John “Ecstasy” Fletcher, co-founder of early New York hip-hop group Whodini, which used electro-funk and R&B influences to expand the new genre into a commercially powerful force, died Wednesday at age 56.
The cause of death was not immediately known.
“The African and Native American ancestors have gathered and chosen this day, on the winter solstice, December 23, 2020, to appeal to a much loved, generous and sincere soul,” Fletcher’s daughter Jonnelle wrote in a statement.
“‘One Love’ for one of Hip Hop’s Greatest! There will never be another,” added his bandmate Jalil Hutchins.
Fletcher was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the neighborhood Wyckoff projects. Whodini came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow, some of the first acts to adopt an emerging hip-hop culture from DJ-driven street parties and gain prominence in the wider music industry. Whodini’s sound – synth-driven with a hook-heavy mix of vocals and rap – would influence generations of acts and become prime example material for Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Nipsey Hussle and Nas.
“This man was legendary and a pivotal member of one of the most legendary groups in hip-hop,” the Roots’ Questlove wrote on Wednesday after news of Fletcher’s death.
Fletcher founded Whodini in Brooklyn in 1982 with singer-rapper Hutchins (DJ Drew “Grandmaster Dee” Carter joined a few years later). With his trademark wide-brimmed hat, Fletcher was the instantly recognizable face of the trio.
“Rap needed some sex symbols,” he said told The Times in 1987. “There was really no one to drive the girls crazy. The girls find LL . maybe nice [Cool J] some, but I’m talking about one for real, honest-to-God sex symbol. That’s us.”
The group signed to the influential London label Jive and released what was arguably the first-ever hip-hop music video for their single “Magic’s Wand,” which reached number 11 on the Billboard Dance Club charts.
“Jalil showed up with a guy named Ecstasy. [Jive] had no money and no contract for him, but [we] threw the rulebook out the window when we heard his verse and his voice,” wrote Barry Weiss, the Jive executive who signed them. “We came up with the name Whodini, threw caution to the wind and watched these two Brooklyn kids take the world by storm, setting the pace and tone for a generation of rappers to come after them.”
Their early collaborators were an eclectic mix of new wave and experimental rock figures such as synth-pop hitmaker Thomas Dolby and Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank, along with Larry Smith, a key figure behind the boards for Run-DMC.
“I heard someone rapping one day and I said to myself, ‘I can do that,'” Fletcher told The Times. “I rap in pitch. I try to be unique. I have my own style. I know some people say that all rap sounds the same, but there are many differences. People who say that don’t listen to rap well enough. When they listen to me, they know I’m unique.”
The trio had its most acclaimed LP in 1984 with “Escape,” a genre-breaking album that helped expand the hip-hop audience while also seeding dance and electronic music. Singles such as the vocoded funk of “Freaks Come Out at Night,” “Five Minutes of Funk” and “Friends,” an unruly and sarcastic take on relationships as the group rose to fame, became the most recognizable hits (“Friends”/”Five Minutes of Funk” peaked at number 87 on the Hot 100, although “Escape” reached number 35 on the Billboard 200 and went platinum. The group went on to win two more gold albums.)
Under the helm of then-manager Russell Simmons, who would later found Def Jam Recordings, Whodini performed on the first major hip-hop arena tour, “Fresh Festival,” along with Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC. Those raucous shows were a crucial test of hip-hop as a nationwide phenomenon. They also helped prove that the genre was not a sonic fad occasionally embraced by pop artists like Blondie, but a turning point for black artists in the post-disco and soul era.
“The trio, together with producer Larry Smith, made the first hip-hop records to embrace black radio,” critic Nelson George wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday.
After 1986’s “Back in Black”, Whodini was the highest billed support act for Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell” tour, noted above up-and-coming acts LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. But the group’s rise coincided with hip-hop’s growing pains in America’s white suburbs. Whodini took the stage at the Long Beach Arena at a 1986 concert with Run DMC, where: 40 attendees were injured in a riot that startled some promoters of early live hip-hop.
The next wave of rappers, like Public Enemy’s Chuck D, acknowledged Fletcher’s tutelage and influence.
“1987 I joined the @Defjam tour with PE,” he wrote on Twitter. “I was often nervous seeing 15,000 fans standing in front of me every night. There were 2 MCS that immediately calmed me down that summer. 1 was @RealDougEFresh the other was Ecstacy of Whodini. Always ready to reassure you with advice [and] tips.”
While the group’s sound would rise and fall in fashion over the next few decades (the last album, “Six,” came out in 1994), dozens of artists from the New Jack Swing, gangsta rap, and contemporary era quoted Whodini through samples, and it was a definite influence on acts like the Weeknd and Tyler, the Creator, who looked to the ’80s for retro-futuristic inspiration.
The group’s ’80s and ’90s peers weighed in on the trio’s profound impact following news of Fletcher’s death. On Instagram, LL Cool called J Fletcher “one of the most important people in this culture to me”, and producer Jermaine Dupri posted: “My God, this one hurts me so much, I can’t even believe I’m posting this, Ex you know that I love you.”
Dupri, who worked briefly with the group as a backing dancer, produced “Six” and cited Whodini as a formative influence on his best-selling work with TLC.
Whodini continued to tour the classic rap nostalgia circuit, receiving awards on VH1’s Hip Hop Honors in 2007 and Honors for black music in 2018.
Jonnelle Fletcher said in her statement that “John ‘Ecstasy’ Fletcher was a beloved man, the life partner of Deltonia and ex-husband of Carla, twin brother of Joseph, artist, friend and lifelong partner of the legendary Jalil of Whodini.”
“We’re good — really good,” Fletcher told The Times in 1987. “I don’t want to sound like a boaster. I’d rather someone else give us credit. But the truth is the truth.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.