Todd Snyder: ‘There is a spirit that connects these two cultures that will never go away.’
By Chris Akers
In Todd Snyder’s new book, he mentions how Anthony Joshua was accompanied into the ring by the rapper Nines for one of his fights. With that in mind, it seems that the connection between hip hop and boxing is not just primarily American based.
“I think it goes across all cultures in some ways, to be honest,” says Snyder. “It starts probably with American artists and American fighters. But I think New York doesn’t own hip hop anymore and I don’t think America owns hip hop anymore. I think we’re going to see more artists around the globe doing this kind of thing too.
“We have all these folks from different cultures and racial and ethnic backgrounds performing hip hop at fights and I certainly think it’s a global thing now. We all get to play hip hop now I think. It may be more popular here than in other sports, but I certainly don’t think we have a monopoly on it.”
This bond transcends countries and it is not only confined to male boxers either.
“It’s interesting. I interviewed Heather ‘The Heat’ Hardy because she has a huge Wu-Tang tattoo on her back shoulder. When you watch her fight, that Wu-Tang tattoo is pretty prominent, and I wanted to get the story on that.
“There are lots of female fighters that love hip hop and walk to the ring to hip hop. I’m thinking of Claressa Shields. She came out doing a little Beyonce dance in one of her fights I remember. But you see it less in the women’s game. We’ve seen female MCs bring fighters to the ring. Lil’ Kim rapped Deontay Wilder into the ring when he fought at the Barclays Center a few years back. But I think, for the most part, it hasn’t shown up in equal footing in women’s boxing. It may happen. We may see more female MCs do that. It may become more relevant in the future.
“One thing I did point out in the book is that a lot of the MCs on my database rapping about boxing were Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim. Female MCs rap about boxing too, to a pretty large degree. Maybe one of the reasons why you see less of them is because there’s a hyper-masculine connection between boxing and rap. Those are always a bit seen as male-dominated genres though that is changing. It will be interesting if we see more of that as women’s boxing gets bigger and bigger. Ring Magazine started to include the women’s rankings in their magazine, which I think is going to be great for the sport.”
Hip hop is the dominant genre when it comes to boxing. No other style of music has ever come close in regards to its influence. Though in the 80s, boxers had different views on hip hop.
“One of the fun parts of the research was watching these fights from the 80s trying to listen to who these boxers were walking into the ring to. I even interviewed some 80s boxers like Larry Holmes and Tim Witherspoon trying to gauge what they thought of hip hop. And I remember Time Witherspoon saying ‘It came out and I was already too old. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it.’ He was coming out to Ray Charles, so he was coming out to funk.
“I think there was something about the 80s and what hip hop did for youth culture. In America, it supplanted rock and roll as the rebellious, cool new, transgressive youth culture, especially for young black kids. These boxers grew up in that area and gravitated towards it. So, when it came time to perform their identity on the way to the ring, that spoke to who they were as people. I think other genres were celebrated, but nothing like hip hop. The formula was perfect. By 1986, 1988, all these young guys coming up were listening to hip hop. That was hip music. There was no other choice but hip hop when it came to time to walk into the ring.”
That influence does not just stay with the boxers. Similar to what was discussed with James Prince in part two of the interview, people who promoted hip hop and black culture, moved towards managing and promoting fighters. And arguably the biggest one of these is Al Haymon. From co-promoting RAW with Eddie Murphy to establishing his promotional juggernaut, Al Haymon is one of the premier managers in the sport today.
“Al Haymon came from entertainment. Shelley Finkel came from entertainment. A lot of people come from music entertainment. That’s not a big shocker. But when James Prince and Mayweather split, it opened the doors for Al Haymon and Mayweather to take it to the next level. I think Al Haymon’s one of the most powerful folks in boxing. He doesn’t do interviews. He’s someone who is behind the scenes, but an immensely influential figure.
“You hear Al Haymon referenced in rap songs. I think that tells you that hip hop knows who he is, even though he’s kind of in the shadows.”
At this point, I talk to Todd about how a lot of British promoters tend to come from the sport itself and not from the entertainment business, such as the likes of Al Haymon and James Prince. At this point, he laughs.
“You made me laugh when you talked about a lot of these guys coming from other things. But Don King came from somewhere else too. The streets! Don King came from the hood.”
Indeed, despite not having the same influence he had thirty years ago, Don King is revered by some in the hip hop community, despite starting in the boxing business before hip hop was formed.
“Hip hop loves Don King. I would argue that Don King is not hip hop. He comes from a different era. But hip hop loves him. It was ironic in my database, I didn’t anticipate this, Don King is one of the most referenced boxing figures. I think hip hop looks at him as the quintessential street hustler, who was born in horrible circumstances and hustled his way out of it. So despite him being controversial, hip hop loves Don King and he continues to show up in hip hop lyrics even today. I think that hip hop gets who he is and they look at him and respect his hustle. “
There is an argument that hip hop sees Don King as their own Scarface. It’s a metaphor Snyder understands.
“They saw a guy who came from nothing, educated himself in prison, and took over the game. He was in a room with Harvard lawyers, out-thought everybody, and created a Don king monopoly for many years when he ran boxing. I think hip hop respects that hustle in the same way they respected Jay Z going from a crack dealer to be so much more. I think most people realise Don King’s a shady dude. Hip Hop knows that. But I do think they look at him as the Tony Montana of boxing. He’s way more referenced in hip hop than a lot of fighters”
The relationship between hip hop and boxing, like all relationships, will develop and grow in the future. Yet something happens soon after Snyder finished writing the book that gives an inkling as to how the relationship between the two will change.
“Right when I finished the book, Triller announced that Snoop Dogg was going to commentate on their fights when they announced the versus battles.
“Right now, I think there’s a rekindling of the spirit that showed up in events like when Jay Z did a concert just before the Mike Tyson-Clifford Etienne fight. I think we’re in an era now where in the foreseeable couple of years, we’ll see a lot of rap performances in boxing.
“There seems to be a market for it. There seems to be an audience that’s into that kind of thing. What frightens me a little bit is if we jumped the shark a little bit and if people will overdo it. Will there be a lot of copycats that will follow that Triller formula? Too much of a good thing is still too much. There may be pushback. One of the fun parts of the research for this book is that some boxers hate hip-hop ring walks, and some rappers hate hip-hop ring walks. They’re just tired of them. By the time Deontay has his fight with Tyson Fury in the rematch, there are a lot of people who are just sick of seeing those types of things.
“I think we’ll see more of this type of stuff but I think there’s a chance that it’s too much and the market is too saturated for this content and people push back and say that they are tired of this.”
Although it mentions Triller shows, Todd Snyder’s latest book is not about that. It is about the cultural connection that hip hop and boxing have. Hip hop artists come from the same streets as most fighters, forge similar paths to boxers to leave those same streets, and respect and empathise with the struggle of the most pioneering figures to have come from the sport such as Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson. As Snyder says ‘There is a spirit that connects these two cultures that will never go away.’
As long as there are impoverished communities, tough neighbourhoods, and socio-economically disadvantaged people, boxing and hip hop will always be side by side and will always share that spirit.
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