Last year when I began to contemplate the ripple effect on the vast culture of Hip Hop, I singled out my small town of Plainfield NJ. In that piece, I had only just begun to reveal the puzzle that makes up our collective Hip Hop experience. Initially, I also wanted to emphasize the responsibility to future generations we have to always strive for positivity in our work, because it’s impact will affect others in ways we can’t fully imagine. In the piece, I offered the suggestion that Hip Hop history is not as clear as it may seem. There are many people who added to the culture of Hip Hop who are not so readily acknowledged. In fact, sometimes in Hip Hop we get the facts mixed up with mythology. I am guilty of it myself, as are most of us. I wrote about it in a piece called Aren’t We All Wrong Sometimes in which I discussed the misconceptions I had about who actually wrote The Message.
In a post called What You Know About Ghostwriting in Hip Hop May Be All Wrong, we discussed the facts behind who actually wrote the ground-breaking hip-hop song that has meant so much to generations of Hiphoppas. Going deeper, I was finally able to track down the major force behind that project, who is a man most Hiphoppas aren’t familiar with; Ed Fletcher aka Duke Bootee. From his home in Georgia, he gave me details on just how he came up with the song; from the musical inspiration, to the consciousness expressed in the lyrics. He also gave me the actual location of where that transitional song was conceived. Myths had me believe, prior to our conversation, that his home in Plainfield, NJ was were the track was imagined. However, that was the house that The Message paid for through royalties, when Duke Bootee returned to teaching as Ed Fletcher in Plainfield High School around 1989.
In 1982, Ed Fletcher, who only became Duke Bootee because of this track, was living in Elizabeth, NJ across from Jefferson Park. From the picture window of his family’s home, he was able to see the scourge of the thriving crack era take place just across the street.
I had a nice house, but if I ever forgot where I was, I just looked out the window at Jefferson Park. People ask, “Where did I get it from?” My friends knew that all I had to do was look out that big picture window seeing Jefferson Park.
Nowadays, the park is much nicer and its actually the house that has fallen into a little bit of disrepair. I traveled there with my good brethren Shubhra of the Worldwide Cypher visiting from Mumbai, India. As a young, international, Hip Hop disciple, Shubhra was able to appreciate the impact of visiting such an historical site in the formation of what we consider Hip Hop.
The impact of The Message came largely because of the lyrical picture painted throughout the song. Still, without the distinct, funky, groove on the track, it may not have been so well received. In coming up with the beat, Ed Fletcher, producer at Sugar Hill Records under Jiggs Chase, said the following:
The Message …people don’t really hear it like I hear it. I was listening to a guy named Brian Eno. He was a producer and I used to spend time in England. He did a record called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981 with David Byrne) . We were on tour with Zapp, and Roger Troutman (when) they had ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’. I used to love that record, love it, love it, love it! There was another record called ‘Genius of Love’ that knocked me out. Those three records is where the music for The Message came from and then it was also my crazy shit put in. Anytime you do something, you’re influenced by whatever you’re listening to at that time. If I want to do something completely new, I’ll stop listening to shit, so I won’t be influenced by what I’m listening to.
About writing 3/4 of the song he said:
I’m also a writer. I’m working on my fourth novel. People ask, “Why do you have so much to say?” Well, I read five newspapers a day. These rappers today, you wouldn’t even know there was a Black President because people are so self-absorbed. I, as an artist, always wanted to mirror what was going on around me. I was never political. They tried to make me political, but I was more social and I just wanted to mirror what society looked like to me. I tell kids, that it ain’t like I’m such a great genius. It’s just that yawl are so self-absorbed and dim. Have something to say about stuff. When’s the last time you even heard one of them talk about President Obama?
What was the inspiration for the hook?
Just life really, is like a jungle. I can’t say that any particular one incident or I saw a guy… no. That’s just the consciousness it took for people like me to carve a way in life. “Don’t push me?” That’s why it resonated, because everybody, Black, White, and Brown could relate to it because it has certain personal themes to it… I wanted to say something about the stuff going on around me.
After crafting the beat with Sugar Hill’s in-house band, Fletcher developed the lyrics we hear on the beginning of the song. How Ed Fletcher became Duke Bootee was from the back and forth created from trying to get this particular track done.
I was making reference vocals (for The Message). All of them tried it. They didn’t like it. They didn’t want to do it. That’s all history. They ran out of the studio and after they left, Mel came back and said, “You know what? I got a verse from another record, (which was ‘Super Rhymin’ on Enjoy Records) that really goes with this.” I said yeah, let me hear it, and he (spit) it. I said Oh, Sylvia you go to hear this verse that Mel got. She heard it. She liked it. We put it on the end.
Sylvia, once she realized she wanted to use it, bought it from another guy who owned Enjoy Records (Paul Winley) and then we were able to use it in The Message. Melle Mel wrote 10% of the song which is the last verse. The rest is me… Sylvia Robinson fixated on my voice and said ‘‘Well just get a little rap name and I’m gonna put you on there.” (Duke Bootee)
About the popularity of the song up until today Fletcher said;
Number one, even though I’ve done (around) 38 records, (The Message) is one my whole career is defined by. Number two, that one record has paid my mortgage for 32 years. And that record according to Rolling Stone is still the #1 Hip Hop record of all time. That shit is surprising to me. I just told a kid today (I teach college), you better be aware of every song you write because you don’t know which one will be the one, that’s like the lottery winner.
As we dig deeper into who we are as a culture, and as individuals we have to respect the past and where we came from. The overwhelming majority of our lives is comprised of memories and past events. Every second adds on to the collection of who we really are. Tomorrow is a concept describing a time that always lies ahead of us. Only right now, and what already happened can be called reality. We should respect reality and what has been as if its all we have. Important places in history remind us to have that respect for the past and ourselves by extension.