Rap Victoriana

July 2 1996 3:30 AM

Rap Victoriana

What hip-hop and parlor music have in common. 

By Mark Steyn

Advertisement

(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:

44000_44413_crowd

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?

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 1:04 PM Which States Should Secede From the Union?
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.