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“BeatBoxing: How Hip-Hop Changed the Fight Game“

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“BeatBoxing: How Hip-Hop Changed the Fight Game“

It’s often the case that fight fans are hip-hop fans, and vice versa. Todd Snyder is no exception. Growing up in a small coal mining town in Appalachia, he first encountered the two pursuits during his formative years and was hooked.

Snyder, who now teaches Rhetoric, Writing and Communication at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, became a scholar of both art forms, so much so that he wrote a book assessing the cultural crossover between them.

I recently had the chance to speak with Todd by phone about the book and related topics. The conversation that follows was lightly edited for length and clarity.

KH: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

TS: Nice to hear your voice, thanks for contacting me, I appreciate it.

KH: When I started reading “Beat Boxing” I was like, “This is obsessively researched,” and then I realized it’s more than just research. These are lifelong obsessions for you.

TS: I feel like I’ve been researching this book since I was in the second grade. These are the two compass points of my identity, the two things I’m most interested in and care about outside of my family. So I’m glad that came through in the book for you. That makes me feel like I did my job.

KH: One point which I think bears repeating is that Muhammad Ali was kind of the first rapper. Contrasted with Floyd Patterson who comes across as such a polite figure, and there were other boxers who inhabited that space of like, “I’m very polite, I’m respectful and that’s how I navigate the white world,” which the media was at that time. But Ali comes along and is comfortable being braggadocious and arrogant. And some people to this day still really resent it! So how did that set the stage for what would follow?

TS: You gotta remember I come to this, also, as a hip-hop scholar. I’ve been teaching hip-hop since 2006, so I’ve been doing this for a while. And when I teach this course, day one, I always want my students to realize that there were a number of sociopolitical factors that played a part in hip-hop being born in the South Bronx in the late 1970s.

Sometimes my students want to say, “Oh, we have Grandmaster Flash and Cool Herc, these iconic guys who we look at because they created hip-hop.” Which they did, but there were a lot of things that happened in America that set the stage for hip-hop. And if you were to make a pie chart, Ali would be a big chunk of that pie chart. Because there was never a black athlete who more exemplified hip-hop.

So that’s something that I’ve been teaching for quite some time to my students, and also how Motown and the Blaxploitation films and all these other things readied white America for what would become hip-hop. And in the course of the research, I interviewed some of my colleagues in African-American studies and a few of those guys pointed me in the other direction and said sure it’s Ali, but before that, Jack Johnson he may have been the original. He wears flashy clothes, and he had a white wife and he had the gold teeth, and he was very braggadocious and mocked his opponents. So even before Ali, there’s Jack Johnson. Bundini, Ali’s hype man, would say, “The ghost is in the house” — the ghost of Jack Johnson.

KH: There’s a scene in “Shadow Box” where George Plimpton goes to Ali’s fight camp in Miami and finds him watching a film on Jack Johnson.

TS: I’ve been teaching students for quite some time that Ali was a huge pre-hip-hop practitioner that helped form the idea and the ethos of the culture, but I think Jack Johnson was as well. They’re two boxers and it’s ironic that it wasn’t Jackie Robinson or another black athlete. They were two boxers, and they were the most important athletes in creating the attitude that early emcees would take up when hip-hop became a thing in the early 1970s.

KH: I wanted to ask you about your database. [BeatBoxing includes an index of 500 hip-hop tracks about boxing.] You had to set the parameters so strictly…

TS: That’s the professor in me, maybe. This is a funny side story. I didn’t put this in the book. Originally, it was one thousand songs. And my publisher said to me, politely, “We can’t fit that in the book.” It’s expensive to have that big of an index. So they said, “Could you make it 500? And then just explain the research that went into it.”

But the reason I put together the original database of a thousand songs is that when I talked to some of my colleagues they would say, “Well, but hip-hop talks about basketball too, doesn’t it? It talks about the NFL…” It sure does, but not to the level that it does boxing, and I just wanted to explain the magnitude of lyrical influence that boxing has had on hip-hop. I tell my students this: I don’t think you can really know hip-hop like an expert and not understand boxing. There’s so much of it in there, that you’re missing a lot if you don’t understand the boxing references.

KH: So why do you think that is? I mean, I suppose part of it is that boxing really lends itself to metaphor. Writers love it too for the turns of phrase – being in the ring, knockout, throwing in the towel, down for the count, the list goes on and on. But is there more to it than that with hip hop? What is it that makes the crossover so inevitable?

TS: Well, if you know hip-hop, every single component of the culture, from graffiti to breakdancing to emceeing, is super competitive, and it’s often in a one-on-one environment. Emcees sharpen their swords being on the street corner battling each other, one guy against another. Back when you had the Rock Steady Crew, and all these break-dancing crews, it was one-on-one. You would have to prove it. You would battle another dancer in front of everybody. So everything about hip-hop lends itself to that metaphor you were just alluding to. Of that one-on-one, you gotta be the freshest, the best. And, of course, Ali, he molded a lot of those early emcees. Big Daddy Kane told me, “Ali was my lyrical influence, not some other rappers. Ali was who taught me to rap.”

KH: That’s crazy, and yet makes total sense.

TS: So there’s the super competitive nature of hip-hop. There’s no other culture like it. Country music? (Laughs) In other musical cultures they don’t battle like rappers do.

KH: It’s the trial-by-fire aspect of it.

TS: Every time you climb through the ropes, you’ve got to be a fighter again. Same thing with emceeing. You could be dope one day, but you still gotta beat the next neighborhood’s best rapper. So I think that’s part of it. And I also think physically, a lot of these great fighters, a lot of these great boxers, come from the exact same neighborhoods, same projects, and boxing and hip-hop pull from a very similar clientele, from a very similar geographic reality. That is not the always the case with other sports. There are some great basketball players who did not come up that way, but every boxer does. For the first twenty-some years, every rapper did. So I think there is a socio-economic reality there. These guys knew each other, they grew up together. So that’s part of it too, I think.

KH: As someone who is a fight fan and a hip-hop fan, and also a woman, one thing I sort of noticed is that female emcees and female freestyle rappers arguably you could say are on the rise, and in boxing you could say the same. Women boxed in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and there have been more opportunities since then. Do you think it’s time for Beat Boxing Volume Two tracing the parallel rise?

TS: I pointed to that a bit in the intro. Look, for the first 15 years of hip-hop it was a predominately masculine and male-dominated thing. Although there were icons like Sharock and Roxanne Shanté, there were legends but they were few and far between. Well, boxing too, it’s the same story. Although now we’re in a new space in both. Never in hip-hop history have there been more prominent, powerful, respected and commercially successful women. Where now if you pick up Ring Magazine you can get the ratings of each division for women, they had the year-end awards in December and that’s a huge step forward for women fighters, you have to know who the opponents are. There’ve always been – Christy Martin’s a friend of mine – there’ve always been like the Christy Martins and the Leila Alis, but I feel like ten years from now, fifteen years from now, there will be a lot to write about.

KH: Still a long way to go, but it’s getting there more and more each day.

TS: Yeah. If you look at my list there’s a lot of female emcees on there. Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown… there’s a lot of female rappers rapping about boxing too.

KH: One thing I wanted to touch on, and this can be a tricky topic, but it’s something that comes up daily in boxing discourse, is race, and it comes up in speaking about hip-hop as well. In BeatBoxing, you go into some detail on Wilder v Fury II, which was interesting to me because I felt like the audience reaction among my black friends and white friends was so different, where a lot of white folks just didn’t understand what he was trying to do.

TS: You know, I did an interview, a podcast, a couple weeks ago and someone said, what’s your top five favorite ring walks, and I included Wilder v Fury II. Because D Smoke — I thought he did an awesome job.

KH: It was meaningful.

TS: It was meaningful. D Smoke did a great job, and they had the images of Tupac mixed in with images of Malcolm X and Dr. King and Maya Angelou, and all these important people mixed in that influence Wilder. I thought it was such a smart interesting entrance. D Smoke is a fantastic emcee, and he’s a friend of mine too. He’s someone who has a message, and he’s super talented. He plays a million instruments comes from a musical family but what happened though, Kris, is that people were so disgusted by Wilder’s excuses after the fight about the costume, they really could only focus on that elaborate costume. I think people just didn’t give a damn what his message was. Several of the people I interviewed, they just felt like his mind was on the wrong things. He was too worried about the appearances and the intro. So I think part of that does fall on Wilder. Although clearly there’s clearly a racial component there that the white audience didn’t get what he was trying to do at all. I loved it, I’m sorry, I still think it was one of the top five ring walks of all time, I don’t care.

KH: It was so smart and so deeply informed.

TS: I think Wilder had good intentions, I do. I really tried to get an interview with Wilder but, as you can probably imagine, he’s not interested in talking about it anymore. But D Smoke did, and I was happy to interview him for the book, because I think he had good intentions as well. I think he was a young rapper who was just starting to become famous, and I thought he did a great job. I don’t care what happened in the fight, the entrance was good.

KH: It’s about the theatrics of it, too.

TS: I do think a boxer has a slight obligation to be interesting. They do. Showmanship is a part of boxing.

KH: Always has been. So, what are you working on now?

TS (laughs): Well, I put a book out in 2020 and then another book out in 2021, and it was quite a task getting those books ready…

KH (laughs): Okay. So you’re in thinking mode?

TS: There is interest in making BeatBoxing a documentary.

KH: I’ll light a candle for that. I would love to see that happen.

TS: There’s a director interested. I’m new to that world, Kris, so I don’t want to say too much too soon.

LKH: Speak it into existence!

TS (laughs): I’m tryin’!

KH: In boxing, what are the matchups you want to see, and who’s coming up now that you think is exciting?

TS: I’m interested in a heavyweight that Top Rank has, Jared Anderson, Big Baby they call him. Since Wilder, I don’t think I’ve been quite as excited about an American heavyweight. I lived in Ohio for a while, and I heard rumblings about him back then, when he was an amateur. He’s pretty seasoned and really talented and fast, kind of a different type of heavyweight than we’ve seen lately. The heavyweight division is fun — when the heavyweight division is good I think it helps all of boxing. So he’s someone I think could be a real serious threat after this Fury/ Joshua/ Usyk era ends here. Jared Anderson is a fighter I’ve got my eyes on.

As far as matchups I want to see, I can’t help it, I think Canelo is sort of the money guy in boxing right now. I guess there’s rumors about a Charlo fight. That’s one I’d buy a ticket to, and it might be a better fight than people think, too. I think the Charlos are interesting but I want to see them in a mega fight! Charlo-Canelo, that’s one I wouldn’t want to miss.

KH: How about some rappers you like right now?
TS: My students tease me because I came up in the 80’s — I turned 40 a couple weeks ago, so I’m still listening to Wu-Tang and a lot of that stuff from that era.

KH: Oh, so are you one of those people who’s down on the mumble rappers?

TS (laughs): I don’t down any genre, because I think hip-hop is always pushing boundaries. I think hip-hop is always doing brand-new things, and reinventing itself, so I don’t hate on none of that! No, but I live in New York now, so I really like the guys coming out of Buffalo, the Griselda guys, like West Side Gunn and Benny the Butcher, and Conway the Machine. It was Conway who walked Caleb Plant into the ring. I like the underground street stuff from Buffalo. Lots of boxing in their lyrics.