How an Early Christmas Single Helped Hip-Hop Explode
Kurtis Blow's 1979 track "Christmas Rappin'" was proof that rap had a place in the money-or-nothing recording industry. It was also just really sweet.
The first hip-hop single ever released on a major label opens with a white dude reading a 150-year-old poem in a mid-Atlantic accent. "'Twas the night before Christmas," he says.
Three seconds into the read-through someone cuts him off, taking over the track like a pissed-off private on the brink of mutiny. "Hold it now, wait, hold it," he says. "That's played out. Hit it!" The snare cracks, the funk drops in, and rap music has its first holiday classic.
Curtis Walker was a kid from Harlem with a limber but straight-ahead style and an unbridled love for disco. Coming up, he'd been a breakdancer, a respected local DJ (as Kool Kurt), and then a program director for the radio station at the City College of New York, where he had enrolled in 1976 to study Speech Broadcasting and Communications. It was there that he started hanging out with a Sociology major called Russell Simmons, who was trying to get into the party promotion game. When the two friends got out of school in '77, they started their own club, Night Fever Disco, out in Simmons's hometown of Hollis, Queens. Simmons would hit the streets, book the nights, and promote everything to death. Walker—working as Kurtis Blow, the name that Simmons had been pushing on him since CCNY—would be the house DJ.
But for all of his expertise as a DJ, Kurtis Blow knew that he needed to MC as well if he'd have any chance of making it. With Simmons's help, he found himself on some of the most sought after bills in the city, mic in hand, often opening for Grandmaster Flash. And one night in the summer of 1979, as a result of Simmons's relentlessness, Blow got his break.
It came via an unlikely source. Robert "Rocky" Ford was a staffer at Billboard. He was the manager of post-production for the company, but he'd dabbled in writing too, and he'd been looking for a follow-up to his groundbreaking 1978 piece on breakbeat culture. According to Dan Chamas's The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, a chance meeting with a young kid posting promo stickers in Queens gave him just that. The kid told him that the stickers were for his brother's nights; Ford passed the kid his card and said his brother should use it. A day later, Russell Simmons had Rocky Ford on the phone.
Simmons took Ford all over New York after that, showing him the parts of the scene that he'd missed, introducing him to styles that were about to take over. Eventually, Ford had a thought so distant from modern music journalism that I can barely comprehend it: He wanted to cut a record with one of these guys.
As Blow explained it in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy in 2015, Ford came down to a show at the buzzing Hotel Diplomat on W 43rd Street in Manhattan some time in the summer of '79, set on finding the right artist to pick up for a single. Flash, Lovebug Starski, and Eddie Cheeba were all on the bill that night too, but Simmons convinced Ford to work with Blow, who was, in his own words, "a good looking guy." Ford's idea was a Christmas single, something that might continue to bring in some royalty checks every year. (Or, as Blow put it, "a song about Christmas that would be played every year like Nat King Cole’s song.") And when Ford told fellow Billboard staffer J.B. Moore, who worked in advertising and sales, that he wanted to produce a Christmas rap track, the first of its kind, things started to move quickly. "The next evening, Moore surprised Ford by calling him at home with the completed lyrics to a rapping parody of "The Night Before Christmas," Chamas writes. "They were surprisingly good, Ford thought, coming from a 37-year-old white guy with a name like James Biggs Moore III."
Soon after, Kurtis Blow went to Moore's small apartment on 9th Avenue and 45th Street to meet the two Billboard staffers and two young musicians: Denzil Miller and Larry Smith. They hammered out a few ideas, but Blow hadn't cut a song before, and things were fresh to him. "Larry Smith asked me, 'What kind of sound do you want?'" Blow told RBMA. "I didn’t know what he meant." He settled on two complimentary artists: Nile Rodgers's Chic, whose ubiquity had already inspired The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," and James Brown, Blow's hero. (By the way, if you're listening to "Christmas Rappin' and wondering whether or not Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" had inspired Blow or the cadre of producers and musicians he cut the track with, rest assured that this wasn't the case. The bassline that anchors "Another One Bites the Dust" is identical to the bassline that enters a minute into "Christmas Rappin'." But Queen's song came out in 1980. Somehow, according to Blow, nobody involved in "Christmas Rappin'" ever got a credit or a cent in return.)
They recorded in October—a month after "Rapper's Delight" had come out and blown up—with Moore's lyrics taking up the first half of the track and Blow's own lines taking up the second. With just weeks until Christmas, Ford and Moore had to push it as quickly as possible; they shopped it around to 23 labels, all but two of which rejected the song outright. At Panorama, Cory Robbins (who went onto sign Run-DMC for his own Profile Records a few years later) made a less-than-perfect offer. But eventually it fell to a British exec called John Stainze at Mercury Records—a real-life major—who insisted that the label run with it. Blow told RBMA that the label signed him to a qualified offer: "Christmas Rappin'" would have to sell at least 30,000 copies for him to move onto a second single and later an album. Whatever the deal was, "Christmas Rappin'" crushed it. They shifted 100,000 records before Christmas. It had all the longevity of a Nat King Cole holiday classic as well—the track went gold eight years later.
Blow followed "Christmas Rappin'" up with "The Breaks," another blockbuster single, in 1980, and his staggering success in the early-'80s has guaranteed his spot in hip-hop history. But his holiday single deserves to be loved on its own terms—not just as a commercial watershed, but as a fun and inventive Christmas song with a heart of gold. "Don't you give me all that jive about things you wrote before I's alive," he spits in the first verse, clearing away history to make space for himself, "'Cause this ain't 1823, ain't even 1970." His own lyrics are about Santa Claus—"a red-suited dude with a friendly attitude"—turning up to his party, and the flow is fun, silly, and sweet. "He was roly, he was poly, and I said, 'Holy moly' / You got a lot of whiskers on your chinny chin chin / He allowed he was proud of the hairy little crowd / On the point of his jaw where the skin should've been."
Just like James Brown, his hero, Blow had Santa hand out presents: "A new TV and a stereo / A new Seville 'bout as blue as the sky." But I dare you to find me a Christmas song from any genre today that's has a section as charming and innocent as the one in Blow's penultimate verse. "'Cause money could never ever buy the feeling / The one that comes from not concealing / The way you you feel about your friends," he rapped. "And this is how the story ends."
If Alex Robert Ross were here tonight, he'd say, "Merry Christmas and to all a good night." Follow him on Twitter.