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Archive for Saturday, December 16, 2006

New book claims Ali was first rapper

December 16, 2006

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— "Float like a butterfly/ Sting like a bee/ Your hands can't hit/ What your eyes can't see."

Muhammad Ali's rhymes, taunts, provocations and exclamations were an endlessly entertaining and insightful facet of his larger-than-life persona. As he once said, "I outwit them and then I outhit them."

A new book, "Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap," proclaims Ali's verbal barrage was more than self-promotion, but that it sowed the seeds of hip-hop, which was born in the early '70s.

"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 was 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."

Lois remembers riding in a car with Ali years ago when a rap song came on the radio. Lois suggested Ali was a rapper himself, to which the boxer responded: "I'm a double rapper. First I rap them with my mouth, then I rap them in the mouth."

Presented chronologically, "Ali Rap" takes the reader from Ali's Kentucky childhood, through his historic fights against Sonny Liston, Joe Lewis and George Foreman - and finally to his current struggles with Parkinson's disease.

A young Muhammad Ali points to a sign he wrote in his dressing room before his fight against Archie Moore in Los Angeles, in this Nov. 15, 1962, file photo predicting he'd knock Moore out in the fourth round, which he did. The sign also predicts Ali will be the next champ via a knockout over Sonny Liston in eight rounds. "Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap," proclaims Ali's verbal barrage was the beginning of hip-hop.

A young Muhammad Ali points to a sign he wrote in his dressing room before his fight against Archie Moore in Los Angeles, in this Nov. 15, 1962, file photo predicting he'd knock Moore out in the fourth round, which he did. The sign also predicts Ali will be the next champ via a knockout over Sonny Liston in eight rounds. "Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap," proclaims Ali's verbal barrage was the beginning of hip-hop.

Ali's life story is all told through Ali's own words, in hysterical soundbites and intimate reflections. Lois, who counts himself a friend of Ali's, famously designed a 1964 Esquire magazine cover showing Ali punctured with arrows - an allusion to the criticism he received for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, and modeled after the San Sebastian painting by Francesco Botticini.

The book's bold, catchy boast that Ali invented rap is certainly debatable. Surely, hip-hop has more to gain by the association than Ali, who has always transcended all categorization.

Writing for ESPN - which published the book with Taschen - pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman pondered, "If true, this would mean that rap did not originate (as commonly believed) in the South Bronx during the '70s; it would mean that rap was invented in Kentucky during the '60s.

"This is hard to accept because there are very few memorable rap songs about competitive horse racing and/or Rex Chapman."

But there are more than a few rappers in Ali's corner, including Public Enemy's Chuck D, a well-respected elder statesman of hip-hop. Chuck D (born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour) recently hosted an ESPN special on Ali's love of language, which also included Rakim, Ludacris, Doug E. Fresh, Fab 5 Freddy, Jermaine Dupri and MC Lyte.

"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'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."

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