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Rakim: Muhammad Ali Was ‘The Ultimate Hero’

“His swag and dominance weren’t a playbook,” rapper says. “They were his conviction on sport, life, spirituality, politics and culture”

Jason Newman Jun 06, 2016
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Muhammad Ali in a file photo circa 1966. Photo:  Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO),1945-89/Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands/Wikimedia Commons

Muhammad Ali in a file photo circa 1966. Photo: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO),1945-89/Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands/Wikimedia Commons

Muhammad Ali’s cocksure braggadocio and countless quotable rhymes influenced a generation of rappers, who have both referenced the boxer in their own lines and acknowledged him as a pioneer in the development of hip-hop.

After dedicating Saturday’s North Carolina show to Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74, Rakim spoke about the influence and legacy of The Greatest.

“Before I was even old enough to know what a role model was, I had Ali,” the rapper tells Rolling Stone.  “He was the ultimate hero … dominating the ring, the media, everything around him. If he had a tough fight, me and my family had a tough night and I was lil dude with tears in my eyes. When he won and won big, I was jumping on the couch screaming my head off.”

In 2006, Rakim appeared alongside Ludacris, Doug E. Fresh and Fab 5 Freddy in a video based on writer and art director George Lois’ book Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap. “This is the legend of Muhammad Ali/The greatest fighter that ever will be,” he rapped. “He talks a great deal and he brags, indeed/But powerful punch and blinding speed/Ali’s got a left/Ali’s got a right/If he hits you once/You sleep for the night.”

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Rapper Rakim. Photo: Jnforte1 at English Wikipedia/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic/Wikimedia Commons

“When I started growing into my teens and becoming more conscious, I really started to realize his impact outside of the ring; how his swag and dominance weren’t a playbook, they were his conviction on sport, life, spirituality, politics and culture,” the rapper, who called himself the “microphone Muhammad Ali” on 1999’s “It’s a Must,” says. “He has and continues to shape my thoughts, lyrics and ambitions. People are always debating who is GOAT [greatest of all time] at this or who did that the best. But when it comes to who was The Greatest, the conversation ends. Legacy everlasting. It’s a blessing just to have watched you.”

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Scores of musicians have paid tribute to the boxer since his death, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Tom Morello. “If the measure of greatness is to gladden the heart of every human being on the face of the earth, then he truly was the greatest,” Dylan wrote on his website. “In every way he was the bravest, the kindest and the most excellent of men.”

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