Rap Victoriana

July 2 1996 3:30 AM

Rap Victoriana

What hip-hop and parlor music have in common. 

By Mark Steyn

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(1242 words; posted Monday, July 1; to be composted Monday, July 8)

Just over a century ago, at 207 Grand Avenue, Milwaukee, a cocky teen-ager hung a shingle outside his door:

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CHARLES K. HARRIS BANJOIST AND SONGWRITER SONGS WRITTEN TO ORDER And with those four stigmatic words, the music business was born. There'd been music before, but, with Harris, it's the business that impresses. His first effort was the prototype pop hit "After The Ball," which, 104 years later, you can still hear every night of the week in the current Broadway revival of Show Boat. Back then, it began earning him $25,000 per week almost immediately, and went on to sell 5 million copies of sheet music. This was 1892, remember, when 25,000 bucks was still 25,000 bucks, and you didn't have to split it with accountants, managers, coke dealers, and any traumatized ex-catamite whose father has a smart lawyer.

We've come a long way since then: ragtime and radio, hillbilly and race records, big bands and showtoons, 45s and triple concept albums, MTV and CDs and horror-core. ...

You're not hep to horror-core? Let Ronin Ro, whose book, Gangsta, comes out next month, explain: "Horror-core," he writes, "was to hip-hop what death metal is to Brahms or Mozart." To be honest, I think Ro is indulging in a little rhetorical exaggeration here: I suspect horror-core is a lot closer to hip-hop than death metal is to Brahms or Mozart. Come to think of it, Brahms isn't that close to Mozart. But pop music has always had a hazy grasp of perspective. As David Bowie said on the 1977 "Bing Crosby Christmas Show" when the host asked him if he liked any of the older songs: "Oh, sure, I love Harry Nilsson."

But even rappers are getting into the nostalgia act these days. They're on the new West Side Story recording where Salt-N-Pepa, Def Jef and others do "Gee, Officer Krupke," and, between choruses, add their own machine-gun interpolations, beginning with:

Music by Bernstein! Lyrics by Sondheim!

I'm talkin' 'bout West Side Story, it's before my time!

...

So don't criticize the way that I party

This ain't Broadway, we learned it the hard way!

 

It's a cute joke, but the cockiness and special pleading remind us how things have changed: In 1957, the Sharks' and Jets' cool was parodic and laughable; in the '96 version, these gangs are cool for real. Their braggadocio is a cliché--even in Britain, where, according to record-industry statistics, Doris Day reissues outsell all American rap. You remember the old Weber and Fields joke?