If you grew up an outspoken hip-hop fan around the holidays, chances are some well-meaning Secret Santa stuffed your stocking with a little holiday compilation called Christmas on Death Row. Yes, this album exists.
Christmas on Death Row is an album that’s puzzled used CD store clerks since its release in 1996. It’s still baffling that the label that gave us The Chronic, Doggystyle and nationwide gangsta rap hysteria devoted its resources to a full-length album of Yuletide tunes.
As great as the cover is — and we swear on Dasher and Dancer that a Death Row Christmas album couldn’t have a more perfect cover — once you press the play button, the album become quite (North?) polarizing.
The cold December of 1996 was a weird, transitional time for Death Row Records. Flagship star Tupac had just been murdered. Dr. Dre had left the label, desperate to drop his “gangsta” image as he prepared his inaugural “positive” release on his new Aftermath imprint. Offshoot Death Row East was proving to be just a theory, and a roster of West Coast veterans sat with unreleased, completed albums while label head Suge Knight began what turned out to be a five-year prison bid.
Wanting to ensure his label’s stability in his absence, Knight ended the year by overseeing the release of a double-disc Death Row Greatest Hits (an understandable, good idea) and Christmas on Death Row.
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways, this really isn’t much of a Christmas gangsta rap album. Opener “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” featuring Snoop Dogg, Bad Azz, Daz Dillinger and Nate Dogg, is what you would expect going into the album, both in terms of subject matter and quality. Snoop’s verse (a take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) sounds like it was written without really hearing the beat.
Still, the track grooves enough, until we get to the album’s next cut, a surprisingly straightforward Danny Boy rendition of “The Christmas Song.” The bulk of the album contains similar rap-free, soulful renditions of Christmas standards. Some are passably cool, but then there are baffling moments, like 6 Feet Deep’s cover of “Frosty the Snowman,” which is almost insulting in its faithfulness to the original. It’s a cover of “Frosty the Snowman” on a Death Row album that sounds note-for-note like it could have been recorded by 98 Degrees.
If there’s a bright spot to be found here, it’s Nate Dogg’s “Be Thankful,” a touching sentiment delivered in classic Death Row G-funk style that justifies this entire project’s existence. Well that, and the fact that proceeds from sales of the album went to charity. We’ve been unable to confirm exactly where the proceeds from the 200,000 copies sold went to, but if it helped anybody less fortunate have a warmer Christmas, we can get holly and jolly with that.
So, in the hyper-specific niche of hip-hop Christmas albums, were exactly does Christmas on Death Row fall? Probably somewhere in the middle.
Death Row was far from the first hip-hop label to have a Christmas compilation. Profile’s Christmas collection in the mid-'80s gave us fun like “Dana Dane’s Coming to Town,” and 1993’s A LaFace Family Christmas introduced OutKast to the world with “Player’s Ball,” a song that in its original version was about partying on Christmas Day.
Christmas on Death Row wouldn’t be the last hip-hop holiday album, either. Ten years later we got A Dipset X-Mas, which wound up being the last major project to feature rapper Stack Bundles before his untimely death, as well as several Jim Jones Bad Santa-themed Byrdgang mixtapes in its wake.
Compared to these projects, while it has the least amount of actual rapping, the soulful stylings make Christmas on Death Row one of the most consistent collections to throw on as background noise at the office holiday party while you try to make a move on Jennifer from accounts transferable. Otherwise, outside of the amazing cover, it’s flagrantly inessential for all except the most obsessive of Death Row and Christmas completists. It doesn’t even contain this recording of Nate Dogg and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which should be on every Christmas compilation from now until the end of time.