel Matrix on practically every song, while Rell and J.R. Writer occasionally drop in. The second half includes a star-studded remix to Jones’ hit “We Fly High,” which has nothing to do with Christmas but was likely added to help the album reach an even 10 tracks. For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on the album's amazing opening: "Dipset X-Mas Time,” “Have a Happy Christmas,” "Wish List,” "Ballin' On Xmas," and "If Everyday Was Xmas.” This five-pack of tracks is a nigh-impossible balance of hood bangers and Christmas songs.
There’s “SuWoo!” ad-libs and references to Christmas as “Bristmas,” solidifying Blood ties. “Have a Happy Christmas” reminisces about Christmas in the hood, where moms was slaving away to ensure a happy holiday, and how the tables have finally turned. “Wish List” is about grinding to get money for presents and actually features the words “Cocksucker, where the guap at?” You already know when a white Christmas is mentioned on this album, it has little to do with the weather outside.
And yet the album somehow rarely strays away from sounding like genuine holiday cheer, and never comes across as a tongue-in-cheek joke at the expense of the already enshrined classics of Christmas music. Perhaps the reason A Dipset Xmas works, that is as much a rap record as it is as a Christmas record, is that Dipset never shies away from simply having fun.
Remember, we’re talking about the same crew that unapologetically turned Starship’s “We Built This City”—a song frequently awarded as the worst record made in the ‘80s—into a joyous crack rap anthem, and flipped “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” into an ode to the concrete jungle. Portraying believable hard-asses confident enough to enjoy themselves has always been at the core of their appeal.
Of course, the record is more an easy money grab than a genuine artistic statement, but that doesn’t negate that this balancing act between corny and cocky comes naturally to Jones and company. A Dipset Xmas is an anomaly in rap that is as notable as it is weirdly enjoyable. I’m not sure there’s a crew right now that could ever strike that same tone with equal success.
So this Christmas, when you’re tired of being bombarded with holiday classics all day but still want to celebrate the season, know that you can at least listen to J.R. Writer explain likening himself to Santa: “Know why? I’m getting cake here / I grab a ho ho ho, and make it rain, dear.”
Merry Christmas, everybody!