The funky delivery, the boasts, the comical trash talk, the endless quotables: As a rhyming trickster in the early Sixties, the greatest boxer who ever lived was also a cornerstone in the early development of hip-hop music. Generations of youth who grew up during the hip-hop era may have missed out on his boxing exploits in real time, but his outsized personality has been experienced through countless B&W newsreels, TV and film documentaries and four-color adventures like Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, the classic 1978 comic where the heavyweight champion of the world demolishes the Man of Steel. To this day, his poetic flights of whimsy sound as fresh as ever.
When the man formerly known as Cassius Clay taunted his rivals with rhymes such as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” he personified a one-upmanship that dates back to West African folk heroes such as Anansi the spider, bringing the oral traditions of the Motherland to the spotlight of American popular culture. As Ali prepared to battle heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964, he offered to the press “Song of Myself,” a poem where he prophesized that he would “lower the boom” and best an opponent that he called “the Bear.” He then proceeded to do just that, triumphing over the heavily favored Liston with both his wit as well as his peerless sporting abilities. “History records that Liston was humiliated twice by Ali,” wrote David Toop in his memorable study of early hip-hop culture, Rap Attack.
At the time, white audiences were split over whether Ali was a harmless, doggerel-spouting lug or a “punk” with a “fresh mouth,” and a Nation of Islam follower with disturbingly radical views on race relations and world politics. The New York Times compared Ali to the English satirist Alexander Pope. However, he was merely the most prominent representative of a renaissance in black spoken word, that included the revolutionary verse of Imamu Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni, the Black Power diatribes of H. Rap Brown and the outlandishly raunchy comedy of Rudy Ray Moore, who updated the African-American folk tale “Signifying Monkey” for hip ghetto audiences. And yes, much of Ali’s smooth patter even found correlation in the pimp talk of Iceberg Slim. “[Ali] always wanted to be known as a Mac Man, a bad brother who could rap to any chick,” wrote Jim Brown in his autobiography Out of Bounds.
Gil Scott-Heron, whose early Seventies recordings such as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon” are considered protean landmarks of what would soon be known as rap music, recognized Ali’s influence in an essay he submitted for Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World, a collection assembled by the Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. “I’ve been credited with giving birth to rap, but the first rap was done in 1789. You can go back far as Pearl Sweetly and Jupiter Jones,” wrote the late Scott-Heron. “I believe that Ali’s attempts at rap were a part of the spirit of the brotherhood.”
Then there are Ali’s occasional dabbling in actual recordings, like the 1963 novelty album I Am the Greatest! In its liner notes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning modernist Marianne Moore effused, “It is romantic comedy, it is poetic drama, it is poetry.” As Ali recites his greatest rhetorical hits and sings a tuneless cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” the frequent bouts of laughter from the live studio audience emphasize that mainstream America once viewed him as a burlesque clown equally worthy of ridicule and praise. They seem to not understand this trickster’s sleight of hand, and how he is forcing them to see black Americans in a more complex light while disarming them with his comic charms.
Today, rap music still teems with homage to one of the definitive sports figures of the 20th century. There is the Game’s “Ali Bomaye,” which takes its title from the celebratory phrase Zimbabweans chanted in support of Ali as he boxed George Foreman at the “Rumble in the Jungle.” There’s Big Daddy Kane’s “How You Get a Record Deal,” and how he confirms his bona fides as one of the best MCs of his era by wheezing, Ali-like, “I’m the greatest of all times.” Lyrical shout-outs abound, from Greg Nice’s verse on Gang Starr’s “Dwyck” (“I say Muhammad Ali, you say Cassius Clay!”) to Kevin Gates’ “I Wish I Had It” (“Jab nasty, hook good, just like Muhammad Ali”). Though recognized as a cultural icon, it’s Ali’s knack for the art of the putdown, toasting and snapping at his opponents to the delight of all who surrounded him that’s the truest part of hip-hop’s DNA. And just as his “songs of myself” were often misunderstood as mere pretexts for ring violence, so are modern-day rappers’ boasts too often construed as documents of urban mayhem. However, rappers are just carrying Ali’s torch, reflecting a cultural tradition of pride, intellectual jousting and good-natured shit talking.