Recently, a few friends and I gathered for a Christmas celebration. With my girl on my arm, some nog in my hand, and a fire raging nearby, the night was a sublime salute to love, friendship, and general good will. Then someone had to go and fuck up a good thing by playing Christmas carols.
If you're like me, you feel that 'tis the season for gifts, sticky green trees, and horrible, nearly ubiquitous Muzak. Traditional Christmas songs are the tuneless tidings of a whitewashed, Capra-esque America that no longer exists — not even in the dreaded red states.
But the puritan projections of the songs' themes aren't even the worst thing about the seasonal canon. To put it bluntly: They ain't got no beats. Ever try grinding to “Silent Night”? Or nodding your head to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”? I thought not.
So in the interest of all, I propose a different sort of canon, one comprised of hip hop's greatest holiday hits. And this one will be a booming, blinging, and rambunctious Xmas complete with strippers, dubs, and thugs. Just the way we like it! So get the Bing Crosby out da stereo and replace it with these cherries:
“Christmas in Hollis,” Run-D.M.C. Probably the best-known hip hop Christmas song, this classic from the seminal Run-D.M.C. first appeared on the benefit album A Very Special Christmas and chronicles a more innocent time in hip hop history. Run leads off the song with a verse about finding St. Nick's wallet on the ground: “A million dollars in it, cold hundreds of G's/ Enough to buy a boat and matching car with ease.” After mulling over the various luxuries Kris Kringle's dough would afford, Run decides to indulge his conscience and mail the wallet back to Santa. (Note: Other artists on this list will not be so principled.) The kicker comes when Run returns home to find a note from Santa declaring that “all the dough was for me.”
Christmas Spirit? With “ill reindeer,” mistletoe, and collard greens, this song is packed with holiday cheer — although the joy is tinged with a sadness for the passing of Run-D.M.C.'s DJ, Jam Master Jay.
“Millie Pulled a Gun on Santa Claus,” De La Soul. Perhaps the most brilliant Christmas song ever involving pedophilia, murder, and incest, this classic from Long Island's De La Soul tracks the sordid holiday season of one very dysfunctional family. The complex and gut-wrenching track follows Millie (“a Brooklyn queen originally from Philly”) as she becomes a victim of the “touchy-touchy game” of her father, who also happens to be a department store Santa Claus. The story climaxes in a Macy's where Millie “floats in like a zombie” and hoists a pistol up to Santa Claus as “none of the kids could understand what was the cause/ All they could see was a girl holdin' a pistol on Claus.”
Christmas Spirit? Not exactly. But this is an important song about a topic that is not generally explored in hip hop, or any other genre for that matter. The setting is ironic, of course, but it also lends the story a searing poignancy.
“Santa Baby, Run,” Mase, Puff Daddy, Salt-N-Pepa, Onyx, Snoop Dogg, and Keith Murray. As you may have guessed, this gem from the Bad Boy bling-bling era — when Puff still owned hip hop (and seemingly everything else) — is largely concerned with the material accouterments of the season. P. Diddy, then still Puff Daddy, begins his verse both honestly and predictably: “Now to me, P.D., I had a lot.” Salt-N-Pepa picks up where Diddy leaves off, imploring Santa to “make my pockets jingle ching ching.” The song, and maybe all of hip hop, reaches it materialistic nadir when the chorus chimes in, “Santa Baby, just slip a Benzo under the tree for me/ A '98 convertible, light blue.”
Christmas Spirit? This song is more in line with the true spirit of modern Christmas than any traditional carol. But for those of you who'd still like to pretend that Christmas is something more than a consumer feeding frenzy, it'll probably leave you cold.
“Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto,” Snoop Dogg. This track originally appeared in 1997 on Death Row Christmas, an album that was a lame attempt by Death Row Records' Suge Knight to rehabilitate his image after being implicated in the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls and suffering a subsequent backlash to the gangsta rap movement he helped spearhead. While a majority of that record featured vapid R&B covers of classic Christmas carols, it also included this song by Compton's Most Blunted aka Snoop Dogg — who was himself just emerging from a murder trial.
Christmas Spirit? Yes, but one can't help but feel that this Christmas cheer comes under the gun, so to speak.
“Ho! Ho!,” Ying Yang Twins. Two guesses what this song is about. And if you need both guesses, then you've probably never listened to crunk. For those of you who don't know (and you really should by now), crunk is a Southern offshoot of hip hop that prioritizes glitzy synth lines, giant swells of bass, and enormous hooks that dole out tales of strippers, liquor, and dubs. With this track, Atlanta crunk ambassadors the Ying Yang Twins find their common ground with Kris Kringle: hos.
Christmas Spirit? Absolutely. After all, Christmas is about giving, and these twins are more than willing to give it to you anyway (and anywhere) they can!
“The Christmas Song,” David Banner. Banner, a larger-than-life MC from Mississippi with a raspy, Old Testament growl and a long history of pain and oppression planted on his shoulders, has spent his career reconciling the urges of his inner demons with his more noble ambitions. “The Christmas Song,” taken from his 2003 album MTA:2, is a perfect example of Banner working out his personal contradictions. Over a sampled melody of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Banner plays at once both the devil — robbing victims at gunpoint — and a saint, delivering the spoils to the underprivileged children. Scrooge's ghosts would be proud.
Christmas Spirit? It really depends on whose shoes you're standing in. Banner is either a modern-day Robin Hood or a stone-cold thug.
So as you can see, kids, these songs say more about the current state of Christmas in America than anything you're likely to hear over the Macy's PA system. This is only a partial list, but it should set you on your way to a holiday meant for all of us, whether we have been naughty or nice.