Everything You Don't Know About Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'"
By Jay Quan
In 1979, producer and Billboard writer Robert “Rocky” Ford came up with the idea to write a Christmas Rap song with the hopes that it would receive airplay every holiday season. Ford’s idea was a lofty one, as it was the spring of 1979 and we were months away from the first Rap recordings and outside of New York’s boroughs, no one knew what Rap was. Ford’s associate Mickey Addy had written a Christmas song for Perry Como and he assured Rocky that a Christmas tune was guaranteed yearly airplay. Rocky ran his idea by his Billboard colleague and Hollis Queens native J.B. Moore who penned some holiday bars and the result was Kurtis Blow’s debut single, Rap’s first Christmas record and one of the few Rap records out of the more than 20 released in 1979 to (eventually) be taken seriously by the industry and achieve commercial success.
“J.B. Moore wrote the first half of that song – all the parts about Christmas, but I wrote the second half with all the party references and I was inspired by D.J. Hollywood and Eddie Cheeba” says Kurtis Blow during a break from sound check from his enormously popular Hip Hop Nutcracker stage play. “My 'Disco Son' D.J. Run also wrote some parts—though he wasn’t credited. 'Not a preacher or a teacher or an electrician /a fighter or a writer or a politician/the man with the key to your ignition/Kurtis Blow is competition.” Run wrote that.
The road to the release of “Christmas Rappin’” was a difficult one and is indicative of just how new Rap was and how little anyone, especially in the record industry, believed it to be marketable—much less an art form. “We got turned down twenty-one times! Twenty-one 'no’s'—and the twenty-first was from the owner of an independent label called Panorama Records run by the man that would sign Run-D.M.C. three years later – Cory Robbins." It took John Stainze, who was from Britain and worked with Phonogram Records (a division of Mercury), to convince his colleagues in the L.A. office to sign Kurtis after he received the demo from J.B. Moore.
Outside of “Rappers Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang, credited as the first successfully commercial Rap recording not many early Rap records proved the nay sayers wrong commercially and “Christmas Rappin’” is one of them. According to Blow, the terms of his deal stated that his first single needed to sell at least 30,000 copies in order for him to release a second single and the second single needed to sell 50,000 in order to record an album. “Christmas Rappin'” sold 370,000 in its first year, and the follow-up “The Breaks” sold 870,000 in its first year. A full-length album was next.
Musically, “Christmas Rappin’” abandoned sleigh bells and the typical instruments found in holiday music and instead followed the tradition of the Funk and Disco music that was still very much alive in 1979. Producer and bass player Larry Smith told Robbie Ettelson of Cuepoint: “'Good Times' by Chic was the biggest record in 1979 and we just changed up the cadence of that bassline.” To prevent Kurtis from having to rhyme over his own vocals, an instrumental “Do it yourself” version was released as the flip side of “Christmas Rappin’” and this became a standard for Rap singles as they previously contained a long version A side and short version B side. These early instrumentals (“The Breaks” contained an instrumental version as well) provided source material for aspiring Rappers to write to. Kurtis Blows self-titled full length album did not contain ‘Christmas Rappin’”, but “Rappin’ Blow” which contains the same music track without the holiday lyrics is contained on the album in an attempt to give the song life after the holiday season.
“Christmas Rappin’” is the gift that keeps giving. It’s been sampled over two hundred times and still gets the party jumping today. Rocky Ford’s vision of a song that can get play every year was more than fulfilled, as “Christmas Rappin’” has been a holiday staple for more than four decades. Kurtis Blow continues to reign as Hip Hop’s holiday king with his Hip Hop Nutcracker which is in its seventh year and will hit thirty one cities for forty five shows this holiday season.