BOOKS: Ali Rap, Lois Design

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George Lois Goes the Distance With The Greatest
George Lois Goes the Distance With The Greatest
In honor of Muhammad Ali's 65th birthday, in January, and the 25th anniversary of his last fight, in December, Taschen and ESPN Books have published a $24.99 flexicover called Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali, The First Heavyweight Champion of Rap, edited and designed by George Lois. The simple concept — Ali's words illustrated with a wide range of photographs, many of which evoke various aspects of the tumultuous era in which "The most famous human on our planet," as Lois calls him, rose to the peak of celebrity — serves as "a kind of autobiography of Ali," says one of the most famous admen. "Most people don't really understand why they love Ali. You have to tell the story of his life to get the whole picture. Everyone has a general idea that he was 'great,' but you've got to understand the influence he's had on American culture."

Lois, of course, now in his 70s and still talking as fast and as furiously as Ali did in his prime, has had some influence on American culture himself, with, among other things, his legendary 1968 Esquire cover picturing Ali as Saint Sebastian — an incendiary image at the time, and one of several such images in the book, as Lois brings to life the horrors of the Jim Crow South, the rise of the civil rights movement and the turmoil of the anti-war years. "When Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam War, following Ali, that's when things really got hot in America," says Lois. "Ali was the trigger. I specifically explain how this happened in the book." He has also included the horrifying open-coffin picture of Emmett Till, the black teenager brutally murdered in Mississippi, in 1955, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. "It's something every white person should've seen back then, when it ran only in black media," says Lois. "Ali and Till were roughly the same age, and Ali told me when he saw this picture, in Jet, it scared the living shit out of him. It was one of the defining things in his life. There's some scary stuff in the book, and a lot of people, especially young people, just don't understand the racism and the terrible things that have gone on in this country. This is my history lesson."

Lois takes credit for the book's catchy, very contemporary title, but he points out that there's nothing new about the notion of Ali as a definitive proto-rapper, particularly in the world of hip-hop, where everyone of Lois' acquaintance, including Russell Simmons and Chuck D — the man really gets around — acknowledges Ali's essential contributions. "And they're not just talking about his rhyming influence and his influence on the music," adds Lois. "They're talking about his lifestyle and his attitude of not taking any shit."

As for the design of the book, was Lois ever contemplating a hip-hop graphic style, perhaps, to match the subject? "No, because hip-hop graphics are shit." The design is very clean, orderly and inviting, with plenty of large type; it might be called old school, but Lois bristles at the suggestion. "I don't do old-school design," he snaps. "I'm a thousand years ahead of anything that's being done today. I'm interested in economy; the design is the idea. My jobs design themselves. Some people think contemporary design is all kinds of shit flying all over the place — all I care about is that the design comes across." It does indeed, as does the champion who once said, "I am America, I am the past you won't recognize; but get used to me." Some spreads from the book are seen here. Click here for more.

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