December 24, 2012

Something Different: Various Artists - Christmas On Death Row (December 5, 1996)

Released a little more than a month after the first posthumous album from 2Pac, the Makaveli-credited The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (and a little less than a month after the second Snoop Doggy Dogg album, Tha Doggfather), Christmas On Death Row remains a curiosity that will probably never be fully explained.  It was released to very little fanfare and even less promotion during the holiday season in 1996, and rabid hip hop fans who were hoping that the project's very title was meant to be ironic were disappointed to discover that, save for a handful of tracks, Christmas On Death Row was, actually, a Christmas album, filled with covers of standards performed by the various R&B acts who populated the label but nobody ever gave a fuck about because Snoop and Dr. Dre and Pac and Tha Dogg Pound, duh.

Still, there aren't many hip hop labels who would blatantly release a Christmas album that was probably intended to divert attention away from the violent backstories that the label's roster lived publicly, so Christmas On Death Row remains a one-of-a-kind project.  It was recorded and released after 2Pac passed and long after co-founder Dr. Dre jumped ship, but still features participation from the likes of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, Nate Dogg, and a few of their weed carriers, alongside R&B acts with names such as Danny Boy (who reached his peak singing the hook on 2Pac's "I Ain't Mad At Cha"), Guess, 6 Feet Deep, Michel'le (yes, that Michel'le), and B.G.O.T.I.  

For those of you readers who celebrate Christmas, enjoy today's post and have a merry or a happy Christmas, wherever you are.  For those of you who celebrate other traditions, enjoy your day, and you should probably get back to work or something.

Although that silly title forces the artists to stick to a theme they may not feel overly comfortable with, “Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto” is actually a highly underrated Death Row posse cut. Over a jazzy beat constructed by the artist himself, Daz, Snoop, Nate, Tray, and Bad Azz all wax poetically about the holidays, with Calvin taking the crown with his two verses. It's easy to forget today, what with his rebranding as Snoop Lion (yeah, because that name change will stick) and his popular public persona, that Snoop Doggy Dogg was once a force to be reckoned with behind the mic, and his bars on here are delivered in a manner that manages to be both calculated and lackadaisical, a difficult combination to pull off. The song itself may have a ridiculous origin story, but the end result is a hidden gem that just so happens to sort-of be about the holidays.

R&B crooner Danny Boy was one of the only artists on Death Row's roster to stand by Suge Knight when the massive fallout occurred. His own career has suffered incredibly as a result of that not-very-well-thought-out decision, but it's clear that Suge appreciated the guy and his loyalty from day one, as Danny Boy scored three solo tracks on Christmas On Death Row. This track is a slower take on the Mel Torme classic (popularized by Nat King Cole) that doesn't exactly make it sound like Danny wants to roast chestnuts over an open fire while trying to get your panties wet, but it comes close, and not in a funny way. I've heard worse, but everyone's heard better, so...

Daz and Kurupt use the beat, which reminded me a little too much of Lil' Kim's “Crush On You”, as a vehicle for positive thinking, blaming their previous transgressions on not ever having received any real love in their lives (the hook if awfully blatant about this fact) while proclaiming that they will not allow the vicious cycle to continue with their own loved ones. “I Wish” is barely a Christmas song: I wouldn't be surprised to discover later that Suge forced Tha Dogg Pound to toss in some holiday-themed ad-libs by tying their respective girlfriends to railroad tracks and twirling his mustache like an evil tycoon of some sort. This song wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible: at least Daz and Kurupt prove that they can work with restrictions (specifically “no cursing”).

Apparently, signing to Death Row Records affected R&B singer Michel'le's voice: her take on the standard “Silver Bells” is performed in the deep, guttural manner that someone who ate the Michel'le who sang “No More Lies” and “Nicety” might sound. To this day, I still have no idea why Suge thought signing her to the label was a good idea: maybe he was just trying to keep it in the family, since she is Dr. Dre's baby's mama and all, and she did marry Suge just one year after this project was released. But this lifeless cover may as well have ended with the sound of Suge tearing up a contract, it's that awful. We may as well just cancel the holiday season now.

The return of Danny Boy, which happens too soon for my tastes, brings with it an attempt at writing an original Christmas song, one that sounds pretty fucking goofy because Danny never manages to truly sell it. The Kevyn Lewis instrumental is generic pap that could have been saved by some soulful singing, but instead, Suge only gives the audience whet he thinks they deserve, which amounts to many random bars about celebrating in the ghetto, some lines lifted verbatim from other, better Christmas standards, and, worst of all, Danny Boy himself trailing off while bizarrely chanting softly to himself instead of, you know, singing. What the hell was this?

The third and final rap song of the evening is brought to you by Operation From The Bottom, a trio who have made appearances on Death Row's soundtrack releases but have never managed to score a proper album (read: officially released, to stores and everything) for themselves while signed to the label. (Yes, they finally released Damn Near Dead last year, which was one of the many releases new owners WIDEawake have unleashed after purchasing and rifling through the vaults of Death Row, but they aren't signed to the label anymore, so my sentence is still accurate.) “Christmas In The Ghetto”, which goes out of its way to praise parents for working hard to provide presents for their kids while inadvertently disproving the existence of Santa Claus, which is a no-no for a motherfucking Christmas song, sounds like what the Geto Boys might do with the holiday, thanks to their dope production and the verses from Bust Stop, Flipside, and Low M.B., all of whom stick with the topic admirably, even though they kind-of fuck up and throw some curses into their bars. Not that I'm offended: I'm more concerned for the children. You know, the children whose parents will never sign off on them listening to an album with a title like Christmas On Death Row.

Suge says “fuck it” and throws three separate and terribly-named R&B acts onto a single track, all of whom work as a team to ruin “Silent Night”. Points for the commitment on the parts of the artists: I never thought I would hear a proper gospel song on a Death Row Records release before I first bought this album. But when you consider all of the other artists in the label's storied history, you quickly realize that this anomaly isn't really appropriate.

And that's the thing about Christmas On Death Row: it's actually Suge Knight's clandestine gospel album, with a few gangsta asides (of course). But even on the actual rap songs, the positive aura chimes through, which is a really fucking weird sentence for me to write. On “Be Thankful”, Nate Dogg and his invited guest shame the listener into admitting that their petty problems mean jack shit in the grand scheme of things and that life's all in the way you look at it. While the song itself was lacking, the message made me sad that Nate Dogg is no longer with us. R.I.P.

...zzzz....what? I'm awake! And I just had the weirdest dream, one where a group made up of phony Brian McKnight impersonators tried to write and perform an original Christmas song. Wait, that was a dream, right?

Suge sneaks some trap rap onto the project as...wait, what? No? This is just a fairly straightforward R&B-tinted take on “Frosty The Snowman” by what should be a Gravediggaz tribute band but is instead an R&B quartet? Okay then. The quick laugh at the very beginning made me halfway hope that 2Pac's hologram somehow added vocals to a track that was conceived, recorded, and released after his originator's passing. This was relaxing and all, but it was relatively inessential.

Considering the similarities between this song and the Irish standard “Danny Boy”, I'm somewhat shocked that Suge didn't just hand this cover over to, um, Danny Boy. Then again, as this would be the second (and probably final) time female vocalist B.G.O.T.I. would ever appear on wax, maybe Suge felt like being charitable. Anyway, this song sounded lazy and drags on for about eight crazy nights. Moving on...

Almost comically bad. With a song that's only barely about Christmas, Sean “Barney” Thomas proves that he did better work as a musician (performing on some high-profile tracks, including many released by Death Row) than as a solo artist. But hey, at least this wasn't a poorly-planned cover of a well-known holiday standard or something. Rapper J-Flexx stops by to deliver the third verse, and while he isn't terrible, I hope he's since realized that the deck was stacked against him regarding that platinum plaque he wishes for while signed with Suge.

It's almost like the folks who put the cover art and liner notes together are playing a game with the listener, or maybe they just couldn't be bothered to look up exactly who performed this cover of the Irving Berlin classic and came up with a name they thought was funny. I found this version of “White Christmas” to be very fucking weak, which isn't a good look for any of the R&B players involved, but there's a caveat: for me, Otis Redding's take on the material is the tits, and Guess are fucking galaxies away from ever reaching that level. So call me biased. You know you're going to anyway. Doesn't matter: I'm still right.

Full disclosure: I absolutely hate this song. Every single goddamn iteration of it drives me nuts, and the fact that retail outlets almost uniformly announce the upcoming holiday season by playing this shit in their stores is ridiculous to me. I hate this song with a passion, so there was just no fucking way that Danny Boy was going to somehow change that for me. However, I will give him credit for slowing the material down and removing those bullshit dramatic stabs that occur on every single other version, the ones that make you think there was some sort of revelation that occurred on the part of the artist when Donny Hathaway is really just bragging about how special his holiday will be.

One admirable trait about Christmas On Death Row is how straight all of the artists play it: every song on here is taken seriously, even the rap songs. And all of the sentiments seem to be genuine, even when one of the members of the quartet 6 Feet Deep (which is called that, apparently, because everyone in the group is just really tall) wishes the listener a merry Christmas during an interlude right in the middle of the song. This was pleasant enough, if not particularly memorable.

At the very beginning of this, the final song on Christmas On Death Row, the members of Guess helpfully explain that Smokey Robinson & The Miracles's “Christmas Everyday” is one of Suge Knight's favorite holiday-themed songs. And then they decide to cover it, and the end result sounds both decent enough and like approximately five minutes of ass-kissing. Over a Kevyn Lewis beat that sounds like something Brandy would have rejected for her debut, this R&B crew compare the unconditional love of a woman (apparently they're all singing about the same chick, which must be awkward at holiday gatherings) to the feeling of it being Christmas every single goddamn day, which is a sweet thought, I suppose. Not bad.

FINAL THOUGHTS: In no way should anybody ever pick up Christmas On Death Row thinking that it would be a gangsta take on a religious-based holiday: that would not only be fucking ridiculous, it almost certainly wouldn't fly with the bigwigs at Wal Mart, which is where I found my copy. Thankfully, Suge Knight commands his roster to take the entire project seriously, and everyone obliges, which results in occasionally charming, mostly bland takes on standard holiday tropes, but nothing on here will offend your ears (except maybe “Christmas In The Ghetto”, only because of the not-as-mean-spirited-as-one-would-thing curses, but if you read this blog and are offended by cursing, then, well, shit, you must be really mad at me right now, huh?). If you're in the market for a hip hop Christmas album, look elsewhere: there are only three true rap songs on here. And it is kind of weird that other holidays aren't exploited on Christmas On Death Row, although Kwanzaa, Ramadan, and Hanukkah songs would definitely appear to be out of place on something with the word “Christmas” in its fucking title. Still, this was an interesting-enough footnote in the history of a storied hip hop label on the verge of self-destruction. Also, you can listen to (most of) it with your parents in the room and not get embarrassed, which you definitely cannot do with, say, 2Pac's All Eyez On Me.

BUY OR BURN? It's interesting as a curiosity piece and as a historic document of sorts, but I wouldn't recommend you spend actual money on it, unless you're really into gospel-tinged covers of Christmas standards. Which may be most of you two, for all I know.

BEST TRACKS: “Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto”; “Christmas In The Ghetto”; “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”



  1. I thought Tray Deee killed it on Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto. But yeah, that's pretty much the only song I've listened to more than once from this project.

    Happy/Merry something Max!

  2. Merry holidays, Max! thanks for your work!

  3. Happy Holidays Max! How about Asher Roth's Pabst & Jazz Mixtape to start the new year with? It is awesome!

  4. Hey Max, are you going to make some kind of "Best of 2012" list, because I'm sure a lot of people would be interested in reading that.

  5. Nice review. Been reading this site at work for about a year now. Keeps me busy!

    This is only one of two albums I've ever returned along with Dead Prez - Let's Get Free (Yea, I know, and I own the entire Cash Money discography.. I did rebuy it a couple of years ago though). This was just terrible!

    Merry Xmas, keep up the good work!

  6. I Wish is a very dope song in my book... so is Peaceful Christmas and Be Thankful. Barney Rubble's production for the latter is amazing. I'm a Death Row fan, and I don't think that it's a worthy purchase (although I own a copy of it) but it's alright. good review, Max although this confirms we definitely don't have the same taste in rap. as far as (westcoast) Christmas projects are concerned, I definitely prefer Master P's High fo Xmas EP though...

  7. Good review. I need someone that can do reviews for my blog

  8. What the... I have this somewhere on my hard drive. It's terrible. Never even listened to the whole thing. Yuck!

  9. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Suge has a sweet side to his personality. Not only did he have a cash-poor but positive upbringing, he was near colorblind when it came to race. None of this takes away from the other (infamous) side of his personality, of course.