I had a thought the other day, is Bob Dylan the first rapper? His song, Subterranean Homesick Blues, has the cadence of some of the (supposedly) earliest rap content. The single was released in 1965, and according to Rolling Stone magazine, is the 332nd greatest song of all time. I’m trying to think of a dozen songs better and more important than it, let alone 331?
In a 2004 interview with Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, MC Zimmerman explained the inspiration for the song:
It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the ’40s.
Dylan was also heavily influenced by the proponents of the Beat counterculture movement of the late 1950s, particularly Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers certainly felt it contained all the hallmarks of a rap song, covering it with trademark gusto on their 1987 album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. They clearly saw the potential for rap histrionics that resided in these lyrics, despite being in a heroin-induced fog. Impressive.
But perhaps we need to delve back even earlier than 1965 to accurately trace the roots of this now dominant subculture. In the mid-1920s, the Memphis Jug Band emerged as unofficial leaders of the pre-war jug band movement that predated the golden era of the delta blues. Their lyrics and unique (certainly for the time period) style of singing seems to lay the foundation for rap lyrics that would not find prominence for another six decades. Consider these lyrics from the track Stealin’ Stealin’:
Stealin’, stealin’, pretty mama
Don’t you tell on me
I’m stealin’ back to my
Same old used to be
Now, put your arms around me
Like the circle round the sun
I want ya to love me, mama
Like my easy rider done
Now imagine these words with a drum machine and voila! You’ve got rap!