Todd Snyder: “Both worlds represent the best of the human spirit.”
By Chris Akers
Around this time last year, I interviewed Todd Snyder about his biography of Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, who as well as being Muhammad Ali’s cornerman, wrote some of Ali’s most often quoted lines, such as ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ Bundini was Ali’s motivator, his hype man, and Ali, according to Snyder in our last interview, ‘was hip hop before there was such a thing.’
Snyder’s latest book, Beatboxing: How Hip Hop Changed the Fight Game (published by Hamilcar), explores two worlds that were part of his childhood when growing up.
“Hip hop was my first love,” says Snyder. “Hip hop was what made me want to be a writer. It’s what got me into poetry. It’s what got me into the world of words and poetics. I was an 80s kid and I loved it and was obsessed with it. Boxing I got from my father. My father ran a boxing gym and he was a boxing trainer. Ali was his hero and Mike Tyson was coming up when I was a kid. My dad was very interested in his career. So, the boxing stuff I get from my father but hip hop was always my first love.”
Like many authors who are influenced by other writers, Snyder had literacy figures who inspired him to pursue writing as a profession. Yet these writers were not writing novels that were acclaimed by critics. The words he was inspired by were put to beats and spoke about life on the streets.
“When I go to speak at book signings and I talk at conferences, people ask me who the authors who inspired me, and the honest answer is Jay Z, Wu Tang, Tupac, Biggie. Those are the writers that got me into writing.”
Having an interest in two worlds as a child meant that finding a connection between them for his book was not as hard as one may think – especially because Snyder had been finding links between the two from a young age.
“When I watch boxing as a kid, I was always picking up on the hip hop stuff because that’s what I was interested in as a young person. When Mike Tyson and Tupac aligned themselves in the 90s, it was the best of both worlds for me. My dad was a huge Tyson fan, I was a huge Tupac fan, and these guys were best buddies. For me, I’ve always been interested in that component of boxing. You watch De La Hoya vs Trinidad and you have Big Pun and Fat Joe rapping Tito to the ring. You had all of these moments in the 90s when I was coming up, where guys like Mike were playing hip hop music as they walked to the ring. Later rappers started making personalised music for the boxers.
“I remember one of the first boxing shows I ever went to was KO Nation. It came to my home state of West Virginia, and I remember watching Clifford Etienne, Winky Wright, Bronko McKart, and guys like that. And there was Ed Lover from Yo! MTV Raps announcing with Kevin Kelley. For me, it was never hard piecing the connection. What was exciting for me was trying to do a panoramic and show how deep the connection is.”
Rappers are not the first musicians to release music that features boxing. Bob Dylan wrote the song Who Killed Davey Moore about the death in the ring of the aforementioned fighter in 1963. He also famously wrote Hurricane about world middleweight contender Rubin Carter’s incarceration after he was found guilty of a triple homicide. The Dropkick Murphys released an album called The Warrior’s Code, which had Micky Ward on the album cover and as the subject of the title track.
Hip hop has taken this to another level. One of the first things Snyder did in preparation for the book was to compile a database of 1000 hip hop songs that had boxing in the lyrics.
“We scaled that down to 500 for the book, as that’s a huge database to put in,” he laughs.
“But I just wanted to show folks, who maybe don’t understand this kind of thing, how deep the connecting is. A lot of genres of music have written about boxing. Hip hop is super deep in its catalogue as far as referring to boxing. There are references to Richard Steele and Al Haymon in rap lyrics.
“The challenge was not how I could make the connection to readers. The challenge was how can I do a proper panoramic so that folks can see how deep this connection has been, how intertwined the history of boxing is with the history of hip hop.
“You have incidents like the Dapper Dan incident, where Tyson and Mitch Green got into it. That’s a hip hop story but it’s also a boxing story. That was the magic trick of the book, is how do I tell this story to do it justice and show folks how deeply intertwined the two worlds are.”
While Ali was hip hop before its genesis, one boxer’s steep rise in the 1980s not only coincided with hip hop’s rise in the mainstream but helped to cultivate the relationship between boxing and hip hop that is still strong today.
“I interviewed Vinny Paz who used to be in the group Jedi Mind Tricks, and he said ‘I feel that Tyson is hip hop’s first athlete. Michael Jordan was beloved in hip hop, but he didn’t show love back to hip hop. A lot of athletes have been rapped about, but they didn’t necessarily conform to a hip hop identity nor represent the hip hop community. Mike Tyson’s rise to superstardom is almost on the perfect trajectory as hip hop’s rise to crossover success.
“You have to remember, the first four, five years hip hop was a thing, it was pretty much a New York thing. It was relegated to the disco section in record stores. People didn’t know where to place it. It wasn’t R n B, it’s wasn’t disco. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that it became a crossover platinum success, where hip hop starts to take over the charts. That happened on almost the same timeline as Mike Tyson becoming the youngest heavyweight champion. Tyson is the first boxer to be palling around with rappers, listening to rap music as he comes to the ring. When he started pairing up Welcome to the Terrordome and Fight the Power in his ring walks, at the very end of his first reign as heavyweight champion, that had a seismic impact on the sport.
“I interviewed Bernard Hopkins. He fought on the undercard of Tyson-Razor Ruddock and he said ‘When I saw Tyson come into the ring to Welcome to the Terrordome, I was thinking that’s so dope, that’s so cool. I’ve got to pick a rap song.’ In the early days, commissions wouldn’t let them play music if it wasn’t edited. Dr. Dre made a song for James Toney for one of his ring walks, and he couldn’t play it as they didn’t have an edited version. So he had a Dr. Dre original, but couldn’t play it!”
Tyson’s affiliation with hip hop continued into the 90s when he became friends with one of the most influential rappers of that decade.
“When he pairs up with Tupac Shakur after his incarceration, their connection is even deeper. When Pac makes original rap songs for Tyson, dissing his opponents in his songs, that opened up Pandora’s Box. Every rapper wanted to align themselves with the champ. I think we have to give Tyson an immense amount of credit for being the pioneer in bringing hip hop into the ring. Hip hop welcomed Tyson as well. You think about that Will Smith song in 1989, I think I can beat Mike Tyson, where Tyson’s in the video boxing Will Smith. Hip hop showed love too. It wasn’t just rappers wanting to hang with the champ. Once he does it, it trickles to all these other boxers, all these other rappers.”
A feature of hip hop in the 90s was the rivalry between the East and West Coast. Yet to call it a rivalry in many ways minimises how deep that situation went.
“It’s not just the rivalry. I think that’s not the right way to think about it. The correct way to think about it is that a big part of hip hop is spatial identity, place-based identity. In hip hop, you rep your block, your hood, your borough, your state. It’s an immense performance of identity-based on where you’re from. California hip hop does not sound the same and New York hip hop, especially in the early days. In the way they dressed, what they rapped about is so different. Same when the Dirty South comes out in the mid 90s, early 2000s.”
Boxing works the same way, both in their ring walks and the gyms they come from.
“Boxers do the same thing when they represent the Kronk in Detroit, when they represent their homeland, through music, through dress, through flags. We think of Chavez coming into the ring with a mariachi band or any other boxer playing their regional music as they walk into the ring.
“It wasn’t just that West Coast rappers would align themselves with West Coast boxers. It’s that both worlds do that. That’s a practice and a custom in those cultures.
“One of the fun things for me was to look at the ways in which Dirty South rappers aligned themselves with Roy Jones who is from Florida. We see the Brooklyn guys like Zab Judah aligning himself with Jay Z, Shine, all the Brooklyn rappers. It’s not just East Coast West Coast. It’s city by city, borough by borough. It’s all about repping where you’re from. Your providence, your state, your territory, your street. That’s one of the reasons I think the alignment between boxing and hip hop is so perfect.”
What boxing and hip hop also have in common, is that both of them represented the best way someone can leave the streets and make themselves a prosperous life. People living in that environment can either use their voice to rap or hustle to get off the streets or legally use their fists to physically leave their environment behind.
“I think the deepest component of this connection I’m trying to discuss in this book is, for the first twenty years of hip hop, all rappers came from the bottom. Boxing works the same way. It’s not just that they come from low socio-economic backgrounds. It’s that they fought their way out and it’s a young man’s game. You have about five years to make that work in the music industry. Very few artists get to survive after five years. Same thing in boxing. You have a shelf life. It’s not an old man’s game. You’ve got to be hungry. You have to be cutthroat. You have to have the determination to make it, cos it’s so hyper competitive, as people are trying to climb out of their social circumstances.
“It’s about being from the bottom, it’s about being hungry. It’s about determination and doing something positive when you’re born in a pretty negative environment. I think part of the reason these two worlds love each other is they walk the same streets.”
Something fun that came from Snyder’s research is how a numberof rappers wanted to be boxers as well as the other way around.
“I talked to Mathematics, DJ from Wu Tang. His brother was a Golden Glove champ. He wanted to be a boxer, but he was also a DJ. It got to the point in life where he realised he didn’t like getting up at five o’clock in the morning to run with his brother!”
“Willie D from the Ghetto Boys, who won the Golden Gloves in the state of Texas. He was from the Fifth Ward in Houston, the same place George Foreman grew up.
“Adrian Broner is a good example of someone who wanted to be a rapper first. Couldn’t figure that out so he then became a boxer and then he became both.”
Mathematics knew Mitch Green, who famously had a fight outside the ring with Mike Tyson. Boxers knew the rappers and vice versa.
“Both worlds represent the best of the human spirit, in trying to make your life better for your family and those around you. You can hear the hunger in the voices of the artists, in the same way you can see the hunger and determination in a fighter when the bell rings.”