Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em: How Hip-Hop Became Boxing’s Biggest Motivator

The following is an excerpt from Beatboxing: How Hip-Hop Changed the Fight Game, by Todd D. Snyder. This is a section from Chapter 3 “Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em”, pages 57-62. Copyright © 2021 Todd D. Snyder.

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The story of how hip-hop music became the official soundtrack to boxing gyms around the world parallels the culture’s meteoric rise to mainstream popularity. Long before rap music took over the Billboard charts, break dancing captured the imagination of the American public. In the early days of hip-hop, the emerging dance form served as the main physical expression of the culture’s rhythmic sensibilities. Pioneering DJs such as DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash perfected the art of isolating the breakdown beats in the records they played at block parties. Those who danced to the rhythms came to be known as break-dancers. Hip-hop music, in its infancy, was not made for the ears of radio listeners—it was constructed with the improvisational wit and athleticism of break-dancers in mind.

The art of break dancing matches the rhythmic movements of shadowboxing, a key component of boxing training. In “Physical Graffiti: The History of Hip Hop Dance,” Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon outlines the uniquely competitive, and overtly confrontational, aspects of the dance form. The most obvious connection between break dancing and shadowboxing is exemplified in the subgenre known as rocking, or uprocking, where two opponents face each other and engage in a “war dance consisting of a series of steps, jerks, and the miming of weapons drawn against each other.” Battles, a staple of the tradition, have always maintained both imaginative and competitive elements. You could easily describe uprocking as an improvisational kata (choreographed karate), coordinated to the beat of a musical selection. In this respect, hip-hop music is arguably the perfect soundtrack for the sharp and rhythmic cadence of shadowboxing. Even the physical act of rapping lends itself to rhythmic movement. The fit, as Chop Chop Corley reminded me, is perfect.

“I was into break dancing as a kid. But in D.C. we mostly had go-go music. It was hard to shadowbox to that music—it has too much of an up-tempo beat. Hip-hop was a better fit for shadowboxing,” Corley said.

Just as boxers are drawn to hip-hop music during their workouts, many emcees are drawn to boxing as a main source of exercise. Meek Mill, Big Sean, Ludacris, and 50 Cent, who boxed as an amateur, have all posted videos and images of their boxing workouts on social media. To discuss this phenomenon, I turned to former WBO heavyweight champion Michael Bentt. After his career as a professional boxer ended abruptly in 1994 because of a brain injury, Bentt turned to acting and landed the coveted role of Sonny Liston in Michael Mann’s 2000 Muhammad Ali biopic. In the film, Ali was played by hip-hop-star-turned-actor Will Smith. In helping Smith transform into Muhammad Ali, Bentt found a new career. Today the former champion is a high-profile personal trainer for stars, and a number of his clients are prominent hip-hop figures.

“Heavy D was my most committed client,” Bentt told me. “I met Heavy when I was doing the Ali film with Michael Mann. He was such a down-to-earth, sweet guy. He was a friend of Will Smith. Heavy was a big boxing fan. At first, I don’t think he felt like he belonged there. James Toney and the other boxers were on the set. He was a little timid. Heavy hadn’t tapped into that side of himself yet. He saw Will doing it and he dug it so I started working with him for a few years. I was a big fan of his album Vibes so I said, ‘let’s do it.’ That experience led me to training other hip-hop guys. I used to train Damon Dash, for example. I know that Jay-Z was doing boxing workouts at the time too. All of these guys are massive boxing fans. But the best hip-hop guy I ever trained was Heavy D. He had good timing for a big guy, he could relax during pressure. For a civilian, he had nice hands.”

With respect to Bentt’s work with rappers Will Smith and Heavy D, the most famous example of such a pairing is likely the Detroit-based combination of Emanuel Steward and Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem. In preparing for a role in the movie Southpaw, Mathers hired the legendary Kronk trainer, along with former lightweight world champion Hilmer Kenty, to help turn him into a believable boxer on the silver screen.

The legendary Kronk Gym trainer, Emanuel Steward, trained Eminem to prepare to play the main character, Billy Hope, in the movie Southpaw. Jake Gyllenhaal went on to play that role after Eminem had to back out of playing Hope.

On Mike Tyson’s popular Hotboxin’ podcast, recorded in February 2020, Eminem reflected on the experience: “I’ve been boxing for thirteen years, sparring and messing around. I learned from Emanuel Steward. He was such a nice dude. He would come over to my house and we would spar twice a week. He would bring his boxers from the Kronk Gym. He would show me the basics. And it took a long fucking time for me to just learn the basics. They were just up-and-coming kids. I mean, I was getting my ass kicked but I could hang with them. I was getting some hits in [laughs].”

While Southpaw was originally green-lit with Marshall Mathers as the star, production on the film was delayed by a number of personal and professional setbacks and the lead role eventually went to actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Largely because of his love for the sport of boxing, Mathers didn’t disappear from the project. Instead, the Detroit rapper decided to executive produce the soundtrack, which included his boxing-themed single “Phenomenal.”

“I heard the stories when I was working with Emanuel. He would go to Eminem’s house and train him. I heard Emanuel tell people he had good hands,” Kermit Cintrón said.

“No joke, Hilmer Kenty once told me Em was talented. He co-signed that Em actually had some skills. Em took it serious,” former Steward disciple and Mike Tyson entourage member John Lepak added, outlining the rap star’s commitment to training.

Long before R&B star Usher played the role of Sugar Ray Leonard in the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone, singers and rappers alike were showing off their boxing skills in music videos. For example, in the music video for “Undisputed,” Ludacris’s second single from his acclaimed album Theater of the Mind, the Atlanta rap star receives a private boxing lesson from Floyd Mayweather. On the track and in the video, Mayweather serves as a cornerman, giving inspiration in between verses. In brief clips sprinkled in the video, Ludacris hits the mitts with Roger Mayweather, pounds a heavy bag held by Floyd, and raps his way around the Money Team boxing ring. Luda even puts in some early morning roadwork on the Las Vegas strip, as Mayweather plays hype man in a luxury convertible.

The Ludacris–Mayweather pairing was hardly new territory in hip-hop. Rapper Canibus and Mike Tyson pulled a similar move in their 1998 video for “Second Round K.O.,” a diss track aimed at LL Cool J. In the video, Canibus, assisted by hype-man vocals from Tyson, hits the mitts and speed bag, skips rope, does push-ups, and raps in a boxing ring and in between swinging heavy bags. In a visual montage similar to one in a Rocky Balboa movie, Canibus and Tyson run on the beach as the rapper gradually improves his skills. Even Fugees star Wyclef Jean makes a cameo as a ring announcer, flipping Michael Buffer’s famous phrase to fit the occasion: “Let’s Get Ready to Battle!”

Mike Tyson and Canibus Collaborated for the song "Second Round K.O."

Ironically, it was LL Cool J who established the boxing gym motif in his groundbreaking 1991 video for “Mama Said Knock You Out.” The minimalist video features LL Cool J rapping into a 1920s style microphone at center ring. Shot in black-and-white, the video shows off the Queens rapper’s muscular physique, splicing in clips of boxing matches and LL Cool J working out.

In his 1998 biography, I Make My Own Rules, LL Cool J said the idea for the song was inspired by a conversation with his grandmother. Feeling frustration because of the poor critical reception of his third album, Walking with a Panther, LL Cool J expressed concern that he was no longer relevant in the rap game.

“Oh baby, just knock them out!” his grandmother famously replied.

“I was already energized when we went to record, but her advice was in the back of my mind,” LL Cool J reflected.

The song’s opening lines, “Don’t call it a comeback / I been here for years,” are arguably just as iconic as the video itself, which juxtaposed the worlds of boxing and hip-hop for the first time. It’s no coincidence, then, that the music video most noted for fusing hip-hop and boxing came when the rapper’s back was up against the metaphorical ropes. At the time LL recorded the track, he was also transforming physically, adding a strict weightlifting and boxing-training regimen to his daily life.

“I noticed that [LL Cool J] started to physically build himself up before that song. When we started working with him, he was sixteen years old. He was long and lean. He wasn’t a thick guy at all,” remembered Bill Adler, director of publicity for Def Jam Records. “When he started with us [Def Jam], his DJ was Cut Creator, who was not as tall as he was thick, a former football player. He was a nice, calm guy but if you riled him you would be in trouble. I’m pretty sure, his musical chores aside, Cut Creator’s job was to roll with [LL Cool J] because he would run his mouth and couldn’t back it up. That’s what used to happen. He was not notably built in 1984, when he started recording. He spent a lot of time building his body up, leading into that video.”

Adler continued: “[LL Cool J] was coming off some negative reactions to his previous album. Before Mama Said Knock You Out, he also had beefs with Ice T and Kool Moe Dee. Rap is competitive. I think he felt that he had to sharpen up his rap game but also wanted to be physically stronger as well. So, that’s where the boxing training came in.”

“I definitely had a chip on my shoulder,” LL Cool J remembered. “The video was about the microphone, about the performance, and about getting busy. So we had boxers getting hit, and me knocking out the mic. And that felt right to me. And then a lot of angles. I asked Paris [Barclay] to take it to another level when we were inspired by that Raging Bull motif.”

The end product was one of LL Cool J’s most successful records, a song that solidified his place in the rap game, propelling a recording career that would span four decades.

LL Cool J's Video for "Mama Said Knock You Out" Incorporated a Raging Bull Motif

“A fighter’s DNA can be found in every facet of hip-hop,” Bill Adler told me. “It is fighting in the arts, instead of the ring, but the mentality is the same. The key thing to understand is that hip-hop was pretty self-consciously channeling physical aggression into the arts. Every single one of the original hip-hop arts—graffiti, deejaying, breakdancing, and emceeing—all of that stuff was super-competitive. For the most part, the folks who did it were competitive but sought these areas to avoid physical violence. It is something [Afrika] Bambaataa has talked about. He was a guy who had been in a gang. He came to deplore the violence. It was a conscious decision. He turned to the arts instead. Both arenas [hip-hop and boxing] are driven by testosterone-maddening competition.”

Hip-hop, as evidenced by LL Cool J’s song “Mama Said Knock You Out,” is music made with physical competition in mind. From its rhythmic influence on training, to its metaphoric significance in videos, rap music is inextricably intertwined with boxing. The influence of LL Cool J’s song is unquantifiable. Fighters from all racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds still find the song perfect for training.

On September 3, 2020, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of LL Cool J’s fourth album, the rapper and his Sirius XM radio station, Rock The Bells, teamed up with Everlast to release a series of limited-edition boxing robes. Designed by Alexander-John, the collection uses the same graphic design as the album’s iconic cover. “Don’t Call It a Comeback” is stitched prominently on the back of the robe.

For the social media rollout, LL Cool J and Rock The Bells asked boxers Gabriel Rosado, Andre Dirrell, Andre Berto, Abner Mares, and Mikey Garcia to model the robes and reflect on what the song has meant to the sport.

“It’s iconic and definitely a record that we used to play on a regular basis to get motivated for these tournaments, and to give us the inspiration to get in that gym and just put that pressure on,” Andre Berto said.

“My grandfather put me on to it. I was six or seven years old when this damn song came out. But we all knew it. It played in the gym often. My grandfather always played it. He loves songs by LL Cool J, Dr. Dre, you name it,” Andre Dirrell added.

“I feel like this is an anthem song. That’s the first thing that pops in my head. I’m an ’80s kid, I’m thirty-four, and all I see is Roy Jones Jr. walking in that ring playing this song. Or him working in the gym. It’s boxing,” said Abner Mares.

Mikey Garcia, summarizing perfectly hip-hop’s unique place in boxing gyms worldwide, said, “The first time I ever heard ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ was in the movie Gladiator—not the Russell Crowe one—the boxing one. I’m watching the movie and it’s about boxing so it’s obviously attractive to me. In one of the fight scenes, a fighter comes out to that song. That was the first time I heard that. Once you’re in the gym, you’re not going to be working out to some love songs. You got to have some rhythm, some beat that can hype you up, and that can motivate you to train hard.”

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