Muhammad Ali: The original rapper
Legendary emcee Chuck D of Public Enemy talks Ali’s impact on hip-hop
Hip-hop icon Chuck D and the supergroup Prophets of Rage (Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine) are due back in Europe after a show in Brooklyn, New York, on June 5. I caught up with Chuck before the group headed to Rome — the site where the late legend Muhammad Ali won a boxing gold medal in 1960. Hip-hop wasn’t the term used back in those days for the champ’s poetic rhyming — a style showcasing prefight predictions of when and how he would defeat opponents along the way to a 56-5 professional record. His swag is something I call Black Mustard. Below, Chuck speaks to how the fearlessness of the Greatest of All Time became a basis for the confident and supremely competitive lyrics that eventually became hip-hop. It is a conversation modified for length and flow.
“Muhammad Ali appears frequently along the timeline of my life. I was born in 1960 — the year he went to Rome in the Olympics. Of course, growing up and seeing a black man on TV, not only boxing, but being able to win, grab the mic, snatch it back (thank God) and sound like he’s in a rhythmic flow, with a good tone of voice, doing some rappin’. It was just astounding. As kids, we couldn’t help but be amazed.
“Hip-hop originated pretty much in Africa. Hip-hop is the creativity of black folks, or black folks being judicious with our voice to express ourselves. If you’re not allowed to tell somebody to take their foot off your shoulder, their feet off your face, their foot off your existence — ‘they’ being the powers that be — that expression will come out through a whole lot of different portals. It just happened to be that the elements of hip-hop were pretty much the expression of creativity in art and culture. You can say turntables, dance, microphones and graffiti, but really it’s musicianship, vocalization, dance culture, and also art culture. Those are the elements of what is called hip-hop, but this is the essentially the element of cultural creativity.
“Muhammad Ali not only influenced hip-hop of course from the rhyming aspect, which is a known fact, but the brash swagger of backing it up: going into the dozens, making predictions. His boldness is hip-hop. It’s like he was saying, ‘First and foremost, I’m gonna overshadow everything in my path so that you won’t forget me ever. And I’m gonna throw some rhyme on top of it.’ It’s total hip-hop. Total rap! It was backed by performance. That’s the thing about it.
“If you consider Muhammad Ali and his relationship to hip-hop, you automatically think of rhymes, right, because he was such an orator (‘I’m so mean, I make medicine sick’), right? But everybody also tried to do the Ali shuffle as much as they tried to do the James Brown. That’s dance culture right there. Those aspects were clear. The next generation that came out post-Ali that influenced a great passion of the youth in the ’70s and ’80s was Sugar Ray Leonard. His aura definitely came from that ‘Book of Ali.’
“Public Enemy No. 1 was a Sugar Ray-rhyme before everyone started rhyming about Tyson:
“Cause I can go solo — like a Sugar Ray bolo/
Make the fly girls wanna have my photo/
… Run in their room — hang it on the wall.”
“That came from Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran when Sugar gave Duran that bolo shot that made him say, ‘No mas.’ Muhammad Ali birthed all of that.
“Now, we can go into the history and say the flair of Muhammad Ali came from Sugar Ray Robinson, but I think Robinson’s flair was the contribution of the dark ’50s. As much as the United States says it knows about culture, the one thing that is still not known — like the Dark Continent [Africa] — is what really was going on with black culture during dark ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, as the country was just coming out of the Great Depression. It’s like a dark era.
“Muhammad Ali came across at a point when the country began to pay attention to black feats. He came in like a jack-in-the-box like, ‘BOW!’ But then, he really started to do some things, like joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name and saying things like, ‘White folks, y’all ain’t got us right!’ He went into fifth gear, which made people say, ‘What! This n—– ain’t happy?’ That is hip-hop. Brashly coming out and saying I’m not going to be defined by anyone who defines me — I’m living by a self-definition.
“That’s Muhammad Ali. He didn’t have to do any of that.
“I never met Muhammad Ali. I had the utmost joy to do the Ali Rap thing. That was the closest I came. I heard that Mr. Ali loved it.
“And, as far as Muhammad Ali, as legacy goes … at first it was like, What is this? Who is this man that looks like us? There was a time when the definition applied, my family, in a 10-year period, went from Negro to black. When we were Negroes, I very much remember, at 5 years old [in 1965], who Cassius Clay was. ‘That’s Cassius Clay! That’s Cassius Clay! Cassius Clay is fighting! Cassius Clay is fighting!’ And then he became Muhammad Ali. We were totally confused as kids about what civil rights were and why we weren’t Negroes anymore — some of us would still refer to ourselves as colored and Negro. One thing that was absolutely certain is that, by the end of the decade, thanks in part to Muhammad Ali, we knew that black was beautiful.”
Chuck D is the legendary frontman of Public Enemy, an author, historian, radio host and cultural critic. Michael Tillery is the co-founder of The Starting Five, a veteran journalist and radio host.