When hip-hop was still in its infancy, the popular rock band Blondie was there in support. Many can pose that they were there, but Blondie, which was founded by and comprised primarily of singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, was taking trips from Manhattan to the Bronx, meeting with early rappers, DJs, graffiti artists, breakers and absorbing the culture.
Both Harry and Stein followed their curiosities and, as such, Blondie was one of the first mainstream groups to introduce rapping to the populous. The band was excellent at playing, melding, and jumping genres, from rock to disco and rap. The band’s smash hit, “Rapture,” featured Harry rapping, influenced by the famed emcee Fab 5 Freddy.
But what fans might not know is that there is an earlier version of “Rapture,” with the music slowed down. And that previously “lost” track is now widely available for audiences. It’s a Christmas-themed song called “Yuletide Throwdown,” featuring both Harry and Freddy rapping and it’s as good as all of this sounds! (There is also an accompanying remix by famed DJ and producer, Cut Chemist.)
“As soon as we were exposed to the early hip-hop scene,” says Stein, “it was very exciting.” He adds, “It was just a no-brainer. I had only heard a couple of things and then Freddy took us to events in the Bronx. That was it from then on. I was buzzed by what was going on.”
“We kept meeting all the different DJs and rappers,” Harry tells American Songwriter. “It went on from there and, as a matter of fact, we tried to get the Funky 4 + 1 More on Saturday Night Live when we hosted. But they were just stuck on the end credits. After they did their thing on the outro, the producer from SNL, the stage director, said, ‘We should have had them on earlier.’ I was like, ‘No shit!’”
It wasn’t lip service. Harry and Stein cared about the genre. Stein even worked closely on famed early hip hop films like Wild Style. As such, their collaboration on “Yuletide Throwdown” is genuine and brings to light some of the best elements of hip hop: collaboration, joy, lyricism, and percussive sounds like sleigh bells. And, if you listen closely, you can hear the proto beginnings of the No. 1 hit, “Rapture,” in the background.
“That was the first version of ‘Rapture’ in the studio,” Stein says. “We decided it was too slow. Then we did the existing version that everybody knows. I don’t know whose idea it was to do…”
“I think it was probably your idea,” Harry says. “You always wanted to have more Christmas songs. “
“All the Christmas songs of the world are really fucking terrible!” Stein says. “There is only that Pogues song and nothing else, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe The Pretenders.”
“I like that song by Mariah Carey,” Harry says. “She does a great job with it, it’s a great pop song!”
Stein says he released the recording of the 1980-recorded Christmas song around the holidays the following year but it never got its due attention. Originally, it was released as part of a three-song Christmas song insert in a U.K. magazine. But that magazine wasn’t distributed until February, so “Yuletide Throwdown” has never really gotten its due. Until now. The song, which is out just in time for the holidays, is also a precursor to a larger forthcoming release from Blondie, too. Rumor has it a big box set where the band revisits its historic past material is in the works.
But while Stein revisits the song annually, Harry only recently re-listened. Harry doesn’t listen to her own work; for her, there is no real enjoyment in that, only self-critique.
“I think Freddy did a great job,” she says. “I think Chris did a really good job producing. Overall, I think it’s really got a great feeling and a great flavor for me. It’s heartwarming.”
Growing up, Harry remembers listening to the radio. That’s how she first really fell in love with music. She was young and she would listen to it secretly at night, scanning “the airwaves for cool stuff.” Her curiosity is evident even from the start. She thinks her first record was a Fats Domino 45. For Stein, he remembers his first album clearly: Joey Dee & The Starliters, live at the Peppermint Lounge. He also loved big Broadway productions like West Side Story. This was before the Beatles hit and rock music took over.
“When I was growing up,” Stein says, “there were all those fucking novelty songs, too. They were shit. Like the ‘Purple People Eaters,’ ‘Monster Mash,’ the Chipmunks.”
Stein and Harry met in a small bar one night when Harry was playing with her early band, the Stilettoes. Stein thinks it was her band’s first show. That group had a rotating backing cast and one day they needed a bassist. Harry called Stein and their collaborative relationship began. Eventually, they got together romantically. Today, they remain friends and close bandmates.
“I was just really taken with Debbie,” Stein says. “I always say, she has what she has and it was on display early on.”
In the same way, he recognized Harry had it, Stein knew hip hop was real and Fab 5 Freddy had it too. Harry knew also. In the early ‘80s, hip hop was new, fresh and it took advantage of soul and disco breaks in its beats that were undeniable.
“I really liked disco music when I first started hearing it,” Stein says. “There was some kind of class thing that was going on, high class-low class situation with people liking disco.” He adds, “The people we admired the most like David Bowie and Andy Warhol, they were always reinventing themselves.”
“It was something that really grew from a real, genuine feeling,” she says. “We all got hooked. Freddy broke the ice.”
“Music is different than most of the other stuff in life,” Stein says. “It has its own brain center, it’s capable of a lot of emotional reactions and almost physical change in a person.”
“It’s like medicine or food in that it can change you and take you to a different place,” Harry says. “Where you can maybe circumvent something that’s bothering you or come to a new understanding about something you have questions about.”
Photos by Bobby Grossman