In a motel room in a black neighborhood of Miami, four great rappers met. They plotted over bowls of ice cream. It was February, 1964, and the youngest of the four, the boxer Cassius Clay, had just shocked the world by beating the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. Nobody had figured him to win, so no victory party was planned.
The other three men were Malcolm X, the football star Jim Brown, and singer Sam Cooke. Together they talked about African-American empowerment and how as black pop stars they might change a few things.
One immediate result of the meeting: “The Gang’s All Here,” a 45 Clay recorded with Cooke. It was not the greatest. But from that meeting forward, something bigger than a recording session emerged: the idea that music and activism could come together and change American reality. When Muhammad Ali, as Clay changed his name to, died on June 3, President Obama said he “shook up the world. And the world is better for it.” The same can be said for the music that Ali influenced over the next 50-plus years. The world is still shaking.
When he was 12, legend has it that Ali busted out his first rap lyric. He was already boxing, and before a fight the kid from Louisville boasted, "This guy is done. I'll stop him in one." He always had the swagger, the rhyming couplets that articulated his dominance. It’s the first thing rappers remembered when they memorialized Ali on Twitter -- that he was the greatest. Questlove: “Aspire To Be Great. Inspire To Be Greater.” Lil Wayne: “R.I.P. to the Greatest”; Nicki Minaj: “ALI BOMAYE”; Meek Mill: “Rest in paradise king Ali!”
It’s in hip-hop that you most of all hear the influence of Ali. Hip-hop has always carried the African-American tradition of "the toast" that long predates the music and the boxer, but it was suddenly broadcast into every American home with a TV set via Ali’s historic fight-day interviews. Rappers were shaped by the words he spouted, words that cut three different ways and said whole paragraphs in a few lines:
“You know I'm bad. Just last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I'm so mean, I make medicine sick."
“I saw your wife. You’re not as dumb as you look.”
"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses -- behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."
Ali was present at the official birth of rap, name-checked in Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 “Rapper’s Delight” (“When I dress to a T/You see, I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali”). He’s been around ever since, named by everyone from the Fugees (“Ready or Not”: “I refugee from Guantanamo Bay/Dance around the border like I'm Cassius Clay”) to gangsta Nipsey Hussle (“Rose Clique”: I’m screaming I’m the greatest of all time like Young Ali/ played Mohammad to these thoughts, prophets in this industry”).
But if Ali is a verbal inspiration to hip-hop, his influence goes far deeper than rhymes. From that 1964 meeting on, Ali presented himself as in control of his image, his work, his meaning in the world. He defined himself, and at a time when black Americans were hosed and beaten in the streets and were being talked about far more than they were allowed to speak for themselves, this was a radical inversion. “My way of joking is to tell the truth,” he once bantered. “That's the funniest joke in the world.” A generation of youth born in the ‘60s and after was baptized by the sound of his voice.
And then came the hate. Hate followed Ali wherever he went: when he beat the wordless Liston, when he converted to Islam, when he changed his name, when he spoke out against the Vietnam War, when he refused to hide his superiority -- all these and more branded him to much of white America as a hostile force. “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger,” he said, turning white America’s weapon of hate back at the source. He was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three and a half years for refusing to be drafted. The idea that to stand up for your black self was to attract hate from the culture was a lesson learned by the hip-hop nation. “Hate Me Now,” rapped Nas; “All Eyez on Me,” Tupac defiantly seethed. To be yourself is to suffer the blows, so be prepared is the assumption. Kendrick Lamar: “I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself/Jealous of my wisdom and cards I dealt.”
Ali knew fame was power -- Black Power -- and like a savvy pop star he leveraged that power for all that it was worth. Even before rap music existed, masters of the microphone arts were studying his fame and trying to learn from it. Some were threatened by it. In the immediate years after he beat Liston, the only African-American to match his fame was James Brown, and while not quite friends, the two made close study of each other. In Manhattan they would hail a cab together and take turns stepping out into the Times Square chaos, testing who could bring a bigger portion of humanity to a halt merely by making an appearance. Each was among the only ones on earth who knew what it was like to be the other.
Brown had been a boxer, too, and he fancied he could take Ali on. When Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Brown boarded a jet with his band to play an accompanying music festival. He arrived looking even more focused than usual because he was in training, too, as if he would prove who the heavyweight champ of the world truly was. Brown packed a huge entourage, so big the plane could barely take off, and while the music (seen in the 2008 documentary Soul Power) was frequently incredible, Ali -- roaming the streets of Kinshasa, jawing with the locals -- won that match of the titans, too. Unexposed and without layers of security, he seemed one with his fans.
Zaire made clear the ongoing way in which black stars had become global expressions of black power, and the most deft among them -- Brown, Ali, Fela Kuti -- blurred the lines between entertainment and activism The sound was global: reggae toaster Dennis Alcapone sang “Cassius Clay,” turning Ali’s signifying into Jamaican boasting; P-Funk’s George Clinton fantasized a Chocolate City -- black DC -- where Ali was the President (Aretha Franklin was the First Lady); in Africa, he was the subject of songs that brought it all back home.
Muhammad Ali, of course, had his own recording career, sort of. His 1963 album I Am the Greatest! would be called spoken word in a later era; better is his 1976 album rarity, The Adventures of Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay, a children’s record that marks the only time Frank Sinatra, Richie Havens and Howard Cosell appeared on vinyl together. It’s hardly remembered.
But Ali’s influence on music remains unmistakable, and hip-hop’s not done with him yet. Look at Kanye West: it’s not a question of “love him or hate him”; with West, there’s only love and hate, together every second of the day, the two gloves he swings from the runways to the Internet. “The Lip,” they called Cassius Clay. What they call Kanye West today is frequently unprintable. Nobody has ever taken on the mantle of being outspoken as self-consciously as West does today, or seemed perhaps as eager to be martyred for it. West’s “Gorgeous” references the price Ali paid for outspokenness and then tries it on for size himself. Watch him now: he’s the leading illustration of Ali’s influence on music. Kanye shows how hungry artists are to grasp for what Ali had, and how much of their own humanity they reveal doing it in the 24-hour news cycle.
RJ Smith is the author of "The One: The Life and Music of James Brown"