There was a point in history where rap was no more than a novelty, when artists didn't have their own labels, and absolutely nobody believed hip-hop culture would survive. Enter Kurtis Blow and Russell Simmons, as well as a holiday single titled, "Christmas Rappin'." Kurtis would go on to be the first rapper signed to a major label, and soon after, Russell would change the game. In the spirit of the holidays, we've turned to our transcripts to outline just exactly how "Christmas Rappin'" came to be.
Kurtis Blow: "Russell is crawling around the floor, breakdancing, doing all these crazy moves, and I’m looking at him like, you are crazy. And everybody’s going wild."
"Well, JB Moore and Robert Ford were two writers from Billboard magazine. Rocky was a writer, but they came and saw me at the Hotel Diplomat ILone night with Flash, and we rocked the house so incredibly that Russell convinced them to use me over Hollywood, over Cheba, over Lovebug, all the older guys that were around that time. And so they chose Kurtis, young Kurtis Walker to make this song. It was actually JB Moore’s idea, to do a Christmas record. He say, ‘If we do a Christmas record, it will play every year, and it will last forever.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about, and I was just fascinated and happy to have the opportunity to make a song. So here we go. Sitting down, listening to this guy, and he’s asking me, ‘What kind of sound do you want?’ ‘Sound? What do you mean sound?’ ‘Style of music.’ Well, I said, well, come to think about it, one of my favourite artists is James Brown, so I want something that’s in between James Brown and the hottest group of that day was Chic, Good Times, you know, all the songs. All the hits they had, Bernard and Nile Rodgers, big shout-out.
My style of music was in between Chic, progressive disco funk and James Brown, so that was the style of "Christmas Rappin’"; that’s where you get that, and then the guitars are all (sings it). That’s all James Brown all day. So we did the record. The story behind the record is that JB Moore and Robert Ford went out to 22 different labels trying to sell this record. Rapper’s Delight was on every radio station. It was December, and so they went to 22 labels. One guy liked the record, Panorama Records. His name was Corey Roberts. He liked the record, he’s was an A&R director, he went up the flagpole to try get it cleared with the vice president, president, they said no. By the way, he quit three weeks later and went and started his own label called Profile Records. Three years later signed Run-D.M.C. The other guy who liked the record was a English fellow and John Staines, an A&R director from Mercury Records, Polygram Records. They said, ‘Wow, I love this record so much, we can recoup this in six months. Let’s sign him up.’ So I got a record deal with Mercury. Now the whole story behind that is, I was signed to an English company in London. Mercury Records London. I was an English artist, and my records came back to America on the import. My first couple of albums. And that’s the story behind Christmas Rappin’.
When we made "Christmas Rappin", see, Russell and I used to… His dad, God bless him, his dad used to always say, ‘You know, you and Russell, you eat, sleep and drink disco.’ We used to go to club every night, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, all the way through, right? And so everybody knew us in the clubs. Before we made the record, and so when we made the record, we were already getting in free to the clubs. We were promoters giving out flyers, blah blah blah, and we used to let the promoters in our clubs too, so it was like, we called it professional courtesy. But anyway, we had "Christmas Rappin", and before it got on the radio, right? So we knew that Frankie Crocker was the number one DJ in New York City, WBLS. Frankie Crocker was the hottest DJ forever. We all know his story. Now Frankie, we found out, Frankie used to hang out after work on Wednesdays, at a club called Leviticus. He used to come like clockwork, every, every time he got off of work, he go straight in the club and have a couple of drinks and then go home, Leviticus. We knew this.
So we, one day, Russell said look, this is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna take this record, and we’re gonna pay the DJ, Frankie comes in, sits at the bar, gets his first drink, after his first drink, we want the DJ to play the record. We’re gonna have a whole college crew in the house, and we’re just gonna lose our mind when that record comes on, right? So dig it. It happened. Like clockwork. The whole college crew, the whole college, we got about 150 kids up in this club, right? On a Wednesday, six o’clock. Here comes Frankie, sits down to the bar. Takes his first drink, me and Russell in the crowd, we in the back, right? So we see him take this drink, we say now, let’s go. Gave the DJ the high sign, and DJ put on Christmas Rap (sings it). The crowd went crazy! Whoa! Everybody’s dancing and doing their best move. Russell is crawling around the floor, breakdancing, doing all these crazy moves, and I’m looking at him like, you are crazy. And everybody’s going wild. Frankie is like, what is this. He got up, went over to the DJ. He says, what’s the name of that song? (laughs). The guy says, ‘"Christmas Rappin" - It’s the artist right there. Kurtis Blow.’
Russell came over, say, ‘Hi, I’m Russell Simmons, I want to introduce you to my artist, Kurtis. We’re in college now, you know, we’re trying to make it, so please, here’s a copy of the record.’ And he shook my head, ‘Nice to meet you, young Kurtis.’ He went back, BLS (radio), next day, drive time, four o’clock, I mean, rush-hour, five o’clock, Frankie, ‘I met this young man last night at Leviticus, very nice young college student, his name is Kurtis Blow. I told him I’d play his record, and here it is.’ Boom. He played "Christmas Rappin'." I say, ‘Russell, you are genius. You’re a genius. Thank you, Russell.'"
Russell Simmons: "It’s a good story that we put fake order numbers on Christmas Rappin’, and we had all these orders."
"So I remember when Kurtis Blow opened up and performed, after Eddie Cheba had done a great job, because Cheba and Hollywood were kind of the same in terms of their music selection. Eddie Cheba did a great job, but then Flash went on, and Kurtis Blow opened up, and I remember the lines, I remember exactly what he said, this intro, that he ran... probably is in Europe saying it now, ‘people in the place, the bass in your face, you’re about to see first place in the rap race. Now you're here, have no fear, Kurtis Blow is here. Introducing the disco dream on the mean machine, the Darth Vader on the slide fader, no one cuts straighter, greater, than New York’s number one cut creator, Grandmaster Flash.’ And Flash was (whoosh), and then he opened up played Bob James’s Mardi Gras. And it like was electrifying, and Bob saw that, and right after that there was a shootout and everybody ran out. But he saw that, hah hah.
The shootout was pretty phenomenal. I saw a guy fall in front of me bleeding with a gunshot in him, and I had the box, and I got away, and the next day was in the paper nothing, but I got away and he got shot. But it was a, you know, 1500 people, but I was actually leaving the place with the box. Not funny, I’m sure the guy’s fine. But he was shot, and Robert went to that event and saw that performance, and decided, even though Eddie Cheba was more famous, and was bigger, he decided he wanted to record Kurtis Blow, which is actually what I wanted, because Kurtis Blow was the guy who I managed and had a better relationship with. And it turned out that we recorded "Christmas Rappin’" with Kurtis Blow. Shortly thereafter. So that was, you know, that was the first entrance into, you know, the next thing I knew, I was on a plane going to Amsterdam and another great experience, because the record was playing. "Christmas Rappin’" was playing not in America a lot, but it was playing all over Europe, at least in England and in Amsterdam.
There was a British A&R director who… It’s a good story that we put fake order numbers on "Christmas Rappin'", and we had all these orders. You know, the nigga sitting around behind the desk, they don’t like to fuck with that kind of element. So they were the last people that wanna sign a rap artist. These guys, remember, Louis Vuitton clutch bags and alligator shoes with no socks. They were like very bourgeois type of niggas. They don’t even like fuckin’ with the hood if they could help it. They would stay away from that element. And that’s not music anyway. And they were more judgmental, being a little bit closer to it than a guy who’s just looking at numbers. All they know is this order, pre-order numbers, and "Rapper’s Delight" had just come out. It’s like, why would we not get this record, and they did get the record. I forget the guy's name. British A&R director, by the name of John something or other; he was... But he signed it. He reached around the black music department. There was a person in PolyGram who actually semi-embraced us, his name was Bill Haywood, God bless him. He checked out. But Bill Haywood supported us, you know, to some degree, and we had then huge record with "Christmas Rappin’", 1979. Came out not too long after "Rapper’s Delight," and it was a big national, and an underground international hit. And that was an experience."