Reason for the Rhyme

By Chuck Klosterman
Special to
The ESPN documentary "Ali Rap" (airing Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) is built loosely on the premise that Muhammad Ali unknowingly invented rap music, simply by being himself in public. If true, this would mean that rap did not originate (as commonly believed) in the South Bronx during the '70s; it would mean rap was invented in Kentucky during the '60s.

This is hard to accept, as there are very few memorable rap songs about competitive horse racing and/or Rex Chapman. But it's still an interesting (albeit specious) hypothesis, and it permeates the framework of "Ali Rap," even in the moments when the show itself seems bizarre.

Public Enemy front man Chuck D, the host of "Ali Rap," is a man who has always understood the relationship between rap and sports. Chuck claimed to have adopted his rapping style from Marv Albert (listen to the opening 15 seconds of "Rebel Without a Pause" if you need proof). Half of the documentary features an undefined collection of modern-day celebrities (James Earl Jones, Diane Sawyer, Al Sharpton, Adam Corolla, Ludacris, Bill Maher, etc.) reciting famous Ali quotations as spoken-word poetry. This almost never works; almost all of the stand-in participants sound ridiculous, particularly the ones who are Caucasian and named Charlie Gibson. However, the actual archive footage of Ali talking is amazingly watchable and mildly shocking, even if you've seen most of it before. Ali is arguably the greatest boxer of the 20th century, but he also might be one of the most charismatic conversationalists ever 1 (which — all things considered — is a far more rarified achievement).

While it's difficult2 to prove Ali invented rap music, it's almost indisputable that he spawned what is now referred to as "the modern athlete," a term that's generally used as coded, pejorative language. When someone complains about "the modern athlete," he or she is usually just saying, "This particular black athlete behaves like a rap star, even though I've never actually listened to rap music in my entire life." These perceived traits include overt self-promotion, indifference toward authority, and confidence that hemorrhages into arrogance. As such, the relationship among Ali, sport, and rap is latently omnipresent, and examples of that three-pronged relationship are everywhere: 50 Cent buys Mike Tyson's house, Master P tries out for the Toronto Raptors, Ron Artest releases "My World," dead-end kids in Houston drink cough syrup and wear McGrady jerseys, and Fort Minor's "Remember the Name" is used as bumper music for 90 percent of televised college football games that don't involve Notre Dame. You can see these connections without even looking for them. But the deeper (and more meaningful) correlation between hip-hop culture and sports is more opaque; it has less to do with what they tangibly offer and more to do with how they're similarly covered by the media.

More on Ali

Want to read more about the relationship between Ali and Rap? The new book, Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali, The First Heavyweight Champion of Rap, edited and designed by George Lois and published by Taschen/ESPN Books, is available in bookstores now.

Or download Chuck D's video the Ali Rap Theme on iTunes now.

Sports columnists and rock critics have a lot of qualities in common (more than most readers realize, I suspect). Chief among these similarities is a sense of arbitrary righteousness: Sportswriters and music writers are appalled anytime they get what they once pretended to want. In the '80s, tennis writers complained John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were obnoxious and undignified; today, tennis writers3 inevitably insist men's tennis is boring and that we need a new Super Brat. Whenever musical acts become obsessed with import and authenticity (i.e., U2 during the "Rattle and Hum" era), pop critics find them egocentric and ridiculous; the moment those same musical acts embrace artifice and grandiosity (i.e., U2 on the 1997 "Popmart" tour), those same critics question their integrity. Whenever you deliver anything to a sports columnist or a rock critic, they will want its opposite. And this is especially true when the (mainly) white media covers the (mainly) black worlds of football, basketball and mainstream hip-hop.4 In both instances, journalists remain simultaneously fixated on two paradoxical positions:

(1.) Most athletes/artists are boring because all they do is repeat safe, meaningless clichés.
(2.) The few individuals within these idioms who do say provocative, controversial things are ill-informed media whores who should be more grateful that they are rich.

Within the context of his era, Ali was the most outspoken athlete ever. There is a clip in "Ali Rap" in which he's asked about his unwillingness to go to Vietnam, and he ultimately says, "I am ready to die." This was not a metaphor; he openly challenged the U.S. government to execute him. Over time, those kinds of inflammatory, unpopular statements made Ali an assailable figure. At this point, it's virtually impossible to find Ali detractors.

From a historical perspective, being political was the best move Ali ever made. Yet this is the one aspect of Ali's legacy that has not carried over to either sports or to hip-hop, at least not over the long haul. Because of the inherent dichotomy of how sports and music are reported — i.e., stars who say nothing are dull, but stars who say outlandish things are vilified — most athletes and artists try to fall somewhere in the middle. They adopt and reinvent the style of Ali, minus the substance. And this is conscious.

In his book "Hip: The History," journalist John Leland5 calls Ali a "trickster of hip" who used his narcissism as "an instrument of generational catharsis, not private need." What this means (I think) is that Ali was able to effectively construct a self-obsessed persona that fooled people into reconsidering a world outside of himself. This is what made him important. However, it would be hard to find a present-day example of this in either sports or rap. Terrell Owens is (perhaps) over-criticized for being precisely who the media wants him to be, but it's still impossible to suggest T.O. is using his narcissism as an instrument of anything; he's more apolitical than Jay Leno. America lost its collective mind when Kanye West suggested George Bush didn't care about black people, but that sentiment still seems pale to the actual rap music that was made during the '80s and '90s; in 1993, KRS-One compared police officers to plantation employees, and the video still got on MTV. Over time, rap music has become less incendiary. There is no longer any reward for being legitimately provocative. More often, there is a commercial penalty.

This — more than anything else — is the best reason for watching "Ali Rap." If you want to see Ali's influence on the modern world of sports and music, you will certainly see glimpses of that phenomenon. But what you'll mostly see (and hear) is something that only happened once (and probably won't happen again).

1. Someone who looked at this sentence prior to its publication brought up an interesting question: Who, exactly, would comprise the rest of this list? Who are the 20 most charismatic conversationalists of all time? It's a difficult quandary to address, mostly because it was impossible to record the human voice prior to 1857; as such, we don't know what people like Patrick Henry (or Joan of Arc, or Moses' brother Aaron) really sounded like when they spoke, even though we generally assume they must have been dynamic, transfixing orators. NONETHELESS, I think it's safe to say that some of the other individuals on this list would include Malcolm X, Spalding Gray, Camille Paglia, Paul Stanley, Howard Cosell, Lynne Thigpen, Brent Musberger, Paul Lynde, Marc Bolan, Thom Fladung, Mitch Hedberg, Shelby Foote, Chuck Yeager, that guy who built the Lava Machine, and Edward Norton (particularly when he portrays Nazis).

2. Or actually impossible.

3. I am not including David Foster Wallace.

4. The exception being Eminem, who creates an entirely new set of problems.

5. It might be worth noting that Chuck D has said parts of the PE song "Bring the Noize" were written about Leland, who interviewed the group for SPIN magazine in 1988.

Chuck Klosterman, whose latest book is "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas," is a columnist for Esquire and a regular contributor to Page 2.

Photos courtesy of Taschen Books. Top: George Roth-Seiden, Left: Carl Fischer