Edward Gernel Fletcher, better known as the pioneering hip hop producer and rapper Duke Bootee, died Jan. 13 from heart failure. He was 69.
His death was confirmed Thursday by his wife, who told the New York Times that he died at their home in Georgia.
Born in 1951 and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Fletcher is widely celebrated as one of the seminal creative forces in the development of hip-hop, having served as the primary songwriter on “The Message.” That 1982 track, a hit for Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, was one of the earliest examples of social commentary in rap and opened the door for a wave of socially conscious and overtly political artists who would eventually come to dominate the genre a decade later.
Following college, Fletcher embarked on a music career, and by the end of the 1970s was working as an engineer for Sugar Hill Records, the groundbreaking label behind the first commercially successful rap hits. It was during this period when, inspired by the 1980 New York City transit strike and wanting to talk openly about the state of the world, he began writing lyrics for what would become “The Message.”
The track was filled with stark descriptions of the inner city, with lyrics like “broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care / I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess, I got no choice.”
The song also referenced the problems stemming from systemic racism and poverty, and mentions topics ranging from bad credit, homelessness and people forced into criminal acts, prostitution and drug use, to underfunded schools and broken homes. Fletcher also wrote most of the song’s now iconic instrumental track aside from the guitar lines, and Sugar Hill was eager to publish the song. At first, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five resisted recording it, as hip-hop was dominated at the time by party raps. Furious Five rapper Melle Mel eventually came around and contributed the song’s final verse.
Released in July 1982, it was a domestic and international hit, immediately recognized as a landmark in rap music. It not only elevated political commentary but is recognized for establishing rappers as the stars of hip-hop groups rather than the DJ, an aspect of rap that hasn’t changed in nearly 40 years.
Fletcher left the music business and went on to attend Rutgers University, attaining a master’s degree in Education. He later worked with troubled youth and taught at the university level, most recently at Savannah State University in Georgia.
According to the New York Times, Fletcher is survived by his wife, two children and five grandchildren.