December 16, 2006

Muhammad Ali and Early Rap

AP Entertainment writer Jake Coyle asked yesterday, "Was Muhammad Ali the first rapper?" This question was brought on by the publication of a new book entitled "Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap," edited and designed by George Lois. To expand on this further:

"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 the book's editor and designer, George Lois.
The book is not a continued analysis of this claim, but nearly 300 pages of examples, illustrated by a quote roughly every page that issued from Ali's world-class mouth. Lois, a renowned ad man and graphic designer, recently told The Associated Press he wanted to condense Ali's many sayings and memorable utterances into a "small, fat book — like a Bible or a Quran."

Now this is a fascinating discussion. Muhammad Ali was a boxer, not an artist persay, and his verbal stylings and oratory assaults generally seemed to be for the purpose of psyching out his opponent and not necessarily to speak to and inspire urban youth as much of today's hip-hop does. But the article goes on to say that:

"He was able to engage his social surroundings into his whole persona. That's what hip-hop was able to do — to be an antenna for social reflection," Chuck D told The AP. "He's one of the few black people to get on TV in the '60s and speak their minds — thank God — and also back up what he talked about."
Ali often spoke out about racism, Vietnam and his religion of Islam — but it was usually in a purely self-expressionist, non-confrontational way. He once said of race relations in America — speaking in almost Yogi Berra-style contradiction — "Nothing is wrong, but something ain't right."
Ali's outspokenness was unusual in the Jim Crow-era South. Oddly enough, Ali infrequently seemed to use the boxing ring to let out his frustration — instead, his outlet was a steady stream of unabashed confidence.
"Where do you think I would be if I didn't shout and holler?" he once said. "I would be poor and down in Louisville washing windows, shining shoes or running an elevator and saying `Yes suh' and `No suh,' and knowing my place."

And there you have it. One side of a seriously compelling argument anyway. Of course, one cannot doubt hip-hop's early influences from artists such as the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, and Public Enemy. The idea, however, that Ali paved the way for early rap by going against the grain through his own social consciousness and magical wordcraft is thoroughly plausible. The Greatest (tm) in his own way defied the social and cultural customs of his day and his chief tool was not his fists but rather his words. More than simple, cleverly spun, improvised prose, Muhammad Ali exemplifed fearlessness and courage in a time when taboo would be far too gentle a term for his antics and mannerisms. Ali didn't provoke people through mere volume or self-aggrandizement, he invited thought, eschewed stereotypes, bucked the norm, and quite possibly sowed the seeds of early rap. Whatever verdict one comes too, I think it's easy to agree that whether in boxing or on the mic, aggressive intelligence and panache give style to substance - a necessary ingredient for success.

No comments: