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UPDATED: John Fletcher, best known as Ecstasy from the pioneering rap group Whodini, has died, the group’s Grand Master Dee has confirmed. The cause of death was unclear at the time of this article’s publication; he was 56.

Roots drummer Questlove was the first to break the news on Wednesday (Dec. 23) via a social-media post paying tribute to the veteran rapper. “One love to Ecstasy of the legendary #Whodini,” he wrote. “This man was legendary and a pivotal member of one of the most legendary groups in hip hop. This is sad man.”

While not as well-known as early hip-hop pioneers like Kurtis Blow or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Whodini were among the most popular and influential early rap outfits, via hit singles like “Friends,” “Freaks Come Out at Night,” “Magic’s Wand” and “The Haunted House of Rock.” The group’s combination of rapping and singing and its synth-heavy sound were a staple in early ‘80s nightclubs and brought the group one platinum and two gold albums. “The trio, along with producer Larry Smith, made the first hip-hop records that black radio embraced,” veteran writer Nelson George wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

In separate testimonials to Whodini’s influence, Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip called Fletcher “one of the most under-appreciated voices in hip-hop,” and Public Enemy’s galvanizing MC Chuck D wrote on Twitter: “[In] 1987 I entered the Def Jam tour. I tended to be nervous, looking at 15,000 fans in front of me every night. There were two MCS that directly mentored my calm that summer. One was Doug E. Fresh and the other was Ecstacy of Whodini. Always there to reassure with advice and tips.”

Fletcher formed Whodini with singer-rapper Jalil Hutchins in Brooklyn, NY in 1982 and signed with the influential Jive Records shortly after. The group debuted with the single , releasing its first single The group — managed by Russell Simmons, who also managed Kurtis Blow and the then-nascent Run-DMC — debuted with the single “Magic’s Wand,” a savvy tribute to early hip-hop DJ Mr. Magic and followed with a self-titled album (including production from white electronic music artists Conny Plank and Thomas Dolby) in ‘83.

Veteran executive Barry Weiss, who signed Whodini to Jive, remembered that time in an Instagram post. “It all started with this record,” he wrote. “Jalil showed up with some guy named Ecstasy. [Jive] had no money and no contract for him, but [we] threw the rule book out the window when we heard his verse and his voice. We came up with the name Whodini, threw caution to the wind and watched as these two kids out of Brooklyn conquered the world and set the pace and tone for a generation of rappers that came after them.”

Indeed, Whodini’s breakthrough came the following year with “Escape.” Produced by Larry Smith (Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC), it included such smashes as “Freaks Come Out at Night” and the cynical “Friends,” which is one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop, appearing in tracks by Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Nas and more than 150 others.

With his trademark Zorro hat, Fletcher was the focal point of Whodini.

The group followed in 1986 with the Smith-helmed “Back in Black,” and were second on the bill on Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell Tour” that year — in a reflection of their status, they were billed above LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. However, the group’s popularity had begun to fade, despite their influence on the New Jack Swing style of the early 1990s, and several attempts at a comeback were unsuccessful. Their final album, 1996’s “Six,” was produced by hitmaker Jermaine Dupri, who cited them as a major influence on his own work with KrissKross and TLC, and even briefly worked as a dancer for the group early in his career.

While Whodini largely remained on the nostalgia circuit in recent decades, they did get well-deserved recognition at several points, at VH1’s Hip Hop Honors in 2007 and at the Black Music Honors in 2018, where they received the Hip-Hop Icon Award.

In a statement, Jalil Hutchins said: “‘One Love’ to one of Hip Hop’s Greatest! There will never be another.” 

In an official statement from Fletcher’s family, Jonnelle Fletcher wrote: “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,” the statement continues. “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.”

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