Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels is laughing at the inevitability of it all. “I already know it’s going to happen,” muses the influential 53-year-old emcee, comic book creator and member of iconic hip-hop giants Run-D.M.C. It’s during seemingly every holiday season that D is reminded of one of the group’s many genre-shifting triumphs, and there have been a myriad of them, including the first hip-hop act to earn a gold (1984’s self titled Run-D.M.C.), platinum (1985’s King of Rock) and multi-platinum album (1986’s Raising Hell). But Run-D.M.C.’s most unlikely triumph remains “Christmas in Hollis,” an ageless track that has become a cultural American touchstone since its initial release on November 25, 1987.
“I can’t go to the mall during the holidays because of that song,” jokes D.M.C. of the enduring track featured on the classic 1987 compilation A Very Special Christmas. “Because every five steps somebody is shouting out my ‘It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens/Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens,’ line at me. We had no idea how big that song would become.”
The “we” being D.M.C., Joseph “Run” Simmons and the late, great Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipients and all-around hip-hop Gods. The truth is Run-D.M.C. did not want any parts of what would soon become a modern day holiday standard. They thought “Christmas in Hollis” was not befitting the Godfather hat, leather jacket, Adidas-rocking Kings from Queens. Run, D, and Jay thought a Santa Claus-inspired song would be dismissed as mere novelty.
But three decades later, you can’t escape the song. “Christmas in Hollis” is still blasting on the radio. It’s being featured Toyota, Target and candy bar commercials. Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper gave a loving nod to the track in a 2016 Saturday Night Live skit. Bet.com caught up with D.M.C. to discuss the 30th anniversary of “Christmas in Hollis,” the making of what he describes as the “dopest” holiday record ever recorded, its boundless cultural impact, how it become a millennial favorite, as well as D.M.C.’s latest EP Back from the Dead: The Legend Lives. Naughty or nice? Choose one.
When the Special Olympics first came to you, Run and Jay about contributing a song to the first A Very Special Christmas album you guys politely declined. Why were you hesitant early on to record what would go on to become one of the most beloved holiday records of the modern music era?
Two reasons. First, people were already saying that hip-hop is a fad and that it wasn’t going to last. So we had all these non-believers and critics thinking that we were going to go out like disco. At the same time, they were keeping the hip-hop thing over there…away from the Grammy’s and the American Music Awards and away from what was considered legitimate forms of artistic expression. But they always wanted to use hip-hop’s popularity. They wanted to use rap in Saran Wrap commercials and do lollipop raps. They wanted to use hip-hop fashion as a joke.
I don’t think the kids that listen to Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B and 21 Savage today could ever envision a world where hip-hop was not taken seriously.
Right! In the ‘80s we were going platinum, multi-platinum and people would still ask us, “Where will Run-D.M.C. be in five years?” We didn’t want to be the punchline. And that’s how we viewed Run-D.M.C. doing a Christmas record. It was a novelty to us. We wanted to keep it “Sucker MC’s,” “It’s Like That” and “Rock Box.” If it wasn’t Run-D.M.C. “Live At The Funhouse,” we wasn’t going to do it.
But more importantly, back then in hip-hop you had to be original…to not be a biter. People forget that there was already a great hip-hop Christmas record out made by the Godfather of rap Kurtis Blow called “Christmas Rappin’.” The irony is “Christmas Rappin’” is one of the greatest holiday records ever made, but it’s been obscured by “Christmas In Hollis.” So at that time we were like, “Nah, we can’t do a Christmas song…Kurtis did it already.”
So what ultimately changed your mind?
The thing that changed all that was was Bill Adler, who was our publicist at the time. He came to the studio to meet me, Run and Jay, and he started playing samples of songs that he thought we could use for “Christmas In Hollis.” And when the music for [Clarence Carter’s] “Backdoor Santa” dropped me and Run looked at each other like, “If we can do something on this then we will do it.” Jay went straight to the mixing boards and said, “Yo, I’m putting this together right now.”
I don’t think Jam Master Jay gets the credit he deserves as a producer. He is responsible for everything from Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper” to the Beastie Boy’s “Paul Revere.” How instrumental was he in the success of “Christmas in Hollis”?
Jay was huge. You have to understand that the original sample wasn’t enough to make the song dynamic. We could have just looped “Backdoor Santa” and rhymed over it. But when you listen to the way Jay arranged the song…just the opening of “Christmas in Hollis” and the parts we are rapping over as well as where we stopped rapping over it…that’s all Jay. It was his production. The part where we go, “The rhymes you hear are the rhymes of Darryl’s/But each and every year we bust Christmas carols,” this dude Jay blended in actual Christmas songs and made it dope! The arrangement of the record, the live scratching…that all made it dynamic. That’s Jam Master Jay.
You guys managed to make a Christmas song that never strayed away from the essence of Run-D.M.C.
And not only that. Our song is the only original on the A Very Special Christmas album. Everyone else either did [standards or covers]. Now it’s part of all the other classic holiday songs, but prior to that it was only Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Now for eternity it will be those two with the Black hip-hop guys. “Christmas in Hollis” is part of American music holiday tradition. That’s crazy!
What was your reaction when Chance The Rapper reached out to you to appear in a comedic take on “Christmas in Hollis” (“Jingle Barack”) on Saturday Night Live?
You know what’s funny? I met Chance at Bannaroo last year. Prior to that, when Chance first came out everybody was telling me, “Yo, D, this kid looks just like you. Chance The Rapper is you son!” And at the same time, people were joking to Chance, “Yo, is D.M.C. really your father?” [Laughs]. So when I walked into the rehearsal for Bannaroo, I saw him and he saw me and he goes, “Yo D.M.C., everybody says you look like my father!” And was I was like, “My son!” We had a big laugh.
So flash forward to the Christmas show on Saturday Night Live. They’re in the writing room talking about how it would be a good idea to do “Christmas in Hollis” parody. And someone tells Chance, “We need someone to play your father.” And Chance goes, “I got the perfect person to do it!” And right then and there he called me. They recreated the entire “Christmas in Hollis” video from the dinner table to the sleigh and the dog to the backyard with the snow. When I got to the set it was amazing. Chance’s people were like, “Yo, this is crazy…D.M.C. really is your father!”
Do you ever get tired of people reciting your legendary “Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens” line in the song?
Never [laughs]! You know what’s beautiful about that? From Muslims to Jewish people, Africans, Italians, Jamaicans and young and older people — I just wanted to relate my personal memory of Christmas to everyone. People from all cultures and walks of life can identify with my rhyme about sharing that time with your loved ones and family. It’s a universal theme.
It also doesn’t hurt that you are still cashing checks from the song. Are you still surprised when you see a television commercial using “Christmas in Hollis” 30 years after its release?
It’s weird because since the moment that record dropped it’s been a constant anticipation to see what company or [entertainment outlet] is going to use the song during the holiday season. “Christmas In Hollis” It’s still being used in commercials and television shows. I just did this thing with IFC where I recreated the first four bars of my rhyme from “Christmas in Hollis” to shout-out the different movies they will be running during their Christmas marathon. Now that’s far reaching.
But the thing that first showed Run-D.M.C. the possibilities of this iconic, classic song is the movie Die Hard. I had a pager at the time and it kept going off and going off. And I’m like, “Who the hell died?!!!” So finally someone hits me and says, “Yo D…we at the movie theater watching Die Hard and they are playing ‘Christmas in Hollis!’” It was bananas. So imagine you are going to see Bruce Willis and then “Christmas in Hollis” drops out of nowhere in the movie. That was mind blowing to us.
But you haven’t been content with just reliving your past glories with Run-D.M.C. You have a new EP out entitled Back from the Dead: The Legend Lives, which goes beyond the classic rock sound you love. What made you go for a more heavy metal vibe on this project?
I was just trying to capture all the music I was inspired by from Led Zeppelin and Neil Young to the Rage Against The Machine. So with me trying to showcase those influences it came out with a more current sound because everything that I’m doing now is original fresh music and fresh rhymes. It’s not like I went into the studio and said, “I’m going to make a record like ACDC.” And it’s not like I felt that I had to sound exactly like “Rock Box,” “King of Rock” or “Walk This Way.”
I went into this project with the mindset of doing what I did back then during the Run-D.M.C. days, but showing more of an artistic progression. It’s a contemporary rock sound. I don’t think it would be right if “Back From The Dead” or “Coming Like A Rino” copied ACDC or The Rolling Stones. It would be kind of corny. I’m going in like I never recorded before.
Talk about the concept behind the project. Did the political and socially conscious feel of some of the tracks come about naturally during the writing process?
Definitely. I knew I wanted to go into this project and talk about what’s going on in my life and around me. That’s why everything seems politically and socially motivated. With Run-D.M.C. I had a role to play. That had a lot to do with me feeling like I was in a box. Run and Jay evolved. Run’s rhyme style evolved and Jay’s production style evolved. When Treach from Naughty By Nature came out Run wanted to master that style.
Right, there was definitely a more contemporary hip-hop sound on your comeback album Down With the King (1993).
But I was never given the opportunity to evolve. Run and Jay would say to me, “D, you were killing it with that style in ’86…that’s all you need to do.” With Run-D.M.C. I was on a team and I knew that the wide receiver could not be the quarterback. I stayed in my lane. I almost jumped off the roof when Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine came out [laughs]. That’s what I really wanted to do. I was already thinking those type of styles in 1986, but I couldn’t put that on a Raising Hell record. All I had to do was grab the mic and be the King of Rock.
Now I have that opportunity to be a more complete songwriter. Now I am able to write songs about who I am on a personal and political level. When that beat comes on I’m going to talk about what I’m going through, how I’m living and, most importantly, how I feel personally. It’s all me.
(Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)