In 1987, hip-hop was ascendant—and so were Run-DMC, mega-selling ambassadors of the previously underground genre. Fresh off their 1986 smash hit album Raising Hell, the trio from the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, New York, agreed to record a holiday song for the star-studded charity album A Very Special Christmas. Appropriately titled "Christmas In Hollis," the funny, funky, ultimately relatable track became an instant classic. Here are 10 facts about the one Christmas song you'll probably never get sick of hearing.
1. Run-DMC were reluctant to record a holiday-themed hip-hop song.
When Run-DMC’s publicist, Bill Adler, first approached the group about recording a holiday song for the Special Olympics benefit album A Very Special Christmas, the Queens rappers were not interested. “Nope. We’re not doing it,” Darryl “DMC” McDaniels recalled telling Adler in a 2013 interview with The A.V. Club. "That’s what they try to do to hip-hop. They commercialize you and try to make you corny. We’re totally against anything that’s going to be fake."
2. Run-DMC thought the quintessential Christmas rap song already existed.
Another reason the trio didn’t want to make a holiday hip-hop song: They felt Kurtis Blow had already perfected the form with 1979’s “Christmas Rappin’,” the first-ever rap single released on a major label. “That record was incredible,” DMC told The A.V. Club. "So me and Run, we were like, ‘Well, if we ain’t gonna beat that, there’s no sense in even doing it.'"
3. “Christmas In Hollis” samples another Christmas song—one that DMC had never heard.
Bill Adler also suggested that Run-DMC flip the beat from Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” which was recorded for the 1968 album Soul Christmas. Run-DMC’s resident DJ, Jam Master Jay, went to the studio, chopped up Carter’s original, and came up with a funky beat that DMC and Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons couldn’t resist. At last, the rapping members of the trio were down with the idea of doing a holiday track. Interestingly, DMC had never heard “Back Door Santa,” and as he told The A.V. Club, he didn’t give the song a listen until sometime in the 2000s.
4. DMC wrote his verse from his heart—and his stomach.
As soon as Run and DMC heard Jay’s beat (co-produced by Rick Rubin), they rushed home to write their parts. Run’s opening verse is your standard holiday stuff, with rhymes about Santa and reindeer. DMC takes a different tact, with lines like “Mom's cooking chicken and collard greens / Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese.” DMC believes the authenticity of his bars is a big reason for the song’s enduring success. “It’s funky,” he said. “It’s soulful. It’s family. It’s real. ‘Christmas In Hollis’ is real, because of my verse.”
5. The second verse also references the famed WPIX Yule Log.
Kids who grew up in New York have a special place in their hearts for the WPIX Yule Log—looped footage of a log burning in a fireplace that would air on Christmas Eve on the TV station WPIX Channel 11. “It was on my whole life, and that’s why I said it in the song,” DMC told Billboard. “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.”
6. It’s the only original song on A Very Special Christmas.
One of the most popular holiday albums of all time, A Very Special Christmas features heavy hitters like Bruce Springsteen, Pretenders, Madonna, and U2—all of whom offer new versions of holiday favorites. Only Run-DMC penned an original tune—and created their own classic in the process.
7. A former collaborator of Jean-Michel Basquiat directed the music video.
The endlessly entertaining “Christmas In Hollis” video was helmed by filmmaker, writer, and musician Michael Holman, who was an NYU graduate student at the time. Holman had previously founded the noise group Gray with famed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and created Graffiti Rock, the first hip-hop TV show.
8. DMC’s mother makes a cameo in the music video.
In the video, when DMC raps about all the amazing food his mom cooks on Christmas, that’s his actual adoptive mother, Bannah, standing next to him. As DMC told Billboard, Bannah used to fry her chicken in pieces. “She’d put some grease in the pan on a stovetop and fried ‘em up,” he said. “My mom made the best chicken and macaroni and cheese EVER.”
9. “Christmas In Hollis” has been featured in numerous movies.
As befits a holiday staple, “Christmas In Hollis” has turned up in numerous films, including Less Than Zero (1987), The Grinch (2018), and Holiday Rush (2019). Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie rap DMC’s verse in 2015’s The Night Before. Bruce Willis questions whether “Christmas in Hollis” is Christmas music in 1988’s Die Hard, which is fitting, since people love debating about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
10. The song polls well among Rolling Stone readers—and editors.
Nearly 15 years later, in 2011, Rolling Stone readers voted “Christmas In Hollis” the 10th best Christmas song of all time. It was the only hip-hop track on this list. For the record, John Lennon placed first with “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”