I n mid-2017 Micro-Chop interviewed Denton, Texas producer and Street Corner Music artist Juicy The Emissary about his Attention Kmart Choppers album. The backstory is remarkable — a Kmart employee named Mark Davis saved many of the Kmart-issued cassette tapes of weird muzak and Kmart commercials that ran on a nonstop loop during his shifts in the late 80s and early 90s. Davis decided to upload his incredible audio treasure trove to archive.org in 2015 and the cache of tapes soon went viral, eventually making their way onto Juicy’s desktop.
Realizing that the audio archive had a utility well-beyond its simple novelty value, Juicy spent days sifting through the tapes and collecting samples, turning them into a seamless, non-stop instrumental composition. When asked about his decision to use such a specific sample source that might be perceived as gimmicky or self-limiting, Juicy had some keen insight about the benefits of using an attention-grabbing pool of music for samples. “I really think having a gimmick is how you get people’s attention,” he told me. “If you don’t have a gimmick, pretty much nobody’s gonna listen to your shit. It’s a good story, it catches people’s imaginations. Once you get them with that, then they actually listen to the music — which is not easy to do.”
We’ve seen this argument proven true before. Danger Mouse remixed Jay-Z’s The Black Album with samples taken exclusively from The Beatles’ The White Album. Though Danger Mouse was served with a cease and desist notice from EMI, that only increased The Grey Album’s visibility — making it the center of the Grey Tuesday online copyright protest and garnering hundreds of thousands of downloads. As a result of The Grey Album’s success Danger Mouse later went on to produce records for Beck, Broken Bells, The Black Keys, and U2.
With the holiday season approaching, let’s take a moment to examine the thematic sampling opportunities producers can take advantage of to boost their visibility and make some enduring, timeless art by using a Christmas music as their sole sample source.
“If you don’t have a gimmick, pretty much nobody’s gonna listen to your shit. “ — Juicy The Emissary
Before you start writing an outraged response at the artistic shallowness of this idea, allow a moment for some explanation. Love them or hate them, cultural touchstones give us a reason to revisit specific books, movies, and music every year —in many ways they help burn them into our collective consciousness. If Home Alone was written about a family that left their youngest son at home on a nondescript spring weekend, there’s no way it would’ve taken in 475 million at the box office and remained an enduring cable TV favorite 27 years later.
Like or not, framing a work of art around a widely understood event or idea grabs people’s attention. The people behind Home Alone and movies like Die Hard and Trading Places knew that using an annual holiday as a setting for their film would help give it permanence. The same can be said for music. When Run DMC was first approached by former Def Jam Director of Publicity Bill Adler in 1987 to do a Christmas song to benefit the Special Olympics, the group was very adverse to what they thought was a corny gimmick with little artistic merit. Adler eventually convinced them, however, with Jam Master Jay finding a now classic loop from Clarence Carter’s “Backdoor Santa” to use as the song’s musical backdrop.
Instead of treating the project with disdain, the group took their song seriously and decided to put their own unique twist on the holiday. “Every other Christmas song is like a fantasy,” DMC told the A.V. Club in a 2013 interview while explaining his “Christmas In Hollis” verse . “But my story is what really happened in real life, about real people, and what it was like as a kid growing up.”
In DMC’s opinion, the group’s fresh take on holiday songs has transcended beyond Christmas to many different cultures and religions. “It touches Jewish people, German people,” he told the A.V. Club. “It touches people all over the world. They can relate to what those rhymes about Christmastime symbolize.”
30 years after its initial release, it’s hard to argue his point. “Christmas In Hollis” continues to be a holiday favorite every year, earning more than 13 million Spotify spins and eight million views on YouTube. We might roll our collective eyes and grumble about the gross commercialization surrounding Christmastime every year, but give Run DMC credit for taking a risk, embracing the idea, and using the holiday to create one of the most recognized singles from their extensive catalog.
“It touches people all over the world. They can relate to what those rhymes about Christmastime symbolize.” — DMC
It only takes one listen to recognize “Backdoor Santa” as an obvious sample choice, but it’s far from the only Christmas song out there worth re-imagining. Christmas music has a less-than-stellar reputation among music snobs, but there’s actually an overwhelming supply of incredible holiday-themed material out there. From classical, to folk, funk, rock, r & b, and soul, a sweeping selection of sample-friendly songs are just waiting for innovative producers to flip them. And though it may come as a surprise, both famous and obscure Christmas songs have already played an important role in the evolution of rap music. Check John V. Rydgren & Bob R.’s “What Child Is This” as a notable example.
And Christmas songs — often filled with beautiful piano, rich stringed instruments, and impressive vocal works from famous singers and choirs — are some of the most sample friendly sources you can find. With all of the obscure Christmas vinyl of every imaginable genre rotting in dollar bins all over the world and royalty free collections available online, your choices for sample sources are endless.
If you’re a producer looking to take a creative risk in the same vein as Run DMC, why not create your own five to ten song EP of instrumentals using only Christmas music as a sample source? If you want some constraints to spark your creative genius, limit yourself to flipping the Christmas catalog of a specific label or artist. Can you imagine how impressed people would be if you took one of those old Your Favorite Christmas Music compilations from Firestone and turned it into an incredible beat tape? The cover art alone is begging for a remake/parody and the music on each release is ready-made for sampling.
Not only is a Christmas-themed beat tape attention-grabbing and packed with endless sample sources to explore, it also gives your hypothetical instrumental album a built-in anniversary to remind people of it every year. Most albums are only widely revisited on anniversaries of major significance. If you create an instrumental album around the theme of an annual holiday, you increase the chances of listeners stumbling upon it while Googling Christmas music or music journalists writing about it in late November and into December.
“Once you get them with that, then they actually listen to the music — which is not easy to do.” — Juicy The Emissary
Instead of looking at this idea as a soulless cash grab, think of it as a chance to build something novel and lasting out of a widely celebrated and recognized religious holiday. Even if some people hate your project, the uniqueness of it could make it a topic of discussion among the beat heads out there.
Have you already explored this idea? Share a link to your project in the comments.