Sophisticated Rap: The Smooth Significance of Whodini
By Stereo Williams
Two days before Christmas 2020, the Hip-Hop world was saddened to learn of the death of John "Ecstasy" Fletcher, the Zorro hat-wearing icon of beloved rap group Whodini.
Fletcher's family didn't provide details surrounding his cause of death, but shared that the 56-year old seemed healthy and suddenly "stopped breathing" on December 23rd. The family's statement reads:
"The African and Native American ancestors have gathered around and chosen this day, during the Winter Solstice, Dec 23rd, 2020 to call upon a most endeared, generous, and sincere soul who graced The World’s heart through performance, hip-hop, family, children and grandchildren.
John "Ecstasy" Fletcher was a beloved man, the life partner to Deltonia and ex-husband to Carla, twin brother to Joseph, artist, friend, and lifetime performing partner to the Legendary Jalil of Whodini.
Whodini set a Hip Hop course of legendary status that we are all sure to pass on to our grandchildren.
Please send love and prayers to our family, and with open hearts we ask the ancestors to cover his soul in peace and tranquility. Play his music if it moves you, and know he'll be hearing you on his way home this day, Dec 23rd.
Cards and letters can be sent to: 3799 Main Street P.O. Box 87176 College Park, GA 30337
Sincerely, The Family of John 'Ecstacy' Fletcher"
For all of their sizable contributions to Hip-Hop, Whodini's legacy was often under-heralded.
Over the years, the career of Ecstasy, his rhyme partner Jalil and DJ Grandmaster Dee, may not have been as lionized as predecessors like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, or their most famous contemporaries Run-D.M.C., but Whodini's impact is no less gargantuan. It was Whodini who first perfected the idea of rap crossover: they didn't make records for a pop audience, per se, but they did craft tunes that had significant R&B appeal. And in the early 1980s, appealing to R&B audiences was a big deal for rappers.
Black radio outside of urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles were fairly lukewarm on early Hip-Hop. So many pioneering legends like The Cold Crush Brothers and the Funky Four+One were barely heard on airwaves across the South and Midwest. Kurtis Blow had been the rare case of a rapper getting a lot of radio love in such regions; and even the emergence of Run-D.M.C. in the mid-80s didn't fully thaw the cold war between rappers and R&B radio.
But Whodini definitely warmed things up.
"What Whodini brought to Hip-Hop culture was that we dressed to impress," Jalil would say in 2013. "We put the style into the Hip-Hop outfits. When cats was just wearing sweat suits, we brought the proper attire. We brought the silk, we brought the leather."
Ecstasy once explained to interviewer D.R.E.S. the Beatnik for Hip Hop 40 Live how his famous Zorro hat came to be.
“Me and my twin brother Dynasty were walking down the street in Brooklyn on Myrtle Avenue, and we saw this hat in the window,” he said. “It was just a wool kind of gaucho, and I said, ‘You know what? That hat is nice, but it would be better if it was in leather.’ So, we bought the hat and I took it to a hatmaker and instructed him to make it for me in leather."
That emphasis on a polished image was one obvious way that Whodini set itself apart from other Hip-Hop acts; they didn't pioneer the idea of the loverman emcees, but they came to embody it at a crucial moment in the music's history. As Whodini was dropping its earliest records "Magic's Wand" and "Haunted House of Rock," music video was becoming more indelible to all popular music. And by the time Whodini dropped it's platinum-selling second album, Escape, MTV and BET had become mainstays in pop culture. Whodini's image was ready-made for the medium, and their look made them more R&B-friendly from the very beginning.
Whereas Run-D.M.C. bum-rushed the still-defacto segregated MTV with hard rock riffs and aggression, Whodini stole away onto R&B radio and early BET with a distinctly slicker and smoother sound. That both groups' hits were produced by the same person, legendary superproducer Larry Smith, only edifies and affirms Smith's talents. Hits like "Friends" and "One Love" got Whodini placement in spaces that were still trading heavily on the urbane sophistication of singers like Luther Vandross and Stephanie Mills, and Ecstasy and Jalil dressed and sounded more comparable than the hard-hitting boom-bap of Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J.
But as it pertains to their contemporaries and disciples, Whodini's impact wasn't just limited to their distinct image and sound.
Chuck D of Public Enemy cited Ecstasy as a motivator for Chuck's early approach to performing. Mogul Jermaine Dupri, who as a child as a Whodini dancer during the Fresh Fest Tour, cited Whodini for helping to expose him to the logistics of the music industry as a youth. U.T.F.O. of "Roxanne, Roxanne" fame began their career as backup dancers for Whodini.
"Whodini always tried to give you a little more, a little extra, for your money," Ecstasy explained in 2013. "We not only tried to give you the musical aspect, but the visual aspect to go along with it. So you know people that seen a Whodini show back in the day, the love is still there because of the extra effort we put into try and make it a little bit different and give you a little bit more, trying to expand the game, you know? Our thing was 'I’m gonna eat today and I wanna eat tomorrow. So I ain’t gonna’ do nothing wrong.' And we were really trying to pave the way for everybody, that was just our mind state."
In contemporary Hip-Hop, the influence of R&B is almost seamless. That amalgamation has roots in the music and approach of Whodini. They blazed a trail for slick, radio-friendly R&B that would soon inform as wide a swath of Hip-Hop as anyone can claim: from the adolescent pleadings of LL COOL J's "I Need Love" to the romantic come-ons of A Tribe Called Quest's "Bonita Applebum." You can hear the loverman-ism in Heavy D singles and Drake hits. It all connects to what Whodini helped define.
Along with their undeniable Hip-Hop footprint, Run-D.M.C.'s massive rock audience has garnered them a degree of high-profile lionization that largely eluded Whodini. Their appeal to R&B in an era of R&B that was known for shunning rap music has meant that their legacy has never gotten the kind of spotlight a group of their success and stature deserves. But to call Whodini "underrated" would do a major disservice to the artists who revere them, the songs that echo them, and an audience that has always loved them. In many ways, Whodini embodies Black music in the 1980s: sitting at the intersection of Hip-Hop's fight for respect, R&B's aspirational polish, and the general ignorance of pop.
Regardless, Whodini gave the music world a sound that's been unsurprisingly enduring. With the sad loss of John "Ecstasy" Fletcher, one of rap's greatest acts has lot it's core; but Whodini's greatness has always been cemented. From "Five Minutes Of Funk" to "Funky Beat," Hip-Hop has always grooved a little better because of the beat they gave it.