(December 23, 2023).  ‘Twas several weeks before Christmas, 1979, and the nation was experiencing its first real dose of hip-hop in the form of two hit songs out of New York City — one by the group Fatback (“King Tim III”), the other by Sugar Hill Gang (“Rapper’s Delight”) — with the latter of those two famously becoming the first rap hit to crossover to the Billboard pop chart (the Hot 100).

But while Billboard’s pages were chronicling the historic chart rise of its first two rap entries, two of the magazine’s former journalists — a freelance contributor by the name of Robert “Rocky” Ford, Jr. and an ad salesman named J. B. Moore who doubled as a music critic — had been busy penning and co-producing the first Christmas hip-hop record, a little ditty by an up-and-coming 19-year-old MC out of Harlem named Kurtis Blow.  

The song was appropriately titled “Christmas Rappin’,” and it was released on Mercury Records on December 7, 1979, while “Rapper’s Delight” was at its No. 4 peak on the Billboard Soul Singles chart (and still ascending to its No. 36 pop peak) and “King Tim III” was on its way down.

Kurtis Blow performing “Christmas Rappin’” for U.K.’s Top of the Pops in 1980.

Both Ford and Moore had been employed by Billboard earlier that year, but left the publication for the sole purpose of writing and producing Kurtis Blow’s debut single.  In fact, Ford had been somewhat of a pioneer in hip-hop journalism for the magazine after writing for its July 1, 1978, issue what is largely believed to be the first nationally published article (alliteratively titled “B-Beats Bombarding Bronx”) to mention the genre of hip-hop (and fellow pioneer DJ Kool Herc).

It was likely Ford’s coverage of the burgeoning Bronx hip-hop scene that gave him the inspiration to create a Christmas rap song several months before the holiday season even approached.  In fact, he began shopping the idea before anyone had even heard of rap outside the Bronx (as neither “Rapper’s Delight” nor “King Tim III” had yet been released).

Ford approached his Billboard colleague Moore with the idea, convinced that a Christmas rap would continue to sell every December, much like Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” or Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” (of course, readers of Billboard charts today know this annual phenomenon all too well).

The two journalists had been connected to Kurtis Blow by Russell Simmons (yes, the future hip-hop mogul of Def Jam Records fame) who was already immersed in the growing NYC hip-hop scene and who’d convinced the ex-Billboard writers that the young Blow was the man for this job.  

It was Moore who penned the lyrics about a “red-suited dude with a friendly attitude and a sleigh full of goodies for the people on the block” and all of the other Christmas references, while Blow (real name Kurtis Walker) wrote the party-themed second part.

The song’s distinctive baseline had a different Billboard connection.  It was a variation of the bass hook used in Billboard’s biggest soul chart hit of 1979, “Good Times” by Chic (played by the late Bernard Edwards).

The bass player on “Christmas Rappin’,” a producer by the name of Larry Smith, told writer Robbie Ettelson that “‘Good Times’ was the biggest record in 1979 and we just changed up the cadence of that bass line.”

Blow, in a 36th anniversary interview with writer Chris Williams in 2015, later added that it was he (Blow) who invoked Chic’s “Good Times” along with James Brown’s classic funk when asked by Smith what kind of sound he should aim for when recording “Christmas Rappin’,” with the young rapper acknowledging “Good Times”’ then-recent No. 1 status and its use in “Rapper’s Delight.”

Both Smith and “the guy on the 88s” (as Kurtis raps in the lyrics) also got songwriting credits for “Rappin’.”  The “guy” on keyboards was Denzil Miller, the classically trained pianist whose distinctive playing was featured on another big R&B hit at that time (Twennynine featuring Lenny White’s “Peanut Butter”).

With the song recorded and completed by October 1979, “Christmas Rappin’” was shopped (by Ford) to — and rejected by — 21 different record labels before the 22nd, Mercury Records, finally agreed to take it on (thanks to one of their execs in the company’s London office, of all places). 

Although it sold phenomenally well, “Christmas Rappin’” by Kurtis Blow never made the Hot 100 or Hot Soul Singles chart

Mercury’s deal with Blow had an escalating clause that he would be allowed to record a second single if “Christmas Rappin’” sold more than 30,000 copies, which would more than recoup the costs of producing the record ($6,000).  He’d be allowed to record a whole album if that second single sold more than 50,000 units.  

“Christmas Rappin’” more than did its part, selling over 370,000 copies of its 12-inch single that fall and winter, nearly enough to be certified gold (500,000 copies for 12-inch singles at the time).  Mercury honored its obligation and Blow was back in the studio in early 1980 recording his followup classic, “The Breaks,” which was also written and produced by the ex-Billboard journalists Ford and Moore.

While “Christmas Rappin’” sold well, it never charted (likely due to it only being available in 12-inch format, deeming it ineligible at the time). “The Breaks” was a much bigger hit, becoming the second rap single (after “Rapper’s Delight”) to reach Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in September 1980 and the first by a solo hip-hop artist.  It also reached No. 4 on the Soul chart, selling over 870,000 copies and becoming the first rap single to go gold.

Per the contract, Blow was back in the studio in the late summer of 1980 recording what would become the first full-length rap album (his self-titled debut), and the rest, as they say, is history.

Blow was now a bonafide hip-hop hitmaker and the genre’s first solo superstar, thanks in large part to his distinctive voice and wordsmith skills plus the writing and production talents of those two Billboard writers who unwittingly became hip-hop pioneers: Moore, a middle-aged white guy at the time, and Ford, a 30-year old Black man who’d later write a hilarious piece for Essence magazine recalling how a pretty bank teller started to (finally) favorably respond to his flirtation once he began cashing “Christmas Rappin’” royalty checks.

Ford and Moore would go on to produce Blow’s first five albums for Mercury Records in the 1980s.  The royalty checks for Ford, Moore and the others would become even fatter in 1998 when “Christmas Rappin’” was sampled for another iconic Billboard blockbuster, Next’s “Too Close,” which ended the year as ’98’s biggest Hot 100 hit and one of the most played songs of that decade.

Also during the 1990s, “Christmas Rappin’” finally saw the light of day on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart by becoming a recurring holiday favorite. It peaked at No. 52 on that list in 1995.

Sadly, two of the Christmas hip-hop classic’s writers — Ford and Smith — have since passed away.

But their places in hip-hop history — along with those of Moore, Miller and, of course, Kurtis Blow — remain intact via the enduring legacy of the first Christmas rap song ever recorded… one Ford and Moore gave up their day jobs at the very trade magazine that chronicles these things to create.

And “Christmas Rappin’” remains an iconic hip-hop holiday staple to this day!

J. B. Moore (left) and Robert Ford, Jr. in 1999 at an ASCAP event honoring Next’s “Too Close,” which sampled “Christmas Rappin’”


DJRob (he/him/his), Billboard hip-hop chartologist, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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