Following the death of Muhammad Ali, the “Greatest of All Time,” I was left with a dilemma. My heavy heart wanted to celebrate him with video footage and nostalgic thoughts, but with Prince passing so recently and my tribute to him still sitting warm on the blog, it just felt too hack to do things the same way.
So instead, I’ve chosen to repost an article I once wrote about an aspect of Muhammad Ali that affected me and the culture I love the most: Battle rap.
Rest in peace champ, we owe you so much.
Originally written for Projectrhyme.com, Nov. 21, 2005
Ali’s influence on urban America, and thus early emcees, is readily documented. In the Beef I DVD, Kool Moe Dee recounts (@2:00 of the video) how party rapper Busy Bee would imitate Ali before getting on stage during emcee competitions. Other artists such as LL Cool J constantly name dropped Ali, proving his influence on the culture.
It is improbable to suggest that such a charismatic character had no effect on the budding art of emceeing. Due the proximity of hip-hop’s inception and the height of Ali’s career, it can be argued that Ali’s rhyming taunts could have been a direct inspiration for emcees who rhymed witty sayings over the mic to keep the crowd going and the DJ famous.
Conflict as a culture
The concept of skill-based contest spans over many facets of the African-American culture: from dancing (breaking/popping to tap dancing matches), to musicianship (Jazz, Blues spontaneous challenges), to hip-hop. Hip-hop battling is most evident in the culture’s art of emceeing, where two emcees will participate in a contest to see who can clown each other the most while rhyming.
This is a direct descendant of the childhood game of “playing the dozens” (also called snapping, joning or “cutting up” on someone). The dozens consist of a series of back-and-forth one-line jokes that insult your target for the amusement of your audience. The loser of the match is usually the person who gets offended first. There was one man who became famous for this form of verbal battery, and who popularized putting The Dozens in Rhyme form: Muhammad Ali.
The lyrical dozens
It can be argued that Muhammad Ali is one of the primary fathers of battle rapping. Because of his stature and fame, Ali made famous in the Black community the lyrical form of the Dozens. Many times, during interviews or press conferences, Ali would perform his “poems” (as they were called at the time, but were more akin to battle verses) for the audience, much to the chagrin of his opponents who often times were present.
Ali was famous for his one-line jokes and insults:
I’ll beat him so bad he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on!
If Sonny Liston dreams he can beat me he better wake up and apologize.
But it was when he put these one-liners into rhyme-form that we get a better idea of how he helped influence the idea of emcee battling. Here is the entire “poem” Ali wrote about Sonny Liston, before their boxing match. Notice the elements of emceeing that are still evident today, such as hyperbole (exaggerated claims) and wordplay.
Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat
If he goes back any further, he’ll be in a ringside seat
Clay swings with a left and Clay swings with a right
Look at young Cassius as he carries the fight
Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room
It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom
Now Clay swings with a right, what a beautiful swing
and the punch knocks the Bear clear out of the ring
Liston’s still rising! The ref wears a frown
For he can’t start counting ’till Sonny comes down!!
Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations pick him up, he’s over the Atlantic!
Who would have thought when they came to the fight
That they’d witness the launch of a human satellite?
Yes, the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money
That they would see a total eclipse of the Sun-y!
Ali’s influence doesn’t end there. He was also significant to the idea of the “self-props” (bragging) aspect of emceeing and battle rapping.
I done wrestled with an alligator, done tussled with a whale
I hancuffed lighting, thrown thunder in jail
Yesterday I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
First recorded battle tracks
Ali was also one of the first to put his “battle rhymes” on record. Although, at the time, he was more akin to The Last Poets then he was to Nas, the idea of recording and selling rhyming taunts and battle poems was unheard of. The album did not do too well, however it can still be purchased on Amazon.
The album includes Ali ranting and rhyming in front of a live audience about his greatness and how he would destroy Sonny Liston. At the time, Ali had not won the championship, but his charisma was overflowing nonetheless.
One of many ‘fathers’
To say Ali is one of the main contributors to battle rap and emceeing is one thing, but to say he is the only father, is maybe too far. There are other influences, notably from Dolemite’s wit, James Brown’s stage presence, Richard Pryor’s honesty, Malcolm X’s militancy and self love, not to mention the contributions from church pastors and jazz musicians.
But Ali‘s place in hip hop is unique in that his influence is so obvious to the point where every emcee, at some point, has fought to be considered the Greatest Of All Time.