Duke Bootee, co-author of "The Message," one of Hip-Hop's most indelible tracks, died last week at the age of 69.
The former writer/producer/session musician for Sugar Hill Records reportedly passed away from congestive heart failure, and his death spurned a bevy of tributes and condolences from industry peers and fans. Rightfully so, the man born Edward Fletcher co-wrote what is arguably Hip-Hop's most iconic track.
That is, of course, debatable. But if Hip-Hop has a "Johnny B. Goode," it is undoubtedly the seminal 1982 track released by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. "The Message" crystallizes so much about Hip-Hop itself; a sense of despair married to an undeniable funkiness that cuts through the frustration in the lyrics. That "don't push me" ethos at the song's core sums up a beleaguered generation's attitude towards antagonists and haters, critics and lames. The song has long been widely celebrated; it's immortalized in the National Registry of the Library of Congress and has topped several "Greatest Songs" lists.
One of the aspects of "The Message" that has been widely taken for granted, even amongst all of the love the song has gotten for almost 40 years, is the fact that it's an original composition. The song's iconic groove isn't a sample of some disco or funk hit from the 1970s, it's the original creation of a talented core of musicians. Duke Bootee was part of Sugar Hill Records house band that included bassist Doug Wimbish, guitarist Skip Alexander, and keyboardist Jiggs Chase. Jiggs produced the record that the others would play on, and Bootee wrote the rhymes.
“The rappers would come up with lyrics or a hook,” Jiggs told Mike T in 2019. “We’d listen to it, try this and try that, until we got a groove going on. With the horns and the house band there, they were funky!”
"The Message" lyrics had originally come to Bootee two years prior to the recording of the song, when he wrote a rap about his frustration following New York City's 1980 transit strike.
"One night, I was over at Ed Fletcher's house and I said: 'We need to write something,'" Jiggs told The Guardian in 2013. "He was lying on the couch smoking a joint with one leg over the edge, and he said: 'Don't push me, 'cos I'm close to the edge, I'm trying not to lose my head.' And I said: 'Oh my goodness – whoa!' We knew he'd just come up with the hook for a song."
The band built a groove around his lyrics and recorded a demo of the song, originally called "The Jungle." Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five would be prodded into contributing to the song after hearing the demo from Duke Bootee and the band. Mel would repurpose some lines from the Furious Five hit "Superrappin'" and some new bars for the completed song.
Of course, since it was released, "The Message" has been credited with injecting topicality into Hip-Hop. The culture had always been married to a certain community aesthetic; Hip-Hop was born of block parties meant to sway young people from criminality and used to combat gang hostilities in places like the South Bronx, N.Y. But this made rap records a platform for venting and illuminating the inner city blues of the crack era and beyond. And lines that Duke Bootee wrote would become embedded into the DNA of emceeing itself.
As we remember the importance of Duke Bootee in the wake of his passing, it's also worth noting the spirit of originality in Hip-Hop's early acts that sometimes gets overshadowed by the sample-heavy approach that came later. That's not to say that early rap records didn't sample; of course classic early rap tracks like "Freedom" and "Heartbeat" are built on popular disco cuts of the day. But there was also an abundance of non-sampled greatness that helped forge a path for that approach to Hip-Hop creativity. "The Message" is the best example of early rap innovation that crafted something from musicianship and topicality.
Over the past weekend, superproducer Timbaland was drawn into controversy after fans realized that several of his prominent sample from Indian and Middle Eastern pop stars.
The predictable reaction to the controversy was to declare that Hip-Hop is built on sampling. While that isn't at all inaccurate, it's worth remembering that Hip-Hop's producers aren't always sampling and borrowing. It's one of the building blocks of this music, but it's just one approach. Hip-Hop is, and has always been, bigger than any singular approach. Duke Bootee, and the legacy of "The Message," should remind us all of that.