360°Sound spoke with hip-hop scholar Todd Snyder about his new book Beatboxing: How Hip-Hop Changed the Fight Game (out now on Hamilcar Publications). The book tells the story of how boxing and hip-hop intersected decades ago and continue to be inextricably linked today. Snyder interviewed numerous well-known professional boxers, rappers, and prominent individuals involved in both “the sweet science” and hip-hop.
Snyder is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at Siena College, where he teaches the course Rhetoric(s) of Hip-Hop Culture. The West Virginia native is also the author of Bundini: Don’t Believe The Hype and 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. In this exclusive interview, Snyder talks about why hip-hop is the best music for boxing training, his favorite boxing-related rap song, the friendship between Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur, and more. Also, embedded below are rap music videos that reference boxing (and one rap song by a boxer), all of which are detailed in Snyder’s book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: You wrote in the prologue that you were “born to write this book.” Please start by talking about how your background and interest in both hip-hop and boxing led you to writing this book.
Todd Snyder: My dad had this series of makeshift boxing gyms in West Virginia. The name of the gym was always Lo’s Gym. One time it was located in the back of a barbershop. One time it was located in a building owned by the local church. One time he had a big building in a backyard that he would train fighters in. So, my entire life has been around boxing, around gyms, around my dad being at fights on Saturdays, going to amateur USA Boxing tournaments.
Saturday nights in my house were always reserved for watching the big fights. As I mentioned in the book, we had a hacked cable box, and we basically saw every fight there was [laughs]. Boxing was everything to me, and my dad was my hero. He loved [Muhammad] Ali, so I loved Ali. When [Mike] Tyson was big in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was a Tyson fan. As I got older, I found fighters that I liked, like Roy Jones Jr. and [Pernell] “Sweet Pea” Whitaker and eventually [Floyd] Mayweather. I was always around boxing. I boxed in high school for a couple years. When I went off to college I would come home during breaks and train the fighters with my dad.
My whole life is boxing, so that part is easy to tell. The other side of my personality is [hip-hop]. [My dad’s] sister, Michele, my aunt, was big into hip-hop. She’s 10 years older than me. I was born in 1981. She was in high school when hip-hop became a thing. All of her friends were listening to Run-DMC, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J. So, I thought she was the shit. She was my big sister almost. Boxing I got from my dad, the hip-hop side I got from his sister. I wanted to be like her, too.
Hip-hop eventually became sort of a gate into the world of words for me. It really got me into writing; it got me into poetry. Eventually, because of where I grew up, it got me into issues that weren’t really discussed in rural West Virginia. It got me into politics and fashion. Boxing has been what’s most directly influenced my life, but hip-hop has always been my artistic muse. Being a white boy from West Virginia, I was very cool with like, OK, I’m not a part of hip-hop culture, but I want to preserve it and celebrate it. From a real young age, I wanted to be a hip-hop scholar, a scavenger so to speak. Those have always been the two compass points to my identity, the two things that really inspired me as a person, professionally and personally.
Boxing is essentially a violent dance. It’s very rhythmic and involves a lot of footwork and timing. Talk about how hip-hop lends itself well to boxing training music.
I’ve been in every boxing gym in West Virginia. In the ‘90s, they were all playing hip-hop. White gyms in the middle of the sticks, they were playing Jay-Z and all that stuff just because the trainers recognized it’s a great way to teach rhythm. You can’t listen to Celine Dion and shadowbox. A lot of trainers will even get instrumental hip-hop and just play the beat because it’s a great way to learn rhythm and timing. I would go in gyms, and they’d be like, ‘Man, put some music on. This kid has no rhythm.’ That was like a rhythm aid [laughs].
Another reason the connection is so deep is because in New York City, where hip-hop was born, those gyms were hip to it earlier than other parts of the country. You go to a lot of these gyms in the inner city, and they were definitely up on hip-hop. Training is your life as a boxer. It’s this monotonous, repetitive, hard workout. The music gets you through it. Research shows you can work out longer and harder if you’re listening to music that has the right kind of tempo, the right beats per minute.
Hip-hop’s original purpose was for break dancers. That’s why we call them b-boys, they were dancing to break beats. Hip-hop has always been about rhythm and timing and music that keeps the energy of the party going. That spirit that traveled from the South Bronx to these gyms all over the country, it was just a perfect match. You can like heavy metal, but it’s not great for a boxing workout [laughs]. The music doesn’t lend itself to what trainers are asking their fighters to do.
Discuss some of the ways in which Mike Tyson was able to connect boxing to hip-hop culture.
Tyson was a youngster when hip-hop was starting to happen in New York. He was there before it really was a thing that anyone even called hip-hop. I think it’s provable that he is hip-hop’s first celebrity big-name athlete. There were other athletes who were rapped about like Michael Jordan. Hip-hop loved Jordan, but he didn’t love hip-hop back – not publicly at least. Tyson was the first hip-hop athlete. He celebrated the culture and rubbed shoulders with the greats of the culture in a way no other athlete ever had publicly.
A lot of Mike Tyson’s career and life is a collection of stories that are both boxing stories and hip-hop stories. If you think of the fight where Tyson and [heavyweight boxer] Mitch Green got into it in front of Dapper Dan’s boutique [in 1988]. He was there to get a ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ jacket, the slogan from Public Enemy, and Dapper Dan was the guy who outfitted all the great hip-hop artists of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and Dapper Dan continues to outfit boxers like Devin Haney. Dapper Dan isn’t just a hip-hop guy, he’s both.
Of course, Tyson’s friendship with Public Enemy, he’s the first boxer to walk to the ring with hip-hop music thanks to Public Enemy. His relationship with the late Tupac Shakur, which in the book I refer to it as ‘the big bang moment.’ Their friendship really exposes the public connection between boxing and hip-hop. Tyson is the guy who is probably most responsible for the modern-day connection between hip-hop and boxing.
What did you find most interesting about the friendship between Tyson and Tupac?
The two were not free at the same time for very long. Tupac and Tyson became friends in the early ‘90s and right when that friendship was starting to blossom, Tyson goes to prison and Tupac becomes famous while Tyson is in prison. Well, when Tyson gets out, Tupac goes in [laughs]. There’s only a short amount of time where the two men are free and actually hang out. I think that’s the most interesting component of their friendship. Most of it was phone calls and letters and visits to prison, one guy checking on the other guy, they almost were like pen pals almost. I think that’s fascinating.
When Pac gets out of jail, Tyson reclaims the title from Frank Bruno, and they only get about eight months I believe where they’re both free and back on top of the world, where Tyson is the heavyweight champion again and Tupac releases All Eyez on Me and is the biggest rapper in the world. That’s less than a year those two guys are free and able to connect and go places together. They had big plans, things they wanted to do as far as community outreach and all kinds of other stuff. Unfortunately, the events that followed Tyson’s fight with Bruce Seldon [Tupac’s murder on Sept. 7, 1996, in Las Vegas] changed hip-hop and boxing forever, I think.
Tupac was really hip-hop’s first legend. He was more famous than any of the predecessors. Tupac was on the evening news. He was getting talked about by Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, and Dionne Warwick. Tyson is the same way. They’re both kind of bigger than their genre. The fact that the two palled around together, it was a dream matchup. Mayweather and 50 Cent is a very famous hip-hop and boxing connection. There’s Roy Jones Jr. and [Rap-A-Lot label founder] James Prince. But Tyson and Pac were just a level of fame that was far beyond what they accomplished in their respective careers, which was extraordinary.
I talked to some people who were close to [Tyson] and they told me that Pac would sometimes make him nervous because he was so impulsive. It’s amazing to me to think of someone as too impulsive for Tyson because he was a pretty wild guy in his day [laughs]. Some of the people I talked to suggested that Tyson had to reign him in, which I think that’s an interesting dynamic to their friendship, that Tyson was like a big brother giving advice to Pac. I think Tyson knew [Tupac] was hanging around some dangerous people. Sometimes you’re guilty by association. Tupac wasn’t really a gangster per se. He didn’t grow up in gangs. He was a rapper who came from nothing, but there at the end of his life was associating with some pretty high-level gang members. You gotta watch out the company you keep. I think Tyson was trying to tell him that.
The book has an appendix of hip-hop songs that reference boxing and boxers. What’s your favorite boxing-related song?
My favorite ever is Wu-Tang’s “The M.G.M.,” and the reason I love that song so much is because it’s a fictional fight that never took place. Ghostface and Raekwon are rapping at the Whitaker-Chavez rematch. Of course, they had a controversial draw in the ‘90s; they should have had a rematch because Sweet Pea got robbed. But I love it because they’re ringside at the MGM Grand for this fictional rematch that never took place and they’re rapping about all the celebrities they see in the crowd like Deion Sanders. They rap about Richard Steele refereeing the fight.
It was just so cool because it’s this made-up fictional thing that we all wanted to see. I thought it was really creative to imagine themselves at a fight that never took place. A lot of rappers rap about Ali or Tyson or Mayweather or [Manny] Pacquiao, but I like that one for its creativity. It’s a really fun song; it’s got the crowd noise in the background and the bell ringing. They’re narrating the fight as they’re narrating what’s going in the crowd. Spoiler alert: The fight gets stopped on a headbutt, so even the fictional rematch sucks [laughs].