Duke Bootee, Co-Writer of Hip-Hop’s Iconic ‘The Message,’ Dies at 69

Natalie Oganesyan
·2-min read

Duke Bootee, whose 1982 hit “The Message” changed the tone of hip-hop, died on Jan. 13 of heart failure at his home in Savannah, Ga., the New York Times confirmed. He was 69.

Born Edward Fletcher, he began writing “The Message” in 1980, the same year he became a studio musician at Sugar Hill Records, which released the early work of groups such as the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Fletcher also toured with the Sugar Hill acts and contributed to the writing and recording of their seminal tracks.

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“The Message” describes the “jungle” that is living in an impoverished city and marked a stark contrast between the hip-hop hits of the era, which were largely upbeat and meant to make a crowd move. While the Sugar Hill acts were initially hesitant to release the track, it proved to be an instant success and has since been widely regarded as the greatest song in hip-hop history, influencing major artists like Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. The song proved hip-hop could be a medium for enacting sociopolitical change, according to Questlove, who cited the track as one of his top hip-hop songs of all time.

Fletcher was born on June 6, 1951, in Elizabeth. Ga. Growing up, he took drum and xylophone lessons and played in cover bands at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1973 with an English degree, he played with local New Jersey bands. Once he garnered some success for playing on Edwin Starr’s disco single “Contact,” he started working at Sugar Hill.

Fletcher left the music industry early, as he decided his salary was not worth spending time away from his family. He got master’s degrees from the New School in media studies and from Rutgers University in education to return to teaching. He worked at a juvenile detention center, a high school and two colleges and spent the last decade of his career as a lecturer in critical thinking and communication at Savannah State University. He retired in 2019.

He is survived by his wife, Rosita Ross, his two children Owen Fletcher and Branice Moore and five grandchildren.

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