Use the season as an excuse to make some holiday music people might actually enjoy.
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You Should Consider Making A Christmas-Themed Beat Tape/Instrumental Album
In 2017 I 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 nonstop during his shifts in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Davis decided to upload his incredible 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. After collecting and organizing all of the samples that sounded useful, he turned them into a seamless, non-stop instrumental composition.
When I asked about his decision to use such a specific sample source that might be perceived as gimmicky or 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 EMI served Danger Mouse with a cease and desist notice, 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 many other highly sought after artists.
Now, with the holiday season upon us, let’s examine the thematic sampling opportunities producers can take advantage of to boost their visibility by using a Christmas music as their sole sample source. 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 a cable TV favorite for close to three decades. Framing a work of art around a widely understood event or idea grabs people’s attention. The people behind movies likes Home Alone, 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 former Def Jam Director of Publicity Bill Adler approached Run DMC in 1987 to record something for the Special Olympics benefit album A Very Special Christmas, the group was very adverse to what they thought was a corny gimmick with little artistic merit. Adler eventually convinced them, however, and Jam Master Jay found the now-classic loop from Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” to use as the song’s musical backdrop.
Instead of treating the project with disdain, the group decided to take their song seriously and put a unique twist on the holiday. “Every other Christmas song is like a fantasy,” DMC told Evan Rytlewski in a 2013 A.V. Club interview. “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 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.”
32 years after its initial release, it’s hard to argue his point. “Christmas In Hollis” remains a holiday favorite every year, earning more than 24 million Spotify spins and 12 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 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 may have 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, an endless cache of sample-friendly songs are just waiting for innovative producers to flip.
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.
Christmas songs—often filled with beautiful piano, rich stringed instruments, and impressive vocal works from famous singers and choirs—can be very sample-friendly. With all of the obscure Christmas vinyl 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, it also gives your hypothetical instrumental album a notable built-in anniversary. Many 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 and music journalists writing about it or sharing it on social media in November and December.
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.
Bonus: 5 Impressive Christmas Instrumental Albums Worth Picking Up on Bandcamp
Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!