Was Muhammad Ali the first great rapper?

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In June 1961, a boxer and a wrestler were in a Las Vegas radio studio promoting their upcoming bouts. The boxer was a humble, gracious and unassuming 19-year-old facing into the seventh fight of his fledgling career. The wrestler was an arrogant, preening, loudmouth veteran, styling himself as the greatest in the whole world. It only took a glimpse of the impact “Gorgeous George’s” loquaciousness had on the box office for young Cassius Clay to realise this might be the way forward. Deciding modesty was a poor seller, the fighter formerly known as “The Louisville Larruper” was on his way to becoming “The Louisville Lip”. Sport would never be quite the same again.

“This is the legend of Muhammad Ali,” he once rhymed, “The greatest fighter that ever will be. He talks a great deal and brags, indeed, of a powerful punch and blinding speed. Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right, if he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night …”

Nearly half a century later, his personal contribution to the canon of memorable quotations was sizable and impressive enough to merit a publication of its own. Having gathered a selection of the best, author George Lois went one step farther. Calling his book Ali Rap, he contends that the former heavyweight champion was also the first heavyweight champion of rap itself. By way of proving this thesis, Lois offers only a brief introductory essay before letting decades of quotes establish his case that Ali’s fast-talking and free-styling laid the foundation for the musical form that came out of the South Bronx in the ’70s.

“A pugilistic jester whose verbal jabs made more headlines than his punches in the ring, his doggerel was an upscale version of street trash talk, the first time whites had ever heard such versifying – becoming the first rapper, the precursor to Tupac and Jay-Z,” writes Lois. “His first-person rhymes and rhythms extolling his hubris were hilarious hip-hop, decades before Run DMC, Rakim and LL Cool J. His style, his desecrating mouth, his beautiful irrationality, his principled, even prophetic stand against the Vietnam War, all added to his credentials as a true-born slayer of authority, and the most beloved man of our time.”

Although we can find no evidence in his versifying of Ali ever calling women bitches and hoes like Jay-Z, or threatening to bust a cap in somebody’s ass as per the late Tupac Shakur, tracing a lineage between the boxer and the rappers that came after him isn’t that difficult a task. Almost his every public utterance was infused with a braggadocio that today comes as standard in most raps. Before Jay-Z was even born, Ali was referring to himself in the third person, and skilfully using his rhymes to taunt and torment rivals inside and outside the ring. Despite their penchant for high-profile and sometimes deadly feuding though, few rappers have ever carried off name-calling with the same brio as their most illustrious precursor.

Now Frazier disappears from view,

The crowd is getting frantic,

Our radar stations have picked him up,

He’s somewhere over the Atlantic

Who would have thought?

When they came to the fight

That they would witness

The launching of a black satellite

Lois could have strengthened his case even further by pointing out that in their slavish devotion to bling, rappers are all pathetic imitations of Ali. With an entourage that often numbered nearly 40 and a rapacious sexual appetite, he boasted a garage full of Rolls Royce cars and a fondness for conspicuous consumption that would have merited an entire episode of MTV Cribs. Of course, the real difference between Ali and the rappers is that there was genuine substance behind his style. Jay-Z’s idea of radical action is to organise a boycott of Cristal’s $500-a-bottle champagne because of insulting comments that the company’s chief executive made about rap. Ali energised a generation, went to jail and into expensive exile rather than fight what he regarded as an unjust war.

Hell no, I ain’t gonna go

On the war in Vietnam I sing this song

I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong

Clean out my cell

And take my tail to jail

‘Cause better to be in jail fed

Than to be in Vietnam, dead

In his quest to prove the fighter was the progenitor of this art form, Lois goes back as far as the crib where the baby boxer could reportedly be heard muttering “Gee-gee, gee-gee”. If nothing else, the inclusion of that ludicrous quote proves the author must have as good a sense of humour as the fighter.

“Before there was Rap, there was Ali Rap … a topsy-turvy, jivey jargon that only Ali could create, but a language we could all understand,” writes Lois in a more cogent moment. “Talk about an original! Way back at the age of 12, a white Louisville cop gave him boxing lessons so he could whup the guy who stole his bike – in six weeks, as an aspiring prizefighter, the 89-pound Cassius rapped his first poem, predicting “This guy is done, I’ll stop him in one”. And from then on, the flow was non-stop. His chatter. His poems. His predictions. His uproarious use of language soared …”

The truly ironic aspect of his reputation for brilliant improvisations, savage put-downs and lightning wit is that the quote most often associated with Ali was the work of somebody else. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” came from the imagination of Bundini Brown, his cornerman cum court jester. Notwithstanding various suspensions from the entourage for infractions such as marrying a white woman, Brown was one of those who continually stoked Ali’s creative fire. Whether or not the end results are classified as doggerel, poetry or rap, their entertainment value endures still.

I have rassled with an alligator!

I done tussled with a whale!

I done handcuffed lightning.

Throwed thunder in jail!

Only last week I murdered a rock,

Injured a stone,

Hospitalised a brick

I’m so mean I make medicine sick

Stretching from his birth in Kentucky through his metamorphosis from promising young fighter into radical Muslim and world figure, Lois’s collection underlines yet again Ali’s unique stature. Even his most childish verse serves to remind us that the modern sports world is a place where bland is beautiful. Tiger Woods talks a great deal without ever saying anything. Michael Jordan famously eschewed political comment for fear of affecting sneaker sales. Ali used to taunt President Richard Nixon and regularly called out an entire nation for not facing up to its racial history.

“I am America,” he said. “I am the past you won’t recognise but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me.”

The only weakness to this book is that Lois chose to omit some of Ali’s more outrageous statements regarding race relations, some of which again underlines how much more radical he was than most rappers ever will be. In the 21st century, it seems even his image must be sanitised to avoid causing offence. Hence, no mention of his opinion that black men who slept with white women deserved to die for their crime. That caveat aside, there is so much to savour in revisiting this career yet again.

In the ring I can stay

Until I’m old and gray

Because I know how to hit

And dance away

Ali turned 71 on 17 January last. The pity is he believed in that last verse a little too long.

 

‘Ali Rap’ by George Lois was published in 2006 but is widely available.
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