Edward Fletcher, who as Duke Bootee was the driving force behind “The Message,” the 1982 hit that drove hip-hop from happy escapism to chronicling the everyday life of urban poverty, died on January 13 at his home in Savannah, Ga. He was 69 years old.
The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Rosita Fletcher.
Mr. Fletcher began writing “The Message” in 1980 and that same year became a studio musician with Sugar Hill Records, which released the early works of groups such as the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Mr. Fletcher toured with Sugar Hill Acts, contributed to the recording of landmark tracks, and composed music on occasion.
“We wrote the first chapter in the history of rap,” he said in a 2013 interview on Channel 28 in Savannah.
The sound of hip-hop was upbeat and upbeat at first, with lyrics encouraging dancing crowds to “throw your hands in the air / party hard like you just don’t care” when the Sugar Hill Gang opened in 1979 her landmark knocked single “Rapper’s Delight”.
One night in his mother’s basement, in the harsh and increasingly impoverished town he grew up in, Elizabeth, New Jersey, Mr. Fletcher was smoking a joint with a friend and fellow musician, Jiggs Chase. When he thought of his hometown, he started putting together a different approach to hip hop.
“The neighborhood I lived in, the things I saw – it was like a jungle in Elizabeth at times,” Fletcher told The Guardian in 2013. In another interview with hip-hop historian JayQuan, he recalled the number of times someone would “Drive by and you hear a bottle break.”
The images of the jungle and broken glass contributed two characteristic motifs to the lyrics of “The Message”, which wanted to define everyday life in a harsh urban world. The rhymes included, “I have a bum training, double-digit inflation / I can’t take the train to work, there’s a strike at the station.” Mr. Fletcher wrote most of the lyrics and the staggering, menacing electro-melody.
It confused Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
“It was just too serious,” Melle Mel, a member of the group, told Uncut magazine in 2013. “We were doing party tracks,” he added, “and we wanted to keep on the same track.” Nobody wanted this song. “
Melle Mel eventually gave in to pressure from Sylvia Robinson, one of the owners of Sugar Hill. He contributed one last verse to “The Message” and shared the rap chores with Mr. Fletcher, who also played all instruments except guitar. As a rapper, Mr. Fletcher’s baritone voice registered a cool insensitivity that contrasted with the excitability of many of his colleagues.
The song was an instant hit. In the years to come, it would be sampled nearly 300 times, according to whosampled.com. Rolling Stone called it the greatest song in hip hop history and a huge influence on rappers like Jay-Z and The Notorious BIG. It also helped get Grandmaster Flash and his band a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though Melle Mel was the only one of them to appear on what was known as a “masterpiece,” aside from a brief final skit.
“The world (myself included) is absolutely frozen in the week it debuted on the radio,” wrote musician and songwriter Questlove on Rolling Stone. “Hip-hop was once known as party fodder, a fad. ‘The Message’ drew a 180, proving that it could be a tool for sociopolitical change. “
Mr. Fletcher was recognized as a co-composer of “The Message” and received royalties for his work on it. But it didn’t appear on the album cover, and Rahiem of the Furious Five dubbed Mr. Fletcher’s voice on the music video.
Mr. Fletcher’s feelings about being cut out of the song’s public image were mixed. Sometimes he saw a clever marketing strategy. “It worked with a group like Flash and them because they had this ominous street scene,” he said in an interview with JayQuan. “There are no other groups from that time that could have achieved this record better than them.”
But his gratitude had limits. “If I had known what it was going to do,” he told The Guardian of his hit, “I would have kept it to myself.”
Edward Gernel Fletcher was born in Elizabeth on June 6, 1951. His father Ernest was a high school graduate and his mother Helen (Bridges) Fletcher taught elementary school. At age 16, Ed started dating Rosita Ross, a classmate and friend of the family. They married in 1976 and stayed together for the rest of his life.
Ed took drum and xylophone lessons as a boy and played in cover bands at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. After graduating in English in 1973, he played with local New Jersey bands. He was first known when he starred on Edwin Starr’s disco single “Contact” and two years later he started working for Sugar Hill.
Mr. Fletcher left the music industry as a young man; The money he was making wasn’t worth all of his family’s trip and time. Back in New Jersey, he turned to what he called a “family business”: teaching.
He received masters degrees from the New School in Media Studies and from Rutgers University in Education. He has worked in a juvenile detention center, high school, and two colleges, and spent the final decade of his career teaching critical thinking and communication at Savannah State University. He retired in 2019.
In addition to his wife, two children, Owen Fletcher and Branice Moore, and five grandchildren survive Mr. Fletcher.
The open discussion of everyday problems in “The Message” shaped Mr. Fletcher’s sensitivity as a teacher. He suggested what he called the Fletcher Principles. In the Channel 28 interview, the rap godfather explained the ultimate message he had crafted for young students:
“Find out how you can take care of yourself, legally. Find someone you can take, who can take you. Pay your taxes. Take care of your teeth. “