How Muhammad Ali Influenced Hip-Hop

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"Ali, Bomaye"

Muhammad Ali
Kent Gavin/Keystone/Getty Images

Float like a butterfly
Sting like a bee
The hands can't hit
What the eyes can't see

The death of Muhammad Ali is a reminder that his political candor, distinctive voice, and outsized personality helped shape hip-hop culture.

Kool Herc may have discovered the break that sparked hip-hop. Grand Wizard Theodore may have invented scratching. But few did more to engineer the strength and pride that shaped early hip-hop culture than Muhammad Ali.

Of course, Ali had no idea at the time that he was altering the landscape of a cultural movement. "I wasn't trying to be a leader," Ali once said, "I just wanted to be free." Perhaps, it was the zeitgeist of the era that united the worlds of hip-hop and boxing.

In the 1960s and '70s, African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens. Hip-hop rose out of the need for a voice against the brutal system of oppression.

Just as Jackie Robinson inspired awe by becoming the first Black athlete to play major league baseball in the 1950s, Ali inspired a generation of Black youth after becoming a heavyweight champion in 1964.

Ali, like hip-hop culture in the 1970s, represented a voice, a thrill and a symbol of strength. You wanted to be like Ali. And you wanted to be hip-hop.

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A Hero to Many

Muhammad Ali
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 Ali will forever be remembered for putting everything on the line to fight for his beliefs. He rejected the Vietnam War, saying "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

Ali's explanation of his draft rejection is one of the most compelling statements he has ever made.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of White slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years."

Ali paid a huge price for his convictions -- stripped of his world boxing titles, sentenced to five years in jail, and exiled from the sport he loves so much for three-and-half years, and in his prime, no less. Fortunately, Ali's conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1971.

Ali energized other political activists, including Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King. When King opposed the Vietnam War in 1967, he quoted Ali: "Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all Black and Brown and poor -- victims of the same system of oppression."

Ali was a hero to hip-hoppers mounting their own protests through music. The likes of N.W.A. and Black Star looked up to Ali. In fact, Public Enemy's "Ali Rap Theme" is a tribute to the Champ (Muhammad Ali don't take no mess/Black inspiration to the whole rest of the nation), and includes references to Ali's anti-war stance (Under no circumstance see a damn thing wrong/With Vietnam, in his words "Vietcong").

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What's My Name?

Muhammad Ali
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Born Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali changed his name just days after clinching the world heavyweight title. Like Kunta Kinte (aka Toby), the main character on Alex Haley's Roots, Ali wanted a name that represented his true heritage. "Cassius Clay is a slave name," Ali protested at the time. "I didn't choose it and I don't want it."

In the 1970s and '80s, rappers popularly adopted grand nicknames. Ali's name change followed his alliance with the separatist teachings of the Nation of Islam (he later rejected the movement). Similarly, adopting royal nicknames allowed hip-hop figures to fight back against the idea of Aryan pre-eminence.

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The Greatest of All Time

Muhammad Ali
Getty Images

"I am the greatest"

Ali declared himself the greatest of all time. Truly, no athlete thoroughly embodies that title better than Ali.

Today, the acronym GOAT (Greatest of All Time) is widely used in hip-hop circles. Inspired by Ali's proclamation, LL Cool J titled his eighth album G.O.A.T. to stake his claim to the rap throne.

Many of LL's peers, including Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, have also used the term in their rhymes. The term is a mainstay in hip-hop debates when measuring rappers against each other.

When it comes to sports, though, there's undoubtedly one greatest of all time: the late great Muhammad Ali.

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A Powerful Lyricist

Muhammad Ali
(Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Muhammad Ali wasn't just the people's champ; he was the first hip-hop poet of his time. Ali rhymed couplets before fights. He talked trash to his opponents, in the same vein as battle rappers.

Before squaring off against Archie Moore, Ali rapped: "Archie's been living off the fat of the land; I'm here to give him his pension plan."

Before beating the seemingly unbeatable Liston, he bragged: "I'll hit Liston with so many punches from so many angles he'll think he's surrounded."

Before annihilating Floyd Patterson: "I'll beat him so bad, he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on."

Sick Rhymes from the Champ

"I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale
Handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail
Only last week, I murdered a rock
Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick
I'm so mean I make medicine sick."

"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses -- behind the lines. In the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."
"Since I won’t let my critics seal my fate
They keep hollering I’m full of hate.
But they don’t really hurt me none
‘Cause I’m doing good and having fun
And fun to me is something bigger
Than what those critics fail to figure.
Fun to me is lots of things
And along with it some good I bring.
Yet, while I’m busy helping my people
These critics keep writing I’m deceitful.
But I can take it on the chin
And that’s the honest truth my friend.
Now from Muhammad you just heard
The latest and the truest word.
So when they ask you what’s the latest
Just say ‘Ask Ali. He’s still the greatest."

"I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark."
"I'm not the greatest, I'm the double greatest. Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round. I'm the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today."
"It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila."
"Will they ever have another fighter who writes poems, predicts rounds, beats everybody, makes people laugh, makes people cry and is as tall and extra pretty as me?