Duke Bootee: Man behind 'The Message'

A talk with the loquacious hip hop pioneer and Savannah resident

Geoff L. Johnson
“Usually, they say people who are involved in some sort of renaissance don’t walk around saying: ‘Hey, how goes the Renaissance?’But I knew this was gonna be some historical shit.”

The story of Duke Bootee is a right-place/been-there, right-time/done-that string of iconic moments; a musical rendition of the movie Forrest Gump if Gump had been black and brilliant instead of white and retarded.

Get this: Duke Bootee played with disco’s chart-topping soul singer Edwin Starr while simultaneously predicting the death of disco in New York City.

Duke Bootee threw back drinks at Kings Cross when punk was heating up in London, when Billy Idol was still, according to the Duke, a “getting high-in-the-airport kind of punk.”

Duke Bootee sang “Give Peace a Chance” with a flash-mob of thousands at the Dakota on the upper west side of Manhattan the night John Lennon got shot.

Duke Bootee used to kick back and watch MacGyver with Sun Ra, of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, who claimed he came from Saturn but was born in Alabama.

Duke Bootee was on his feet at the Ritz in ’81, when Prince came out in a leotard, G-string and knee-high boots singing “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”

Duke Bootee toured with the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — the first act to ever (ever!) go out onstage without a band. Just Flash, the DJ and the rappers. Miles Davis even named a song after him on his last album, Doo-Bop.

Duke Bootee introduces himself as Fletcher. Ed Fletcher. “Usually, they say people who are involved in some sort of renaissance don’t walk around saying: ‘Hey, how goes the Renaissance?’” Fletcher says, wiggling the unlit cigar tucked under his finger.

“But I knew this was gonna be some historical shit.”

Chatting with the 61-year-old New Jersey native is a free course in socio-musicology, a lesson in contemporary music’s symphonic zeitgeist.

Because Fletcher was more than just present for the revolution. He was instructing the populace on how to adapt, how to take it all in.

The opening lyrics of a Sugarhill Gang song gently explained the name for the sounds and the movement in 1979: “What you hear is not a test: I’m rapping to the beat.”

That song was “Rapper’s Delight.”

Something Fletcher couldn’t predict was how “The Message,” a song he wrote in his mother’s basement in Jersey, would become the most innovative, most influential and most re-recorded old-school hip hop track of all time, as recorded by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.

Blending funk with dance club rhythms and inspired by Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” and Zapp & Roger’s “More Bounce to the Ounce,” “The Message” drummed up an epic echo. That echo reverberated through the halls of the Smithsonian’s historical recordings and imprinted on the pages of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature.

Hailed as the greatest hip hop song of all time by Rolling Stone, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2012. “It always amazes me how something that’s so old, that was done in such a short amount of time could become such a classic,” Fletch muses. “But, if you have to have your whole career distilled to one production, I don’t mind that it’s that one.”

Truth is: this man penned, produced and performed so many tracks with so many artists for so many albums that he’s lost count. The only number Fletcher knows offhand is 31, because that’s how many of his songs hit the Top 40.

“There’s a certain charge that you have knowing that you’re on the charts, that you’re at the top of the charts. There’s a certain living by your wits. In the record business, it’s a gamble.”

“I was a hustler, baby,” he sings to me, in perfect pitch.

You gotta have a con in the land of milk and honey.

Fletcher spent four years (1980-1984) earning what he calls his “Harvard business degree,” as a studio musician, road manager, co-producer and writer at Sugar Hill Records. He took what he learned and launched his own boutique label, Beauty and the Beat Records.

“I wasn’t a rapper, I was a musician,” says the second rap artist to get signed to a major label — Polygram.

“But you don’t have to be a musician to make music. The Ramones only knew five chords … but they played the hell outta them.”

In Fletcher’s eye, rap went a step further than punk rock, adopting a DIY, all-inclusive stance on making noise that crossed racial and social boundaries.

“We were like, we don’t even need a guitar — all we need is a turntable to start this shit. And look at what they did with that. Thirty years and it’s a multibillion-dollar industry,” Fletch says.

“When you can’t sing and you start singing, people go: ‘Hey fucker. You can’t sing.’ But with rap, it’s so democratic — almost anybody could do it. It gave voice to the people who’d had no voice before.”

When he describes life in the echelon of minor celebrity, he gestures broadly, with arm sweeps and a good bit of pointing. He didn’t lose his head in the public eye, tried never to care what critics said, didn’t drink the industry’s lifestyle Kool-Aid.

He also didn’t stop putting on an ultra-late night buzz and eating tiny, square hamburgers at the White Castle.

“People are like: ‘What are you doing drunk at the White Castle? Ain’t you Duke Bootee?’” he recalls.

“I’d be like: ‘Man, fuck you. I’ve been getting drunk at the White Castle since you was born. What’s your problem?’”

Fletch is also credited as a vocalist on the 1985 protest album, Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid, which featured just about every big name musician around at the time: Bob Dylan. Bono. Hall and Oates. Miles Davis. Pat Benatar. Pete Townshend. Grandmaster Flash. To name a few.

“It was a really good experience,” he reflects, chewing the Baccarat a little.

Flipping through books about the making of Sun City, he opens to a full-page spread of himself wearing dark sunglasses and brandishing a baby.

“There were so many stars there that everyone was trying to steal this shot, so I grabbed this baby,” he says, leaning back and laughing.

“Hey man, if I’d found a dog, I’d have snatched that, too.” He played an instrumental part in convincing the other rappers to sign on to the project, which raised more than a million dollars toward anti-apartheid organizations.

Oh yeah, no big deal: he received a citation from the United Nations.

“To me, it was never political, it was always social,” Fletcher insists. “All I ever wanted to do was hold a mirror up to society.”

Fletcher has always been an artist by the people, for the people and of the people. And he knows how to bet the odds on the time signature of the mainstream market.

“You get a chance to play with the guys you grew up wanting to play with and you see they’re not living like you wanna live. They don’t have the kind of money you want. They don’t have the kind of house that you want. They’re trapped on the road. I made that conscious decision that I don’t just want to satisfy myself. I also want to make things that are appealing enough that people put down their hard-earned money for.”

One of the things Fletcher’s proudest of is being a regular guy, having a family, a normal life outside and above the one typically peddled by people in show business. Above all else, he’s a family man.

He’s been with his wife Rosita since they were both 15 years old. In part, it was his familial legacy that allowed him to just turn and walk away from the record business.

“Music just wasn’t feeding me the same way, my needs had changed,” is how Fletcher explains quitting the business with a little shrug.

“I was ready to stop when I was ready to stop.”

Plus, he couldn’t be the kind of father he wanted to be from across the Atlantic.

“You only get one shot with your kids,” Fletcher intones. “I mean, I came home, my son was throwing the ball like a girl, right? I said to my wife: ‘What the fuck is this? He’s throwing like a girl.’ And my wife is like: ‘Well? Who’s he had to throw with?’ I couldn’t even bring him in the yard. We had to throw in the basement first.”

Since he quit the biz, Fletcher has spent the past few decades earning a pair of Master’s degrees, learning how to play tennis, publishing a novel, The Yo Culture, and teaching. His most recent gig? Critical thinking professor at Savannah State University.

He says part of the function of why he teaches is to learn. “I try not to be one of these fucked-up old guys who think everything that young people do is fucked up. I just try to understand. My students have been trying to turn me on to who they listen to. Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean. I loved it.”

Fletcher imagines that the folksy bluegrass tilt the music market’s been leaning toward is reactionary — reality hunger on the upturn, youth in revolt against the vacuity and manufactured performance. Americana is a swollen genre that harkens back to simpler epochs like grunge and folk, Cobain and The Band.

And while Fletcher admits he’s not particularly fond of groups like Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers, he says that’s beside the point.

“It’s infectious. Even if it’s a hoedown… I want to know why it’s catching on. I think it’s the reaction to this whole choreographed, Las Vegas drum-machine, everything’s perfect world. People want something real,” he shrugs.

“That shit is real.” CS

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