Flashback Friday: How Muhammad Ali Shaped Hip Hop

By Anton Constantinou - @Aberrantin

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Flashback Fridays celebrates everything old skool and timeless about hip hop: classic tracks,  vintage flicks, past gigs.

The death of Muhammad Ali has hit the world hard  this month. It’s not every day a boxer gets the labelled the greatest of all time, but in Ali’s case the statement couldn’t have been truer.

He had it all: brains, brawn, charm, good looks, to such extent that he’s as famous for punchlines as he was for his left hooks. Even the esteemed poet and playwright, Seamus Heaney speaks highly of the boxer’s way with words – and that’s saying something.

In the hip hop community, the man formerly known as Cassius Clay is held up as one of the first true rappers, even though, strictly speaking, the music form didn’t exist back in the 60’s. His Joe Frazier insults account for some tightest diss raps out there. Lines like, “It will be a Killer, and a chiller, and a thriller. When I get the gorilla in Manila.” show a keen awareness of internal rhyming: nowadays one of the most widely used techniques in the game. Biggie used them, Pun used them, Big L used them, but there’s a sense in which they all got their inspiration from Ali.

As Public Enemy star Chuck D attested in a recent interview with The Undefeated: “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.”

In fact, Ali references can be found everywhere in hip hop, from early tracks like Rappers Delight (The Sugarhill Gang) and You’re A Customer (EPMD), to more recent ones including Win Again (Nicki Minaj) and Ali Bomaye (The Game).

Our favourite example out there is this rap tribute dropped back in 2006, which brings together the likes Rakim, Doug E Fresh and Jermaine Dupri to read out some of Ali’s best lines and witticisms:


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