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In Memoriam

Pop Culture Icon Muhammad Ali was a Fundamental Influence on Hip Hop

The Champ's braggadocious boasts were a precursor to the invention of rap

muhammad ali rapper

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who died yesterday at 74, was a foundational influence on hip hop culture.

Like Jamaican DJs who “toasted” and rhymed over rhythms, Muhammad Ali’s playful rhyming is an essential element of rap music’s roots. According to the hip hop documentary ‘The Perfect Beat,’ “Long before hip-hop culture permeated the Bronx, speaking in short, staccato rhymes had been well established by Cassius Clay in the 1960s, and by black radio DJs since the 40s.”

Ali’s made a habit of rhyming during interviews and press events. His playful poetry and braggadocious style were precursors to the first generation of rappers. Ali’s favorite subject was boasting about his greatness and his ability to conquer foes; this became a primary theme of the golden age of hip hop. Before his 1974 championship fight against George Foreman (known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’), Ali rhymed, “I have wrestled with a alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, throwed thunder in a jail.” Five years later, the Sugarhill Gang would kick reams of rhymes like “I don’t mean to brag, I don’t mean to boast / But we’re like hot butter on your breakfast toast” on ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ It’s hard to imagine one without the other.

Generations of rappers have paid lyrical tribute to The Champ. On ‘Many Men,’ 50 Cent rhymed, “I’m the greatest / Something like Ali in his prime.” In 2006, rap legends including Doug E. Fresh and Rakim recited Ali’s rhymes in a video based on George Lois’ book on the subject, Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap:

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