The story of 'This Christmas (Rap),' an overlooked Chicago hip-hop track from the 1980s

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The holiday season is arriving, and with it comes the constant stream of yuletide music pumping out of car radios and shopping centers. Of course there's more to seasonal music than the corporate coffee-shop dreck we all love to hate, and among the many releases dropping on Friday are a couple Christmas hip-hop reissues from excellent Boston label Get On Down: Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas in Hollis" single and Profile Records' Christmas Rap compilation, which both came out in 1987.

If you're looking for a deeper seasonal cut for the discerning hip-hop head skip over the special releases at record stores this weekend and go hunting for Mello D.'s "This Christmas (Rap)." It's an overlooked local oddity, a 1988 Christmas rap single that came out on Dance Mania, then a fledgling house label that was a few years away from developing its reputation as the home of ghetto house. The brawny "This Christmas (Rap)" is made with blocks of thundering drums and a rigid jingle bell loop—house icon Jesse Saunders cut up and twisted those elements for the extended mix that appears on the record's B side. Saunders's collaborator Duane Buford coproduced the single as Duane & Co., which is also the name he used for the first record Ray Barney released on Dance Mania, 1986's Hardcore Jazz.

Buford had a foothold in the local house scene thanks in part to his work with Saunders—among the many Saunders projects Buford was involved with was Jesse's Gang, which signed to Geffen and released Center Of Attraction in 1987. But Buford was eager to take a swing at other genres around the time he teamed up with Mello D. "I felt at the time, just as a musician, that I was capable of trying other genres—like R&B and hip-hop and things like that," he says. Buford says he can't remember how he first met Mello D., though they found each other through mutual friends. "Like most guys who were rappers, they had the talent to rap but they had no one to put music behind their stuff that they wanted to do," Buford says.

The pair kicked around ideas until Mello D. came up with the idea for a holiday song. "He just kind of recited the lyrics and I was like, 'OK, I like that,'" Buford says. They decided to sample "This Christmas," the classic 1970 soul number by Donny Hathaway. "That's just like a classic Christmas song," Buford says. "Personally I call it a ghetto classic Christmas song. It's like if you don't hear that through Christmas it's not Christmas." Buford and Mello D. recorded "This Christmas (Rap)" at Chicago Trax and dropped the 12-inch in late 1988. "I think I had it ready in November," Buford says. "I released it too late. But Ray liked it and liked the idea, so we went on and released it when we did. But in hindsight it was released too late."

The audience for Dance Mania was keen on house music, so "This Christmas (Rap)" wasn't quite what some people were looking to buy. "Ray had his loyal customers he would distribute it too," he says. "In that scene it did OK, but not like some of the house music stuff that he was known for." Buford says he and Mello D. aimed to make a full-length at one point, but Buford was juggling an increasing workload that kept him busy. Buford went on to produce Ten Tray's 1992 debut, Realm of Darkness; just a few years after that Buford joined Ministry.

Buford says he hasn't seen Mello D. in years, and he's had no luck in his attempts to find the MC. "This Christmas (Rap)" is still circulating in local record stores—both Dusty Groove and Gramaphone have it listed on their sites, and I recently picked up a sealed copy at Logan Hardware. It's a treat for the right person, but I won't blame you if you stay away from any holiday-themed records. Fortunately for all of us Peter Margasak just wrote about ten box sets that would make great gifts for the music fanatics in your life, so if you haven't read his feature yet do so now.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.

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