Composer, songwriter, and musical impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber is known for many things, but one thing he is not is a hip-hop historian.
His recent comments about T.S. Eliot’s “The Rum Tum Tugger” being the first rap song was strange, odd and slightly offensive if not downright ignorant - an utterance that would cause even the most casual rap fan to crane their neck in disbelief.
The line he used to make his point:
The Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat
If you offer him pheasant he would rather have grouse
If you put him in a flat then he’d rather have a house
To his credit there is a certain rhythmic quality to it. Better than what half the rappers out there right now are doing. But not anywhere close to rap, much less ‘the first’. So it’s hard to direct the idea to its proper receptacle – should it go directly in the garbage, or is it something that should be recycled and thoughtfully reexamined?
Both, really. The comment was almost certainly presented with a wink and a smile, and was more likely a promotional blurb explaining the hip-hop friendly themes in the new run of Cats than a history lesson.
But say he wasn’t kidding and he genuinely believed what he was saying was true. This brings up an interesting question: What are the origins of rap and who was the first?
The history is out there, and a timeline can technically be built, but the way Webber is justifying his statement reflects just how in the dark he is. Because you can go past T.S. Eliot, you can go past American history, into Africa and beyond. You can go even further than that. Based off of Webber’s reasoning Moses was the first hypeman while Mary Magdalene was the first video ho.
What a statement like this does do is afford us the opportunity to discuss the origin of not only rap, but everything - the chicken and the egg paradox. Because to pinpoint one singular person or moment as the cause of this or that event is to lose site of the fluidity and collaborative nature of evolution, specifically with creative endeavors like art, theater and music.
Whether or not he realized it Webber did introduce fodder for a fascinating series of questions, which is: what is rap, how do we define it and in the future – say 100 years from now – and will we even be able to recognize what it is?