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The Greatest: Muhammad Ali’s Hip-Hop Legacy

Remembering the boasts, poetry, and trash talk that changed the world

If you even dream of beating me / You'd better wake up and apologize.

—Muhammad Ali

Jokers are wild if you wanna be tamed / I treat you like a child then you're gonna be named

Rakim

In my first-ever apartment, I had a wall of photos, most of them cut or torn haphazardly out of my favorite magazines. The photos were all recklessly affixed to the wall with extra-strength tape, decoration done by a 22-year-old who knew nothing of security deposits. In the center, there was the photo of Muhammad Ali — the one that everyone knows: Ali, standing over the collapsed body of Sonny Liston after a first-round knockdown in 1965, his arm cocked, muscles rising through his skin, his mouth open, as it often was in those days, shouting down at his opponent. It is, in many ways, the picture that best defines Ali: someone or something he always knew he could conquer resting at his feet, while he stood, shouting, ready for the next fight.

On the wall, next to Ali, there was a picture of Big Daddy Kane on a throne. Below it, a picture of LL Cool J with a panther beside him and a gold rope chain around his neck. Above it, a picture of Slick Rick, drowning in a massive collection of jewelry. Next to that, a picture of Queen Latifah, wearing a crown of fire. It would be a lie to call this placing intentional. Ali was the only athlete on the wall, surrounded by photos of rappers spanning all eras. But I think about Ali now, the day after he has left us, and I think the placement makes sense. Ali was the first great MC, the mouth from which all other mouths came, the voice that rattled the mountains and shook out 100 children.

In 1964, before the first Ali-Liston fight, when he was still going by Cassius Clay, Ali wrote a poem. It's a rhyming boast called “Clay Comes Out to Meet Liston,” filled with couplets like “Liston keeps backing but there's not enough room / It's a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom.” Ali imagines punching Liston clear out of the boxing ring: “Liston still rising and the ref wears a frown / But he can't start counting until Sonny comes down.” These moments, Ali loud and boasting, were mind games, without a doubt. A way to get into an opponent’s head and render him defeated before even throwing a punch.

On my block, in the schoolyard, in the back alleys of the hood, if you were quick enough with your mouth, you rarely had to fight. For those of us who had Ali’s mouth but not his quick hands and legendary reflexes, jokes were a weapon. Boasts were weapons. Rhymes, to some degree, were the sharpest weapons of all. Ali bewildered his opponents before even having to throw a punch. This is, for better or worse, the heart of the modern rap battle. For many, Meek Mill dragging Drake’s writing inauthenticity into the light should have been enough. In another era, they say, this would have killed his career. This would be the first-round knockout of a former champ, the new champ standing on the ropes and taunting the crowd. But there was Drake, quicker, wittier, covering the Internet in jokes and memes while throwing jabs, turning his opponent into a joke before Meek could gain footing. This is, to some degree, what Ali gave the culture: a battle that is more than just a battle. A spectacle. Something to laugh at, a grand visual moment that comes with a side of ass-kicking. Ali before he fought Joe Frazier for the third time, chanting "It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manila" while punching a gorilla doll. 3rd Bass stomping out a caricature of Vanilla Ice in the “Pop Goes the Weasel” music video. Ali in the ring mercilessly hitting Ernie Terrell, who'd kept calling him “Clay” after he’d changed his name, demanding to be called by what he had chosen for himself. LL Cool J in the center of a ring, cloaked in a hood, almost trembling, spitting “Mama Said Knock You Out” into a microphone that hung from the ceiling.

It is, ultimately, about how the mouth can earn respect. How to name your rivals before they can name you, how black people have survived fights, how rappers have survived battles, how Ali survived in a country that wanted him submissive, silent, and fighting — fighting either another man in a ring or a war in another country. The fight, and knowing that there are no ways to escape it coming toward you, either by chosen profession or by birth, creates an urgency in the voice. Everything has to be heard, and has to echo long enough to be carried down to the generation after your own. I hear Ali’s cadence in the siren-like voice of Chuck D and the steady sneer of Ice Cube. I hear Ali’s tongue-in-cheek but still powerful rhymes in Chance and MF Doom. I hear Ali’s fearlessness and never-ending boastfulness sitting on the tongues of any rapper who has ever named him or herself the greatest alive and truly believed it because they had to in order to survive one more single, one more album, one more round. I picture Nas in 2001, fighting through making Stillmatic after two lackluster albums, knowing he had to make his way back to the top of the mountain. Lil Wayne from 2006 to 2008, telling us that he was the greatest rapper alive for so long that many of us had no choice but to believe it. These were small battles that Ali showed us all how to win.

The grand cliché in sports is that the battle is truly with yourself. Boxers train by throwing punches at their own shadows. If you can catch yourself, you can catch anyone. Muhammad Ali was untouchable, and then he was consumed by Parkinson’s, slowed down, and left to be touched by everyone. Everyone’s villain became everyone’s hero when he was rendered silent enough to be forgettable. But Ali lives on in every rapper that people hate for being too much of anything — the people who wish Kanye West would just shut up already. The people who hated Puff Daddy for jumping in front of cameras in shiny suits and dancing. The ones who hate all of these children of the Ali era, the era where a black man was loud and rhyming, and shaking his fists at cameras, and yelling at anyone who dared challenge him. This black man with his mouth open wider than the other black men before him, demanding to be called by his name or nothing at all. Muhammad, name of the prophet, name meaning “Most Praised One,” so that even when those who hated him spoke his name, they were still speaking him into glory.

I watch videos of rap battles the same way I watch old black-and-white footage of Ali, both fighting in the ring and yelling outside of it. I am impressed by it all: Ali, the first battle rapper, the freestyle king, the microphone controller before all others. The greatest Ali rhyme is the one most known: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee / The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” The truest victory that waits for anyone loud and sure of themselves is maybe not in this life. Or if it is, maybe it waits until after they are rendered silent, by death or by illness. They will love you when you are invisible. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see. Even the greatest rappers are mortals until they step into a studio and lightning strikes. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see. All of us need to talk ourselves into invincibility; some of us need to do it out loud. So loud that the clouds shake and the sun falls into the eyes of anyone who doubted us. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see. In the iconic photo of Ali and Liston, Ali is standing over Liston after knocking him down, shouting “Get up and fight, sucker! Get up and fight me!”

This is the part that gets left out of the story about the photo and usually gets replaced with some quote about perseverance or determination. Like all things Ali, it gets washed into something more palatable. But it is the most important part of the entire story. It's the most black, the most hip-hop moment of all: the greatest to ever do it, standing over an already-defeated opponent, trying to summon him back to his feet. So that he could keep kicking his ass.