Sunday, May 19, 2013


"That's so old," Professor Moriarty (as portrayed by Henry Daniell) sneered, "it's new."

If he was around today, he'd refer to "hip hop" that way, as a prime example of something diabolical…of the fiendish way dangerously ignorant people took nursery rhyme and melded it to rotten percussion. "Hip Hop" -- sounds like a dance taught to mentally slow children around Easter. And yet these simple-minded idiots with "bling" on their teeth would tell you "hip hop" is new and cutting edge...not a fouling of nursery rhyme and the most simple and mindless of rhythms.

Old folkies will claim that Bob Dylan's "Homesick Subterranean Blues" was the first popular rap. But older folkies would tell you that Bob only rocked the well-known "talking blues," a style of monologue-with-music heard for over a century.

Uptown from Greenwich Village clubs that booked Dylan was a place called "Upstairs at the Downstairs." That part of town, the West 50's, was known for Broadway theaters, chic nightclubs, and a variety of "cult" establishments where you could listen to jazz and/or "sick comics" turning stand-up comedy on its head.

At "Upstairs at the Downstairs," impresario Julius Monk booked fresh young talent. This included promising singers and comics such as Tammy Grimes, Dorothy Loudon, Ronny Graham and Mary Louise Wilson. I'd name more, but you probably would not have heard of them, as most chose to graduate to Broadway, not to movies or television. Wilson's list of credits over the years is remarkable for someone most have never heard of.

Each season, Monk would throw together a new show of sketches and comedy songs aimed at the affluent upper middle-class. He was not out to offend, nor was he very political. His sense of humor was very much like most of the New Yorker cartoons of the day…preoccupied with the PTA, fashion, the vagaries of Madison Avenue, or being anyone whose job at the office might lead to taking tranquilizers.

One of the lesser shows, "Dressed to the Nines," (1960), does have some odd tracks. There's one about a teenage junkie getting a fix from her nanny, a silly novelty about celebrities getting married (if Sybil Thorndike married Ish Kabibble she'd become Sybil Kabibble - ha ha, tra la), and a quick sketch about a neurotic consulting his shrink — who happens to be his girlfriend's father. Buried in the mix is "Con Edison," which might be the first "comedy rap."

Except….at that time the audience knew the source material: Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo," which was sort of "rap" without any music beyond the rhythm of the words. The joke (then) was a bunch of sophisticated New Yorkers reduced to rapping about the city's electricity provider the same way Lindsay chanted about jungle creatures. Some of Lindsay's experiments in sound were recorded back in 1931...most notably his attempt to mimic feline noises ("Proud Mysterious Cat") and his epic "The Congo," now quite un-PC in noting the "basic savagery" of the black race…as well as the excitement of their culture, glory of their percussion and the soulfulness of their vocalizing. Anyway…"Con Edison" appropriates the rap-percussion and expands on it…poking fun and eardrums at the way the utility fucked up the streets (and still does).

Maybe you'll be amused because…it's so old, now it's new.


No comments: