In 1996 the release of the Muhammad Ali documentary “When We Were Kings” brought us not only an Academy Award-winning film on Ali’s 1974 title match with George Foreman, it also gave us the only collaboration between the two biggest rap groups of the time: Tribe and The Fugees.
Also interesting is the rare appearance of Tip and Phife solely as vocalists, the production was handled by Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill. Wyclef in particular has a tendency to be a little more pop influenced in his sample selection, and he still is here, but he thankfully built a track worthy of Tribe, with a headknock of a beat funked up by the intro to ABBA’s ‘The Name of the Game.”
What always catches me first about the song is when the beat itself comes in, leading with a snare then two kick notes. Normally when the beat drops it’s the other way around, bom-bom-CRACK instead of CRACK-bom-bom. The dryness of the snare takes the song to the streets, but the synths and harp sample give the song a sort of regal flavour befitting the Greatest of All Time. Of course Lauryn sings a hell of a hook, lifting the melody of the pop classic “Angel of the Morning” to lament the hole left by Ali’s retreat from public life.
Lyrically, Q-Tip shines the brightest on here to me, which is saying something on any track featuring Busta Rhymes as well. He starts his verse so in the pocket on a double-time flow, with impeccable breath control; you never hear him inhale. Lyrically he takes it back to the block by bragging about how bad he is, while using a boxing metaphor throughout as a nod to the song’s ultimate purpose.
Hands blistered from holding mics tight
Some say it’s fight night
Well throw the R after the F ’cause I’ma take away your breath.
Phife, ever the sports fan, is no slouch either, peppering his rhymes with boxers, dissing Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier while rightly exalting Ali as the best to do it.
I’m hearing no comments
Everyone looks despondent
Dejected, rejected similiar to Liston catching lists
Beat it Sonny, my man is still the greatest in this,
To hell with Frazier yappin’ about that negative shit.
Notice how Phife flips Liston’s name into the condescending front porch insult; he’s “sonning” Liston. Nice!
Interestingly enough, there seems to be a pretty even split online among people who think the song is ‘The Fugees f/ Tribe’ and those who claim is as ‘Tribe f/The Fugees.’ But who cares for ownership? Regardless of the details of “whose song it is,” we still have a classic meeting between two of the best crews to ever do it, The Avengers meeting The Justice League.
And I mean, really. We all know where Clef lifted that break on Killing Me Softly, right?